*** This hymn is based on two Scripture stories that tell of highly significant pregnancies.Brodding-lovecreative-breath
In Isaiah (A) young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Matthew says that Mary…was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Both pregnancies express God’s immersive engagement with the particularities of human history. All divine purposes and goodwill are mysteriously encoded within the life growing in the womb.
In Isaiah the young woman’s pregnancy is a sign of the Lord…as deep as Sheol or high as heaven. It is given to the King Ahaz of Judah, to be a beacon of hope in the midst of a siege against Jerusalem. The fact of the young woman being with child is enough to save the situation; as in Psalm 46, God is in the midst of the city…God will help when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; (God) utters his voice, the earth melts.
Crisis is therefore the context within which Isaiah delivers this prophecy, and crisis is represented as the context of this hymn. The idea of ‘the powers of doom’ is chosen to contain the various associations of the word ‘crisis’. God’s given sign within the womb defeats, dismisses, discounts all that has people fearing the worst. The hymn does not refer to the siege against Jerusalem and Ahaz, but it uses that event to allude generally to ‘dread oppressors’ who ‘stalk their prey, truth abuse, and souls betray’. We sing of the gospel of hope which, conceived and born always within a specific configuration of political and personal circumstances, is universally applicable. This is seen in the structure of each stanza, for the second half is a refrain that asserts that, no matter what the circumstance, God is sovereign.
In verse three the circumstance is Joseph’s discomfiture at learning of Mary’s pregnancy. In his case ‘Human pride’ could have recourse to a law that would permit him to abrogate his engagement to Mary. But in this, as in any distressing personal situation, the presence of God’s wisdom and purpose supersedes human codes of honour and shame.
The hymn is a prayer of submission to and adoration of ‘heaven embodied, here at home: Saviour Immanuel’. It asks that, whether in life or death, every heart may be wakened to faith: the faith that recognises Immanuel actively transforming all circumstances into the vision of heaven embodied here.
The music, written in 1996 on the day the Church of England commemorates William Temple, is set initially in the ‘strong’ key of D major. It begins, though, on the dominant of that key, to indicate that in singing the hymn we are tuning in to a song that has been going on presumably since the beginning of history. Supported by strong harmonies based on I, IV, and V chords, the melody proceeds at stately pace towards modulating into F major at the beginning of line four. Here the opening lines are repeated, only a minor third higher. The strength of the opening melody and harmony is here replicated, but the texture is lighter because of the higher key. The musical structure is designed to underline the sovereign presence of ‘Brooding love, creative breath’ in everyday circumstances, no matter how grim they may seem.