Friday, October 16, 2009

Celebration of Reformation Hymn "Dear Christians.." (part I)

       1.  Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice,
           With exultation springing,
           And, with united heart and voice,
           And holy rapture singing,
           Proclaim the wonders God hath done,
           How His right arm the victory won;
           Right dearly it hath cost him.

There is no better way to greet each other than to address one another as “Dear Christian.”  Before I am Michael or “vicar” I am first a Christian.  It is the name that precedes any other name, “But You are He who took Me out of the womb” (Ps. 22:9).  For we bear the name of Christ and in faith are called to be “little Christs” to one another.  To greet one another with the name of Christ is to acknowledge that we exist, move, and have our being in one body.  Christians in the community of church may as well say “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh” for we have our origin in the person and work of Jesus who weds himself to the church. 

The first stanza of this hymn works as a doxological opening to the larger narrative of the hymn.  This follows the common structure of the book of Psalms by opening with a celebration and remembrance of God’s work.  The pleas, petitions, and laments flow forth from the invocation of God’s action in man – the sacrifice and the victory won.  The “cost” and victory of God’s right arm is the Christ event. 

       2.  Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay.
           Death brooded darkly o'er me.
           Sin was my torment night and day.
           In sin my mother bore me.
           Yea, deep and deeper still I fell.
           Life had become a living hell,
           So firmly sin possessed me.

The second stanza plunges headfirst into story of captivity from birth.  This narrative stands in opposition to the broadly held assumption of the Enlightenment led by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom asserted that man is indeed free from birth so long as he is born in a “state of nature.”  The idea of the noble savage is that man is pure and good in nature, and that the blame for brokenness and war rests only in the dysfunction of society, arising from the less enlightened.  Rousseau, himself a Calvinist, repudiated the idea of original sin, writing in his famous novel Emile, "there is no original perversity in the human heart." 

Luther however, in this hymn of liberation begins from the starting point of bondage, rather than freedom.  After Luther’s doxological praise in the first stanza, he brings the hymn into a confession of the ravages of sin, death, and the devil.  There is no greater image for sin and hell than that of “being curved in on one’s self (incurvatus est).”  This torment, this “deep falling,” and “living hell,” are consequences of the inner dialogue of the law, being about by all sides.  It is the great paradox that the more one tries to become holy apart from God’s gift, the greater one falls into captivity.  The desire to ascend to the holy heights of Zion, when sought apart from God’s complete giving, hurls one into despair and hell.  This was the desire of the fallen angels, Lucifer, the devil himself.  It was the desire of Adam and Eve in the garden.  It is the desire of every human heart and the religious ego to carve out holiness and divinity for himself, to be something more than a child of God – something more than creature – something more than the crown of creation, which of course if absurd.             

       3.  My own good works availed me naught,
           No merit they attaining.
           Free will against God's judgment fought,
           Dead to all good remaining.
           My fears increased till sheer despair
           Left naught but death to be my share.
           The pains of hell I suffered.

One’s “own good works” and free will work in contradiction to the God, whom as Oswald Bayer observes is “categorically the one who gives.”  The good works and free will that proceed as a self-willed anthropocentric salvific activity are themselves damning and oppose the giving God who desires to be the one whom works and wills, “For I will surely save you” (Jer. 39:18).  Nevertheless, human free will, is not only neutral or opposed to God’s lavish giving but fights actively against it.  Certainly we see this most lucidly in the life of the early Luther, whose anfechtung increased in direct relation to his desire to turn God’s wrath away and merit one iota of divine favor and approval. 

This falling, fear, and pains of hell sung and confessed here is not outside of God's work or mercy but is a necessary and proper work that He carries out.  It is in mercy that He hinders and frustrates our heavenly ascent that he may descend in heavenly Word and Supper to raise us to life.  The only true comfort to the terrified conscience is found here, when the human heart as “actor” and “doer” is put to rest that God may work in us, “all you who are weary and heavy and burdened and I will give you rest.”  Our Lord is speaking about the burden of the law, the demonic judgment and oppression of human work and expectation that seeks to procure a peace for itself.  The greatest tragedies, events of human cruelty and holocausts proceed from the desire for a manufactured utopian peace – zealous endevour to bring heaven to earth apart from Christ’s incarnation.  The common phrase, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is therefore biblically and experientially rich and true. 

I have written about The Distinctive Nature of Lutheran Hymnody Here

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