Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.
Once was this a spirit’s dwelling,
by the breath of God created.
High the heart that here was beating,
Christ the prince of all its living.
Those are the opening verses of an early Christian burial hymn by Prudentius, who was born in Spain in the mid 4th century. He had worked as a Roman civil servant, but from his early 50s gave himself over entirely to Christian devotional poetry, some of which is preserved in our hymn books in English translation – for example, the Advent to Christmas hymn, ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’. Helen Waddell’s translation of his burial hymn inspired a wonderfully powerful choral setting from the English composer, Herbert Howells – written for a Memorial Service for President John F. Kennedy in Washington DC, one year after his assassination.
We have seen so much upsetting news coverage of killing and death over the last few weeks, and today as we continue to absorb those horrifying images, whilst we also remember and commit to God our own dear departed loved ones and friends, this hymn of Prudentius perhaps gives us space to honour both. For it holds each and every human body in the highest regard, as the very home of life and spirit – ‘by the breath of God created….noble even in its ruin’. Tonight’s Epistle (1 Peter 1: 3-9) affirmed that by his resurrection, Jesus Christ has won for us a ‘lively hope’, and ‘an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled … that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you’. It’s in that same confidence that Prudentius’ hymn continues, reminding the earth that its cherishing of this body is but provisional:
Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
not unmindful of his creature
shall he ask it: he who made it
symbol of his mystery.
Comes the hour God hath appointed
to fulfil the hope of men,
then must thou, in very fashion,
what I give, return again.
In a Remembrance-tide reflection on Prudentius’ burial poem written originally for the Church Times, Andrew Davison underlines that for the author, the body is symbolic of God’s mystery, and that as such, it will be raised at the general resurrection. But referring to images in subsequent verses he continues: ‘In the mean time, dust is what we shall become. This dissolution is a metaphor for all human frailty. Human life, for Prudentius, has the character of something holding together, but only just. We will come apart, but – such is the Christian hope, and never more than at this time of year – God in his mercy catches the essence of each human self at its disintegration, the “spirit” or “soul”. He holds it fast, kept until the resurrection of the body and restoration to…Paradise’. Here are the hymn’s final verses:-
Once again the shining road
leads to ample Paradise;
open are the woods again,
that the serpent lost for men
Take, O take him, mighty leader,
take again thy servant’s soul.
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
balm upon the icy stone.