Summer sermon series at Saint Matthias’ Church, 22nd July 2007
Writing “A toi la gloire” in 1884, the French-speaking Swiss evangelical pastor Edmond Budry could never have envisaged that his hymn would become one of the best known in the world.
Budry was from the north shore of Lake Geneva, from the beautiful town of Vevey, a town so ancient that it was mentioned by the writer Ptolemy back in the Second Century. From a very strict evangelical background, he studied theology at a free church faculty in Lausanne. In 1881 he went to be pastor to evangelical congregations at Cully and Sainte-Croix and in 1889 he moved to become pastor of the Free Church at Vevey, where he was to remain for 35 years, until his retirement in 1923.
Budry was a proficient linguist and as well as writing his own work in French, he wrote over sixty chorales, some of which appeared in French hymnbooks, he translated hymns from German, English and Latin. His most famous hymn, “A toi le gloire,” is dated 1884 and with some of his other works appeared in 1885 in Chants Evangeliques published at Lausanne.
It would be twenty years before the hymn gained fame by being published in the YMCA Hymnbook at Lausanne in 1904. It would be twenty more before it became known to English-speakers, it was translated into English in 1923, the year of Budry’s retirement, by Baptist minister Richard Birch Hoyle. The first appearance of the English text of the hymn was in 1925 in the hymnbook Cantate Domino published for the World Student Christian Federation in Geneva.
“Thine be the glory” would not have the popularity it enjoys without the music to which it was sung. The tune is now called Maccabaeus, but was written at a later date than the first versions of Judas Maccabaeus, which appeared in 1746. It was composed in 1747 by George Frederick Handel and is adapted from Othniel’s victorious procession in the original version of Handel’s oratorio Joshua. Around 1751 the music was transferred from Joshua to later versions of Judas Maccabaeus, where it is set to the chorus, See, the conquering hero comes. The melody was first developed as a hymn tune by the Methodist musician Thomas Butts, he included it in his collection Harmonia Sacra, a collection that was very influential in shaping John Wesley’s collection of hymns, Sacred Melody. Budry wrote his original words to fit the tune, it is hard to imagine they would have such force in any other setting.
Handel was very much a man of his times and was an ardent supporter of the English monarchy. The tune of See the conquering hero comes was written as a tribute to William Duke of Cumberland, the commander of the English forces at Culloden when they massacred the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie on 16th April 1746. The Duke then left the Highlands littered with more dead, leading the Highland Scots to name the weed Common Ragwort after him, calling it “Stinking Billy.” The tune was used by the BBC last year as the theme tune for their World Cup coverage, they thought that Handel as a German who came to England would be an appropriate composer for a tournament where an English team was going to Germany. They were unaware of the background to the tune and were taken aback when it brought the wrath of Scottish Nationalists down upon them.
Perhaps it is good that Handel’s music has been sanctified by being used with sacred words, otherwise we might have lost some of it altogether. Culloden was such a black day that the regiments who fought there never claimed any honour for it. It would be hard to imagine that a tune with such a taint would have survived if it had not developed strong associations with Biblical stories.
Thine be the glory is a hymn that has very strong theology, as we would expect from a writer who came from a church that was an evangelical break away from the main Calvinist church in Switzerland, it is a hymn that is rooted in Scripture.
The hymn is inspired by the stories of Jesus rising from the dead, particularly with the resurrection accounts in Saint Matthew and Saint John.
The hymn opens with the great refrain, giving glory to Jesus. The last enemy to be overcome is death says Saint Paul and Jesus has overcome it for all time and for eternity. If we don’t have to fear death, what is there left in the world to be worried about? If at the end we have this certainty of brilliant life, then all the things that annoy us so much pale into insignificance. When we get very agitated about all the things of everyday life, we need to stop and ask ourselves, “Do I believe Jesus is risen from the dead?” Because, if Jesus is alive then this world is a different place, if Jesus is alive my life is a different life.
Why do we have this joy? Budry sets forth the Bible story:
The angels have rolled away the stone from the empty grave, the grave clothes that had wrapped the body of Jesus are now redundant, they are of no use to a man who is alive.
But Jesus doesn’t disappear into the ether, this is no conjuring trick to magic away his body, he proves his resurrection by going to meet with his friends. Anyone who seriously wished to disprove the Christian story would have to account for the remarkable behaviour of those first disciples; if they had not met Jesus, why would they die for the story they were telling?
Then there is Thomas, Thomas who represents all of us in asking hard questions, Thomas who wants incontrovertible proof. Thomas gets his proof and Jesus tells him to stop doubting and believe. Budry is convinced, as Thomas was, “No more we doubt thee”; God will bring us through our own times, through our trials and difficulties, through our Jordan, to be with him in his promised land.
Budry uses Handel’s music perfectly to celebrate the Resurrection story, point by point, ending on the great news that Jesus has won an endless victory—an endless victory in Jerusalem on an Easter morning and an endless victory for us, for you and me, here and now.