Glorious Now, Behold Him Arise: King and God and Sacrifice

Giotto, Adoration of the Magi from Lower Basilica of St Francis, Assisi (1310s)

The most popular English-language Epiphany hymn is, of course, ‘We Three Kings.’ This was certainly one of my absolute favourites as a kid. In this hymn, John Henry Hopkins articulates the traditional typological/allegorical significance of the Magi’s gifts:

2 Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.

3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.

4 Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

The final verse makes it abundantly clear:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies.

Now, it is highly unlikely that the magi actually thought that Jesus was God and a sacrifice. The fact that they worship Him in Matthew 2 is attributable to the fact that that’s how you treat a Persian King. Frankincense certainly has uses beyond the worship of deities, and myrrh beyond the preparation of corpses for the stone-cold tomb. Both are also of high importance in desert cultures.

Nevertheless, when you look back at Matthew 2 and the magi, and their encounter with the Christ Child, when you remember that Epiphany isn’t just about some nice, little story that inspires some great art and singable songs, but about the revelation of the Messiah to the nations, about the fulfilment of Isaiah 60 where the nations come to Israel who is their light. (Isaiah 60 is an intertext of Matthew 2.)

So, in fact, history suddenly becomes allegory, for Jesus the Christ, enthroned on His Mother’s lap is King and God and sacrifice.

Adoration of the Magi from Old St Peter’s, now in Santa Maria in Cosmedin (pic from Wikipedia)
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The Conciliar Theology of Christmas Carols

For the past month, everywhere you go you will have heard Christmas and winter songs, ranging from ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ Some of these are actual carols, unlike ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, following my good friend the OED (with whom my wife agrees), sense 3:

a. A song or hymn of religious joy.

b.esp. A song or hymn of joy sung at Christmas in celebration of the Nativity. Rarely applied to hymns on certain other festal occasions.

A vast number recast the events of the Nativity. But some of these carols have obviously ‘conciliar’ verses and phrases — conciliar being the adjective used for that which is related to and derived from the theology of the seven ecumenical councils. The most obvious example is in ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created

This is pulled almost word-for-word from the ‘Nicene’ Creed (my translation here). Many other carols, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’, assert the divinity of Christ, no doubt intending a Nicene sense. One hymn that undoubtedly intends a Nicene sense is ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten’*, which reads:

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

But to cite J M Neale’s translation of Prudentius (348-after 405) as evidence for how conciliar theology has impacted our Christmas carols is perhaps too easy. Yet the fact that people still sing this carol demonstrates that we are not all allergic to Nicaea yet.

One of the carols that actually provoked this post was Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.’ Several modern ‘revisions’ (including the CyberHymnal!) of the hymn have changed the second-last line of verse two to, ‘Pleased with us in flesh to dwell’, although the original was ‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell.’ This line comes in the most theological of the carol’s verses:

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel!

This change was inevitably made to remove Wesley’s ‘sexist’ language. However, unlike some such modifications (e.g. ‘Good Christians All Rejoice’) this has changed the sense of the line. What the original line is stating is that Jesus became a human being, just like us in every respect. The revision makes the line repeat the fact that his flesh is real — thus opposing the Docetists, I suppose.

‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell’, however, takes aim not at Docetists but first at Apollinarians, who denied the full humanity of Christ by claiming he had no human soul. It also has in its sights, I imagine, Eutychianism, in which the human nature of Christ is swallowed up by the divinity — the heresy often confused with the ‘Mono/Miaphysitism’ of the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches (see my post ‘Wait — Monophysites?‘).

I imagine that this line as composed by Charles Wesley could have had Chalcedon in mind; the Wesley brothers were knowledgeable in patristics. But to say, ‘This line makes “Hark!” Chalcedonian!’ is to miss the debates about Chalcedon that ensued in the following decades and centuries. It is as much ‘Chalcedonian’ as it is ‘Miaphysite’ — asserting the complete and utter humanity of the Incarnate Word. Nonetheless, that Christ was a perfect Man in the midst of men (archaic usage meaning ‘human persons regardless of gender) is the point being made here as well as in the ecumenical councils from Ephesus 1 (431) to Nicaea 2 (787).

The revisers will tell me that the problem of the sexist language persists. I would like to take this opportunity to remind the world that, although I think a contemporary writer should avoid using the words ‘man’ and ‘men’ to refer to human persons generally, this is its etymological definition, and one it maintained parallel to its being taken over by the other sense ‘male human being’ for many, many years. Therefore, why change the wording of something from the 1700s that was meant to include the whole human race? This hearkens back to my post about the scandal of the incarnation’s particularity — Jesus was a man in both senses, and feminists just have to deal with it. (Read also my post of a few years ago, ‘Leave My Hymns Alone!‘)

Anyway, hopefully this will help us sing our carols with gusto and meaning, perceiving the deeper truths that lie behind the poetry.

*Fouled by the Anglican Church of Canada hymn book Common Praise as ‘Of Eternal Love Begotten’.

‘his mother, in her maiden bliss’: Christina Rossetti and Ephraim the Syrian

This past Sunday was my church’s carol service, and the choir sang ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter‘, apparently Britain’s favourite Christmas carol this year. In this beautiful hymn-poem by Christina Rossetti, most people are moved, it seems to me, by the final verse: ‘Yet what I can I give him — / Give my heart.’

This time, however, I was moved by the third verse:

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only his mother,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What is moving is not simply the tenderness of the moment but the theology that underpins it, stretching back to the second verse beginning, ‘Our God, heaven cannot hold him.’ Here we have the mystery of the Incarnation — God became an infant. And his maiden mother kissed him as any mother would kiss her child.

Note the juxtaposition in these two lines — ‘But only his mother, / In her maiden bliss.’ Normally, in order to have a child, a lady must no longer be a maiden. But this is no ordinary child, the Beloved. And his was no ordinary conception. (I imagine the birth itself was, save the singing of angels and brilliant star, quite ordinary.)

When I heard these lines, I could not help think of St Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns on the Incarnation. Specifically, these lines come to me:

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

A great wonder, indeed! God, Creator of the Universe, Creator of Mary, became the son of Mary. He was, in Latin christological terms, fully consubstantial with his mother (and thus the human race) and fully consubstantial with the Father (and thus is God). This union of divine and human, inextricable yet unconfused, is what makes Jesus unique, what enables his death and resurrection to save us.

And so we celebrate his birth in Bethlehem and wonder at that moment when ‘his mother, / In her maiden bliss, / Worshipped the Beloved / With a kiss.’