Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hymn of the Week--O Very God of Very God

Here's one I owe solidly to the old Episcopal 1940 Hymnal. Never heard of it in the Baptist church, though there's nothing sectarian about it. And it's very beautiful.

O very God of very God,
and very Light of very Light,
whose feet this earth's dark valley trod
that so it might be bright:

Our hopes are weak, our fears are strong,
thick darkness blinds our eyes;
cold is the night; thy people long
that thou, their Sun, wouldst rise.

And even now, though dull and gray,
the east is brightening fast,
and kindling to the perfect day
that never shall be past.

O guide us till our path is done,
and we have reached the shore
where thou, our everlasting Sun,
art shining evermore!

We wait in faith, and turn our face
to where the daylight springs,
till thou shalt come our gloom to chase,
with healing in thy wings.

The tune is Welsh. Those Welshmen really know how to do tunes. Think of a few--"O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus," "Jesus Lover of My Soul" (in Advent, good words to that one are "Watchman, Tell us of the Night"). A year or so ago I had a debate with someone on the proposition "Anglicans can't write tunes." I was arguing the negative side. (Clarification: This means I was arguing that Anglicans can write tunes.) My interlocutor told me I couldn't count any Welsh tunes!

This hymn raises the interesting question of the imagery of the sun and Christmas. There's no doubt that, as Christianity flourished in the Northern Hemisphere, the connection became very strong between the short days in winter and the darkness of the world awaiting the coming of Christ. One of my favorite lines in a Christmas carol is from the German carol "Es ist ein Ros"--"She bore to men a savior when half-spent was the night." This is an allusion to the phrase in the Christ Mass from the Apocrypha--"When the night was in the midst of her course, thine almighty word leaped down from on high." But the word "half-spent" in what I think is the best translation of the German carol (not, unfortunately, the translation used in the 1940 hymnal) is brilliant, combining the notion of midnight with the image of exhaustion.

But of course Christianity didn't originate in a country very far to the north. I've never lived in Israel, but by a quick and highly unprofessional look at the globe, it appears to be about on a latitude with Georgia, or perhaps Tennessee at the farthest. Not exactly the land of long, dark, cold nights of winter. And then of course there's the possibility that Jesus was born in the spring rather than the winter, which opens up a whole different historical can of worms.

God certainly foresaw the powerful darkness-light-sun motif for Christmas. Did he desire and intend it?

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