He sent no angel to our race

I first heard this hymn (copied below) in a Lutheran church, on the Feast of the Transfiguration. It must (imperatively!) be sung to the original 15th-century Agincourt tune; otherwise, it loses vigor.

The unique stanza is the second.  “He sent no angel to our race / of higher or of lower place.” It’s the only such stanza I know of among hymns.  The rest of the song is a fairly standard repetition of our Lord’s life; but the reference to angels is the eye-catcher.  It’s an echo of Hebrews 1, and it references both the fact that Christ is greater than the angels (being God) and that He made Himself lower than the angels to take on our nature.

The fact is that we live in a world without Gandalfs.  However much we like to imagine supernatural Servants of the Secret Fire laboring among men and leading them out of their darkness, that is not how God has dealt with our world.  He sent the Secret Fire directly.  And that secret is what was revealed for a moment in a flash of glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.

At the Transfiguration, significantly, there are no angels. There are only Men.  Moses appears, and Elijah.  Our Lord undergoes such a transformation as can only be called a theophany; and yet it is a theophany in which God speaks with Moses and Elijah face to face, as a man speaks with his friends.

Interestingly, the hymn below doesn’t itself mention the Transfiguration, exactly.  But an oblique reference occurs in the third stanza. Notice the “holy fast” of the Lord.  The Feast of the Transfiguration originally took place near the beginning of Lent, the 40 days during which we remember and symbolically imitate Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.  The original idea was perhaps that the Transfiguration is a source of strength–as a vision of the stars might give one hope in the darkness.

The Christian life is hard. Our Lord made no secret of that fact among his disciples. And it is significant that before going into His darkest hour, He manifested Himself for a moment as He truly was, in the other world.  Perhaps this manifestation is indeed meant to be for us like the phial of Galadriel:  “a light in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

Or as St. Peter puts it:

Such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:17-19)

*       *       *       *       *

O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High

O love, how deep, how broad, how high,
It fills the heart with ecstasy,
That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortals’ sake!

He sent no angel to our race
Of higher or of lower place,
But wore the robe of human frame
Himself, and to this lost world came.

For us baptized, for us He bore
His holy fast and hungered sore,
For us temptation sharp He knew;
For us the tempter overthrew.

For us He prayed; for us He taught;
For us His daily works He wrought;
By words and signs and actions thus
Still seeking not Himself, but us.

For us to wicked men betrayed,
Scourged, mocked, in purple robe arrayed,
He bore the shameful cross and death,
For us gave up His dying breath.

For us He rose from death again;
For us He went on high to reign;
For us He sent His Spirit here,
To guide, to strengthen, and to cheer.

To Him Whose boundless love has won
Salvation for us through His Son,
To God the Father, glory be
Both now and through eternity.

~ Unknown author, 15th century. Tune: “Agincourt Hymn,” 1415.

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About middlingpoet

From the Gawain poet to Rainer Maria Rilke: I love traditional poetry.
This entry was posted in Church Year, Hymns, Lent, mysticism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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