Imagine yourself as a Jew living in Jerusalem in the year we now call A.D. 301. Roman
rule over Judea embitters your life. Your religious leaders—the Pharisees—have burdened you with numerous invented religious “laws” which they say you must follow in order to be righteous in God’s eyes. Sadducees, the other prominent Jewish social/ religious/political element, control the high priest’s office and hold a majority in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court); but they are wealthy aristocratic appeasers of Rome who are entirely out of touch with, and much despised by, the common Jewish residents of Judea.
Then one day you hear exciting news—news that promises to change all that. You’ve already heard rumors: In the synagogue in Nazareth, a man called Jesus proclaimed Himself the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah (Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-20). Unlike others who made that claim, however, this Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and caused the lame to walk. He declared that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and confirmed His divine authority and message by performing miracles. He confronted the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and they could not confute what He said. Surely, this must be the long-promised Messiah, and He’s coming here to Jerusalem for the Passover! Jesus is coming! How will you greet Him when He arrives?
This month’s hymn poses that question for us also today. “O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee/ How welcome Thee aright?” (v. 1) It answers “I, too, will adore Thee/ With joyous songs and psalms” (v. 2) and “Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted” (v. 5).
Hymn 58 is an Advent hymn. Advent is the season when we celebrate the coming of God as man, in order to save mankind. The word advent literally means “coming” or “arrival.” During the Advent season, we celebrate the coming of the Savior into the world to carry out His ministry of salvation, and we also look for His second advent at the end of the world, on Judgment Day. But there’s much more to Advent than those two singular events—one past and one future. We celebrate also the advent of the Savior to each of us personally. So this hymn says, “I lay in fetters, groaning,/ Thou com’st to set me free;/ I stood,
my shame bemoaning, Thou com’st to honor me.”
Did you notice the stark contrast? We are bound; He sets us free. We have shame; He gives us honor. This dichotomy between our total unworthiness and God’s astounding grace in saving us is the difference between Christianity and all other religions, and Paul Gerhardt—theologically sound Lutheran that he was2—emphasizes it in this hymn.
So Gerhardt sings “Love caused Thy incarnation,/ Love brought Thee down to me;/ Thy thirst for my salvation/ Procured my liberty” (v. 4). Where is man’s participation in his own salvation? It is entirely absent. Again, Gerhardt tells us, “He comes, He comes all willing,/ Moved by His love alone,/ Your woes and troubles stilling;/ For all to Him are known” (v. 6).
There will be one more advent of Jesus. It will be His coming in Judgment at the last day. That advent will be “a terror to His foes,” but “A light of consolations/ And blessed Hope to those/ Who love the Lord’s appearing” (v 9). Note also in this last verse the play on the word Sun: “O glorious Sun, now come,/ Send forth Thy beams most cheering,/ and guide us safely home.” The word Sun is capitalized to designate the Son of God, but it is spelled with a u to fit the image of glorious beams showing us the way home.
It is now Advent season. O Lord, how shall I meet Thee?
1 According to the chronology compiled by Philip Mauro, The Wonders of Bible Chronology, (Berryville, VA, Hess Publications, 1983) p. 101
2 If you have access to archived copies of The Lutheran Spokesman, see the September 2007 issue for a profile on Paul Gerhardt. Available also at http://lutheranspokesman.org/pdf-archives/
Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.