The first verse of Bishop Heber’s wonderful Epiphany hymn, ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’ rejoices in the appearance of the ‘star of the east’ leading us to the birth-place of the saviour before challenging us and transforming our thoughts with the second verse,
Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining;
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Saviour of all.
Here is the humility of the Christ, shown from the very start: made flesh in the womb of the maid of Nazareth and now lying new-born in the manger at Bethlehem.
As a footnote, the hymn was first published in a periodical in 1811. Heber subsequently asked permission from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London to publish a book of hymns, but they refused and the book was not published until after his death in 1826. The exercise of writing and publishing hymns was perhaps a little too ‘Methodistical’ for their lordships! It shows how desperate things were in the Church of England at that time. No wonder the Methodists had so many adherents and the soon to be emancipated Roman Catholics so many converts. The Anglo-Catholic revival dated from 1833 did not begin a day too soon.
There is a drawing which regularly appears on the back screens of cars which depicts a serious of primates rising from the most primitive up to man in a sort of Darwinian progression: the ascent of man and a sign of destiny. It is a useful illustration no doubt and a good source of humour. One I saw recently completed the evolutionary journey with a man casting a fishing line. It is wrong of course. The drawing should actually be a man with a cricket bat – we all like to think of ourselves at the apex of life!
More seriously the ideas behind the drawing are often characterised by pride rather than thanksgiving as if we have done all this ourselves, somehow controlling the process and bending it in the direction we feel most comfortable with. The very idea of it is the root of human arrogance – man ‘come of age’. A great success indeed. And it is a success though one which the ‘Maker and Monarch and Saviour of all’ approaches differently. The Son of Man comes to us in humility, not wearing the glories of creation as a medal – all divine and triumphant, but simply being part of it all. He takes our human nature with all its limitations and attendant risks and gets on with the job of living here amongst us.
If we wanted to adapt the illustration of the ascending primates theologically we might draw it the other way round, beginning with the first Adam – the ‘big man’ – who overstepped the mark and tried to become like God and ending with the second Adam who came as a child. You could no doubt choose a multiplicity of human wrecks to fill the gap in the illustration, some deserving to be drawn bigger than others. St. Paul saw all this as he wrote to the church in Philippi,
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2: 5-7)
One of the purposes of our worship is to recognise God for who he is and especially for who he is in Jesus who was born for us in the stable and gave his life for us on the cross. It is also to recognise ourselves for who we are: not persons of ‘no account’ because the incarnation says otherwise, but certainly as beings weighed down by inadequacy and sin. But once we recognise these truths we will find ourselves liberated from the misunderstandings and failings of human existence and find ourselves instead raised to the heights with Jesus. As it says in the parable: ‘friend, go up higher’. Or even as Jesus didn’t quite say, ‘pick up your bat and walk’ – the drawing is not finished yet!
Father Andrew Burton SSC