Today is Good Friday—at least for those observing the liturgical calendar followed by most Christians in the western hemisphere. It is a Christian holy day, but not a U.S. federal holiday, nor a New York State holiday, and yet, curiously, Wall Street—the New York Stock Exchange—is closed today. It’s been closed on Good Friday as a rule since its inception. Hard-nosed capitalists or no, it seems that no one has had the gumption to break that particular precedent. Well, deference to much of anything being in such short supply, I think one can only applaud it when one sees it.
My purpose today, however, is just to reflect a little on a song. I think it might be described as a Good Friday kind of song, and it’s a song I’ve grown to love, although a few months ago I had not even heard of it.
Accounts tell us that in 1872, an American Methodist minister named Lewis Hartsough wrote the lyric and the tune, during the course of a revival meeting in Iowa. The song become known by its first line: “I hear thy welcome voice.”
Yet, I’ve never heard the song sung in English, and I would guess not all that many people have.
The song was noticed not long after its first publishing by a Welsh Methodist minister named John Roberts (also known by his poetic name of Ieuan Gwyllt). He translated the song into Welsh, and I guess you could say that from there it went viral. (This being the age before antibiotics, perhaps back then they would’ve said that it went bacterial.) It quickly became a deeply beloved hymn of the Welsh, such that many presume that it has been Welsh all along.
The song seems to be known most often in Wales as “Gwahoddiad,” which means “Invitation,” referring to the invitation from Jesus described in the song: “Calling to me / To come and and wash all my sins / In the river of Calvary.”
Calvary is the King James rendition of the Latin Vulgate term (Calvariæ) for the place named Golgotha, itself a Greek rendition of an Aramaic word referring to the spot where Jesus was crucified: a hill just outside Jerusalem, its name meaning literally the “place of the skull;” it was so called because apparently the hill’s shape resembled a skullcap.
One thing the song is not is “Christianity-lite.” You can see the full lyric (in Welsh and English) at Wikipedia, but the chorus of the Welsh version is as follows:
Arglwydd, dyma fi
Ar dy alwad di,
Canna f’enaid yn y gwaed
A gaed ar Galfari.
And the English translation of this is:
Lord, here I am
At thy call,
Wash my spirit in the blood
Which flowed on Calvary.
Blood. It’s the tough part. It’s what happens on Good Friday. The parables, the healing of the lepers, the lilies of the field: these are not around on that day, or at any rate not visible. Human blood is spilled; believers believe that it is God’s will that His own Son’s blood be shed for the sake of the redemption of the very creatures who are causing it to be shed. Anyone who says that they fully understand all of this is not to be trusted. We can’t easily handle it—all the less can we handle it the more civilized we believe we’ve become—even though our own bodies are filled with blood, and even though our own lives and deaths hinge on the very flow of that blood. Why should God be preoccupied with human blood, or with an idea of physical sacrifice? How does the shedding of Jesus’ blood, and His death, compensate in any way for the crimes of eternity?
The bookshelves groan with attempts to come to terms with this idea, many very profound and beautiful, and many as impenetrable as concrete. Perhaps the poor believer can only come closest to connecting with it by singing about it, after all. Music exists to express that which cannot be expressed in any other way. If the meaning of a song could instead be expressed as an essay, there would be no need of songs, or of musical instruments. A song is much more than merely its words; it is the lyric transformed by the melody, and further fashioned via the performance into something incalculably greater than the sum of its parts. (At least this is what happens when everything works.)
One might expect to hear a hymn like “Gwahoddiad,” (aka “Arglwydd Dyma Fi”) in some small Welsh chapel in a little village nestled within a picturesque valley in Wales, sung by the old people, dwindling in numbers but unshakeable in their faith. And I hope to God that you could still hear it in such a context.
Yet, an unexpected context might be even more heartwarming. Below is a live performance from a few years back via YouTube from the Welsh rock singer/raconteur/chanteuse Cerys Matthews. The look on the drummer’s face (an American) as it begins kind of says it all.
That’s quite a moment, I think, made so especially by the magical audience participation. Matthews had recorded the song for her first solo album, and her studio version is also very well worth checking out (currently audible via YouTube), not least for the honey-like tones of steel-guitarist Lloyd Green. I also think that it would be fair to suggest that there’s a little bit of a story of redemption just in her recording of the song. Cerys Matthews had nearly met an all-too-common rock and roll ending while enjoying the success (and excess) of life as lead singer of a band named Catatonia, very popular in Britain and Europe. She somehow pulled herself out of a deep dive of self-destructiveness—and/or was helped to do so—and I think that her recording of that particular song fairly overflows with a spirit of gratitude, as she was launching herself in a new musical direction on a sojourn in the environs of Nashville. Although posthumous record sales can be very brisk indeed (see Amy Winehouse), I do believe that it is better when people with great talent instead live on to grow and develop that talent.
A more traditional version of the song would come, naturally, from a Welsh male voice choir. Below, embedded via YouTube, is such a rendition from the wonderful Treorchy Male Voice Choir. Traditional it may be, but it is also deeply affecting, because the spirit of the song which comes across is that profound. And after all these years and centuries, what happened on Good Friday remains a radical thing, beyond categorization, and the opposite of anything that is conventional. Our hope (those of us who strive to be Christian) resides not in something that is boring and dismissible, but in something which is inexplicable and stupefying. No wonder there is this desire to sing about it.
(Oh, and yeah, I guess I’m still on my Welsh kick …)