ILLUMINATIONS: Anthony Esolen on Christian Hymns
Songs of Thankfulness & Praise
When reciting the Nicene Creed, Roman Catholics are supposed to bow in solemn adoration when they come to the following words: Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est. The Incarnation is the heart of the Christian faith: a work of breathtaking love, not simply that God would make man in his image, but that he would descend to pitch his tent among us. Christ is the eternal Word of God, but his moments will be measured out by a beating heart, and his boundless wisdom will dwell within our small swaddling of flesh.
If all our sins originate in, and are summed up by, the pride of Adam, so all our salvation comes from the obedience of Jesus Christ. That is why St. Paul urges us to exchange man for man: “Put off concerning the former conversation the old man . . . [and] put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:22,24).
The wonder of the Incarnation is the subject of Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn for Epiphany, “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.” Each of the stanzas ends with the euphonious line, “God in man made manifest.” Now, “man” and “manifest” are etymologically unrelated, but their similarity in English makes the line peculiarly effective. Ever since Jesus appeared in the world, God has had a human face. When the Apostle Philip, an earnest fellow though a tad slow, asked Jesus to show them the Father, our Lord replied, “Have I been so long a time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).
The star led the eastern sages to the home at Bethlehem, where they beheld the little boy, the Son of David. It was no earthshaking manifestation. The astronomical sign, whatever it was, seems to have escaped the notice of the Jews themselves, whom the Son of David most concerned. But we follow the sages to the lowly dwelling, and to the child who was far more than they knew.
The foolish editors of the Canadian Book of Worship III could not abide the word “man,” which of course is the focus of the whole poem, so they changed the phrase to “in flesh” in the first stanza, and to “on earth” in the second. They omitted the third stanza altogether. What they did to the fourth, I will show soon.
But the original, not emasculated, not impersonal, brings us the man Jesus, revealed—at first still in a half-secret way—as walking and speaking and celebrating among the people of his time and place, and as filled with divine power:
From the gently luminous miracle at Cana, remarked perhaps by only a few, where Jesus, to whose wedding feast all men are called, was only one guest among the crowd, we turn to the wonders he performed on the open hillsides and in the village squares, healing the sick. That leads in turn to the greatest victory over our ills, that of the divine physician giving his life for the dead, and killing the power of the evil one:
“Not my will but thine be done,” said Jesus in the garden. This stanza, with its insistent repetition of the word “manifest,” leads the singer to consider when our Lord was most poignantly revealed to the world. That was when he was stripped and nailed to the cross, raised up before the eyes of us sinners, naked in his loving might and in his assumption of all our infirmities.
The final stanza is a plea that the Lord will continue to manifest himself to us, both in the sacred Scripture and in our lives, when we have been blessed with the indwelling Spirit. That will bring us to the consummate epiphany. In the words of St. John, which the poet clearly has in mind: “When he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
The vile emendation in Worship III inadvertently reveals the pride behind any refusal to take the word of God, and the Word of God, as they are: “God in us made manifest.” Sorry, but we long to be made holy, not so that we may gaze, Narcissus-like, on our own divine beauty, but so that we can look upon the Lord, and find our beauty in him. By his grace we will then be keener-sighted than the eastern sages, the curious onlookers at the Jordan, the sick in soul and body, and the many foes and the few friends beneath the cross. We will see him, says St. John, as he is. Nothing need be added to that; nor let anything be detracted. Here, as is just, the poet ends:
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Songs of Thankfulness & Praise” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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