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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)

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with