This hymn text is taken from the Liturgy of St James, a long service developed possibly during the lifetime of the Apostles. Used primarily by the Early Church in Jerusalem, it was named after James, the martyred brother of Jesus. The liturgy was shortened in the 5th century, for apparently the Early Church was quite fervent in its ritual prayer. The whole liturgy is still prayed in churches of the east, particularly the Mar Thoma Church of India. Whilst it is not our tradition, we are privileged to be able to sing this excerpt, profound and scripturally-rich in its text.
The text exhorts us to keep our thoughts on things of heaven, not earth, seeking to fulfill Paul’s command to “fix yours eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. . .” (Heb. 12: 2) In an age where the secular world pervades even the Church and its attitudes, we learn that the Early Church sought to “ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in His hand Christ our God to earth descending comes our homage to demand.” Some people would write this hymn off as a product of Gnosticism, a type of philosophy/theology which encouraged the subjugation of earthly desires to the cultivating of spiritual pursuits. This sometimes led to a type of works righteousness which favoured the idea of one “earning” heaven through their ascetic life. Gnosticism at its most heretical said that Jesus could not have been true man, for anything in the flesh is sinful; therefore, Jesus was only a spiritual being. Yet, this hymn is clear to subvert such an idea right away in stanza two: “King of kings yet born of Mary, as of old on earth He stood, Lord of lords in human vesture, in the body and the blood, He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.” This incarnational stanza affirms that portion of the Nicene (and Apostles’) creeds which we should frequently confess, “who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. . .” As Advent comes ever closer, we remember that Christ can relate to our sufferings because He likewise took on human form and suffered—much more so than that with which we must contend. He was the spiritual “King of kings,” but he was “born of Mary,” sung about by the angels in Luke 2.
The third stanza conveys the dramatic scene of Christ’s imminent return, describing the “host of heaven, spread[ing] its vanguard on the way as the Light of Light descending, from the realm of endless day. . .” This second coming is referred to in Acts 1: 10, 11. After having watched Jesus’ ascension, two angels tell the Apostles, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven.” The final stanza echoes the words of the Sanctus in the liturgy, which themselves hearken back to Isaiah 6:3 and refer to the everlasting praise of God offered by the seraphim around His throne, constantly singing “Alleluia, Lord Most High!”