William C Dix (1837-1898), who wrote this hymn, also wrote “What Child is This” and “As with Gladness, Men of Old.” He was born in 1837 in Bristol, England, were he grew up to be a formidable businessman and manager of a marine insurance company. He wrote many hymns and translated others from Greek and Abyssinian sources. He died in 1898 in Cheddar, England.
The beautiful tune to which we sing it is known as “Hyfrydol,” which is Welsh for “good cheer.” As with most Welsh tunes, it is lilting, attractive, and almost immediately singable. In the experience of the anonymous writer of music notes, only the most curmudgeonly of church-goers does not enjoy a good Welsh tune, of which there are many in the hymnal.
Let us consider the text: (Remember, in discussing hymnody and sacred poetry, the words are called the “text” and never “lyrics”!) The language is highly old-fashioned and poetic. This was written during the height of the Victorian Era during the second half of the nineteenth-century. The Victorian English had rediscovered the treasures of the past both in poetry and in ecclesiastical matters. (A walk through suburban London will reveal many beautiful Victorian church buildings all built according to medieval models.) The language of this hymn was not that which was spoken daily. From stanza 2 as an address to Christ states: “Intercessor, friend of sinners, Earth’s redeemer, plead for me, where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.” This recalls the language of the Book of Revelation, as well as Reginald Heber’s heavenly vision in the second stanza of “Holy, Holy, Holy”: “All the saints adore Thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea. . .” During this Epiphany season, as we reflect on Christ’s manifestation to us, the third stanza speaks to us eloquently: “Alleluia, Born of Mary, Earth the footstool, heav’n Thy throne: Thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh our great High Priest.” Christ, in order to become human, must be born of Mary; yet, in so doing, His complete divine radiance cannot fully be known to us! He became “robed in flesh,” yet this did not counter His divinity. It was both as God and as a man that Christ’s work as redeemer was complete. It was essential that he become “robed in flesh” and yet remain divine. How was this so? Such is the mystery of the incarnation. The author concludes the hymn with Easter overtones, singing about “Jesus, His the scepter His the throne; Alleluia, His the triumph, His the victory alone; Hark! the songs of holy Zion thunder like a mighty flood; Jesus out of every nation hath redeemed us by His blood.” Every good hymn, whether it deal primarily with Christmas, Easter, Communion, or any of the minor festivals, must point to Easter and to Christ’s salvific work on the cross in saving humanity from sin and remind us that we are “redeemed by His blood.”