Through the Darkness of the Ages

By Hillary Jolly – 2000

Through the Darkness of the Ages

Through the darkness of the ages,
Through the sorrows of the days
Strength of weary generations
Lifting hearts in hope and praise
Light in darkness, joy in sorrow,
Presence to allay all fears,
Jesus, you have kept your promise,
Faithful through two thousand years.

Bounty of two thousand harvests,
Beauty of two thousand springs:
He who framed the times and seasons
Has vouchsafed us greater things.
Word of God who spoke creation
Speaks forgiveness, speaks to save,
Gathers still his ransomed people
In the life he freely gave.

Countless flowers have bloomed and withered,
Countless noons are sealed in night,
Shattered thrones and fallen empires,
Realms and riches lost from sight.
Christ, your kingdom still increases
As the centuries unfold.
Grain that fell to earth and perished
Has brought forth ten thousand-fold.

Master, we shall sing your praises,
Man of sorrows, God of power,
For the measured march of seasons
Shall at last bring in the hour
When, as lightning leaps the heavens,
You return to lead us home,
You have promised, “I am coming,”
Swiftly, our Lord Jesus, come.

There is this hype about the end of the year that makes us turn to stout and solemn hymns? All of a sudden you repeatedly hear songs like Silent night, Long time ago in Bethlehem. While the TV shows us people wearing funny hats and blowing noisemakers, The Twelve waxes about beautiful, solid, and semi-morbid hymns. My choice of hymn for the end of the year 2014 is “Through the Darkness of the Ages.” It was written in 2000 for the new millennium and was set to the well-known tune “Abbot’s Leigh.

As we come to the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015, a thought came to mind. Recently, two of the countries that I am strongly attached to, celebrated their golden Jubilee Independence celebrations. Kenya and Zambia have gone through this process. I am hopeful too that in our lives, God is about to do great and mighty things in our lives. I find that the Jubilee experience resornates well with my choice of this years’ end of year hymn “Through the Darkness of the Ages.” I believe that Advent is the season when we are each called to intentionally seek after Jesus and be especially open to the unexpected ways in which Jesus may be seeking after us. On this day, I want to invite each of us, in the name of God, to be Magi or shepherds this Advent; seek after him in prayer or reading, or journeying , or, if you are too busy keeping your own sheep lined up, do promise to respond when he comes after you.

He is likely to turn up in the least expected placed, most particularly in imperfect places or imperfect hearts, or unexpected guises. He could be in a cartoon, or a friend’s conversation; there is no way to anticipate Him. The one who was, and is to come, is also always in the here and now.

I found one last Advent invitation this weekend which is worthy to share with you. In the year 2000, St. Paul’s cathedral in London sponsored a millennium hymn contest, and the winning hymn turned out to be an Advent hymn worthy of the Gospel of Luke. Four hundred entries from 12 countries were judged anonymously, and the winner spoke of Advent. Hilary Jolly was the winner of that contest.

The hymn itself is sturdy, swarthy, and grand. But it is the back-story about the author that I find almost equally wondrous. In some weird way, it is so quirky and humane as to balance the gravity of the hymn.

In 2000, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London did a remarkable thing by sponsoring a millennium hymn writing contest. The winner received—drum roll here—a cut-glass bowl. I wish there were many more hymn writing contests like these. I pray the Lord will grant me grace to transition to Hymn writing supporter in the coming years. Why can only the Brits come up with these things? We definitely need more contests where winners receive cut-glass bowls!

The winner of the millennium hymn writing contest was one Hilary Jolly. My knowledge of her comes only from some quick snooping around the internet. Based solely on naive stereotypes, in my mind’s eye I see her as someone like “church-lady-to-singing-phenomenon” Jolly is described as a 50-ish year old widow. Her husband committed suicide and one of her two children was chronically ill. In one place she is said to be a “retired typesetter” and in another a “part-time church cleaning lady” who grew up hearing her mother recite poetry while cleaning the house. She became a Christian in her mid-thirties, after, in her words, “one of those Damascus road experiences we’re told not to expect.”

The Independent News paper wrote regarding Mrs Jolly. “Given the choice, Mrs Jolly, 52 (In 2000), would have ignored the arrival of the year 2000. She was “sickened by millennium hype”, which she described as “pagan and most unpleasant”.

Her parish priest persuaded her to compose a hymn for the millennium. “As he put it, `If the millennium is going to be celebrated, we should claim it for Jesus Christ’,” she said, adding: “And that’s about as positive as I can feel about the millennium, quite frankly.”

Speaking in St Faith’s Chapel, in the crypt of St Paul’s, Mrs Jolly, from Cambridge, elaborated on what she meant by pagan hype. “Dare I say it: the Dome, and a lot of other things besides.” At this point the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Rev John Moses, was concerned that what was supposed to be a happy occasion was taking a bitter turn. “In this cathedral, let’s be quite clear what dome she means,” he said, trying to leaven the mood.

But Mrs Jolly had the bit between her teeth. “The other Dome, the lesser Dome,” she railed. “I think it’s a temple to Man … I particularly dislike the fact that it seems to have as the Centre-piece a giant human figure. The millennium is not about Man, it’s about God.”

Mrs Jolly’s hymn, chosen from 444 entries, is set to music by Paul Bryan, director of music at St John’s College School, Cambridge. His entry beat 309 other tunes.

Mrs Jolly, who has two children, heard the combination of words and music for the first time yesterday. She was thrilled. “I was expecting, in rather a cynical way, something much more upbeat. I’m happy, because it’s dignified.”

Her thoughts on hymns and hymn writing are playfully profound and probably merit mention in any homiletics class. After selecting a passage of scripture, she studies it closely and prayerfully. “Scripture spills into poetry, because what is being communicated is so beautiful,” she says.

Of her method for writing “Walking my dog in the green places by the river on the edge of Cambridge, with my head full of scripture and music, juggling rhymes and wrestling with St. Paul to turn his more prosaic pronouncements into poetry, has become life’s greatest pleasure.”

And of the role of hymns in worship she says, “People go away from church singing the last hymn—as I do most Sundays, when I ride home on my bike. If hymns and songs say something theologically wrong, that’s stuck for life.”

This Advent wisdom also has an Advent story; professional hymn writers and scholars made up the vast amount of contestants, but the winner, Hillary Jolly, was chiefly wise in her love of God and church. She is a sexton, a church cleaner, and lives in Cambridge, England. The best hymn was created in a modern day manger. Come, Lord Jesus, come. in a manger in Bethlehem, in a movie theater on Massachusetts Avenue, in the words and life of Hillary Jolly, in our lives. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen!

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