Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending

This hymn was written by Charles Wesley, brother of Methodism’s founder John Wesley and author of over 6,000 hymns.  Charles remained a priest in the Church of England his entire life, as he never considered himself a Methodist as much as he considered himself an Anglican.

This hymn refers to Jesus’ return and to the resurrection when “Ev’ry eye shall now behold Him.”  What is for Daniel a mere prophecy and what for us can only be imagined will, in fact, one day come to pass.  Charles Wesley is careful to treat this somewhat abstract subject with a grounded reality.  He writes in the third stanza, “Those dear tokens of His Passion still His dazzling body bears, Cause of endless exultation To His ransomed worshipers. . .”  Much like the apostle Thomas, who doubts the Risen Christ until he can see Christ’s wounds, we will no longer doubt because we, too, will see those real “tokens of His Passion.”

Note the “cosmic” scope of this text.  If the writer of music notes did not know this hymn was by Charles Wesley, he would probably ascribe this hymn to Isaac Watts, who wrote such universally-themed and expansive hymns as “Nature with Open Volume Stands,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God Our Help in Ages Past.”  Charles Wesley’s hymns usually end up focusing on Christ “in the heart.”  Wesley’s most famous hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” characteristically prays, “Come, Desire of Nations, come, fix in us Thy humble home;  O, to all Thyself impart, Formed in each believing heart.”  Our hymn text today certainly evokes an emotionalism proper to such a fantastic event.  After all, the second stanza laments that those who “pierced and nailed Him to the tree” will be “deeply wailing.”  The second stanza contrasts this with the feelings of believers:  “With what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars!”  So, Wesley here employs imagery that is consistent with subject emotionalism.  But, one must think that the profound magnitude of the eschaton evoked in Wesley not so much a sense of the importance of a “spiritual heart,” but rather an acute awareness of the universality of the whole Christian Church both past, present and future.  His fourth stanza bears this out, “Savior, take the pow’r and glory, claim the kingdom for Thine own.”  Everyone will rise from the dead, and everyone will be judged, some to eternal life and others to death.  Wesley here is probably trying best to convey this sense of cosmic grandeur, omnipresent justice and everlasting righteousness.  This is not always a pleasant thought for modern Americans, which makes it all the more important as a concept for the Church to sing!

The composer of the tune, Thomas Olivers, was born in 1725 in Wales.  His parents died when he was four and he was passed from relative to relative, whilst minimal attention was paid to his upbringing.  He was an uneducated and troublesome knave who set out to travel the world. . . or at least Britain. . . at age 18.  He eventually became convinced of his godless ways after hearing George Whitefield, the great evangelical preacher of the 18th century.  Although he wished to follow Whitefield, he was discouraged from doing so but finally found John Wesley, with whose preaching he became enamored.  Olivers, under the guidance of Wesley, continued evangelizing throughout his life, even at one point editing a Wesleyan magazine (albeit unsuccessfully, for illiterate editors were not in demand in those days like they are now.)  Olivers and Wesley must have been quite a team and good friends, for at his death in 1799 in London, Olivers was interred in Wesley’s own tomb at City Road Chapel near what is now Old Street underground station.  The writer of music notes likes to eat lunch with Wesley and Olivers, for their rather large, obelisk-like tomb makes a great place to sit and eat a sandwich, although the chapel churchyard is now overlooked by a monstrous, glass-walled office building.  Olivers’ hymn text, “The God of Abram Praise” is chiseled on the side of the tomb.

It is possible that Olivers composed the tune we sing this morning after having heard it whistled on the street;  a similar tune is found in Thomas Arne’s comic opera Thomas and Sally. Thomas Arne composed “Rule, Britannia” (which we know as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) and was a popular and rather bourgeois composer of the time, so it is not unlikely that Olivers would have heard this whistled by a common person on the street.  (Arne also composed that great eighteenth century pop song, “Where the bee sucks, there lurk I.”)

Although prior music notes have delved into the Wesleys and this text in particular, do note how the broad, regal, soaring, and resplendent melody captures the cosmic scope of the hymn text, in which Christ is “robed in glorious majesty.”