The article of the month
The Poetry of Praise by Anthony Esolen
He Is Near
If the Jordan River were an allegory of the life of man, it would be a tragic thing indeed, beginning in health and beauty, rushing down the mountains of Syria, carving a brief and fruitful rift in the land, and sinking into a salt sea where nothing can live. And yet the Jordan rolls. It has shaken the history of man as no other river has done. It is mightier than the Mississippi, more mystical than the Rhine, more fruitful than the Nile, holier than the Ganges.
See, two thousand years ago, the forerunner, all muscle and bone, and robed in camel skin. He is a trumpet for repentance. Who are you? asked the priests and Levites who had been sent to spy on him. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, said John, make straight the way of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah said (Jn 1:23).
Man is ever at the banks of the Jordan. He is the leper Naaman longing to be healed. He is the sinner who longs to drown his guilt. He is the circumspect politician whispering to his colleague, the curious jester who takes things more seriously than he lets on, the grave and passionate youth eager to find someone to follow. Man flows along the river the time, yet each of his moments trembles on the brink of eternity.
On the shore of arrival
John’s voice was urgent. We hear that urgency and we sing along with it in the muscular hymn “On Jordan’s Bank,” written in Latin by Charles Coffin for the Paris Breviary (1736), Iordanis oras praevia. For when Isaiah asked what God wanted him to cry out, he heard, All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field, for the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever (40:6, 8). God, for whom all the oceans are a little water in the hand, comes to save Israel from the nations, which are to him as a drop in the bucket (40:15). He comes to save and to judge, says John, for he is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29), and his winnowing fan is ready, to save the grain and clear the chaff away.
We begin with the call:
On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings of the King of kings.
In Coffin’s Latin, it isn’t just that John’s voice does some announcing. It literally shakes the shores of the river. Well then, let us wake up! Ignavus abscedat sopor, says Coffin: “Let ignorant sleepiness depart!” Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion, cries the prophet (Is 52:1), and the Lord himself invites us and warns us, for we do not know the hour when the master of the house shall come: What I say unto you I say unto all, Watch (Mk 13:37).
Lay down the highway
The second stanza is omitted in every English hymnal I’ve seen, though I don’t know why:
E’en now the air, the sea, the land
Feel that their Maker is at hand;
The very elements rejoice,
And welcome him with cheerful voice.
Perhaps Coffin had in mind the beauty of Israel redeemed as Isaiah describes it, when the Lord says, I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys (Is 41:18). The springtime of Christ’s work in the world is arriving. Let us greet it, and not wait till those days when the sun shall be darkened, and the moon not give her light, and the stars fall from heaven (Mt 24:29). Remember that the world is involved in the fall of man, and the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains until now, says Saint Paul (Rom 8:22). That creation too will be involved in man’s redemption, as we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth (cf. Rv 21:1).
If the elements rejoice, what should man do? Prepare, prepare:
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
Make straight the way of God within,
And let each heart prepare a home
Where such a mighty guest may come.
The Latin is really striking, not bland and abstract. Deo propinquanti viam/ Sternamus: Let us lay down a road for him who is drawing near. That’s some work. Clear the land, get rid of the rocks, dig down for a foundation, and lay the paving stones. And while we’re at it, we must get to work on our hearts, furnishing them, making them clean and sweet, so that there will be a fit room there in the inn for the Lord at his birth, and he may abide in us, and we in him (Jn 15:4).
Room for life
The Lord desires to dwell in our hearts. If we shut him out, if we do not abide in him, we are like branches trying to live apart from the vine, says Jesus, for without me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5):
For thou art our salvation, Lord,
Our refuge and our great reward;
Without thy grace we waste away
Like flowers that wither and decay.
All flesh is grass, destined for the fire of change and decay, death and dissolution. We must be born again, says Saint Peter, thinking of Isaiah and the whole Gospel—born not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, for all flesh is as grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass, but the word of the Lord abides forever, the word, that is, the Gospel we have been blessed to hear (1 Pt 1:23-25). But there is more, and this is hard to explain to people who have not known Christ. We do not believe merely that Jesus shall save us. We believe that Jesus is our salvation. Jesus is our health. Jesus is our life.
“You have written well of me, Thomas,” said Christ to the great theologian. “What reward do you ask?” “You alone,” said Thomas Aquinas.
Touching and seeing
In the meantime, we call upon him in our infirmities, as sick men and sinners and a groaning world did when Jesus embarked upon his ministry:
To heal the sick stretch out thine hand
And bid the fallen sinner stand;
Shine forth, and let thy light restore
Earth’s own true loveliness once more.
In the Old Testament, when God stretches forth his hands, it is to demonstrate his might or to execute judgment, but the poet is thinking of all those times when Jesus in his mercy touched others. Think of the blind Bartimaeus, and the paste that Jesus made with his spittle, pressing it into the man’s eyes. Think of the deaf man whose ears he opened when he inserted his fingers into them. Think of the little girl who had died, whom he took by the hand, speaking gently in the common Aramaic, Talitha, cumi: Little girl, get up. Think of the boy from whom Jesus had thrust the unclean spirit, and who lay insensible upon the ground after a violent convulsion; and Jesus took him by the hand, and he arose. No doubt the apostles had laid hands upon the child to command the spirit to leave him. His father had often had to restrain him lest he hurt himself. But it was the hand of Jesus that healed him.
And, after Jesus rose from the dead and conferred upon them the Holy Spirit, the apostles prayed accordingly: Grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal (Acts 4:29-30). Imagine that each of those apostles had felt the warmth of the Lord’s hand; Peter, when Jesus raised him up from the waters of the Sea of Galilee; Thomas, when Jesus took the stubborn apostle and guided his hand into the wound in his side. Now that touch was to flow through them to others, to continue the long slow healing of the world.
A theophany of three
Not only do we long to touch the hand; we long to see the face of Jesus. Ostende vultum, says Coffin: Show your face. What a powerful request that is! The Lord has shown us his face, in a way that no one among the chosen people expected. He came to dwell among us, to share our daily joys and sorrows in the flesh. Show us the Father, said Philip, so often slow to understand, and Jesus had to remind him that whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father. So now, when we pray with the psalmist, Show us your merciful love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation (Ps 85:8), we should keep in mind what it is we wish to see: our God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. The final stanza, a doxology to the Trinity, delivers the word that sums up the hymn:
All praise, eternal Son, to thee,
Whose advent doth thy people free;
Whom with the Father we adore
And Holy Ghost forevermore.
That word is “advent.” Behold, he comes with the clouds, and every eye shall see him (Rv 1:7).
Anthony Esolen is professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, translator and editor of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House), and author of four volumes of essays, How the Church Has Changed the World (Magnificat).