I have been in the process of writing and recording a set of albums, Old & New, setting new music to older hymns and texts. I recently released my second of three and wanted to write a little about why I spent so much time devoted to old stuff (see other posts: I, II, III, IV, V). You can get download both of the albums for free here: gregwillson.bandcamp.com. This post is on the fifth track, Condescension.
Frederick William Faber wrote the lyrics for the setting of this hymn in 1852. It’s about the implications of the incarnation of Christ, where God became flesh and entered our world as one of us. This event completely changed the world and turned the world upside down (or maybe right side up?). The implications of such a thing turn our worlds upside down (or, again, probably right side up).
The title comes from the idea of God, who exists in perfect love within the Trinity, condescended to us. The Son willingly obeyed the Father’s sending of Him into our world, leaving the perfectness, taking on flesh—our flesh—so that we might know who He is. There is a well of love so deep we will never know, not because God has withheld Himself, but because it is so vast that a finite being could never exhaustively tread all the water.
It is out of the reality of the incarnation, and God’s condescension behind it, that this song rises up. It is at once monumental and intimate. This fueled the musical setting of these words. Musically, it is a larger sound palette than the rest of the album: bass drums, saxophones, melodica, and electric guitars dropped an octave add to the vastness. But the hope was to keep an intimacy still in there, so the main vocals are very up-front and compressed, almost as if I’m whispering into your ear at points.
My God, how wonderful Thou art
Thy majesty how bright
How beautiful Thy mercy-seat
In depths of burning light
Oh, how I fear Thee, living God
With deepest, tenderest fears
And worship Thee with trembling hope
And penitential tears
Yet I may love Thee, too, O Lord
Almighty as Thou art
For Thou hast stoop’d to ask of me
The love of my poor heart
No earthly father loves like Thee
Or mother, half so mild
Bears and forbears, as Thou hast done
Father of Jesus, love’s reward
What raptures there will be
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie
And ever gaze on Thee