Summer sermon series No 2
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” Genesis 1:31
The village was reached by flying from Dublin to Frankfurt, from Frankfurt to Bangkok, from Bangkok to Manila, and then spending two nights in Manila before getting an internal flight in the Philippines.
It was the internal flight that took as to Zamboanga, we were now acting in defiance of advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Our security briefing was that we were to be met by a guide and a driver; if they didn’t arrive, we were to take a taxi straight to the Jesuit house in the city and wait there until a flight back to Manila could be booked. We were not, under any circumstances to go out onto the streets for fear of kidnapping.
The driver and guide and battered jeep were there waiting. The road journey took 4-5 hours, sometimes there was tarmac, sometimes a rough gravel road, sometimes rain had swept the road away and we drove through mud.
Two mornings later, a jeep took us to a small town called R.T. Lim; we paid our respects to the local parish priest and to the local mayor. We then climbed onto the back of motorbikes, four people on each bike, for a journey up into the mountains. The roads were narrow and precarious.
The village where we stopped for lunch must have been two hours’ journey. We sat in a house eating rice and vegetables and meat. As I ate, I looked up at one of the walls. Written in a thick, black marker on a long strip of coarse paper were the words of All things bright and beautiful. It was one of those moments when one has to do a double take; am I really seeing what I think I see in front of me?
I pointed to the hymn and said to the lady of the house that the woman who had written the words of the hymn, that obviously meant a great deal to this family, had come from Ireland. She smiled and said that she thought it was a very nice hymn.
Being realistic, I knew that she probably would have had no more idea where Ireland was, than most of us here this morning have any idea have of where Mindanao is, and Mindanao has a population five times that of Ireland.
Trying to keep the conversation going, I was about to say that Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander had been the wife of a Church of Ireland bishop, but then I thought that being in a remote, rural deeply conservative, devout Catholic community, the suggestion of a married bishop might cause alarm!
If there was a contest for the most unlikely place on earth to find “All things bright and beautiful” hand written and stuck to the wall of someone’s house, then this village would be on the shortlist. It is discourteous to be intrusive with questions, and the lady was clearly going to offer no more information about who had written out the words, why they had done so, or where they had learned them. When I thought about it, I decided that the words must have carried by one of the Catholic missionary orders; but what was it that captured the imagination of someone so far away, for whom English was not even her first language? What is it about this 19th Century hymn that gives it such a worldwide appeal?
Cecil Frances Alexander was far removed from a wooden house in a mountain village in the southern Philippines.
Born in Dublin in 1818, into a gentry family, her father Major John Humphreys had served in the army and became land agent to the Earl of Wicklow and later to the Marquess of Abercorn. Immensely talented, she began writing verse at early age. She caught the eye of John Keble, a clergyman, poet, and professor at Oxford, who was to launch the Oxford Movement, the High Church movement that brought new life to the Church of England. In 1848, when she was 30, she published a collection of her poems called Songs for Little Children. It was edited by John Keble and contains three of the best known hymns in the English language, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “There is a Green Hill Far Away”, and “All Things Bright and Beautiful” – all three sprang from her desire to explain the Christian faith to children
Cecil Frances Alexander didn’t just write for children though. She contributed poems and French translations to Dublin University Magazine under pseudonyms. Her poem the “Burial of Moses” appeared anonymously in Dublin University Magazine in 1856 prompting Alfred Lord Tennyson to say it was one of the few poems of a living author he wished he had written.
Her marriage to the Revd William Alexander at Strabane in October 1850, caused great concern to his family, she was six years older than he was, and apparently her date of birth was altered to conceal this fact. William became Bishop of Derry in 1867 and went on to become Archbishop of Armagh. Mrs Alexander threw herself into whatever challenge she met, becoming actively involved with the Derry Home for Fallen Women, with the development of a district nurses service; and in visiting the poor and sick.
Mrs Alexander would have been a major figure in any age, the fact that her hymns are being sung around the world 150 years after they were published as a collection for children is a mark of her extraordinary talent.
“All Things Bright and Beautiful”runs directly contrary to the evolutionary science of Charles Darwin that was to change the way the world thought during the days of Mrs Alexander’s lifetime, so why do we carry on singing it in a scientific age? For me, it is not a hymn about how things came into being, it is about why. It is a hymn that talks about the sheer beauty, the sheer wonder of the world, a world that points to the greatness of the power beyond.
In Psalm 19: 1 the psalmist says,
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands
To Mrs Alexander, the natural world is a hymn of praise to God, which prompts us to share in that praise:
He gave us eyes to see them,
and lips that we might tell
how great is God Almighty,
who has made all things well.
Having spent five days last week walking through rugged and beautiful countryside, I think I can understand what it is she is saying. I think I can also understand why the hymn has such a universal appeal. Whether we live in Mrs Alexander’s home city of Dublin, or in a village on a mountainside in the Philippines, each day we are confronted with a world that has such amazing complexity, such astonishing variety, such awesome intricacy, that we have a sense of the wonder of the cosmos in which we live.
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”, says the account of Creation in Genesis Chapter 1. In singing All things bright and beautiful we are affirming that our world is, indeed, very good.