photo | sky over Newhall, Piers Northam
My friend Diana reflects on one of her favourite Advent hymns.
‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’ is not a typical Advent hymn: these tend to be reflective and in minor keys. This one is a jolly good sing, but also has some theology in it, like all good hymns do. Many years ago, under a previous vicar, we used to sing it every week in Advent so I suspect it was a favourite of his too! I don’t think we should sing it that often as its very familiarity can stop us hearing its message.
It was written by Charles Wesley, so we shouldn’t be surprised at the theology, and the tune, Helmsley, was written by Thomas Olivers, a Welsh preacher and hymn writer. As is often the case with Wesley’s hymns there were more than the usual four verses that we have in our hymn books; it is likely that he started with a text by John Cennick, which starts with ‘Lo, he cometh, countless trumpets’. Charles Wesley modified some of the verses and in the New English hymnal we have the most popular version. If you look on line you can find some variations but all of them start with the image of the triumphant Christ of Revelation returning to earth, a second coming that will be very different from the first as a baby in Bethlehem.
However this hymn does not shy away from the story of Holy Week – in contrast to the image of the Son of Man coming on clouds, in line one, we are told that he was ‘once for favoured sinners slain.’ But this entrance into the world sees Jesus accompanied by ‘thousand thousand saints attending’. ‘Alleluya!’ they sing, we sing, ‘God appears on earth to reign.’ Wesley points out that everyone will see Jesus this time, including those who played a part in his killing. Now, though, they will see the ‘true Messiah’ the one the Jews had been expecting for millennia, the true King of all creation in power. But, the third verse goes on, don’t forget what happened, those scars can still be seen to remind us of the great love that he showed us at Calvary.
The fourth verse is all about giving Jesus the praise that he deserves as God the Son. We acknowledge him sitting on the eternal throne and we ask him, we plead for him, to claim the Kingdom with all his power and glory so that God’s Kingdom is established on earth in all its fullness. ‘Come quickly, O come quickly! Allelyua! Come, Lord, come!’ Amen
Lo! he comes with clouds descending,
once for favoured sinners slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
God appears, on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold him
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at nought and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
shall the true Messiah see.
Those dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers:
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Saviour, take the power and glory:
claim the kingdom for thine own:
O come quickly!
alleluya! come, Lord, come!