- Singing the Faith: 226
- Marjorie Dobson
- “Morning star” by James Harding
“Birth brings a promise” arose from a request to write a hymn for a student group. The chaplain who made the request asked that “the ‘fairy-tale’ elements of the Christmas story should be left out. So there would be no stars, shepherds or angels; simply the story of the incarnation and its implications for the world.”
That is exactly what Marjorie Dobson delivers. The opening two verses evoke the shared human experience of new birth (they could be the beginning of a baptism hymn), focussing on the “uncharted future” of each new life and the demands it makes on others: “calling for love to enfold and surround it”.
Verse 2 ends with the observation that any baby reshapes the patterns of our lives “by claiming a share”. This line provides the springboard to reflect, in verse 3, on the unique impact of Jesus’ life – changing the course of history by the act of his birth. Marjorie likens the incarnation to an act of “translation” – “rooting our faith” by revealing the mystery of God in a human “language” that we can understand.
Only verse 4 alludes to the shepherds and magi that Marjorie was originally asked to exclude from her text. “Wonder and worship were waiting to greet him… life was transformed for the ones sent to meet him, touching their God in a child’s outstretched hand.” Equally, such transformation hints at the even wider range of individuals who encountered Jesus during the course of his adult ministry.
In its original version, published in Multi-coloured Maze (2004: Stainer & Bell), Marjorie’s hymn concludes with an additional verse that, in the tradition of many carols, offers a challenge to the singers themselves:
Birth gives a promise of new life awaking.
Jesus the new-born calls us to new birth.
All that he promised is ours for the taking
when our commitment brings God down to earth.
Marjorie says that she intended this verse to point out that it is the work and witness of Christians that people see, hopefully prompting them to ask why our lives seem different and, through us, perceiving God on earth. “The 'all that he promised is ours for the taking' phrase refers to the words of Jesus himself, who promised that we would do 'all the things you have seen me do and more' when the Holy Spirit came.” (John 14: 12-31)
It may be that the compilers of Singing the Faith read into the verse a suggestion (certainly unintended) that God’s presence in the world is dependent on human activity and desire, hence its omission in the hymn book. Instead, the four-verse version ends with a strong and perfectly symmetrical line that balances the act of “rooting our faith” with God’s “presence on earth”. The meaning of the incarnation is encapsulated in two images of the soil on which we tread: “rooting” and “earth”.
With its clear-eyed, thoughtful reflection on the nativity stories, this text sits in the same tradition as Charles Wesley’s great Christmas hymns, such as Let earth and heaven combine (StF 208) – unsentimental, and unpacking the theology of the biblical stories rather than simply re-telling them in verse. Writing in 2010, Marjorie adds: “I still have great affection for this text and personally consider it one of my best.”