O Christ, the Word Incarnate

William Walsham How (1823-1897) studied at Oxford, after which he took Holy Orders. His career as an Anglican priest would commence with several rural appointments until in 1879 he was consecrated Suffragan Bishop for East London, and in 1888 Bishop of Wakefield. Howe was actively involved in the evangelistic missionary organization, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, having written a number of volumes including a Commentary on the Four Gospels, Plain Words for Children, Three All Saints Summers, and several volumes of sermons. Howe, who also penned the famous hymn “For All the Saints,” edited Church Hymns of 1871, and in total wrote about sixty hymns.

John Julian, in his 1907 Dictionary of Hymnology,  asserts that How combined “. . .pure rhythm with great directness and simplicity. . . [his] compositions arrest attention more through a comprehensive grasp of the subject and the unexpected light thrown upon and warmth infused into facia and details usually shunned by the poet, than through glowing imagery and impassioned rhetoric.” Indeed, his texts are at once scripturally profound and simple.

O Word of God incarnate, O Wisdom from on high, O Truth, unchanged, unchanging, O light of our dark sky; We praise Thee for the radiance that from the scripture’s page, a lantern to our footsteps, shines on from age to age.

We recall here the first chapter of John in which we are told “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Christ is the logos, the Word, which permeates the universe and who became incarnate in flesh. In fact, this is the Gospel of John’s only nativity narrative, eschewing as it does the historical accounts of the other Gospel writers. John intended for the philosophical Greeks to understand that Christ only was the light. The stanza echoes the Old Testament lesson this morning from Deuteronomy in which God commands, “. . . you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you life down, and when you rise.” God’s Word, then, both in the Old and New Testament, should form the basis for the Christian life.

The Church from our dear Master received the word divine, and still that light is lifted o’er all the earth to shine. It is the chart and compass that o’er life’s surging sea, mid mists and rocks and quicksands, still guides, O Christ, to Thee.

We recall Psalm 119: 105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Secular society would have us pulled various directions, blowing as with the wind. Howe here employs a nautical metaphor—Christ is the chart and compass that guides us through the many temptations of life. This stanza reminds us that scripture is sufficient, that it was received from “our dear Master,” the Word divine, and it alone imparts light.

O make Thy Church, dear Savior, a lamp of purest gold, to bear before the nations Thy true light as of old; O teach Thy wandering pilgrims by this their path to trace, till, clouds and darkness ended, they see Thee face to face.

This stanza uses eschatological imagery which reminds us of the Christian’s final goal of attaining eternal life. The Church is of “purest gold,” presumably having been filtered of its dross through the heat of earthly trial. Interestingly, Howe’s ecclesiology acknowledges both the “Church” and the individual. He never leaves a thought without bringing it back to personal application. Although here we pray for the Church Universal, we also ask Christ to guide us, the “wandering pilgrims.”

This hymn reminds us of one of Martin Luther’s solas: Sola Scriptura. Scripture is sufficient for our knowledge of God. Certainly we want to think theologically and critically about life, the universe, and God—He does not call for us to be unthinking dolts. Yet, we do not have to ponder these great mysteries, since scripture is sufficient. Having the faith of a child with the knowledge of God provided through scripture alone is all a Christian really needs.

Jesus Shall Reign

This common but very great hymn was written by Isaac Watts (1676-1748), whom readers of “Music Notes” will recognize from previous weeks.  It must be said that this writer possesses a great fondness for the hymns of Isaac Watts!  This same individual owns a collection of Watts books which in its thoroughness is unequaled by any private collector at least in Texas.

Watts was known as the “Father of English Hymnody.”  Before Isaac Watts, the Church of England sang psalms, as did the Church of which Watts was a part, the Dissenting Church.  It was believed that one should not “add to” the words of the Bible—the psalms provided plenty of material to sing.  Unfortunately, the psalm settings of the time were rather badly done, so Watts began to paraphrase the psalms himself.  This hymn is based on Psalm 72, starting at vs. 5n  Eventually, Watts moved from psalm paraphrases to “new” hymns of his own words not based on biblical texts, such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

Isaac Watts did not simply write hymns—he wrote many volumes including The Improvement of the Mind, and Logic: Or, the Right Use of Reason and On the Separation of the Soul after Death. He even wrote books on astronomy, history and mathematics.  For example, in his Logic, Watts provides the following metaphorical advice for the Christian (or anyone, for that matter) in regards to decision-making:  “On a still day, one may see every detail of the pebbles at the bottom of a pond; but, when the water is agitated, there is much murkiness and discombobulation. So it is with the human being: When our souls are distressed and aroused with anger and fitful passions, we are not good judges of ourselves, of others, or of ideas.  Only when we have the lucidity of calm and peace can we easily go about our lives.”

Apparently, people in the 18th century could be just as forgetful as those of us living 200 years later; Watts gives the following advice to aid our memory:  “Sometimes a new or strange idea may be fixed in the memory by considering its contrary or opposite.  So, if we cannot hit on the word Goliath, the remembrance of David may recover it. . .It has also sometimes been the practice of men to imprint names or sentences ontheir memory by taking the first letters of every word of that sentence, or of those names, and making a new word out of them. . . So the name Roy G Biv teaches us to remember the order of the seven original colors as they appears as cast through a prism, viz red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.”

From Logic:  Or the Right Use of Reason.  London:  Lochhead and Gracie, 1802; The Improvement of the Mind. . . Washington:  Wm. Cooper, 1813.  (From the collection of Benjamin Kolodziej.)

Love Divine

Charles Wesley

This hymn comes from Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the brother of the Methodist reformer John Wesley. Both John and Charles were born into the Church of England, but each of their lives progressively evidenced reformatory tendencies relative to the established Church. The brothers each had a type of “conversion” experience in which he found his heart “strangely warmed” and when he made an active commitment to Christ. (Although the writer of music notes must here echo other scholars in noting that, far from being unrepentant heathens before their “conversions,” the brothers were involved heavily in ministry and missions [particularly in Georgia] before their conversion and, whilst it was an important moment for their inner spirituality, there was little noticeable change in the daily lives. This reinforces the fact that the Holy Spirit worked in them through their baptism even before they felt Him!) Much like the roughly-contemporaneous German Pietists, John in his preaching and Charles in his over 6,000 hymns sought to “personalize” Christianity and bring God “down” to humanity, rather than to “lift” humanity up to God.

To illustrate, consider the opening lines, “Joy of heav’n, to earth come down! Fix in us Thy humble dwelling, all Thy faithful mercies crown.” Here is God, in His Incarnation, descending from the cosmic expanse to live within our hearts. Charles is here concerned with “inward” light and feeling, much as he is in another hymn of his, “Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies” in which he implores, “Daystar, in my heart appear. . . joyless is the day’s return till Thy mercy’s beams I see, till they inward light impart, Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.” Wesley’s poetry induces us to look inward to the faith that God gives. This seems rather straightforward to us moderns, but consider the difference between Wesley and Isaac Watts. In his hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Watts is fond of this idea of “survey”—as though one is surveying a landscape on which the surveyor is only a small portion. Watts continues, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a tribute far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” To Watts, this “whole realm of nature” represents the magnitude of God. Not only can we not give to God what is already His—nature—but we are forced to confront our diminutive status within the universe. This awareness of the cosmic scope of Christianity is what demands “my life, my all.” Watts starts inward and proceeds outward (and arguably returns inward again.) But Wesley is always one to remind us that this omnipotent God will “breathe Thy loving Spirit into ev’ry troubled breast.” (Stanza 2) The third stanza has Wesley praying that God “return and never. . . Thy temples leave,” the term “temples” being a metaphor for one’s soul.

As any great Methodist would, Charles Wesley concludes the hymn with a prayer for sanctification, “Finish then they new creation, pure and spotless let us be.” Wesley reminds us that the Holy Spirit works in us so that we might be “new creation(s).” His last lines, “lost in wonder, love, and praise” embody a type of surrender to God which is only possible through God’s initial action, as the glories and splendours of heaven are opened to us and in which our intellects are too limited to comprehend or to respond. Like Luther, Wesley was no rationalist, believing to a certain degree that reason is flawed and subservient to faith, and it is this grand, mysterious, all-encompassing, saving faith which Wesley tries to put forth in all of his hymns, embodying the divine love that not only justified but sanctified humanity.

Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord

St Paul writes in I Corinthians 11, “For I received from the Lord what also I passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” The institution of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or Eucharist (from the Greek word for “giving thanks”) has been the central element of Christian worship from the days of the house church. People gathered to celebrate and partake of Christ’s gifts in bread and wine. So central was the celebration of the mass to the ecclesiastical authorities that many superstitious and harmful doctrines and practices developed around communion. The host—the bread—was given to the laity, then withdrawn, then given again. Veritable cults dedicated to the mysteries of communion and the host sprang up which the various Reformations sought to correct.

This hymn originates from the fourth century, was in Latin of course, and is possibly the oldest communion hymn.

As to the origin of this text, only a few things can be said and they all involve angels. One legend states that St Patrick and his nephew Sechnall, future Bishop of Ireland, heard this hymn being sung by angels during the offertory prior to communion, and decided right there and then to adopt it as a communion hymn. (The angels declined to sing the offertory here this morning.) Another legend states that St Patrick and Sechnall were having an argument in a graveyard. Upon their reconciliation, the angels were said to burst out in this spontaneous song. Regardless of how the angels decided to deliver this hymn, it reminds us Protestants that the mysteries of communion should not be taken lightly. “Draw near and take the body of the Lord, and drink the holy blood for you outpoured; offered was He for greatest and for least, Himself the victim and Himself the priest.” This is the holy mystery in which Paul warms the Corinthians not to partake unworthily, again in I Corinthians 10, “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” The “worthiness” of which Paul speaks is not a sinlessness—Christ came to save sinners—but of an attitude of humility, contrition for one’s sins, and a recognizing of the power of communion, something Protestants traditionally have lost in a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The third stanza encourages us, “Come forward then with faithful hearts sincere, and take the pledges of salvation here. O Lord, our hearts with grateful thanks endow as in this feast of love You bless us now.” May God always grant us a right reception of His sacrament.

Benjamin Kolodziej, Organist

Before the Lord’s Eternal Throne

This hymn comes from that great English hymnwriter, Isaac Watts, of whose fame and glory this writer often expounds. Watts came from the Dissenting tradition—he was not Church of England. Yet, both ecclesiastical worlds were marked by somber, lugubrious worship which arguably contained neither joy nor served well as a vehicle for the proclamation of the gospel. In fact, the great satirist William Hogarth depicted, with humor, several scenes of the Divine Service:

The lack of piety and decorum exhibited in common worship services troubled Watts greatly, about which he wrote later, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” Although Lutherans had been singing hymns, not just the psalms, for well over a century prior to Watts’ birth, those in the Reformed tradition had been limited to singing the psalms in church, following with strictures of Calvin. Even the Church of England was so influenced, although the psalter did admit the occasional New Testament canticle and the Te Deum as part of the congregational repertoire. Nonetheless, the musical portions of the service were slight.

This hymn comes from Watts’ 1719 collection entitled The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, in which he sought to “Christianize” the psalms, even adding elements of Christian theology to them. (“Joy to the World” is also from this volume.) This was revolutionary given the conservative liturgical ethos of the time, but did provide an alternative to the same drab psalm translations that had been promulgated in the psalters since the Reformation. Interestingly, the original title of this hymn, which itself is based on Psalm 100, is “Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne.” The editors of modern hymnals take liberty with Watts’ text, often altering the title to something more amenable to modern ears. Indeed, we don’t mean “full of wonder and glory” when we say “awful.” We mean “something bad.” The usage of the term “Jehovah” has also lost sway over time. So, the editors of The Hymnal 1982 translated Watts’ as “Before the Lord’s Eternal Throne,” which still conveys the meaning of the original title. In the original language of the psalm, we sing, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know tha thte Lord is God, it is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generation.” This short psalm finds faithful expression in Watts’ paraphrase which we sing this morning.