by Anthony Esolen
As the music goes, so goes the church," said a friend of mine, a Baptist minister. What were the first Christian hymns like? We have one example in the mighty words wherein Paul describes the humility of Christ:
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God,
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5–11)
Let us note first what is not here. No sentimentality. No reference to our feelings. No nod to the wonderfulness of us, who honor God by thinking about him once in a while. This hymn is a song of theological and cosmic drama. We don't call Jesus the Son of God because he was a fine moral teacher; as if Jesus depended upon public opinion, that reed in the wind. We call Jesus our teacher because he is the Son of God. His gifts are precious because of who he is. I may admire George Washington. But let me never visit upon Jesus the indignity of admiration. I worship him.
Therefore the hymn teaches us who Jesus is: the eternal Son of God, the Word, who was in the beginning with God (John 1:2). Only because Jesus is the Son of God is there any surprising reversal, any stunning revelation about God's love, any drama in the Incarnation. The singers insist upon that drama. He made himself of no reputation. He took upon him the form of a servant. We descend still lower: he humbled himself, and became obedient. God, the Creator—obedient! And not only obedient, as Athena would obey Zeus when it suited her. This is true obedience, true hearing: Jesus is obedient unto death. Nor just any death. Jesus embraced a death that the Romans would not visit upon a citizen, no matter what the crime. His was a horrible, protracted death by suffocation, made acutely agonizing by the spikes driven through clusters of nerves, and the scourging that cut him to the spine. It was death upon a cross.
The hymn turns upon the Cross. It is the fulcrum of the world, the point where the weight of sin meets the conquering action of grace. Jesus says, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matt. 16:24). For "blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake" (Matt. 5:11). The cross represents the most daring gift of all, not by a soldier who hopes for his country's esteem, but by a slave, without even the consolation of a good name to leave behind. The Son of God alone can fill such a death with glory.
That is why the hymn changes direction, through descent, to ascent. "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 14:11), says Jesus. But the exaltation is not extrinsic to the humbling. God doesn't pin the reward on as a medal. It is in the nature of humility to rise, by love. So we hear the two movements of the hymn as one. Despite being equal to God, Jesus humbled himself; because he was equal to God, he humbled himself. He is exalted above every creature in the cosmos: they bend the knee at the name of Jesus, now revealed as equal to the holy name of God. We proclaim that Jesus is Lord, not teacher, not great statesman, but the source and meaning and goal of all things. "I am the way, the truth, and the life," says he (John 14:6).
A Hymn of All Time
We see the same pattern of descent and ascent in the ninth-century Advent hymn, Conditor alme siderum, "Creator of the Stars of Night."The hymn spans all of time, from creation to final judgment. Again, Jesus is not reduced to an admirable person. He is the conditor of the stars, the God who set them in their place. Therefore he may shine his incomparably greater light upon us:
Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people's everlasting light,
O Christ, Thou Savior of us all,
We pray Thee, hear us when we call.
To Thee the travail deep was known
That made the whole creation groan
Till Thou, Redeemer, shouldest free
Thine own in glorious liberty.
Creation is marred by the fall of man, who lapses into sin and darkness. So the universe groans, says St. Paul, thinking of a woman in travail, awaiting deliverance "from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:19–23). That yearning for deliverance was already present in the world before Christ came. That is why he did come, in answer:
When the old world drew on toward night,
Thou camest, not in splendor bright
As monarch, but the humble child
Of Mary, blameless mother mild.
The poet compares night with night: the original darkness, which the Lord studded with stars; and the aging night of sin, which the Lord pierces with himself, the Light of the world, born of a humble woman, and laid in a manger, because there was no room in the inn. The ultimate self-giving of Calvary is present here in the seed. The shadow of the Cross falls upon the stable.
Therefore the poet can leap from Bethlehem to the hymn of St. Paul:
At Thy great name of Jesus, now
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
And things celestial Thee shall own,
And things terrestrial, Lord alone.
The parallelism highlights the central idea of the poem: the Creator of the stars has humbled himself to be born amidst our night, upon earth. He is Lord of both realms. So we pray that he will come again, not as a little child, but as the great Judge of heaven and earth. The world is in the power of darkness; and we long for the day that knows no setting:
Come in Thy holy might, we pray;
Redeem us for eternal day
From every power of darkness, when
Thou judgest all the sons of men.
We have reached the ultimate bound of time. Beyond time there is eternity, the very life of God. The old poet understood this. He ends his hymn with a Trinitarian verse—a doxology, a "glory-word." For the abundant life we seek is God himself, and he is love, a communion of Persons:
To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Laud, honor, might, and glory be
From age to age eternally.
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.
Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. NEW: Download PDF of issues! That's only $1.66 per month!
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access for only $29.95. NEW: Download PDF of issues! That's only $2.50 per month!
Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.
OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
more from the online archives