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Holy, Holy, Holy

“Holy, Holy, Holy.”    These music notes will consider Trinitarian theology as exemplified in the opening hymn today.  In our modern world, the doctrine of God and the Trinity may be seen as impractical and of little use to the modern Christian.  This Sunday hopefully allows us to see the importance of the Trinity to our lives.  Let us consider here one aspect of trinitarian theology.  The three “Persons” of the Trinity are distinct from one another.  Consider Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 4;  Luke 3) and the simultaneous presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Galatians 1: 1 states that Paul, the writer, was sent by “Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead.”  The Father and Son are distinct—the Son suffered and died, the Father did not.  In John 14, Jesus asks the Father to send another “Counselor,” or “Comforter,” ie., the Holy Spirit, to the disciples.  This is clearly “another” entity and not a manifestation of the Father or a reincarnation of the Son.  The Transfiguration account (Luke 9) also implies a distinction between the Father and Son.  Yet, these Persons are all God.  In John 10: 30, Jesus states that “I and the Father are one.”  Knowledge of one is the knowledge of the other, for Christ contends that if “You knew me, you would know my Father also.”  (John 8: 19)  Similarly, a rejection of one is the rejection of the other, as Christ states in Luke 10: 16, “He who listens to you listens to me;  he who rejects you rejects me;  but he who rejects me rejects Him who sent me.”  The Holy Spirit as well participates with and, indeed, is a part of the Godhead, for the “eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God. . .” (Heb. 9: 14)  Likewise, a knowledge of God proceeds from a working of the Holy Spirit, for “. . . no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.  We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God. . .” (I Cor. 2: 11-12)   That there is some intimate connection between God and the Holy Spirit seems to suggest a deep unity of substance. 

            Amongst the three Persons of the Godhead, the binding characteristic is “love,” for “God is love.”  (I John 4: 16)  This concept of “love,” however, must not be confused with any sort of human, romantic conceptions.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Ethics, comments upon this passage that, “This sentence is to be read with the emphasis on the word God, whereas we have fallen into the habit of emphasizing the word love.  God is love;   that is to say not a human attitude, a conviction or deed, but God Himself is love. . . it is not that we first of all by nature know what love is and therefore know also what God is.”  Love is demonstrated most perfectly by the Trinity, from whom all love proceeds.  Perhaps the constitution of this love is “giving.”  The Father has given of Himself in the creation of the world and in the giving of His Son;  likewise, the Son gives of Himself as the “propitiation” for our sins and the Spirit gives of Himself to the Church and Christians on earth.  Returning to I John 4, the writer suggests that “God showed His love among us:  He sent His one and only Son into the world. . .”  In this way, “sending” and “giving” are constituent and tangible elements of love.  Furthermore, the text continues, “We know that we live in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”  (13)  In order truly to understand and experience love—to understand and experience the full nature of the Trinity, then—human beings must participate in loving and giving.  The active, altruistic giving of ourselves to others in service allows for humanity to participate in the universal love that characterizes the love of God within the Trinity.  “Love,” then, is not merely some abstract feeling or abstruse notion, since, as in I John 5: 2, we know that we are children of God by “. . . loving God and carrying out His commands.”  Love is in active service to one another.  The doctrine of the Trinity is not—should not be—a mere academic, theological oddity pondered only by scholastics and monastics-- but can serve as a means by and through which Christians live lives of service to one another and to God.

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Come Down, O Love Divine

“Come Down, O Love Divine” The Middle Ages were a frightening time for many. From our perspective as moderns, we may cower to comprehend a time with no plumbing, climate control, easy transportation, reliable medical care, and society nearly always on the brink of anarchical collapse. The lack of these “necessities” surely proved little extra stress for the medieval person, as they were accustomed to life with few of our modern luxuries. What did cause fear in the medieval person? No doubt the constant strain of war and plagues, one often brought by the other, left many people in a constant state of fear and turmoil. For some, war and pestilences brought about a need to express contrition publicly, in the hopes of bringing about favour upon themselves. The “flagellants,” pictured on the left, would go about the countryside wailing and flogging themselves, creating what must have been quite a display which would have been designed to increase fear and devotion within the onlooker. Eventually, some of these Italian flagellants, compelled by their like-mindedness to gather together, formed congregations and composed songs in the vernacular (common language), in this case Italian. (In some ways, their theological piety foreshadowed Reformation ideals.) Their songs were known as “Laudi,” literally meaning “praise,” but which could be any song of a devotional character. The text we sing this morning was entitled “Discendi amor santo,” and was a paraphrase of a more famous Latin liturgical chant called the “Golden Sequence.”

            The character of this hymn is not staid or placid, but brims with imagery of fire and emotion. In the first stanza we pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us “with ardor glowing. . . within my heart appear, and kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.” This thought continues with the second stanza as we pray, “O let it freely burn, till worldly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming.” One of the metaphors for the Holy Spirit in scripture is fire, symbolized by the tongues of fire at Pentecost, giving us red as the traditional liturgical colour of Pentecost and Reformation in which we celebrate the unique presentation of the Holy Spirit. In the final two stanzas, one can sense the lowly nature of the flagellants, whose tattered clothes would have turned to rags as a result of their self-scourging: “Let holy charity mine outward vesture be and lowliness become mine inner clothing—true lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part, and o’er its own shortcoming weeps with loathing.” This is not a popular sentiment in our post-modern, consumerist, therapeutic society, which seeks to be coddled and affirmed at every turn. Indeed, the final stanza only barely alludes to the Gospel: “And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long, shall far outpass the pow’r of human telling; no soul can guess His grace till it become the place wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.” The word “guess” here simply refers to the nature of the Holy Spirit to act even when not beckoned, and to act outside of the reason of humanity. This hymn is about the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, and so it doesn’t surprise us that Christ’s saving of humanity is not mentioned. As with any good liturgy and worship service, there will be sufficient parts of our service which will be clearly and completely Christocentric. This hymn doesn’t tell the whole story of the Christian faith, but elucidates on a central part of it. Sometimes the Holy Spirit gets short shrift in our theologizing (while in some quarters, pneumatology predominates), limited to one Sunday in early summer and to the shortest article of each creed. Our hymnal tries to rectify this by turning our thoughts and voices to the Holy Spirit whenever possible, so that the Holy Spirit might in turn “turn our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12: 2)

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