IN 1871, THE Reverend HR Bramley, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford and John Stainer, Organist of the College, published Christmas Carols New and Old. It was an immediate success and did much to raise the standard of carol-singing. Thirteen traditional carols with their proper music were revived, many of which will have been sung over this Christmas tide. Twenty four new carols were included, the words of some of which were by Bramley himself. One of these was "The great God of Heaven is come down to earth", set to a traditional tune. It is not often sung these days which is a great pity, as it presents the truth about the Incarnation in a striking and compelling way.
The last two verses are as follows: 0 wonder of wonders, which none can unfold; The Ancient of Days is an hour or two old; The Maker of all things is made of the earth; Man is worshipped by angels and God comes to birth.
The Word in the bliss of the Godhead remains, Yet in Flesh comes to suffer the keenest of pains, He is that He was, and for ever shall be, But became that He was not for you and for me.
It is remarkable that in the last two lines, Bramley expresses the truth of the Incarnation in 21 words, only two of which have more than one syllable.
In his Pastoral Letter for Advent Cardinal Hume said that, while for many the year 2000 will simply mark the beginning of a new Millennium, for Christians it will be different.
The Holy Father has called us to celebrate a special Jubilee in that year, recalling us to the fact that the most important event which Christians will celebrate will be the Incarnation, when God became man. So there is a three-year period of preparation. "This year's special theme is Jesus Christ, our Way, our Truth, our Life, he who is the same yesterday, today and for ever. Next year, 1998, we are asked to reflect on the Holy Spirit and then in 1999 on the Father".
S WE CONTEMPLATE
Our Lord and think about his Person and his life, what matters above all else is that we do so knowing and recognising that he is both God and Man and that his life is the life of God Incarnate. It is also necessary that we recognise and accept that the Catholic Faith shows a wonderful coherence in its wholeness. It does not consist of a set of propositions from which a selection can be made to suit our taste or the fashion of the world. As the history of Christendom demonstrates, that way led to heresy with its undue emphasis on one aspect of the truth leading to its distortion or the denial of some other truth.
So, the Church has always insisted that the Mystery of the Gospel speaks both of the Mystery of the Divine Being of God and of the Mystery of the Incarnation. God is revealed in his transcendent glory, the source and fulness of all life. He alone needs no reason to exist, but gives reason for all created life. He is also revealed to be the one whose love not only overflows to call into being that which was not, but amazingly wills to share with men and women his own life. He does so first in this life in the world which he has created and with the promise of its fulfilment in eternity.
We must see the truth of God as Transcendant Glory and the truth of God as Incarnate Love as being truths which are complementary. We must hold them together if the fulness of the Divine revelation is to be comprehended.
As we contemplate the life of Our Lord we must see it as a whole. In Bethlehem we must have Calvary in mind and at Calvary we must remember Bethlehem. We must remember both when we meditate upon the actions and words of Our Lord. As Kenneth Kirk wrote in 1950: "Without the Incarnation, the death upon the Cross effects nothing except to provide one more example of high idealism overcome by secular hostitility. Without the voluntary Atonement for man's sin, the Incarnation is a meaningless instance of supernatural exhibitionism".
So we know and tell of God who is the perfection of Love in himself, who having forgiven his children calls them with their imperfections to share in his creative love, and draws them to the perfect holiness as they share his glory.
S0 WITH GOD and his creation; the Catholic Faith speaks not of God or man in separation but of manhood created by God and in Christ taken into God; not of time or eternity but of eternity experienced in time for what is in time to be fulfilled in eternity; not of the past or the present but of the present in continuity with the past; not of stability or change but of change so that what is stable and eternally true may be embodied in the present; not of authority or freedom but of the divine authority which expressing the will of the creator, if accepted, gives freedom; not of the community or the individual but of the individual contributing to and finding himself in the community.
To be grasped by the immensity of God as Love, demands being embraced by the wholeness of his revelation of himself. Concentrate only on his transcended and forget Bethlehem and the Upper Room and God can seem remote and unattainable; concentrate only on Bethlehem and there is the danger of converting the Godhead into human flesh and identifying our sinful desires with his will; concentrate only on the Eternal Law and we find ourselves on the way to self-righteousness or a sense of impotence; concentrate only on the mercy and we are liable to forget the purpose of the mercy which is to lead us to holiness.
Think only of eternity and we can come to despise the world, forgetting that it is God's creation; think only of time and we shall judge the Gospel in terms of its usefulness in enabling us to survive from birth to death; think only of the past and we shall fail to respond to the present; think only of the future and we shall fail to be guided by the past.
Transcendence and imminence, time and eternity, body and spirit, grace and free will, judgement and mercy, faith and reason are all essential elements in our understanding and experience of God as we, his created beings, live in his world. They must be seen as complimentary if we are to grasp the Mystery of God, Eternal in being, Incarnate in time.
NE OF THE great professions of faith in the Catholic Church is the Quicunque vult (the Latin of its opening words), commonly called the Athanasian Creed, though it was almost certainly not composed by him.
In the old Breviary it was said on most Sundays at Prime. It expresses in beautiful but formal language the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and of the Incarnation which are reflected in Bramley's verse.
When carols are laid aside until next Christmas some of its phrases upon us the need to be inspired by the true doctrine of the Incarnation as we fulfil the Holy Father's call to contemplate Our Lord during 1997.
"For the right Faith is that we believe and confess; that Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God".