Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending
“Lo, He comes in Clouds Descending” This hymn was written by Charles Wesley, brother of Methodism’s founder John Wesley and author of over 6,000 hymns. Charles remained a priest in the Church of England his entire life, as he never considered himself a Methodist as much as he considered himself an Anglican.
Today’s lectionary focuses on the end times, as is traditional for the last Sundays of the church year. The church year is a curious thing; as we prepare to anticipate Christ’s birth, an historical event which has already happened, we also look forward toward the end times and the historical events which have not happened yet. This focus on the end times is called eschatology, and the end time event itself is often referred to as “the eschaton.”
This hymn refers to Jesus’ return and to the resurrection when “Ev’ry eye shall now behold Him.” What is for the Old Testament prophets only a distant hope and what for us can only be imagined will, in fact, one day come to pass. Charles Wesley is careful to treat this somewhat abstract subject with a grounded reality. He writes in the third stanza, “Those dear tokens of His Passion still His dazzling body bears, Cause of endless exultation To His ransomed worshipers. . .” Much like the apostle Thomas, who doubts the Risen Christ until he can see Christ’s wounds, we will no longer doubt because we, too, will see those real “tokens of His Passion.”
Note the “cosmic” scope of this text. If the writer of music notes did not know this hymn was by Charles Wesley, he would probably ascribe this hymn to Isaac Watts, who wrote such universally-themed and expansive hymns as “Nature with Open Volume Stands,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” Charles Wesley’s hymns usually end up focusing on Christ “in the heart.” Wesley’s most famous hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” characteristically prays, “Come, Desire of Nations, come, fix in us Thy humble home; O, to all Thyself impart, Formed in each believing heart.” Our hymn text today certainly evokes an emotionalism proper to such a fantastic event. After all, the second stanza laments that those who “pierced and nailed Him to the tree” will be “deeply wailing.” The second stanza contrasts this with the feelings of believers: “With what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars!” So, Wesley here employs imagery that is consistent with subject emotionalism. But, one must think that the profound magnitude of the eschaton evoked in Wesley not so much a sense of the importance of a “spiritual heart,” but rather an acute awareness of the universality of the whole Christian Church both past, present and future. His fourth stanza bears this out, “Savior, take the pow’r and glory, claim the kingdom for Thine own.” Everyone will rise from the dead, and everyone will be judged, some to eternal life and others to death. Wesley here is probably trying best to convey this sense of cosmic grandeur, omnipresent justice and everlasting righteousness. This is not always a pleasant thought for modern Americans, which makes it all the more important as a concept for the Church to sing!