Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing

Posted in Blog, Christmas

I am sure that this Christmas, as at every Christmas, we shall enjoy singing ‘O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant’. Modern hymnbooks, including Complete Mission Praise, use a 1986 modernisation so that the first line reads ‘O come, all you faithful’ and the first line of the final rousing verse becomes ‘Yes, Lord, we greet You, born that/this happy morning.’ The thought behind the forward slash alterative in the second line is that you can only really sing this  happy morning on Christmas day itself. That moment is one of the highlights of Christmas day and allows congregations throughout the English speaking world to respond with full and joyful hearts to the wonderful words of the hymn and to the vigorous tune Adeste Fideles.

The hymn is a translation by Frederick Oakeley of an eighteenth century manuscript in Latin from the English College at Douai in northern France. Oakeley translated the hymn in 1841 for his congregation at Margaret Street Chapel, now All Saints, Margaret Steet, near Oxford Circus in London. The tune was probably composed by John Francis Wade, who was a musician at the college in Douai, and first appeared (harmonised by W H Monk) in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861. At the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 2020, they sang all seven verses including the one which begins ‘Lo! Star-led chieftains, Magi, Christ adoring’.

The singing of the final verse is the climax of any Christmas:

Yes Lord, we greet You,

Born this happy morning,

Jesus, to you be glory given!

Word of the Father,

Now in flesh appearing

O come, let us adore Him …

 Less than two years after Oakeley died, William Temple was born in the Bishop’s Palace in Exeter but, before he was four, he left Devon for Fulham Palace which was to become his home when his father, Frederick, became Bishop of London. During his life, William was to reflect deeply on those words ‘Word of the Father’ and put them in writing in 1938 in his much-loved book Readings in John’s Gospel. The Word (Logos), he wrote, combines two meanings: ‘It is the Word of the Lord by which the heavens were made, and which came to the Prophets. It is also the Rational Principle which gives unity and significance to all existing things.’ So the writer of the Gospel of John doesn’t begin his Gospel with an unfamiliar truth. Rather he seeks common ground with his readers. The word Logos, for both Jews and Greek philosophers, represented the ruling fact of the universe – and the Gospel writer represents that fact as the self-expression of God.

John established at the beginning of his Gospel common ground with his readers. ‘If they are Jews,’ Temple reflected, ‘they will recognise and assent to the familiar doctrine of the Old Testament concerning the Word of God. If they are Greeks they will recognise and assent to the declaration that the ultimate reality is Mind expressing itself.’

Frederick Oakeley used his gifts as translator and poet to put these thoughts into unforgettable words and it will be good to remember them as we sing the hymn and listen to the verses from John 1:1-14 read at Christmas services: ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the old begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.’