Friday, December 7, 2012

Ambrose of Milan, Advent hymns, Charles Wesley, individual eschatology, and ecumenism

5th-century (or possibly contemporary?)
mosaic, Basilica of St. Ambrose, Milan
Can a brief blog post possibly tie all those things together?

Today (December 7) is the feast day of St. Ambrose of Milan (ca. 339-397), regarded by many as the "father of Christian hymnody" due to his role in popularizing the singing of metrical liturgical hymns in the Western church. I've frequently invoked Ambrose's hymns in my Christian Theology courses to illustrate the lex orandi, lex credendi ("rule of praying, rule of believing)" principle of the coinherence of the church's liturgy and theology, for he composed numerous hymns that reinforced Nicene orthodoxy at a time when its reception in Northern Italy was in doubt. Many of these hymn texts are included in the hymnals of various Christian denominational traditions today, including the Advent hymn "Savior of the Nations, Come" that was later popularized through a German translation of its Latin text by none other than Martin Luther. (My personal favorite Ambrosian hymn in English translation is "O Splendor of God's Glory Bright," a recent choral setting of which may be heard here.)

Speaking of Advent hymns, yesterday evening I continued my custom of introducing the unit on "individual eschatology" in my Christian Theology II course with Charles Wesley's hymn "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending" (a nice choral rendition of the hymn by the Lichfield Cathedral Choir may be heard here). It's one of the few eschatologically-themed hymns included in North American evangelical hymnals that treat the return of Christ in terms broader than the occasion for eternal life in heaven, and its stanzas help the class place individual eschatology within the context of the preceding unit on cosmic eschatology.

For the past five years the singing of that hymn has powerfully recalled to my mind one of the most meaningful ecumenical gatherings in which I've ever participated. The December 2007 meeting of the Baptist World Alliance-Roman Catholic Church international theological conversations in Rome coincided with an ecumenical worship service at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in honor of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Charles Wesley. The members of the Baptist and Catholic delegations were privileged to attend this service at which both Walter Cardinal Kasper (then President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) and Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright spoke and during which we sang several of Wesley's hymns, including the well-known "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" as well as "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending." We were reminded that something Baptists and Catholics share in common today, beyond many other things we discussed that week, is our mutual reception of the heritage of Wesleyan hymnody in our services of worship.

With controversy over language regarding the participation of the Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus in a proposed text for a renewed Latin Tridentine rite mass very much in the news then, as we walked from the Basilica back to our bus after that service several of us were discussing the seeming anti-Semitic overtones in the second stanza of "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending." As I suggested to my students last evening, while it's probable that Wesley had the Jews in mind in the second stanza ("Those who set at naught and sold him / Pierced and nailed him to the tree / Deeply wailing... / Shall their true Messiah see"), it's also possible to hear stanzas two and three as referring to the same group of people: for we, sinful yet redeemed humanity, are simultaneously "those who set at naught and sold him" and "his ransomed worshipers" whose twofold response to the coming of the Lord is both "deep wailing" and "endless exultation." For what it's worth.

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