This week’s Sequence hymn, ‘How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds’, was written as an exposition of the Song of Songs 1.3, ‘Thy name is an an ointment poured forth’ – but as with many hymns, it is rich with scriptural references and imagery. Perhaps most striking is the list of epithets that makes up most of the fourth stanza: Shepherd, Guardian, Friend, Prophet, Priest, King, Lord, Life, Way, End. Most immediately relevant this week, however, is the second stanza, which echoes Our Lord’s invitation in Sunday’s Gospel to ‘come to me, all you that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest…’. The insight that the Name of Jesus is ‘manna to the hungry soul’ also brings comfort to us as the Sacrament remains unavailable.
The hymn was written by John Newton, the author of other beloved hymns including the very fine ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ and, most famously, ‘Amazing grace! how sweet the sound’. The latter reminds us that earlier in his life Newton served on, and eventually captained, slave ships, and even after his conversion to evangelical Christianity was involved in the slave trade for some time. Subsequently ordained in the Church of England, he became a popular preacher, and finally late in life he used his firsthand knowledge to argue publicly for the abolition of the African slave trade in the British Empire, which finally came just before his death in 1807.
As our society (we pray) continues to grapple with the ways in which it is still fundamentally shaped by the legacy of slavery – not to say of colonization – may Newton’s repentance and action inspire our own.