O Christ, the Word Incarnate

This hymn text was written by William How (1823-97), the son of an English lawyer. He was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1847. He served many parishes in England, but became known as the “Poor Man’s Bishop” because of his work in East London.

This text is based on Proverbs 6: 23: “Your commandment is a lamp, and the law is a light.” This hymn is addressed to Christ. Recall John 1: 1: “In the beginning was the Word. . .” This term Word is translated from the Greek word logos, which means “revelation” or perhaps “ultimate truth” and can be applied also to the study of mathematics, as mathematics was always seen as revealing the ultimate perfection of God. (Nothing else in the universe was seen as being as perfect as math; theologians and philosophers might be wrong, scientists may develop a wrong hypothesis or theory, we may not work a math problem correctly, but the essence of numbers and their relationships can never change, no matter where and when they occur; hence, a reflection of God.) One can see this further on in the first stanza: “O Truth unchanged, unchanging. . .” The first stanza expresses thanks for revelation through Scriptures (“from the hallowed page”) that has remained unchanged through the centuries (“Shines on from age to age.”)

The second stanza contains a nautical reference: “It is the chart and compass That, all life’s voyage through, Mid mists and rocks and quicksands Still guides, O Christ to You.”

The third stanza is a prayer that we offer to God, that we might be witnesses (“a lamp of purest gold”) to bear His light “before the nations,” as presumably people of the past had done (“as of old.”)

As a general comment, this hymn text is typical of Victorian-era hymnody. Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901) was crowned when “the sun never set on the English nation,” for English territories ranged from Asia (India) to southern Africa and to many of the geographies in between. Throughout the nineteenth century, England gradually lost these colonies as the balance of power shifted from Europe to the nascent American nation. Rebellions of indigenous peoples and conflicts with other European nations eventually would reduce England’s territory back to its small island. This, of course, was a blow to their national morale, and many of the Victorian hymns express a conservatism which seems to long for better times (when England still ruled the world), but still couched in spiritual terms. These hymns frequently emphasize God’s unchanging nature, as a comfort to a people whose society was undergoing constant change. (Consider the words from the great evening hymn “Abide With Me”: “O, Thou that changest not, abide with me.” These are similar expressions from a Victorian writer.) There is a longing for and even romanticization of the past, evident in this hymn from the phrase “Your true light as of old.” Yet, as these hymns express God’s immutability (unchanging nature), they are good for us today as well, in a society in which “change is the only constant,” to use a cliché. The internet and other technological innovations have sped our rate of technological sophistication and development. New business models and new paradigms are in constant evolution, or at least so we are told And yet, it is good for us to realize that God and His Word offers unchanging spiritual nourishment in ephemeral times.

The Head that Once was Crowned with Thorns

We know that Christ takes on the role of prophet, priest and king for His people, and in His role of king he will also assume the role of Judge, in Greek being called the Παντοκράτωρ (“pantokrator.”) Christ who will say to those on His left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” but the righteous will be invited to eternal life.  (Matthew 25:  41, 46)  We know Christ has this authority, for as it is written in Philippians 2: 9-11, “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that 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 God the Father.”  In the words of our hymn, Christ’s “Head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now;  a royal diadem adorns the mighty Victor’s brow.”  The suffering of Good Friday has become fulfilled in the Resurrection, whilst the Final Judgment reminds us of the reason for the historical events of Holy Week—so that Christ might earn our justification that we might be the ones on His right, ushered into heaven.

Most of us, even in cycles of economic difficulty, are not starving or malnourished.  Presumably, those reading music notes live in homes rather than cardboard boxes. However, we must not take this for granted and we should realize that, like the early Christians, there may come a time during which we are persecuted for our beliefs.  We may undergo the same hardships many Christians have experienced throughout the centuries, echoing stanza five of this hymn, “They suffer with their Lord below, they reign with Him above, their profit and their joy to know the mystery of His love.”  The writer to the Hebrews says thus:  “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.  For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God. . .”  (Hebrews 4: 16-17a) Having come afresh from the penitence of the Lenten season, this is still on our mind.

One time, when the anonymous writer of music notes had to report for jury duty, he found himself on a panel of 50 potential jurors, before which he enjoyed wandering about the courthouse, seeing all the judges and lawyers going about their daily duty.  (Fortunately, the fact that he had played for both the defense attorney’s and the assistant district attorney’s weddings relieved him from actually being chosen.)  The writer of music notes admired the efficiency and respect with which the courtroom and the courthouse in general were run.  Having heard horror stories about jury duty before, he found it not to be that way at all, at least in this case.  However, he pondered the notion of an entire system being established to deal with sin and the law—which whether secular or Old Testament really is the same thing.  If you break it, you must pay the consequences.  This is actually a rather discombobulating concept!  Not only to those condemned, but to those whose job it is to prosecute or defend them must live under the rules and regulations established by this wide-ranging, but specific, code of law.  They must interpret that under which we must live.  Although he enjoyed the morning, the writer of music notes came away with a renewed appreciation for this New Covenant.

Christ is Judge, but he is also the Good Shepherd, as we celebrated two weeks ago.  God will “Search for my sheep and will seek them out.  As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep;  I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered. . .”  (34:  11-13)  This, then, is that dichotomy and ever-present tension between Law and Gospel.  Whilst we are condemned by any interpretation of the Law, we are also sought out by that same Law-giver and given a reprieve.  This doesn’t make human sense—the prosecuting attorneys generally do not prepare their cases against an offender simply to drop their case when the judge calls the court into session.  Yet, this is similar to what Christ does for us.  (In actuality, he is both judge and defense attorney, the priest and the king. . .)  He is simultaneously Judge and Shepherd.  He was both God and man.  God can choose to do what He wishes with His own omnipotence—even by putting it aside for awhile and becoming human, as this hymn so aptly reminds us.

 

I Want To Walk as a Child of The Light

 

During a relentless heat wave during the summer of 1966, Kathleen Thomerson and her family, in an effort to escape the rolling brownouts of St Louis, elected to return to the comfort of her mother’s air conditioned home in Houston. Although a musician, not a poet, by training, and certainly not intending to write a hymn, Thomerson’s recent meditations on scripture passages dealing with childlike faith unexpectedly began to evoke the first stanza of this hymn, which she composed, phrase by phrase both in text and tune, instead of packing for the airport. She composed the remaining stanzas in the same fashion after arriving in Houston, hence giving genesis to the tune name. Originally conceived as a choral anthem, its first use as a hymn was at Church of the Redeemer, Episcopal, in Houston, where congregants routinely purloined the copies that had been placed in each pew. The popularity of this hymn grew appreciably within the next few years, necessitating its copyrighting in 1970. Although originating in the Episcopal Church, the hymn has been appropriated within the hymnals of numerous mainline denominations and has been translated into Welsh, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch and Hmong.

Although placed within the hymnal’s Epiphany section, the text, which has been used even for weddings and funerals, bears a pronounced Advent theme, evidenced particularly by the second stanza which references Malachi 4: 2, “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Nevertheless, the distinct emphasis on light contrasted with dark not only suggests an Epiphany usage, but links it not only to the hymnological tradition of Luther, for whom such theological dichotomies were of primary importance, but even back to Greek hymnody with its frequent allusion to the “light” of Christ to the Gentiles. The hymn’s original extra-liturgical composition, as well as its devotional character, suggests general congregational use beyond one or two liturgical seasons.

The incipient theme of Christ abiding within the heart of the Christian was inspired by Ephesians 3: 17, “. . . so that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” Michael Hawn posits that, like in a gospel song, the hymn’s refrain encapsulates its theological meaning, in this case culminating in the final words, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus,” not only gaining inspiration from Ephesians, but also alluding to I John 1: 5, “This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Thomerson contends that her meditation on scripture inspired this hymn, with its rich scriptural metaphor and imagery even conveying an eschatological tone in the penultimate phrase, which is nearly verbatim from Revelation 21: 23, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The hymn may manifest a theme of childhood, alluding to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18: 3, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” but it was initially composed for adults to nurture their childlike faith. Its length may seemingly belie its childlike simplicity, but the text’s amalgamation of subjective, first-person pronouns with profuse scripture references seem to have been elemental to its popular success, much to the surprise of the composer, who originally harbored only modest aspirations for her choral anthem.
Thomerson originally wrote this hymn in D-flat, although performance concerns have normally resulted in its transposition to C-major in most hymnals. The gracefully simple melody and text effortlessly “composed themselves,” Thomerson recalls, but she later had to work out a harmonization feasible for choral singing. Some settings include a fermata at the end of the third line of the refrain simply to allow for a breath when singing it in four parts; however, this is not necessary for unison, congregational singing. At the beginning of the last phrase, all four voices intentionally converge on the C of “shine” in order aurally to highlight that word which forms the focal point of the final and culminating phrase of the hymn.

 

–Benjamin Kolodziej  © Concordia Publishing House, St Louis

Personal interview with Kathleen Armstrong Thomerson. 9 July, 2009.
Hawn, Michael. “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” United Methodist Hymnal Companion, edited by Carlton Young. Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.

The King of Love My Shepherd Is

The Fourth Sunday of Easter has traditionally been known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” in reference to the appointment of Psalm 23 for the day as well as the Gospel reading from John 10 in which Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The processional hymn this morning, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” comes from Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the Dissenting pastor and poet who sought to “Christianize” the psalms in the “language of the New Testament.” This hymn, however, is a strict paraphrase, as we sing nothing that is not inherent in the psalm:

My Shepherd will supply my need, Jehovah is His Name; In pastures fresh He makes me feed beside the living stream. He brings my wandering spirit back when I forsake His ways, and leads me, for His mercy’s sake, in paths of truth and grace.

Although the verbiage is different from the classic King James text, nothing in the meaning is altered, and Jesus has not expressly been inserted into the psalm. This is not the case with “The King of Love, My Shepherd Is.”

The author of this hymn, Henry Baker (1821-1877), was an Anglican clergyman and occasional hymn writer. His book, Daily Prayers for the Use of Those Who Have to Work Hard, possibly would still be remembered had its title been more pretentious and a little less dour. Nonetheless, Baker was the major editor of that great monument of Victorian hymnody, Hymns Ancient and Modern, the first edition of which was published in 1861. Baker contributed a number of hymns to this great hymnal, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” first appearing in the 1868 edition. Unlike Watts, Baker does not attempt to remain literally faithful to the words of the psalm. Firstly, it can be noted that Baker is much more free with the translation. His opening lines, “The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am His and He is mine forever” contrast with the psalm’s first verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The concepts of “King,” “love,” “goodness” and the use of His/mine are not original to the psalm. The second stanza (“Where streams of living water flow, my ransomed soul He leadeth. And where the verdant pastures grow, with food celestial feedeth”) contrasts with the second and third verses of the psalm in the same manner (“He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.”) In this case, Baker alludes to the eucharist by “food celestial,” and introduces the concept of the atonement with the phrase “my ransomed soul.” The fourth stanza is even more explicitly Christian, “In death’s dark vale I fear no ill with Thee, dear Lord, beside me, Thy rod and staff my comfort still, Thy cross before to guide me.” Here Baker theologically extracts the wooden cross from the wood of the shepherd’s rod, clearly delineating the connection between the religion of the ancient Hebrews to its fulfillment in Christ’s atonement. The final stanza even address Christ as the “Good Shepherd,” completing the Christianizing of the psalm by blending the theological concepts found in John 10:

And so through all the length of days Thy goodness faileth never: Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise within Thy house forever.

These two expressions of Christ as the Good Shepherd, one conservative and one usurping more liberties, both serve to focus our piety this Sunday on He who protects, guides, and serves recalcitrant and often stubborn human beings.

I Know that my Redeemer Lives

Samuel Medley (1738-1799), the author of this famous Easter text, began his life as apprentice to an oilman in London, only to leave in dissatisfaction to join the navy. At age 21, he received a terrible leg wound which required him to return home to live with his grandfather. During his months of recovery, his grandfather read to him from the sermons of the recently-deceased Isaac Watts, the great hymnwriter and Dissenting preacher. This catechesis (“catechesis” refers to an true imbuing of the faith into one’s heart and mind, often through the mentoring of parents or other mature Christians) resulted in his conversion shortly thereafter. He joined the Baptist Church, set up a school in Seven Dials, one of the poorest sections of London, and eventually became a successful pastor. Much like his contemporary John Newton (writer of “Amazing Grace”), people would flock to hear Medley preach and his churches always grew both in numbers and in faith. His leg injury so impaired his health that he died rather prematurely in 1799, but not before being able to publish several collections of hymns, many of which today can be found in Baptist hymnals particularly.

This text is taken from Job 19, specifically verse 25 in which Job responds to his tormenter Bildad by saying “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see Him and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” As the sermon today dwells on the “Resurrection of the Body,” Job here gives a prophetic account of the last days. For those who wonder about the nature of the resurrection of the body, Job provides us the clue that our own bodies will be resurrected—we will be recognizable and distinguishable from others, for “I myself will see him, and not another.” Some Christians believe our final bodies will not be corporeal, but somehow “spiritual,” as phantasms. Yet, Job prophecies that “in my flesh I will see God.” Neither he nor we will be disembodied souls. From a theological point of view, Job here asserts not a specific faith in Jesus as we know Him today, but in the prophesied “Redeemer” whom Job knows to be “somewhere.” (The word “Redeemer” here is sometimes translated as “Defender.”) We New Testament Christians can see even more prophetic meaning in Job’s cry for deliverance than perhaps even Job could at the time. Job knew his Redeemer “lives,” although Job did not know Who that was. We do know Who that was and is—we are fortunate to be able to call the Redeemer by name and know of the historical events surrounding his life, death, and life again.

How, then, can we be sure about our resurrection? Paul states in Romans 6, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death.” It is no surprise that we humans must die—Christ died, too. But Paul continues, “If we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.” We baptized Christians also can be assured we will be resurrected in reality—Christ was not merely a phantasm; His body bore the marks of physical crucifixion to which Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” Baptism, then, assures us a place in heaven after the resurrection. We know and can be assured of this since we also know that our “Redeemer lives.”