Prayer: Merciful and most loving God, by whose will and bountiful gift Jesus Christ our Lord humbled himself that he might exalt mankind and became flesh that he might renew in us thy image, grant us the inheritance of the meek, perfect in us they likeness, and bring us at last to rejoice in beholding thy beauty, and, with all thy saints, to glorify thy grace, which moved thee to give thine only-begotten Son to be the Savior of the world. AMEN.
This prayer is one of the collects for Christmas in The Liturgy and Psalter of the Reformed Church in America, 1968. It is a translation of a collect from the ancient Gallican Liturgy of France. I have chosen for today because of its wonderful elegance and felicity, because it compactly interweaves Biblical language, and because the prayer for Advent 4 in the Liturgy and Psalter is so out of synch with the church’s calendar! (It’s on John the Baptist, which is at least a week late.)
For this week’s hymn, I offer you Charles Wesley’s exposition of the Incarnation:
1. HARK how all the welkin rings
“Glory to the new-born King,
Peace on earth, and mercy mild;
God and sinners reconciled.”
2. Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies.
With the’angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.
3. Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb!
4. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Immanuel.
5. Hail the heaven-born Prince of peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
6. Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
7. Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering Seed
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
8. Adam’s likeness now efface,
Stamp thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
The version of the hymn we sing today is an evolution from the original. The most obvious change is the first line, which we will come back to below. Wesley wrote it in four line stanzas, but because of the tune we use, we combine the eight stanzas into four stanzas of eight lines each, and we make a chorus out of the first two lines.
Notice that focus of the stanzas moves around, and the audience to whom we’re singing moves around as well. This happens with many of the psalms. It’s as if the conversation moves around the sanctuary. Stanzas 1&2 are addressed to us, we who are the “nations,” and we are exhorted to add our voices to the chorus of angels that the shepherds heard on Christmas night. Stanza 3 tells us more precisely who this new king is, and it exhorts us to join the shepherds and behold him. Stanzas 4, 5, & 6 find us kneeling at the manger, seeing the Godhead veiled in flesh, and as we’re kneeling we worship him, repeating Hail, Hail, Hail. We’re actually looking at “God with us,” and that’s precisely why Wesley here uses the name Immanuel. Stanzas 5 & 6 continue to interpret the implications of his birth. Stanzas 7 & 8 jump into the present; they are the prayer of modern believers, that Jesus should come and dwell among us now as he did then.
Wesley has given us a poetical catechism on the doctrine of the Incarnation, that great orthodox, catholic, and evangelical “fact and mystery of the Christian faith.” The doctrine was being doubted aleady in Wesley’s day. The word incarnation comes from Latin, and it means “becoming flesh”. The doctrine is based on John 1:1-14, that “the Word was God . . . and the Word become flesh and dwelt among us.” You get this most strongly in stanzas 3 and 4. If somebody asked you to state the doctrine of the Incarnation, you could do no better than just recite these two stanzas. Wesley rejoices that Jesus is not some ordinary guy who got really close to God—he rejoices in the wonderful, supernatural miracle of the Virgin Birth. He also teaches that the Incarnation was not an end in itself, but that it had the specific purpose of reconciliation.
The hymn is so rich in Biblical references that, to fit them all in, I will just list each stanza number, and then give the references for that whole stanza.
Stanza 1: Luke 2:13-14, 2 Corinthians 5:19, Colossians 1:19-22
Stanza 2: Psalm 67:4, Zechariah 2:10-12 , Luke 2:11
Stanza 3: Luke 1:31, Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:2
Stanza 4: Exodus 26:31-35, 40:21, Leviticus 16:2, Colossians 1:19
Stanza 5: Isaiah 9:6, Malachi 4:2, John 1:4
Stanza 6: Philippians 2:5-7, John 3:7
Stanza 7: Haggai 2:7 (KJV), John 1:14, John 14:23, Genesis 3:15
Stanza 8: Genesis 5:3 (KJV), Romans 5:14, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-47
The hymn has the simple and straightforward rhyme-scheme of AABB (ring/king, mild/-ciled). Its meter is also simple, 22.214.171.124., which we have seen is one of Wesley’s favorites. This meter makes for energetic lines. The more familiar line is eight syllables (Praise God from whom all blessings flow). Dropping the last syllable moves you more quickly to the next line. Read it without singing it, and you can feel the momentum building to the climax of the seventh stanza, where each line begins with short, strong verb: Come, Fix, Rise, Bruise. The last stanza relaxes it a little, as it should, but the second line continues the hammer blows with Stamp, and the fourth line broadens it out and sums it up with Reinstate.
Another means of momentum is the repetition of other opening words throughout the hymn. Each of these is repeated three times: Christ, Christ, Christ, and Hail, Hail, Hail, and Born, Born, Born. The repetition keeps things together and keeps them moving. So does the assonance: Joyful and Join, mercy mild, man no more, light and life, everlasting Lord, and humble home.
Yes, the original first line was Hark how all the welkin rings. But nobody uses the word welkin any more so hymnbook editors have changed the line to what we have today. Welkin is the old “cloudy sky” (the Dutch is “wolken”). The image that Wesley had in mind was that the sky itself (the “firmament”) was ringing like a sounding board from the song of the angels. I’m guessing he was referencing Psalm 19:1-4. That’s been lost with our modern alteration.
Some editors have replaced the masculine language of Born to raise the sons of earth with Born to raise us from the earth. Changing the language of hymns to make them more inclusive often must be done, I agree, but in this case it’s a net loss, and almost a repudiation of the “flesh” of the Incarnation.
Another of Wesley’s hymns in 126.96.36.199. is Christ the Lord is risen today, if you skip the Alleluias. You might try and sing today’s hymn to that tune, and vice versa. Or you might try it to some other 188.8.131.52.D tunes, like ST. GEORGE’S WINDSOR (Come, ye thankful people come) or ABERYSTWYTH (Jesu, Lover of my soul). I would love to know what tunes Wesley used. It was another century before his lyrics were wedded to the tune we call MENDELSSOHN. The tune obscures the movement in the viewpoint in the stanzas, but must we not agree that on the whole it’s been a happy marriage?
Daniel Meeter is pastor of the Old First Reformed Church of Brooklyn, New York. His most recent book is Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes to Hell).