Higher than all the cathedral towers

*** This hymn tries to express awe in the face of the glory revealed in the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Higher than all the cathedral spires.midi

COMMENTARY

This hymn represents a kind of glad confession, a ready admission of defeat. The Gospel story which is the source and inspiration of the hymn points to reality beyond description. The story is told with unaffected simplicity, bringing understanding as far as it can go, but not trying to push into the unknown. So the hymn holds back from speculation. It is a kind of prostration before revealed holiness. It offers to teach a reverent approach towards God’s Beloved, and to encourage worshipers to recognise Christ’s presence ‘sharing, transfiguring, this world of pain’.

The story tells of the transfiguration of Jesus of Nazareth, his fellowship with Moses and Elijah, and God’s designating him as my Son, the Beloved. It takes place up a high mountain, whither Jesus had led three of his disciples, Peter, James and his brother John. Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white, and a bright cloud overshadowed the company; this ‘bright cloud’ was a recognised code word to express the presence in a particular place of the Most High. From the cloud a voice spoke, the voice of God.

The story sets forth an immense, indeed incommensurable, paradox: in the same place disciples both witness the substance of the faith of their ancestors displayed before them, as though in a pageant or tableau; but also they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. It is this paradox that the hymn attempts to describe by extreme imagery.

The first two stanzas say that it is impossible to construct anything large or magnificent enough to match the wonder evoked by the presence of ‘holiness incarnate’. Similarly, exploration of space’s further ‘frontiers’ (a very limiting metaphor in itself) cannot diminish the greater awe inspired by such presence. The world seen microscopically invites admiration and astonishment; the power unleashed by nuclear fission intimidates, but cannot compel submission. Silence cannot obliterate, nor sense appropriate the numinous enfleshed in history.

To counter any sense that these are but expressions of pious hyperbole, the hymn declares finally that ‘holiness incarnate’ is engaged with creation throughout all of history, implying that human endeavour finds its meaning in the light of this numinous presence.

Such is the awesomeness of this presence that the hymn insists that it is not confined either to ‘mount’ or ‘plain’, though it is recognised there. For those who confess Jesus as God’s Son, this presence is not limited by their naming or their understanding, or by their practice of worship and   sacrificial living. The presence is engaged still more intimately than that. Often unrecognised, widely ignored, frequently abused, but always sharing the condition of mortal creatures, ‘holiness incarnate’ is the theme foregrounded by the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.

GWARCWM is the name of a smallholding on top of a hill in Carmarthenshire. It was while staying there that the hymn, words and music, was conceived.

The hymn would best be sung rather softly, allowing the climbing and descending music to tell its own story.

 

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