FAITH OF OUR FATHERS: DECEMBER 1997
HYMNS AND VISION
During the Arian heresy that denied Christ's divinity, when the Arian Emperor's persecuting soldiers surrounded his church, Ambrose locked himself and his people in the Church. Throughout the night they sang hymns on the Incarnation to confront the heresy. Ambrose's hymns on the Incarnation express pure doctrine and superb Christian poetry that articulates the experience out of which the doctrine has come. Hymns unconsciously communicate to us , engrave on hearts, that same experience and doctrine even before we understand it. I remember vividly my days as a choirboy agonizing in cold vestries at choir practices. A hymn that engraved itself into me is, The Great God of Heaven is Come Down to Earth by H.R. Bramley. A verse sums up for me the Incarnation.
The Word in the bliss of the Godhead remains,
Yet in flesh comes to suffer the keenest of pains;
He is that he was, and for ever shall be,
But becomes that he was not, for you and for me.
FAITH AND UNDERSTANDING
As an eight year old, I first came to think about the Incarnation by immersion in the liturgical worship of the Church and the undivided tradition of Christian doctrine, not as mere theory but as life. Mere thought is not enough, if I was to understand what 1 was thinking I had to believe. Only faith would lead me into understanding. As St. Anselm wrote in the Proslogion. "I desire to understand a little of your love, which my heart already believes and loves ... unless I believe I shall not understand." For Anselm, as for Julian of Norwich, belief and understanding must be united, the mind at the service of the heart enables them to see and understand. It is a wonderful moment when that penny drops and one now understands what one has always believed and thought. One has passed over the abyss between reason and vision.
My hymn writer's vision is described by John (Revelation ch. 1), when on the Isle of Patmos, he found himself in the Spirit on the Lord's Day. A voice speaks to him and he sees one like a Son of Man. John fell down at his feet and the Son of Man laid his hand on him and said; "I am the first and the last, and the Living one; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades." Flesh and blood does not produce this kind of vision. "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven." John's vision is a confirmation of the warning that no one can tell Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit. Faith and understanding have their springs in the eternal.
The hymn and the vision identify Jesus of Nazareth with God in heaven. The Son which the virgin has conceived, given birth to, and called Emmanuel, God with us, the seer John recognizes, has a continuity of being with Him Who is and Who was and Who is to come. The Living One, the Source and Fountain of all Being, the I am, the Alpha and the Omega, is One who speaks of himself as identically the same, who was dead and now lives.
He is that he was and for ever shall be,
But became that he was not for you and for me.
Here is a continuity between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Christ of the Church, the preexistent and the eternally present, a connection that many people cannot make. The seer John has no qualms of doubt or misgiving. He sees the Manhood of the crucified Nazarene enthroned on high, the centre of heaven's worship, glorified with a glory that almost breaks human language in the telling. Nevertheless, he sees sufficient to assure him and to convince him that in the glorified Being is Jesus whom he had known in the flesh - Jesus the same yesterday, today and for ever.
John sees far more than the heretic Arius who could only see in Jesus a man and the heretic Nestorius who divided Jesus into two distinct personalities, a man called Jesus Christ and Another who dwelt in Him and was not He. Nor does John see someone who only adopted our human nature and then laid it aside when he was finished with it. He who was in the beginning with God and through whom all things were made, the man Jesus, the risen Christ, the Lord of Glory are all one and the same person; one in identity and continuity of being. The claim of Jesus, "I and the Father are one",, is vindicated. Only the doctrine of the Trinity can adequately express what this vision means.
Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon in the Diocese of Durham
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