In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day: I Vow to Thee, My Country

Last night my son Colin and I attended a performance by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra of Gustav Holst's The Planets. This is one of those breathtaking pieces that can only be fully appreciated in a live performance, and the RPO delivered a great one, as always.

During that section of the piece entitled Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, I suddenly remembered that the stately portion in the middle of that movement was the musical setting for one of the most moving patriotic hymns ever written, I Vow to Thee, My Country. The text was written by British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice in 1908 and amended by him in 1918 in the wake of World War I, and describes how a Christian owes his loyalties to both his homeland and the heavenly kingdom. It was set to the music from Jupiter in 1921, and since then has become associated with Remembrance Day ("Veterans Day" here in the U.S.) services all over the British Commonwealth. It was a favorite of Princess Diana's, and was sung at both her wedding and her funeral.

Ever since I first heard this hymn during television coverage of Diana's funeral, I've thought it should be a standard work at Memorial Day services in this country. What it says about the faith and sacrifice of those who have given their lives in service to their homeland is just as true and powerful for Americans as it is for the British peoples. I can't hear it--especially the last verse--without choking up.

Here is a moving performance of the hymn by Rachel Landrecht at a televised memorial service in 2005 for Ernest Alvia ("Smokey") Smith, the last surviving Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. The respect paid him by his fellow veterans is the perfect setting for the hymn. I've reproduced the full set of lyrics below the video. As you listen, say a prayer for all those heroic men and women, American and Commonwealth, who paid the ultimate price for the freedom we all enjoy today.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
P.S. The graphic at the top of this post is a cropped version of a photograph of the very flag flying in front of our house on Memorial Day 2009. Pretty cool, huh?

1 comment:

JoJo said...

I'm so jealous that you went to hear the RPO!!