Fellow Whovians will understand why I chose the photo I did. For everyone else, it requires a geek confession: I opened the hymnal, started to sing, and instantly thought of Doctor Who. In particular, the episode called “Gridlock” where, in order to keep the residents of earth safe, they are told to go on massive freeways underground – and have been in a decades-long traffic jam by the time Martha Jones and the Doctor show up. One of the ways they are kept hopeful (and obedient) is through hymns, piped into the sound system; The Old Rugged Cross is one of them, and Abide with Me is another.
But that’s not at all the reason I like this hymn, nor should we ever consider it a tool of our alien protectors. No, in the real world, this is a sweet and comforting “old timey hymn” – a piece that some might find puzzling and out of place. But I am glad this is in our hymnal.
It’s an old hymn that likely appears in every Protestant hymnal in the country (and maybe beyond), speaking as it does about death and glory. Even though we only use three of the eight verses, there remains in what we sing a hopeful and comforting sense of something greater than ourselves being with us in those final hours. (The final verse, often found in Christian hymnals, is probably too explicitly Christian for most Unitarian Universalists, although we seem to have no problem with implicit Christianity…a topic for another time.)
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; still with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see:
O thou who changes not, abide with me.
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.
And I’m not putting any extra meaning on this – the lyrics were written and set to an English tune in 1847 by Henry Francis Lyte, while he lay dying from tuberculosis. He survived less than a month after completing it.
This is absolutely a final call for comfort from the Divine on the eve of death. And it offers comfort to those who are mourning – that something we might call heaven, or the light, or glory, or simply rest welcomes our beloved.
Not exactly something we’d put in regular rotation.
But I am glad it’s in our hymnal.