As we begin a new year, perhaps new resolutions, always living into our own baptismal covenant, and in the month we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord (Jan. 10th,) we turn to a hymn that is often associated with baptism, commitment, and new beginnings. "I Bind unto Myself Today," is an ancient Irish hymn, a "lorica," or breastplate prayer. In Celtic spirituality, a lorica is a prayer of protection as one dons the day's clothing or prepares for some sort of spiritual battle, engagement, or testing. Just as writer to the Ephesians reminds us to "stand therefore...having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace," Patrick of Ireland, the generally accepted author of this text, urges us to bind unto our bodies the name and life of God. Indeed, the hymn is officially known as "Saint Patrick's Breastplate."
The hymn is recorded as being sung throughout the monasteries and churches of Ireland in the 690s, and is found in at least two manuscripts dating to the 1100s. The stirring words, invoking God's protection, strength, and events of Christ's life on earth, are sung to a rugged, Irish melody. According to legend, Patrick and his missionary associates, sent to spread the Good News to the pagans of Ireland, sang this while fleeing and miraculously being hidden from a pursuing pagan king's army. The hymn was translated into English by Cecil Francis Alexander in the late 1880s. It soon proved popular at ordinations, baptisms, and Trinity Sunday. Although the tune takes some time to become acquainted with as it does not follow typical patterns (the poetic meter is officially IRREGULAR!) it soon becomes an old friend. One oddity of this hymn is the second to last stanza has a completely different portion - a part that has different rhythm and rhyme, the most beloved part of the sung prayer: "Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me..." After the sweep of the soaring, rugged melody, comes this interlude, like a lullaby in a storm, a simple prayer in a sweet, bright key. Finally, the hymn concludes as it began, claiming God's name, God's life for the believer while proclaiming "Praise to the Lord of my salvation; Salvation is of Christ the Lord!"
A fitting way to start each new day, each new year of our baptismal life together.
~ Bjorn Gustafson