“Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” Luke 24:29
“Abide with me” is probably the best-known hymn in the world amongst people who never go to church. The reason? Because, with the exception of 1959, it has been sung at every FA Cup Final since 1927. The words of Henry Francis Lyte’s hymn are beamed into millions of homes in the minutes before the kick off. No-one seems quite sure why the tradition started. There are suggestions that the devastation of the Great War and then the upheavals of the 1920s, including the General Strike of 1926, created a sense of a need for something that would bind people together, the words of “Abide with me” gave a sense of standing together in the face of adversity and grief.
Lyte believed that he was writing about the greatest triumph over the greatest adversity, the Passion of our Lord was, for him, not a defeat, but a victory; to Henry Francis Lyte the Cross was a symbol not of dying and death, but of victory and life.
“Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies”.
Lyte was born in Scotland of English parents and grew up in Ireland. Educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen and here in Dublin at Trinity College, he was ordained in 1815 for the curacy of Taghmon in Co Wexford. During his days as a curate Lyte visited the Abraham Swanne, Rector of the neighbouring parish of Killurin. Swanne had become critically ill and was dying and his conversations with Lyte had a profound impact upon the young curate, giving a new direction to his ministry and to his preaching
Lyte seems to have contracted serious illness during his days in Co Wexford and in 1816 he travelled to France and Italy in the hope that warmer weather would improve the state of his lungs. His health rallied and he went to work in the parish of Marazion in Cornwall. In 1823, he was appointed Rector of the poor fishing village of Brixham in south Devon.
Lyte’s faith inspired him to work hard in the community and the frail and sickly clergyman won the confidence and affection of many of the people of his parish. His tuberculosis, however, slowly got the better of him and he spent increasing amounts of time in France in the hope of building up his strength.
In the spring of 1847, he returned to Brixham to be with his parishioners.By now he was very weak, the TB was very advanced and he knew he hadn’t much time left.
His last Sunday in Brixham was September 4th 1847 and he was seriously ill. Despite protests from his family, he carried out his wish of preaching and celebrating Holy Communion at the morning service. He rested in the afternoon and in the evening went for a short walk before going to his study for a couple of hours. When he came out of his study to rejoin his family, he handed his sister the words of “Abide with me,” together with a tune he had written for it. It seems that he had been working on the hymn for a couple of weeks, before completing it that Sunday evening. A few days later, he travelled to France, where he died on 20th November and was buried in the grounds of the English Church in Nice.
“Abide with me” is a hymn filled with Biblical allusions and references. It begins on the road to Emmaus, two disciples shattered by the events of Good Friday say to a stranger, “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” They have listened to him as they walked along the road, but have been so overwhelmed by Jesus’ death that they do not recognize his living presence with them.
The evening time in the story, the falling darkness, Lyte uses as a symbol of the eventide of his life, his day is far spent. The question is, how would he face death? The hymn is a prayer of a man who is reflecting on his life.
The helpers who have failed him cause him particular pain. A devout, evangelical Christian, Lyte was deeply hurt when several of his Sunday School teachers and most members of his choir became involved in the Plymouth Brethren movement, that was sweeping through the country at the time, and left his church to join the local Brethren assembly. At a time when his health was failing and when the support and encouragement of his friends was something he would have greatly valued, Lyte feels he has been badly let down and turns to the Lord for encouragement and support:
“When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
Looking back over his life, he realizes that it is no more than a “little day” and that even the Earth itself is subject to change and decay. His sense that our time has been no more than a passing moment draws on Scriptures such as the words of Psalm 90,
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
Lyte’s perception of being surrounded by “change and decay” is not an expression of morbidity or pessimism, it’s a description of the world as he sees it, a world that included in 1847 Ireland beset by the horrors of the Great Hunger. It is the reality of world as it is that prompts him to say to God, “I need Thy presence every passing hour.”
It is in the last two verses of the hymn that we come to the real substance of what it is that Lyte wants to say. He is faced with the grim reality of death and he faces it with a quiet trust in God and with a confidence that in Jesus he has the victory.
Each verse ends with the same three words, “abide with me.” There is a belief, a trust, a faith in Christ’s abiding presence; that the one who walked on the road to Emmaus on a Sunday evening walks with us now.
“I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.”
Lyte’s words are filled with Scriptural references—Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians. Read the Epistles and their central message is summed up in this verse.
The Christ upon whom Lyte calls is the risen Christ; he is the Christ who died on the Cross for our sins and who by his resurrection destroyed the power of death and is alive for evermore.
Lyte asks for a vision of the Cross, because he knows that through it the darkness of the gloom has been dispelled. If God loves him enough to die for him on a cross, then there will be a place for him in heaven.
Death for Henry Francis Lyte is not nightfall, but daybreak. He finishes on a triumphant note of a new day dawning, the shadow of death has disappeared in the brilliant light of God’s presence.
The words of the hymn completed on the evening of 4th September 1847 fulfilled a wish of Lyte’s: to leave something of enduring worth. In his poem “Declining Days” he wrote;
“But might I leave behind
Some blessing for my fellows, some fair trust
To guide, to cheer, to elevate my kind
When I am in the dust.
O Thou whose touch can lend
Life to the dead, Thy quick’ning grace supply,
And grant me, swanlike, my last breath to spend
In song that may not die!”
In “Abide with me,” his final prayer was granted.
The summer sermon series is at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory at 8 pm each Wednesday from 6th July until 24th August.