Paul describes in Ephesians 3 Christ’s love for His people: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulless of God.” (3: 17b-19). In this hymn the writer, probably Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), elaborates on what this love must be like. He writes it is “. . . beyond all thought and fantasy, that God, the Son of God, should take our mortal form for mortal’s sake.” The nineteenth-century hymnologist John Julian wrote that this hymn was a precursor to the Christmas carol, and the first stanza’s consideration of the incarnation is one reason. But consider the Christmas aspects of the second stanza, “He sent no angel to our race, of higher or of lower place, but wore the robe of human frame, and to this world Himself He came.” This is not the Victorian conception of Christmas with fluffy sheep and singing angels—in fact, there are no angels in this description of the incarnation. Not every hymn has to tell the entire story of salvation to be a good and useful hymn, but this one does. The third stanza deals with Epiphany and Lent—“For us baptized, for us He bore His holy fast and hungered sore; for us temptation sharp He knew; for us the tempter overthrew.” By stanza five we sing of Christ’s Passion—“For us by wickedness betrayed, for us, in crown of thorns arrayed, He bore the shameful cross and death; for us He gave His dying breath.” The stanzas conclude with a celebration of the Resurrection (“For us He rose from death again”) and a doxological stanza.
This Sunday’s Gospel from Mark 9 recounts the transfiguration of Christ on the mountaintop in which God the Father proclaims, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” Throughout Epiphany, Christ has revealed Himself through miracles and through his teaching, but as we enter Lent, this revelation will become less of what He says and more of what He does, climaxing in the events of Holy Week, His death on a cross, and ultimately His resurrection. This hymn foreshadows the “temptation,” the “prayer,” the “teaching,” the betrayal, scourge, and mocking, “in purple robe arrayed.” It was this love, so deep, broad, and high that caused His incarnation and finally Christ’s suffering and resurrection, all of which finds expression in the drama of a holy Lent as it unfolds.