Monday, April 17, 2006

Now is eternal life

Now is eternal life
If risen with Christ we stand...

Words by Canon George Wallace Briggs, scholar of Emmanuel College Cambridge and sometime vicar of St Andrew's Church in Norwich, in the which parish I am one of only ten residents. Twentieth Century hymn writer, lived from 1875-1959.

Well I'm puzzled by this hymn. It turns out not to be in the English Hymnal (not surprisingly I suppose since the hymn was presumably written somewhat after that book was compiled). But the hymn seems to me to be more familiar than its sparse distribution in the existing hymn books would warrant.

The other puzzle is that if you'd asked me cold, I would have said that the words of the first verse as it appears in the NEH were not what Briggs wrote. In fact I can't back up that hunch from any source that I've discovered so far, though I have found something else wrong with the version in the NEH.

So here's what it says in the first verse:

Now is eternal life,
If risen with Christ we stand,
In him to life reborn,
And holden in his hand;
No more we fear death's ancient dread,
In Christ arisen from the dead.

The theology is Pauline. "If risen with Christ we stand" comes from Colossians 2:12 "Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God..." and Colossians 3:1 "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above". That's the source of the first four lines, though the image of rebirth is not there (but perhaps from I Peter 1:23?).

The hypothetical "if risen with Christ we stand" is reminiscent not just of that "if ye then be risen" of Colossian 3:1, but even more so of I Corinthians 15 (12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead...; 13 but if there be no resurrection...; 14 and if Christ be not risen...; 15 if so be that the dead rise not...; 16 for if the dead rise not...; 17 and if Christ be not raised...; 19 if in this life only we have hope...; ); but one can also trace the same ideas in Romans 6, which also has the baptismal theme. And the idea that death has lost its ancient dread also recalls the end of I Corinthians 15.

I think it was the reminiscence of the I Corinthians 15 material that made me think that the end of this verse should go "If Christ be risen from the dead". Perhaps there's some other reason, but right now it looks as if that thought is mere fantasy.

But this is what I have found about the version in the NEH.

First they have left out a verse. Between verse 1 (shown above) and verse 3 (which appears below) there should be verse 2. It goes like this:

Man long in bondage lay,
Brooding o'er life's brief span;
Was it, O God, for naught,
For naught thou madest man?
Thou art our hope, our vital breath;
Shall hope undying end in death?

This appears to me to be a meditation on I Corinthians 15:14 and 19, the thought that our faith is in vain if Christ be not risen, and that if we have hope only in this life then are we of all men the most miserable.

Verse 3 appears to be only minimally altered by the NEH (spurious words shown in brackets):

And (For) God, the living God,
Stooped down to man's estate;
By death destroying death,
Christ opened wide life's gate:
He lives, who died; he reigns on high;
Who lives in him shall never die.

One could spend some time working out the allusions to various bits of the New Testament in that verse, but I shall move on to the last one now.

Verse 4 goes like this, as Briggs wrote it (I assume):

Unfathomed love divine,
Reign thou within my heart;
From thee nor depth nor height,
Nor life nor death can part;
My life is hid in God with thee,
Now and through all eternity.

The imagery is from Romans 8:38-9 (Neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God...) and from Colossians 3:3 (For ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God). Here Briggs re-writes the latter from the position of the believer addressing Christ, not Paul addressing the believer, so he has us say my life is hid with thee (namely Christ, as in Colossians) in God.

For some obscure reason best known to the hymn book editors (perhaps, if they know what they're doing at all) line 5 has been rendered thus in the NEH:

Our life is hid with God in thee.

Is God hidden in Christ? That was not what St Paul said. Are we hidden in Christ with God? That was not what St Paul said. So why are we singing this garbage in Church? Does anyone know what it means? I certainly don't.

As for the change from singular to plural, that too seems to be entirely gratuitous. After all we have already had "reign thou within my heart" in verse 4, so we've moved into thinking singular already by that stage. There's no good reason that I can see to resist the move to applying the Pauline lessons to one's own individual faith, which is clearly the intentionof this verse.


Anonymous said...

(If you'll excuse the intrusion...)

The Companion to Hymns and Psalms* also gives the original fifth verse:
Thee will I love and serve
Now in time's passing day;
Thy hand shall hold me fast
When time is done away,
In God's unknown eternal spheres
To serve him through eternal years.

It doesn't record any alterations having been made to the version in Hymns and Psalms (which matches the NEH version once the modifications you noted have been accounted for), so it appears that the "In Christ arisen from the dead" line is original.

Further according to the Companion, it was first published in Congregational Praise (1951).

*Hymns and Psalms being the current Methodist hymn-book.

Catherine Rowett said...

Many thanks for this helpful commentary. I rather like verse 5!

Jonathan said...

Think "in God with thee" is a misprint, corrected in later editions of NEH.

Catherine Rowett said...

Ah thanks, Jonathan. "Misprint" is a charitable description of what I suppose we would call a mistake of transposition. But perhaps at any rate not deliberate or due to some obscure theological prejudice.