St Peter, Bushey Heath

30 September 2007

Learning from Hymns 4:

Her virgin eyes saw God incarnate born

Many people think that hymns only exist for us to enjoy singing in Church. Of course that’s one purpose they serve; but, and far more importantly, hymns are an easy-to-remember and popular way of telling the truth. The English language contains the largest and best collection of hymns in the world (many of course translated from other languages) – so we shouldn’t just sing them (it’s difficult to understand and sing at the same time) but study them at home. By doing that we shall learn more about our Christian faith than any other way, except Bible-study.

This morning’s Hymn, Her Virgin eyes saw God incarnate born, was written by Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Chaplain to King Charles II. He was one of those Bishops who kept the Catholic Faith alive within the Church of England during the Seventeenth Century. Ken succeeded in displeasing three successive monarchs by criticizing them publicly: Charles II for his immorality, James II by refusing to kow-tow to his Roman Catholic sympathies, and William III by resisting his attempts to turn the Church of England into a Protestant sect. Anyone who manages to make himself so unpopular with the powers-that-be has my fullest approval and admiration!

This hymn is a celebration of the unique part played by the Blessed Virgin Mary in the scheme of our salvation. Here is Verse One:

Her Virgin eyes saw God incarnate born,/When she to Bethl’em came that happy morn;/How high her raptures then began to swell,/None but her own omniscient Son can tell.

Yes, the Child born to Mary on the first Christmas Day was (and of course still is) God Himself, made flesh. That is the claim which lies at the very heart of the Incarnation. It’s also a claim which very few people apart from Christian believers realise or understand. Non-believers suppose that we meet as His Church on Sunday, to worship Jesus because He was a Great Teacher, a Good Man, our Friend and Comforter.

Well He was all those things but that’s not why we worship Him. We worship Him because we believe He is nothing less than the Word-made-flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity – ‘God in man made manifest’ as another hymn puts it. Such hymns were written to teach and safeguard the truth of the Incarnation. It’s precisely because (by their own admission) so many clergy and laity today really don’t believe that Jesus is God that we have landed in the religious and moral crises in which we now find ourselves. For if He isn’t God, whilst at the same time claiming to be, then there’s no reason to pay attention to Him – in fact there’s every reason for giving Him a ‘wide berth’. Men who claim to be God, like those claiming to be good, usually turn out to be either mad, or bad, or both.

But if Jesus is God, then it must be right to call Mary the ‘Mother of God’, or ‘Theotokos’ – God-bearer. If you think of it, it’s just as amazing (if not more so) that God should have spent the first nine months of His human, earthly life inside another human being’s womb as that he should have become incarnate in the first place. It’s stranger still that He who helped in the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth should become entirely dependant upon the loving care of a teenage girl, who only got married several months after she conceived Him. Just think what the neighbours must have said!

As Eve when she her fontal sin reviewed,/Wept for herself and all she should include,/Blest Mary with man’s Saviour in embrace/Joyed for herself and for all human race.

The belief that Jesus is ‘the Second Adam’ by whose death we are reconciled with the Godhead goes right back to the teachings of St Paul. Saint Irenaeus in the Second Century took up this idea and suggested that Mary can be thought of as ‘the Second Eve’. By her obedience she plays a part in undoing the harm done by the First Eve’s disobedience. This idea is called Recapitulation or ‘going-over-again-what’s-been-got-wrong-and-getting-it-right’. You may not have heard the word ‘Recapitulation’ since you were at school, but that is what it means.

Many Christians find Recapitulation an attractive idea, though some Evangelical Christians fear that it obscures the uniqueness of what Jesus Himself did for us on the Cross. If that worries you, then forget about Recapitulation –I’m sure Our Lady won’t mind! But do remember that God involves the human race, one and all, in His strategy for the Salvation of mankind from Day One. He invites us as parents, priests, laity, adults, children, missionaries, hymn-writers, to take part in that saving-process though He never wants us to forget that the price of it was wholly paid by Himself through the ‘one true pure immortal sacrifice’ of Jesus on the Cross. Our participation isn’t necessary but God invites and welcomes it because He wants us, like Jesus, ‘to be about our Father’s business’.

All saints are by her son’s dear influence blest,/She kept the very Fountain at her breast;/The Son adored and nursed by the sweet Maid/A thousand-fold of love for love repaid.

In Verse Three, Ken proclaims our belief in the Communion of Saints. It’s not only with our fellow-Christians who are alive today that we are in communion. In St Paul’s words (repeated several times in his letters) we are called to be saints – through our membership of the Body of Christ. Saintliness didn’t die out several hundred years ago. Jesus lives and He whom Mary kept at her breast is the real and ultimate fountain (or ‘origin’) of all sanctity. People don’t become saints through their own efforts, but by allowing God to be sanctified in them. The Virgin Mary became Saint-Mary-the-Virgin not as a result of ‘being good’ or keeping God’s commandments and obeying his Laws (though she did) but by her glad acceptance of His invitation to let the Holy Spirit make her the Mother of His Son, when she said to the Angel – and let’s remember at this Michaelmastide that angels are also part of God’s church – ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word’. Given Mary’s obedience, the nitty-gritty of our salvation was done by the Godhead Holy Trinity of Persons, Father, Son and Spirit, acting in perfect accord with each other.

In this way Mary’s love for God and for her Son and His, became translated into the process of redemption. That’s the way Faith works. Faith enables God to work in and through us, rather than inspiring us to work for God. Often, what God invites us to do for Him will seem to us, at first sight, to be terribly ordinary and unexciting. If Mary had been one of today’s teenagers her friends and teachers would, no doubt, have urged her to believe that staying at home to look after the Child Jesus wasn’t what she should be doing. Let Mary leave Him to be looked after at the local Nursery and start ‘realising her own potential’. But Mary thought differently! Verse Four tells us why:

Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced,/Next to his throne her Son his Mother placed;/And here below, now she’s of heaven possest,/All generations are to call her blest.

As St Irenaeus (whom I mentioned earlier) said ‘The glory of God is the living Man; the end (or ‘fulfilment’) of Man [and Woman] is the vision of God’. In this he was only saying, in different words, what Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, ‘blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’.

People today are pre-occupied with self-fulfilment and the pursuit of what they call ‘happiness’. What they fail to understand is that neither of these things can be achieved by pursuing them relentlessly in the hope of ‘catching them’. They will always be one or two jumps ahead of us, because that’s the way we are made by God. ‘Our hearts are restless till they rest in Him’, as another saint once said. Happiness and self-fulfilment may come our way from time to time, but it will feel more like having a butterfly’s wing momentarily brushing against our cheek rather than managing to catch that butterfly in a net and display it in a glass case.

For blessedness is the gift of God; not the prize that we earn by working hard in this world to achieve it. God’s Mother is blessed not for what she did but for what God did for her, making her who she is – the Mother of all who believe in her Son Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.

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