Sunday
Dec232012

Hark, hail, born, stamp

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, 7.7.7.7., 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 7.7.7.7. 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 7.7.7.7.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).

Saturday
Dec222012

The Guardians

From Jason Lief

Two weeks ago I took my kids to see Rise of the Guardians - a story about Jack Frost, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman who are all deputized by the Man in the Moon to watch over the children of the world.  They stand on guard against the "boogeyman"and the forces of unbelief - protecting the world from the darkness that comes from a loss of hope, faith, and love.  The religious connection is not too difficult to make - but that's not what interests me.  Like everyone else I was mortified by the events that unfolded last Friday.  So much so I couldn't listen or watch - I stayed far away from the TV and NPR.  I couldn't face it...still can't.  I have a five year old daughter, and the thought of sending her to school ...to think of her not coming home? - it's just too much for me.  I'm not strong enough...  Just as unbearable is the thought that my own child might be capable of unleashing hell on earth.  I'll admit it - I've thought much more about the shooter and his family.  It's too easy to characterize him as evil or disturbed - it's way too easy to start blaming guns and a culture of violence.  I blame the "boogeyman"... the forces of unbelief... the darkness that strips our children of hope, faith, and love. Sure our gun culture is nuts... but just as crazy are the expectations young people are burdened with.

Friday
Dec212012

A Christmas Hymn

From James Bratt

I was going to write in sorrow or outrage or scolding critique about the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut a week ago today. But all of that has been vented and then some, and the postings on this site this week have said . . . not all there is to say, but the first things that need to be said, and have said them very well.

So I resort once again to poetry—in honor of the season, to Christmas carols. My favorite? Lots of competition, but Christina Rossetti’s “In the Deep Midwinter” has long been a prime contender. Quiet, sere, anti-triumphalist. Plus, as the title states, it admits upfront the not-so-subtle coincidence of our celebration of Christ’s birth with all those attempts, ancient and modern, to take on the shortest day of the year, the pit of time, the largest darkness—the winter solstice. Which falls today.

Gaining in my appreciation, however, is “A Christmas Hymn” by Richard Wilbur. I first heard it sung a couple years ago, on Palm Sunday—the key both to the text’s profundity, theological and poetic, and to its timeliness for our circumstances this year.

Thursday
Dec202012

Christmas Still Comes

From Theresa Latini

In one week, one day, one moment, so much can change; so much can be lost. And we are left torn apart and disoriented. Waves of shock, anger, and grief come and go and come and go. The words of the psalmist become ours: How long, O Lord, must we endure?

This is not how I would have it. Losses have piled up—personal, professional, communal, national—in a very short time. A student dies; a beloved institution flounders and hopes and dreams teeter on the edge of loss; a loved one receives one horrible diagnosis upon another; the wellbeing of many is threatened; twenty children die. Twenty.

If I could cancel Christmas, I would. Take down the tree. Turn off the lights. Open the presents another year. We say that advent is a time of groping in the darkness, waiting for light and life. We say that it ends after four weeks. But it doesn’t. Not for the vast majority of humanity. Not for the young boys of my student. Not for the families, friends, neighbors of those lost in Newtown, CT. Not for those who wake up with chronic illness. Not in this life.

Yet Christmas still comes somehow.

Wednesday
Dec192012

National Fact-Checking

From James Vanden Bosch

James Vanden Bosch, professor of English at Calvin College, is substituting today for Jennifer Holberg.  Thanks, Jim!

“We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love.”

––William Butler Yeats, 1928

This may be a moment for some fact-checking, and these lines from William Butler Yeats seem to me to point in the right direction. We Americans have many fantasies, and Yeats is right to note the ruinous results of such a diet, ruinous for individual humans but also for a culture. And one of the fantasies we keep cheering ourselves up with in contemporary American culture is how much we love our children. It is, I think, a fantasy, evident and obvious whenever we take the time to look hard at so many bitter truths.