This quintessential Advent text comes from the pen of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), co-founder of Methodist with his brother John. Much like Luther, neither of the Wesleys intended to found a denomination. As ordained Anglican priests, they noted the lack of deep spirituality characteristic of many priests and congregants. John in particular traced his “conversion” to the Aldersgate experience in which he remarked after attending a Bible study in 1739 that his “heart was strangely warmed.” Although he was already a theologian at that time, he considered this experience as his first as a “true” Christian. (Luther as well had a similar, probably-not-apocryphal experience during a thunderstorm.) Through John’s fervent preaching and Charles’s almost 6,000 hymns, the Methodist movement spread throughout England, Wales, and even to the United States.
Charles Wesley’s hymns are characterized by this concern for the “heart” rather than an intellectual assent to certain doctrines. His language is emotive rather than didactic, “Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set Your people free; From our fears and sins release us. . .” During Advent we have this longing for the birth of Christ which we know will cumulate in His death, resurrection and His subsequent freeing humanity from sin. His second stanza implies this relationship between Advent and Lent, both of which are characterized by preparation. “Born Your people to deliver, born a child and yet a king.” As we profess in the creed, Christ was very God of very God, begotten, not made. . . was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate. The incarnation means Christ was both a human (child) and God (king) at the same time. Both Advent and Lent have profound elements of humanity—a baby is born, gifts are brought, its parents love it, shepherds bring sheep to play with the baby. In Lent, pain, humiliation and betrayal are all experienced by Christ. Good and bad, we all experience these same emotions to differing degrees. But Christ was also God, conquering death by His resurrection on Easter morning. Such is the irony of the incarnation, and Wesley is so adept at capturing these thoughts in poetic form.