Charles Wesley (1708-88)
Tune: AMSTERDAM Foundery Collection (1742 Wesley)
Glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend:
God comes down, he bows the sky,
And shows himself our friend:
God the invisible appears:
God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name.
Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humbled Lord
They now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is born!
See the eternal Son of God
A mortal son of man
Dwelling in an earthly clod
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies:
Humbled to the dust he is,
And in a manger lies.
We, earth’s children, now rejoice,
The Prince of Peace proclaim;
With heaven’s host lift up our voice
And shout Immanuel’s name:
Knees and hearts to him we bow;
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own.
The climax of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, at King’s College, Cambridge, and everywhere else, comes as the last lesson is read, preceded by the words, ‘Saint John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.’ Those words herald the first fourteen verses of the Gospel, ending with ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’
How the Word became flesh is never explained. St John, and the other authors of the synoptic gospels, allow the mystery to remain unresolved. St Matthew gives us the reassurance of the angel to Joseph, and the wise men; St Luke gives us the shepherds abiding in the fields, and the angels singing ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace’. But neither attempts to explore the amazing event any further. They provide the narratives that have inspired poets and painters for two thousand years, and shaped our Christmases for as long as we can remember: the child laid in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn, the ox and ass, the visit of the shepherds, the wise men led by a star and bringing their gifts.
Charles Wesley celebrates the mystery in ways that draw attention to it, magnify it even. Look, he says, Look! Look! He bases his account on the well known stories, but to our amazement – at least it should be to our amazement - he dares to emphasise their wonder. We might say that he seems to exaggerate those elements of the story in order to bring home to every reader or singer the extraordinary events and their meaning. He begins conventionally enough, with the angels singing ‘Glory be to God on high,/And peace on earth descend’; but then we have the astonishing ‘God comes down, he bows the sky’. He bends the sky down, makes it bow, because heaven bows down to touch the earth when the Christ child who is God is born. Throughout the hymn Charles Wesley offers us such apparent impossibilities, only to clarify and simplify them in what follows. So here ‘God the invisible appears’ which is of course a paradox, but to emphasise the paradox he is ‘the great I AM’, the unseen God who answers Moses with ‘I AM THAT I AM’ in Exodus chapter 3. Here the great I AM comes to earth ‘And Jesus is his name.’ The name of Jesus transforms the God of the Old Testament into the Christ of the New Testament. This is the Christ of Philippians 2, one of Charles Wesley’s favourite chapters, through which in this hymn he sees the narrative of the Incarnation: ‘he humbled himself’, as Philippians says, ‘wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name that is above every name...’.
We return to the angels at the beginning of verse 2, in which the angels bring ‘tidings’ to mortals. This comes straight from Luke’s account, in which the angel tells the shepherds that he brings ‘good tidings of great joy’. That is easy to grasp, but what follows is astonishing. It begins with God being emptied of his majesty, as in Philippians 2, but then turns into a startling paradox, emphasised by the conjunction of the similar words: ‘Being’s source begins to be’. ‘Being’s’ and ‘begins’ have the same letters, rearranged and yet also clashing: how can ‘being’s source begin to be’? And then we realise that we are regarding the Creator, being’s source, starting life on earth, beginning ‘to be’. If we are temporarily bewildered by that line, the next line gives us the solution simply enough: ‘And God himself is born!’
The remaining two verses draw out the significance of what we have just sung. We continue with the paradoxes, as the Son of God becomes the mortal son of man, the word ‘mortal’ reminding us that the babe in the manger is fated to die, obedient unto death (Philippians 2: 5). God, whom the heavens cannot contain, is now ‘dwelling in an earthly clod’, the Word made flesh. It is not just we who are to be astonished. The heavens themselves should stand amazed at the way in which the Lord of earth and skies is humbled. And again the verse ends in absolute simplicity: ‘And in a manger lies.’
It now remains for the hymn to conclude in rejoicing, at the coming of the Prince of Peace. We are invited to ‘shout Immanuel’s name’, and to bow knees and hearts, for the last time from Philippians 2, for, in the final unexpected twist to his new-found humanity, ‘Jesus is our brother now, And God is all our own.’ The exploration of what Christmas really means is now complete.
O Lord our God, help us to welcome the great mystery of the incarnation, and to value those who make it more vivid in painting, poetry or preaching. May we approach the stable in Bethlehem through them; and may we, like the shepherds and the wise men, come to it with humble minds and generous hearts; and may we show forth your love in thanksgiving and service through Christmas and the coming year, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Glory Be To God On High - Christian Hymn & Spiritual Song Lyrics with Orchestral backing music.