This Sunday is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, often called Christ the King Sunday. The gradual hymn was written by Carolina Marie Noel (1817-1877), the daughter of a Church of England clergyman. Born in London, she wrote her first verses at age 17. Although prodigious in the next few years, publishing several dozen poems, at age 20 she ceased writing. Twenty years later, crippled by ill health, she once again resumed writing poetry, publishing The Name of Jesus and other Verses for the Sick and Lonely, a volume published “with the hope that it might be helpful to invalids,” which Noel had now become.
This hymn text is dense with theological thoughts and profound motifs. The first stanza summarizes the liturgical theme for the day, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, ev’ry tongue confess Him King of Glory now.” This idea reflects Isaiah 45: 23 in which God says, “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear,” a thought reiterated in Philippians 2: 10, 11, this time in reference to Christ, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father.” The juxtaposition of these two passages illustrates the continuity of the Old and New Testaments; whereas the idea of a Trinitarian God is relatively unknown to the ancient Hebrews, the Philippians passage serves to clarify the honor and worship God—and specifically God through Christ—is to be given.
Noel continues her Trinitarian explication of Christ’s nature as she continues, “’Tis the Father’s pleasure We should call Him Lord who from the beginning was the mighty Word,” a passage which echoes the medieval hymn, Corde natus ex parentis, “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the world’s began to be, He is alpha and omega, He the Source, the Ending.” Both are theological paraphrases of the prologue to John’s gospel as follows: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” The original Greek reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word.” (Italics mine.) In the ultimate of Trinitarian justification, this “Word” (logos, meaning Christ) was one with (ie., “being of one substance”) with God. God is worshipped, then, as creator, as Noel writes, “At His voice creation sprang at once to sight.” The natural tendency of the creature to its creator is one of awe and reverence, a theme typical of Christ the King Sunday.
Noel contrasts the Trinity’s omnipotence with Christ’s becoming human. The first few lines of John’s gospel foreshadow that gospel’s emphasis upon Christ’s divinity and power. Yet, Christians also know that Christ was “humbled for a season, to receive a name from the lips of sinners unto whom He came.” Christ was a “suffering servant,” an emphasis present in Mark’s gospel, for example. Noel continues explication upon Christ’s human nature, “Faithfully He bore it spotless to the last, brought it back victorious when from death He passed,” and our response is to give “Glory then to Jesus, Who, the Prince of light, to a world of darkness brought the gift of sight.” Noel has taken the singer from the primordial origins of the universe created through God’s omnipotence through Christ’s State of Humiliation (exemplified in the Incarnation and death) once again to His power and omnipotence as he conquers death.
The coming weeks of Advent should not be a time of sentimental wandering in which we simply prepare to welcome some cute baby in a manger. In Christ’s divinity, He has taken on humanity, finding fulfillment in the historical events of Holy Week. In Christ’s humanity, He has retained His divinity to the extent that He was raised from the dead. In Christ’s becoming human, then, He has opened the way for all humanity to be reached by God.