Anthony Esolen on Christian Hymns
When Lent arrives, Christians who follow the liturgical season will often sacrifice minor pleasures, like sweets, or, better still, will try to perform their devotions more regularly and seriously. Perhaps they will gather without distraction for solemn times of family prayer or will spend more time with the Scriptures. Perhaps they will examine their consciences more often and pray for the grace that will scour away the lingering grime of sin.
These are good and worthy things. But what we really need in Lent—not that I speak from any profound experience, I am ashamed to say—is to enter the desert with Jesus. It’s when we turn aside from the noise that we begin to hear, and when we shut our eyes to the glare of the bustling world that we begin to see. Jesus did not, in his divinity, need the desert, but in his humanity he sought it out and gave us an example to follow. He did not need its wholesome silence, but we do.
When Jesus approached the blind man Bartimaeus, he did not say, “Come here, I’ll cure you.” He asked the man if he wanted to see. So, too, he does for all of us. Obey my commandments, he says, and the Father will give you light. Follow me, he says, and look upon me, because he who sees me sees the Father. Jesus made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak. Those were the more ordinary and obvious miracles. The less obvious miracles occurred within the souls of people who didn’t need a tapping-cane or an interpreter. There, too, he made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.
Lent, then, is an invitation to that infirmary and training ground, where we, singly or in communion with one another, can open ourselves more radically to the healing power of God. “What did you go out into the desert to see?” asks Jesus, shaking his head at his own people who were so slow to understand. Was it just a spectacle that had aroused their curiosity? A prophet? Yes, indeed, a prophet, for none born of woman had been greater than John the Baptist, and yet the least in the kingdom of God was greater than he. And yet there they stood, their eyes clouded over. Jesus fed thousands of them in the wilderness, and so, their bellies satisfied, they followed him, but still they could not see the truth when he said, “I am the bread of life.”
We go into the desert so that we may see. That is the message of the wise poem from the sixth century that has become one of our most beloved Lenten hymns:
The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.
We believe Jesus when he says, “I and the Father are one.” But we are also told by the evangelist that when Jesus was a boy, he “grew in wisdom and understanding.” Our Lord sought the will of the Father. That was the expression of his total and unconditional love. He did not say, “The Father sees what I do, and approves of it,” though no doubt that was so, but “The Son does only what he sees the Father do.” It is not that Jesus is blind and in need of healing, or ignorant and in need of instruction. He opens himself utterly to the Father in love, just as he sees the Father open himself utterly both in the creation of the world and in its more wondrous re-creation.
What may happen to us if we go and do likewise? The next two stanzas give us powerful evidence from the Scriptures, all of it pointing finally to Christ:
Alone and fasting Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steeds and chariots of flame.
So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lions’ might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The herald of Messiah’s name.
The finely crafted progression here gives us a lesson in theology. The poet has picked up the verb fast from the first stanza and now applies it, with powerful repetition, to the great prophets of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah. They were the two whom Peter, James, and John were privileged to see on the top of Mount Tabor, when the Lord, in a fore-flash of the Resurrection, appeared gloriously transfigured before their eyes. They are also types of Christ: Moses, who received the Old Law from the loving God who revealed to him his unutterable name, I AM; and Elijah, “The Lord is God,” who was taken up into heaven before the astonished eyes of his disciple Elisha, just as Jesus ascended before those men of Galilee who were to found his Church.
From there, the poet turns to Daniel, who refused to violate the Law by eating forbidden food, and who was granted mystic visions of the Son of Man coming in glory; and finally to John, the friend of the Bridegroom, whose mission consisted wholly in begging people to see: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world!”
From here, there is nowhere to go but to Christ himself. We want to accompany him into the desert, because it is a joy to be with him. But we want him also to heal us. We want to see:
Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
Full oft in fast and prayer with thee;
Our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
And give us joy to see thy face.
That is the vision we desire. Like the Psalmist, we seek the face of God. But now that face is the face of one of us, the risen Jesus. We follow his example, but not as we follow the advice of a mere spiritual counselor. We follow it because we love him, and we trust that he will cleanse our souls and open our eyes, that we may know him and love him all the more. Then, in us will be fulfilled the promise that the ever-youthful apostle John reveals:
“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” •
Anthony Esolen teaches English at Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and is the author of many books, including Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (St. Benedict Press), Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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