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.


Lift High the Cross

“Lift High the Cross”   In 312 AD, as the Emperor Constantine was preparing his army for a battle against Licinius, according to legend there appeared in the sky a sign interpreted as the Chi-Rho, the first two letters in Christ’s name:

The next night, the Emperor had a dream in which Christ supposedly recalled this sign to him and said, “In hoc signe vinces.”  (“With this sign will you conquer.”)   The Emperor had his most skilled artisans and smiths fashion these symbols out of precious metals and gems, and they were placed on long poles (known as labarum) under which the army marched, and under which they eventually did conquer the enemy. Marching behind a standard was common for the Roman legions as it is even for modern armies. The Roman standard here:

Became “Christianized” in this:

Prior to Constantine’s rule, Christianity had suffered some of its greatest persecutions.  Under Constantine, Christianity became legalized (in 313 with the Edict of Milan) and eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire and the West.

This historical legend probably served as the impetus for the Anglican clergyman, George Kitchin (1827-1912) to compose the text for “Lift High the Cross” for a festival of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Winchester Cathedral in 1887.    Originally of 12 stanzas, some of the usually omitted stanzas are as follows:

This is the sign which Satan’s legions fear And angels veil their faces to revere.

 Saved by this cross whereon their Lord was slain, The sons of Adam their lost home regain.

 For your blest cross which does for all atone Creation’s praises rise before Your throne.

Notice the metaphorical use of the term “cross”—this is similar in use to the “blood” imagery of certain older hymns.  The cross symbolizes the atoning act of Christ which is completed in His resurrection;  accordingly, the literal cross does not atone for anything in the last stanza.  It is simply representative of the theological truth of Christ’s  atonement for our sins.  Likewise, we do not sing of lifting high the cross in the refrain in terms of revering a Roman implement of execution.  This is a metaphor for our duty to be living witnesses for Christ in everything we do—whether it be witnessing to a neighbor or simply by our behavior to one another when caught in traffic.  From the complex deeds to the mundane actions, everything about our lives should “lift high” Christ’s love.


How Bright Appears the Morning Star

This great Epiphany hymn, whose text and tune were composed by Philip Nicolai in 1599,  is known as the “Queen of Chorales” in the Lutheran Church.   In this context, “chorale” designates specifically a German congregational hymn from the Reformation to about 1618.  This hymn was greatly beloved and popular (German weddings of this era were incomplete without singing this hymn);  hence, it was called the “Queen of Chorales.”  The “King of Chorales” also came from Philip Nicolai (one wonders whether Nicolai held stock in the company that named chorales. . .) and is the great Advent hymn, “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying.”

The term “Morningstar,” of course, is a metaphor for Christ found in Revelation 22: 16, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches.  I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morningstar.”  (This is not the only reference to Morningstar in scriptures. . . a search through a concordance may reveal some interesting uses of the word, particularly in Isaiah, but that is not the discussion here!)  One might recall the Advent hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” in which numerous metaphorical and symbolic names/offices are assigned to the person of Christ (Emmanuel, Key of David, Root of Jesse, Dayspring from on High, Wisdom, etc.)  Whilst “O Morningstar, How Fair and Bright” is not a litany of Christ-names, the metaphorical use of His name certainly had precedent in medieval hymnody.

Philipp Nicolai, born in 1556, was a Lutheran pastor’s son and himself studied theology in the towns of Erfurt and Wittenberg. In 1588 he was installed pastor at Altwildungen, in 1596 at Unna in Westphalia, and in 1601 pastor in Hamburg. Hymnologist James Kiefer writes,

While he was pastor in Westphalia, the plague took 1300 of his parishioners, mostly in the latter half of 1597, 170 in one week. To comfort his parishioners, he wrote a series of meditations which he called Freudenspiegel (Mirror of Joy), and to this he appended two hymns, both of which have become world famous. The first hymn was, “Wake, awake, for night is flying” (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme). It uses the image of the watchman on a city wall (Isaiah 52:8), and of the Parable of the Bridesmaids welcoming the Bridegroom to the Marriage Feast (Matthew 25:1-13), and of the Song of Triumph in Heaven (Revelation 19:6-9). It is a favorite Advent hymn. The second hymn was, “How bright appears the morning star” (Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern). This also, with a wealth of imagery, hails Christ as our deliverer, and celebrates his triumph. It has become a favorite wedding hymn, but is also sung for Advent, for Christmas, for Epiphany, and and as a general hymn of praise.

It is unusual for a hymn writer to write both text and tune for a hymn, but Nicolai did just that with these two hymns that have become staples of Christian hymnody.