Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sounding the Depths of God's Love

Yesterday after a Bible study at my alma mater, a few friends of mine and I stayed around for a bit to sing some classic hymns together. One of the ones we selected - a beautiful one indeed - was Charles Wesley's hymn "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?" Now, I don't have any great insights or anything (do I ever?), but I did find much charm in the second verse, which begins with the lines:

'Tis mystery all: th' Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.

I really love that verse. First of all, it opens up with a proclamation of one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith. By "mystery", of course, we don't generally mean something contrary to reason, or anything like that. What we mean is a great and very sacred thing that, once hidden from the world and very dimly accessible at best to the comparatively dim light of human reasoning capabilities, is now openly shown to all who will receive it through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the new covenant. (This is likewise the proper sense in which the doctrine of the Trinity should be held to be a "mystery".) What mystery is this, then? "Th' Immortal dies!" Those words bring back to mind so many paradoxes from the discourses of Melito, second-century bishop of Sardis:

What new mystery, then, is this?
The Judge is judged, and holds his peace.
The Invisible One is seen, and is not ashamed.
The Incomprehensible is laid hold upon, and is not indignant.
The Illimitable is circumscribed, and does not resist.
The Impassible suffers, and does not avenge.
The Immortal dies, and answers not a word.
The Celestial is laid in the grave, and endures!
What new mystery is this?

Needless to say, it's no wonder that Melito was held in the early church to be a very passionate and skilled preacher. But as Melito and Charles Wesley saw, it truly is a mystery that Jesus Christ, who by all rights of his divinity had better claim to pure deathlessness, would have died - and done so for us. (Of course, as Christians thought through the implications of the incarnation, they realized that we should say that Jesus Christ died by virtue of his human nature, but not by virtue of his divine nature, and yet that it is the person Jesus Christ, both fully divine and fully human, who truly died.) The Immortal One died for us - and "who can explore his strange design?" Why would he do this? Of course, we know the answer, but who can truly understand it? We may apprehend God's love, but who can comprehend it? Who can appreciate the depths of it fully?

The next two lines answer rather negatively. "In vain the firstborn seraph tries / To sound the depths of love divine". The seraphim - six-winged fiery angels - are perhaps among the most glorious created beings; Isaiah 6 depicts the seraphim perpetually flying around God's throne and proclaiming his holiness, and I think it safe to say that on each flight, they discover something new about God. And yet even the firstborn seraph - the oldest created being who's spent the most time in God's intimate presence, forever learning about God through ages past - would try in vain to "sound the depths of love divine". Even that firstborn seraph, we sing with Wesley, cannot reach the bottomless depths of God's love. The phrase "sound the depths" derives from the old practice of using a plumb line to measure the depth of water; even this firstborn seraph would be helpless to, with all his might, sink a weight to the bottom of God's love. It's bottomless; there can be no sounding the depths of God's love.

And that's the beauty. The self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ shows us that God's very nature and eternal being are characterized by love; and it shows us that, though we're to live eternally, we will never, ever reach the point at which we can rightly say, "Well, we've at last got God's love figured out now. Turns out he loves us exactly yea much and no more. Glad that's finally settled." By no means! We, like the firstborn seraph, will never reach that point; there is no such point. God's love is endless, and we will be forever lost in it - or, phrased better yet, forever found in it. Just as the seraphim endlessly cry "Holy, holy, holy" with the freshness of infinite discovery, so too might we rightly spend all of eternity by crying out - with ever-increasing excitement and freshness and newness:

"Loving, Loving, Loving is Yahweh, the God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are awash in his endless glory."

1 comment:

  1. What a terrific post! "And Can it Be" has long been among my very favorite hymns, based only on the four verses included in my church's hymnal. Only yesterday did I discover verse two. (Verse five, too, was new to me, and equally striking.) Your exposition of verse 2 is incisive and edifying. Thank you.