In the first part of this mini- series on Hark The Herald Angels Sing I got excited about verse 1, where the writers of this awesome carol describe the manifestation into our physical realm of the angelic realm and God’s presence. Celebrating the day of Jesus’ birth leads to the final restoration of the nations into their God-ordained place of perfection. Wow. But for now…. nothing is eternal. Everything we experience is subject to decay.
In verse two Wesley and Whitfield launch into a full scale, maximum impact barrage of phrases that describe Jesus. This is sublime Christology, which like a lot of Christology rests in an attempt to describe the indescribable – in this case the incarnation. It starts by setting Christ into his enteral setting of adoration in the heavens. This Lord is everlasting and loved by highest heaven.
Christ by highest Heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! the herald angels sing:
“Glory to the newborn King!”
But in recent times something has changed. Behold. THIS eternal being, who lives in heavenly glory has come. This being, who cannot be contained by all of space and all of time has restricted itself into a woman’s womb. I cannot do this justice. Just allow the wonder of it to impact you. If you have grown stale to this miracle, allow yourself time to reflect on the significance of it.
That which could not be contained, which fills all things and is in all things, restricted itself to become a tiny foetus and from there a baby. Yes, yes. yes.
A Tiny Baby
As I was writing this I sat in the Green Room, a local coffee shop. There was a baby opposite me in a onesie. It had a bottle and went to sleep. At one point a pained expression flitted across its face, but it closed its eyes and drifted off again. The mother kissed its little head and cradled it back into its pram. Is it corny to say that my mind went to Mary? I wondxer if we protestants think about Mary enough? Blessed she was and no mistake. She did these things to the eternal, uncontainable one.
At life group last week were looking at Ephesians 2 in which Paul says ‘we…. were all children of wrath’ – and helpfully doesn’t explain what he means. We had quite a discussion about this, especially when we saw that the translations gave a very different slant on it. The wrath of God is an oft quoted theme that is used by people who want to say that God is at best schizophrenia and at worse just plain evil. ‘Look at the wrath in the Old Testament’ they say. I did some lectures on this at college, and one day I will really look into this wrath topic properly. My sense is that the wrath of God has been overplayed in the Evangelical tradition. Watching that Mother love on her baby, while considering the eternal Christ, adored by highest heaven, offspring of a Virgin’s womb what I see is that God loves us. I mean really loves us.
Wesley sums this up beautifully. ‘Pleased as man with man to dwell’
This ‘uncontainable containment’ is not something that the Holy Trinity planned before time out of a sense of duty and despite their apparent wrath. It was not something that they ‘had to do’ to solve a problem. it was not something that they did despite their anger.
It was something that was motivated by their pleasure. Yes their pleasure. It was Jesus pleasure to become as we are, living a normal life, growing, eating, breathing as we do. Subjected to that decay I mentioned at the start, and going all the way into death just as we all do. For the sake of his pleasure. It is the ultimate participation as per part 1. ‘Joyful all ye nations rise’ as someone once said and for the ‘joy set before him’ as the writer to the Hebrews wrote (Heb 12:2).
A Knotty Problem
I hope you are getting the picture that I love this carol. Seriously. But in verse two there is a troubling line. As I have said many times to anyone who will listen, maturing as a Christian is not about having answers, but rather learning to live with the mystery of it all. What Richard Rohr describes as ‘falling upwards’ and what I think of as ‘throwing away red and blue thinking’. And perhaps also learning to ask better questions if you are that way inclined. But the ‘living with the mystery’ is something we all have to grapple with. Tragedy comes. Often we ask why. Often there is no answer.
‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see’ is just one of those lines. Wesley et al are trying to convey the mystery of the Godhead. But the Godhead is veiled, according to them/ Perhaps this line has never bothered you? It doesn’t really bother me now to be honest, it just triggers a different thought when I sing it. I suppose I have learnt to live with the conflict.
Unfortunately this sounds rather like a old heresy that is alive and kicking today. It goes back to our understanding, or should I say lack of understanding, of the trinity and the incarnation itself. How do you understand the idea that Jesus was both fully man and fully human? It’s a big topic. Very interesting and surprisingly current. Some religions can’t handle it, so Jesus is demoted to being an important character but not divine. If Jesus is not divine …. then we Christians have all sorts of problems.
You know, on reflection I am not going to get into this topic now. I want to use this line, to allow the mystery of it all to encompass me. Somebody once said to me that it’s a good job that God doesn’t judge us all by our theology because we’d all be in serious trouble. Amen brother.
Can’t wait for part 3?