Make straight the way

Notes and commentary on hymn Make straight the way.

Background to writing

In early 2009 several independent things coincided for me:

  • BBC Look North (North East and Cumbria) did a report about "Street Angels": Christian groups who take to local city streets on Friday and Saturday nights helping revellers who are in, or vulnerable to, distressing or dangerous situations (however self-induced those might sometimes be). The following Sunday this work also featured in our congregational newsletter at Durham Cathedral. For some reason that all lodged in my mind. Such work is way, way outside my own area, but I have a huge respect for it.
  • A musical friend of ours was approaching her ordination which would potentially call her to similar work.
  • Issues raised by atheist book The God Delusion made me realise the uncomfortable truth that a small number of its criticisms of our church life and of our own sloppy thinking were valid, and that we need to be more self-critical.
  • The creative side of me was itching, desperately, to write something.

The thought on "Street Angels" and "Street Pastors" led to John the Baptist, the voice crying (as per Isaiah) "Prepare the way… make straight the path", then to the city street scenes of "Hosanna!" and "Crucify!", then to Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus' cross through the streets; the way to Calvary.

This "Way" idea immediately suggested "the Way, the Truth and the Life" as a promising framework for constructing a hymn lyric. And, of course, the "Truth" idea resonated with the work we need to do to answer The God Delusion, including putting our own house in order. It leads us to Pilate's question "What is Truth?" and the fine line we tread as we seek to engage theology and culture with Christian honesty and integrity.

Following the potentially abstract intellectualism of the previous "Truth" verse, I then needed to be inclusive of those called to real life: all of us, and to acknowledge the quandaries in which we are all caught from time to time. This is what the "Life" verse aims to do.

Big Picture:
'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life' (John 14:6); our response in service and mission. Verses 1, 2, 3: 'Way, Truth, Life'; also suggests sequence: Way of the cross, crucifixion, resurrection. The second half of each of these verses also references its theme, with contemporary application.
Make straight the way: Isaiah 40:3, 9; John's baptism of Jesus (John 1:23)
street angels: reference to a movement serving late-night revellers
The Passion narrative; our association with the foreigner, Simon of Cyrene
Make straight the truth: Titus: to straighten out (1:5) lies from truth (1:12-13)
truth...light: John 1:15 (full of grace and truth); John 1:4-5 (that life was the light)
pierce...light: (Luke 2:32,35) "a light to the gentiles", "a sword shall pierce your soul".
pierce...light ... thinks it knows: God's light vs. humankind's so-called "enlightenment"
odd delusions: to resonate against a recent well-known fundamentalist-atheist book.
unknown gods: St. Paul in Athens (Acts 17:23)
sophistries: the obscure word makes the point about our pretensions; also "sophos" links again to St. Paul in his contemporary Greek culture
Pilate's "What is truth?" question, probably genuine, is often ours. Our motives? Our result?
re-hang you on the tree: a hint of resonance with the 'Quo Vadis' St. Peter legend
wisdom: Matt 10:16 "be wise as serpents (and gentle as doves)"; resonance the Spirit (O.T.)
wisdom: back-reference and contrast with sophistries (2:4); also 1 Cor. 1:20-25
"The truth will make you free" (John 8:32)
life spent with grief: Psalm 31:10
Dives and Lazarus were both in need
lived alone, in sickness or in health: loneliness and marriage vows placed side-by-side
live for self: e.g. Mark 8:35-36 "gain the world yet forfeit [our] soul"
secret thoughts: Simeon "He will expose the secret thoughts of many" (Luke 2:35)
raise us: resurrection following implicit "take up your cross" of previous lines
your own. Emmanuel: We now belong to the God who is with us.
Emmanuel...kingdom: from incarnation through to "prepare a place for you".
Palestine: many hymns refer to Israel and Zion. But Jesus is for the gentiles also.
Palestine/wine: rhyme obviously owes a debt to John Betjeman
water into wine/kingdom love: pick up Johannine interlocking wedding/kingdom themes
way, truth, life summation,
Our feet are yours: From Teresa of Avila "Christ has ... no feet but yours".
walk your way: hint towards Emmaus Road
made new: the verses were 'make straight'; the conclusion is 'made new'
our lives...proclaim: the responsibility of the opening "proclaim good news" is ours


Verses 1-3 have a tripartite 'statement-question-response' structure:4 lines, 2 lines, 2 lines. In particular the 'question' requires a contrast in tune from the other sections.

Seems to be the most comfortable 'sing' to the text.
Tune structure fits text structure. The tune's association to "It came upon the midnight clear" allows a resonance with the Advent and Christmas themes of 1:1-4 and 4:1.

Copyright © David Lee
Last updated: 21 April 2016