The Only Son From Heaven
“The Only Son From Heaven” This is one of the few Lutheran chorales authored by a woman. Elizabeth Meseritz (1500-1535) was a descendant of Polish nobility, but her parents had sought refuge in Wittenberg, for they were Protestants. She married in 1524 Caspar Cruciger, a theology student at Wittenberg who was greatly favoured by Luther and treated as a son by him. Caspar eventually was appointed to the theology faculty in Wittenberg where Elizabeth became a friend to Katherine Luther. Cruciger wrote three hymns, this one being published in the Erfurt Enchiridia of 1524.
The first stanza bears a resemblance to the credal first stanza of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” It is dogmatic and factual recalling, “The only Son from heaven, foretold by ancient seers, by God the Father given, in human form appears. No sphere His light confining, no star so brightly shining as He, our Morning Star.” Here is summed up the theme of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. The prophets have foretold (Advent), Christ is incarnate (Christmas), and He is gradually revealed, “shining brightly” (Epiphany.) A bit less mystagogical than “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” however, this text tells of the incarnation, the “time of God appointed, O bright and holy morn! He comes, the king anointed, the Christ, the virgin born. Grim death to vanquish for us, to open heaven before us and bring us life again.” These first two stanzas stand opposed to much of the sloppy hymnwriting of the last several centuries which too often wallows in a glucose-induced coma of sappy self-centeredness, instead focusing on the “only Son from heaven,” the only one who is the way, the truth, the life, who in the words of II Timothy 1: 10, “has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” This is a hallmark of good Lutheran hymnody—it focuses on Christ and not our emotions. The third and fourth stanzas, though, convey our response in the form of prayers, praying that the Father “our hearts awaken to know and love you more,” to grant “faith to stand unshaken” in order to “glimpse” heaven. The final stanza, not surprising, is doxological, praising Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The tune comes from the Lochamer Liederbuch, a collection of folksongs dating from around 1460. Cruciger had requested her text be sung to this tune, a melding of text and tune called contrafactum—utilizing a “secular” melody with a sacred text. Considering the tune was composed a good 65 years prior to its use in the Erfurt Enchiridia, and that tunes were not so diverse, widespread, or easily accessible at this time, it is doubtful a congregation had to struggle with secular associations whilst singing this hymn.