Just this morning I was listening to a brief podcast on Ancient Faith Radio concerning angels. The host was interviewing an author who has just published a book on the Orthodox belief about and experience with angels. It got me to thinking about some of the hymns I sang in church when an “evangelical” protestant. While we didn’t talk a lot about angels, they weren’t absent, even if they didn’t quite have the status that they do in the Eastern Orthodox world. But I did think of a line from a hymn by Matthew Bridges that makes a reference to angels that, to my mind, is quite profound. I’d like to draw your attention to it.
Bridges was an Englishman raised Anglican and turned Roman Catholic. He wrote books of history and theology as well as hymns. One hymn is used frequently in the protestant and Roman Catholic world, “Crown Him with many crowns.” As a child, this was my favorite hymn, and I miss singing it very much. It is full of biblical imagery and profound statements of who Christ is and what He did.
This is one of those hymns that seems to vary from book to book in how many verses are provided and how they are edited. The structure of this hymn is based on each stanza beginning with the imperative “Crown Him the Lord of…” and then proceeding to various aspects of Jesus’ lordship: “Lord of life,” “Lord of peace,” “Lord of love,” “Lord of years,” “Lord of heav’n.” Not all hymnals have all of them, and sometimes they differ in the lines that follow. I prefer the one I grew up with except for the lack (or omission) of “Lord of love.” Here is the stanza:
Crown Him the Lord of love, behold His hands and side,
Rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified;
No angel in the sky can fully bear that sight,
But downward bend their burning eyes at mysteries so bright.
I suspect that the hymnal of my youth left out this verse because it was thought to be too un-biblical. I don’t know that for sure, but the book was produced by strict literalists who at times omitted phrases that didn’t fit their “low church” style and at times allowed fanciful phrases like “A little light from heaven filled my soul, it bathed my heart in love and wrote my name above.” One must allow for some poetic license in metric song. But it was applied rather unevenly.
Besides, the stanza given above is thoroughly biblical. First, in the Gospel of John is told the story of how the Apostle Thomas was brought to faith by being invited by the Master to “touch my hands and side.” The Risen Lord had visible wounds in His resurrected body.
As to the angels, speaking of the salvation in Christ, St. Peter says in his first epistle (1:12) that “even the angels long to look into these things.” If the footnote in my Bible is correct, the Greek word implies “to stoop and look intently.” In 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 and Romans 16:25, St. Paul speaks of this as “the mystery hidden from the ages,” a mystery hidden also from the angels. This is expanded on quite a lot in Ephesians 1-3.
The “burning eye” of Bridges’ stanza is surely a reference to Psalm 104:4, “He makes his angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire.”
The image of these heavenly beings, who never cease to praise God and adore His majesty but who, nonetheless, are ignorant of His grace, astounded at the condescension to the point of “death on the cross” of God the Word, stooping from their lofty perch, as it were, to gaze on that love made manifest, is awesome.