Just as I Am

Kenneth Osbeck, in his One-hundred and One Hymn Stories, writes (without hyperbole) of this hymn that, “Without question, this hymn has touched more hearts and influenced more people for Christ than any other song ever written.” This hymn grew in popularity after the sainted Billy Graham’s frequent use of it in his preaching.

The writer was Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871), an Englishwoman whose physical and emotional health was never far from collapse.  (She was an invalid and practically bed-ridden that last 50 years of her life.)  In 1822, the Swiss evangelist Caesar Malan, while counseling Elliott, succeeded in convincing her to “Come as you are, a sinner, to the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.”  For the rest of her life, Elliott always celebrated the day of her “conversion” as her “spiritual birthday.” Miss Elliott wrote this hymn in 1836 and published in The Invalid’s Hymn Book, a collection of 115 of her hymns.  This collection was mean to raise money for a school for the children of poor clergy.  The minister whom this publication benefited (who happened to be Elliott’s brother) stated that, “In the course of a long ministry, I hope to have been permitted to see some fruit of my labors;  but I feel more has been done by a single hymn of my sister’s.”

The text of this hymn is based upon an understanding of John 1: 29, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Christ has always been referred to as the Agnus Dei, the “Lamb of God.”  The New Covenant in His blood replaced the Old Covenant of the Passover lamb (which was really just a foreshadowing “reminder” of what was to come.)   Elliott’s refrain implores, “O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”  We do not come to the Lamb of God because of our sin which has separated us from the love of Christ.  Neither our minds nor our hearts are naturally inclined to come to Christ.  For most of us, Christ comes to us through our baptism.  For those who have converted, it is important to remember that intellectual conversion is not possible without the help of the Holy Spirit.  Elliott seems to realize some aspect of this innate depravity;  the fourth stanza observes that we are “poor, wretched, blind.”  (This recalls Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”)  Although the law condemns us, Christ comes to us as Elliott explores in the fifth stanza, “Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve, because Thy promise I believe.”  We know that Christ “receives” us, sinful as we are;  nothing we do can earn His acceptance. During this penitential Lenten season, it is good for us to recognize that we come as sinners to the mercy seat of God saying, Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.

Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

“O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days”  Written by Claudia Hernaman (1838-1898), this hymn is partly based on today’s gospel text from Mark 1, in which Jesus “. . . was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”  The stark simplicity with which this hymn conveys its message evidences the fact that it was originally published in the Child’s Book of Praise (1884), a collection of Sunday School songs. With this hymn we begin our penitential observance of Lent.

In the Early Church (from Pentecost through the persecutions which ended in the mid-fourth century), Easter was the primary celebration of Christ’s life.  There was no observance of Christmas, Epiphany, Advent or Pentecost.  Easter was seen as the climax and focal point of the year, and it was on Easter Eve the catechumens (those studying for entrance into the Church) were baptized.  Such a major yearly event in the life of the Church required some preparation time, and this was variously set from 6-8 weeks before Easter, and this became Lent.  As late as the 5th century, Lent was still set at eight weeks, but did not include Saturdays (which were Sabbath Days) and Sundays (which are Lord’s Days), but which still allowed forty weekdays of Lent.  We still maintain the tradition of not observing Sundays of Lent, but rather Sundays in Lent.  Therefore, the forty days of Lent do not include the Sundays.

The Early Church Fathers did not choose the number forty randomly; rather, its theological significance had spanned the ages:  the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, Moses was on Mt Sinai for forty days, and Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days.  In the Early Church, this Lenten time was devoted to study and to devotion and to penitence—certainly there was no celebration involved.  Eventually, canon law was added that forbid the eating of meat during Lent and forbid all be unaccompanied singing in church.  In the Roman Catholic Church, these strictures where only loosened in the 1960s.

“O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days” is faithful to the gospel text from Luke as it recounts the narrative of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.  The first half of each stanza recounts a fact, the second half of each stanza prays for this fact somehow to be inculcated into our lives.  We sing, “O Lord, throughout these forty days, You prayed and kept the fast,” a factual recounting of the narrative.  But, in the second half we pray, “Inspire repentance for our sin, and free us from our past.”  We likewise pray that God would give us the “nerve, Your skill and trust in God’s eternal Word” that we might likewise successfully counter Satan’s schemes.  The third stanza speaks to the Lenten season when we pray, “So teach us to deny ourselves, since we have known God’s love.”  Our penitence and privations during Lent (should we choose to observe them) are not done from the perspective of the Law, and we know they do nothing to earn our own salvation.  Most religious traditions—particularly those involving denials of some sort—tend to degenerate into legalism.  Yet, they don’t have to.  We can follow the church year which outlines the life of Christ, allowing us to experience the wonder of Advent and Christmas, the hope of Epiphany, the sorrow of Lent and Good Friday, and the resurrection joy of Easter.  Or, we can just celebrate Easter, surrounded with fifty-one Sundays devoted to preaching/singing about topics of interest.  We don’t have to follow the liturgical year for our salvation, but doing so helps us relate to Christ incarnationally—He was a man who experienced the same temptations, sorrows, and joys as we do, and knowing this enriches our own faith. Therefore we pray in the final stanza:

Abide with us, that so, this life of suffering overpast, an Easter of unending joy we may attain at last!

O Love, How Deep

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.

 

Christ Be My Leader

This twentieth-century hymn text was written by English bishop Timothy Dudley Smith and is based on John 14: 6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  In John 15 Jesus says, “I am the vine;  you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  Both these passages from John 14 and 15 state clearly Christ’s primacy in the life of the Christian and the world.  As politically incorrect as it may be, to deny Christ also deny God the Father, for Jesus states Luke 10: 16, “He who listens to you listens to Me; he who rejects you rejects Me;  but he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent me.”  Christ is the one way, but He is not merely a passive beacon in the darkness encouraging us to reach Him on our own; rather, He is truly our “leader by day and by night.”

The second stanza speaks to our continual catechesis throughout life:  “Christ be my teacher in age as in youth, Drifting or doubting for He is the truth.  Grant me to trust Him;  though shifting as sand,  Doubt cannot daunt me;  in Jesus I stand.”  Whether young or old, our faith does not come of our own accord; it does not even come through the rite of confirmation.  Rather, faith is bestowed by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament.

Of our own accord, apart from Word and Sacrament, we will succumb to “drifting and doubting.”  Our own reason and senses can mislead us.  One cannot help but think of the numerous prophecy books that are commonly sold at Christian stores.  One would think Daniel and Revelation were the only books of the Bible!  Prophetic books assure us that all history is in God’s control.  We know the past is in God’s hands through His workings with the Hebrews and the early Church as found in Scripture.  This is correlated by the experience of the Church since the closing of the scriptural canon.  Prophecy tells us that the future is already determined.  But pinning our hopes and faith on certain dates, the behavior of certain political leaders, the founding of such-and-such a country or the rebuilding of such-and-such a site to presage the Second Coming is a dubious prospect at best and relies more on our reason than on the faith evident in being assured that history is in God’s hands.

The third stanza emphasizes Christ as savior—the most important of His roles.  We know that “Death cannot hold me for He is the life.  Nor darkness nor doubting nor sin and its stain can touch my salvation.”  Christ is all-sufficent Savior.  Christians doubt at one point or another—such is the nature of a thinking human being.  But, through Christ, we do not succumb to our sin, to our doubts, or to our own natural lack of faith.  It is He who has accomplished our salvation regardless of our continual failures to be “good enough” to earn our salvation.  Such is the tension-filled dichotomy of law and gospel.   Christ is our leader—through the Holy Spirit He gives us faith, He is our teacher, giving us His and His Father’s word in scripture, and He is our Savior, accomplishing what we could never do ourselves.

Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926) wrote a number of very fine hymns, including “Christ Be My Leader.” Several years ago, when the anonymous writer of music notes was in the UK at the University of Bristol for the launch of the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Bishop Dudley-Smith was a speaker/preacher. The writer of music notes was just thrilled to be around all these hymnwriters and hymnologists; all his favourite scholars were there, and he regretted that the international flight had precluded his taking representative samples from his library of those authors’ works for autographing. Nonetheless, he harbored the secret thought, “I would really like to meet Timothy Dudley-Smith.” But the writer of music notes doesn’t like to be trouble, or to carry on socially in an undignified manner (particular when in England), so he thought discretion to be the better part of valour. After all, all those in attendance were published writers and scholars much more so than the anonymous writer of music notes. Toward the end of the conference, he was becoming a little sad that he might not be able to meet Bishop Dudley-Smith. Instead of taking matters into his own hands, searching out the good bishop, introducing himself and getting him to autograph his hymnal, the writer of music notes decided to mope around the university’s refectory at lunch, forlornly eating some bland English food before attending an afternoon lecture and meeting his friends. He chose a table in the corner where he could wallow in regret. At this time, whilst this writer was reading the Evening Post, Bishop Dudley-Smith entered the semi-empty room, approached his table, and said, “May I dine with you?” The anonymous writer of music notes was VERY happy about this. So, to make what turned out to be a long and informative lunch into a short story, the writer of music notes learned about Bishop Dudley-Smith’s first forays into hymnwriting, his family, his cathedrals at Norwich (where he had previously been bishop) and Salisbury, where he now lives in retirement. Plus, this writer’s hymnal was autographed. Perhaps more of what he learned from this esteemed, twentieth-century hymn writer will find its way into the pages of future music notes when another of his hymns is sung. Until then, we ponder in the meantime this great hymn taking us into Lent.

Brightest and Best

“Brightest and Best”  This classic hymn, written by Reginald Heber (1783-1826), whose autograph is in the collection of the writer of music notes, observes the “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,” referring to Jesus.  In John 8: 12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Epiphany literally means “revelation,” although perhaps we should call it Theophany, the “revelation of God.”  As the daylight hours gradually increase from the depths of winter (such as it is in Texas), in the liturgical year we also read of Christ’s revelation to the wise men, His baptism and His first miracles, enlightening our minds as to who this Messiah might be.  Yet, Epiphany is in a sense covenantal—it requires something of us;  recently we sang a hymn entitled “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” emphasizing Jesus’ words in John 8 that we must “follow Him.”  Indeed, Isaiah 42: 6 speaks of such a covenant—“I am the Lord;  I have called you in righteousness;  I will take you by the hand and keep you;  I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  Clearly this dichotomy between light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong, as politically-incorrect as the terms may be today, have their basis in scripture all the way back to the Garden of Eden.

“Brightest and Best” was obviously written for Epiphany, as its reference to the guiding “Star of the East” makes clear.  This hymn, like others of Heber’s (such as “Holy, holy, holy”), is strong on florid poetry.  The writer of music notes considers the first two stanzas to be romanticizations which simply lead to the theological heart of the hymn in stanzas three and four.  The first stanza, strangely enough, calls on the “stars of the morning” to “lend us thine aid,” presumably to find the young Jesus, to “guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.”  The second stanza is still florid, with its flowery allusions to shining “dewdrops,” although at the end He is referenced as the “Maker, Monarch and Saviour of all.”  Heber makes clear the fact that this baby is clearly God.  This leads to the more substantive third stanza which personalizes our response to this incarnate God—“Shall we not yield Him, in costly devotion, fragrance of Edom and offerings divine, Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean, myrrh from the forest and gold from the mine?”  Cleverly, Heber is here spiritually satirizing the gifts of the Magi.  Indeed, the primary reason the Magi visited Jesus was to worship Him.  (“We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”  Luke 2: 2b)  Herod himself realized this primary purpose of the visit when he implored them to tell him where the baby Jesus was so that “I too may go and worship Him.”  (Luke 2: 8b)  The gold, frankincense and myrrh were only tokens of the spiritual worship they offered to Him.  This, then, Heber makes clear in the following stanza, “Vainly we offer each ample oblation, vainly with gifts would His favor secure.  Richer by far is the heart’s adoration;  dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.”  The Magis’ visit was characterized by worship, not gifts.  Here Heber implores the worshipper to worship in “spirit and in truth,” perhaps reflecting the heartfelt worship of the tax collector whose humble spirit in saying “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” contrasted with the boistrous prayer of the pharisee.  (Luke 18: 9-14)  It is not because of our works or gifts that we are saved, but by faith.

Reginald Heber’s autograph from my personal collection.