Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending

An ancient Celtic prayer for Advent begins:

Days of heavy clouds stifling the sunlight
The world burdened by grayness and gloom
Open our eyes, Lord, to the coming of your light
Lifting the burden of darkness from our lives.

The imagery from the natural world is typical of Celtic prayers. This is reminiscent of the phrase from the Advent ‘O’ Antiphons, on which the hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel” is based: “Come and enlighten us who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Clouds and darkness here are metaphors for our imprisonment in gloom and sin. The imagery of clouds has other meanings as well on the First Sunday of Advent. It appears in poetry both about the Incarnation and in texts on the subject of the Second Coming. One of the medieval Introits for Advent, Rorate coeli, translates:

Drop down, ye heavens, from above,
And let the skies pour down righteousness.
Let the earth open, and let her bring forth salvation.

Immediately, then, as this Mass is begun, the theme of the meeting of heaven and earth is introduced. Our first reading this year, the opening of the 64th chapter of Isaiah, begins:

O that thou wouldest rend the heavens,
That thou wouldest come down,
That the mountains might tremble at your presence.

The Gospel reading from St. Mark describes the darkening of the sun, moon and stars, and the “Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

At the conclusion of our Advent Lessons and Carols service we sing “Lo! He comes with clouds descending” to a tune associated with it since Charles Wesley wrote the words in the mid-eighteenth century. The combination of the tune ‘Helmsley’ (earlier in the season we sing it to the simpler tune, ‘St. Thomas’) and Wesley’s poem seem to reconcile the duality of Advent – threatening and comforting, destructive and redemptive – and turn the words based on the Book of Revelation into a celebration. Wesley’s original, now somewhat watered down in our hymnals, went as follows:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain,
Thousand thousand saints attending
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

This first verse is inspired by verses from First Thessalonians (3:13 and 4:16). This is followed by images from Revelation (1:7 and 5:6-14):

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heav’n and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!

Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All his saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
See the day of God appear!

This again is a reference to First Thessalonians 4:16: “…we who are alive…shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…”

Answer Thine own bride and Spirit,
Hasten, Lord, the general doom!
The new Heav’n and earth t’inherit,
Take Thy pining exiles home:
All creation, all creation,
Travails, groans, and bids Thee come.

Doom and destruction may seem a bit harsh, but the new creation cannot come without destruction; the destruction of evil and injustice is necessary for a reign of peace and harmony with God.

The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

A hymn commentator writes:

“The King bears in his own body the message of the Gospel. That which was done out of hatred, rebellion and pride has been transformed…into the centerpiece of adoration and praise for all eternity.” This is what enables the song of praise in the last verse:

Yea, Amen! Let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne.
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!

So the poem has progressed from acknowledging the coming of Christ to invoking it. The terrors of the Last Judgment are, in a sense, only a sweeping away of whatever is false and imperfect, a necessary prelude to God’s reign. We are reminded of verses in the last chapter of Revelation:

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense,
to repay every one for what he has done.”
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”
And let him who hears say, “Come.”
And let him who is thirsty come,
let him who desires take the water of life without price.

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