This hymn, for congregation or solo with choir, offers a voice to Christ as refugee and companion-saviour of asylum-seekers in every age. It needs to be sung expressively, with quiet assurance.
It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old (Isaiah 63.9).
This hymn gives a voice to Christ as refugee and companion-saviour of asylum-seekers in every age. It combines reflection on Christ’s vocation to be made perfect through sufferings and become like his brothers and sisters in every respect (Hebrews 2.10b and 17a) with the story in Matthew 2.13-23, in which Jesus is taken into exile to escape the threat of death. This reflection is set within a context of rejoicing at the gracious deeds of the Lord…all that the Lord has done for us (Isaiah 63.7a). Jesus’ experience as a refugee is interpreted as God’s presence saving, pitying, redeeming, and sustaining all refugees.
The form of the hymn is a dialogue between God in Christ and the responding soul. It has been described as a kind of ‘bhajan’, a devotional love-song common among Hindus and Christians in India. The first voice is plainly suggested by each line beginning ‘I am…’; the second by the word ‘beside’, whereby the soul acknowledges the presence of Jesus, the Christ, God.
The responding soul is corporate as well as individual. This is made clear by the music, in which the second part of the stanza harmonizes the melody of the first part, which, representing a solo voice, is sung in unison. Furthermore, to emphasize the dialogic character of each stanza, the melody of the second half recapitulates the minor-key melody of the first half, only a minor third higher, and in the major key.
The presence of God is suggested by casting each line of the first part of the stanza in the present continuous tense. And each of these lines begins with ‘I am’, carrying within itself all that has been and all that shall be; it is of course the appellation by which God’s presence was designated with Moses, as well as the way in which Jesus famously declared himself repeatedly in John’s Gospel. The last of the lines in the first part of the stanza concludes with an adaptation of a celebrated text from Mother Julian of Norwich’s ‘Revelations of Divine Love’: “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”. In this hymn both music and lyrics are intended to evoke serenity and contentment in the faith of God’s presence and provision.
But not every worshipper has experienced this hymn in that way. People ask how all can be well when so many are is in danger. Many know only desperation in adversity; for them a religious interpretation of their situation both insults and increases their desperation.
This hymn is not intended as a challenge to such as these, yet it may manage to convey a sense of the irresistible dependability of God in Christ. It can be sung quietly and expressively.