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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)

 

Praise, My Soul

“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”  Although he was an Anglican vicar, he had initially considered studying medicine. Although he was tolerant of his repeated transfers to different churches, he eventually gave up the ministry in an effort to regain his health. Although he published three volumes of poetry, only two of his texts remain in popular usage, “Abide with Me” and “Praise, My, Soul, the King of Heaven.”  Henry Lyte (1793-1847), an Englishman, seems to have been a writer who was profoundly mystified by the sadnesses of life.  In 1818, he was deeply moved by the death of a fellow clergyman, writing “He died happy under the belief that though he had deeply erred, there was One whose death and sufferings would atone for his delinquencies, and be accepted for all that had incurred.” Lyte himself underwent a spiritual change as he continues, “I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before;  and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.” He wrote “Abide with Me” in 1820 under similar circumstances. 

        This hymn is a free paraphrase of the praise-filled Psalm 103. Yet, this hymn is apparently not representative of his work, as one scholar observes that “it is with the tenderness and tearfulness of the Psalms that he is most deeply penetrated,” and that Lyte had a “habit of isolating the sad part of a psalm.” Perhaps that this hymn was based on such a joyous psalm has contributed to a longevity not experienced by Lyte’s other hymns. 

        As I consult with people to select music for their weddings, I am often admonished only to play “upbeat” music.  I am often left at a loss understanding exactly what is meant by this useless word.  We have also heard churches likewise praised for their “uplifting” music and worship, as if something narrowly-defined as “upbeat” and “uplifting” somehow qualifies as an encounter with God.  “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” is certainly a joyous expression of praise—no matter the tendencies of the hymnwriter—but it is also faithful to the theological nuances of the psalm.  The psalm begins with the “upbeat” litany, “Praise the Lord, O my soul;  all my inmost being praise His holy name.”  Yet, both the psalm (and consequently the hymn) continue with the reason why this praise is rendered;  we praise because it is God “. . . who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion.”  In the paraphrased words of the hymn, we are “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.”  In verse 13 of the psalm, God is compared to a father, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.”  This is paraphrased in the hymn in stanza three as, “Fatherlike He tends and spares us; Well our feeble frame He knows;  In His hand He gently bears us, Rescues us from all our foes.”  Is this good news or bad news?  Is this law or gospel?  Is this upbeat or unduly morose?  Many in our culture would find these lines depressing, for they acknowledge human frailty;  we have “foes” from whom we need rescuing.  We have diseases which need healing.  We sin constantly and need forgiveness. I have a suspicion that when people want Christianity that is “upbeat,” they want only “rescuing,” “healing” and “forgiveness.”  They want the gospel, but they do not want the law. What is the good news of the gospel without a knowledge of sin, from which the gospel saves?  This is no gospel at all! 

        This hymn is characteristic of all good hymnody (and of every psalm) in that law is presented with gospel.  The law without the gospel is depressingly burdensome, and cannot by nature be focued of Christ Jesus, who redeemed us from the law.  The gospel without the law cannot by nature be the true gospel, for it ignores the power of what Christ Jesus has accomplished.  The complexity of the Christian life is such that the sorrow and sadness of sin will be experienced by everyone on this earth.  But the joy of forgiveness and redemption will be experienced, too, at least by every Christian.  This hymn reminds of the natural tension between law and gospel, and the supremacy of the true gospel through Christ.

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