- Singing the Faith: 208 (CD9 8)
- Charles Wesley
- “St John (Adoration)” by William Havergal
Ideas for use
See Hymns to build worship around (#5 "Preaching on hymns") and Hark! The herald-angels sing (StF 208).
When taken together with Hark! The herald-angels sing (StF 202) and Glory be to God on high (StF 199), also by Charles Wesley, it is hard to think of a selection of Christmas hymns that express more brilliantly what we know as the “doctrine of the incarnation” – the idea that God becomes real and present for us in a tiny baby born in Bethlehem. In “Let earth and heaven combine”, Wesley describes the wonder and the paradox of it all in two memorable lines that reveal his gift for poetry as much as his grasp of the theology:
our God contracted to a span,
incomprehensibly made man. (v.1)
(With tongue only partly in cheek, hymn writer Ian Worsfold says that "Let earth and heaven combine" is one hymn he wishes he'd written himself – "because Wesley managed to squeeze the word ‘incomprehensibly’ into a hymn!" He goes on: "This is inspired and inspiring writing. Wesley is able to capture such a deep theological concept in such a short space. It is an economy of language that gives you so much.”)
John Vickers comments that, among the traditional carols and 19th century hymns we sing at Christmas, Charles Wesley’s hymns “stand out by their lack of sentimentality”. In verse 2, the image of a baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and surrounded by placid animals is transformed into a statement of God’s humility and nearness. God is not a distant being that lords it over creation; rather “he laid his glory by”, takes up our shape and form (“our clay”) and slips into our lives almost unnoticed; “unmarked by human eye, the latent Godhead lay”.
As a result (verse 4), not only may we now understand our lives and physical presence (our “human condition”) as good in the eyes of God who has shared the experience with us (itself a harkening back to the first creation story in Genesis 1); we can also experience “the life of God” in whole new way because it has been made “manifest below”.
More than that – God’s intimate involvement with, and commitment to, our lives draws us into God’s holiness. Wesley expresses this in startling phrases: God makes us “all divine” (v.4); we will (in a statement of another important Wesleyan belief) be “made perfect first in love, and sanctified by grace”.
Indeed, Wesley gets more and more excited as the hymn goes on so that, at its close, he can barely contain himself as he encapsulates perhaps more succinctly and profoundly than anywhere else in Singing the Faith the Christian understanding of death and the fulfilment of God’s vision for creation:
his love shall then be fully showed,
and we shall all be lost in God.