Enthroned beyond earth’s highest good

Bible readings for the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost exhort Christians to remain firm in faith and expectation of Christ’s final victory over sin. This text was conceived in terms of the declamatory first three chords of Luther’s EIN FESTE BURG, (sometimes called the ‘national anthem of the Reformation’).

Enthroned-beyond-earths-highest-good

Enthroned beyond earth’s highest good.midi

COMMENTARY

Based in readings set for the Sunday between  Ascension Day and Pentecost, and working from the start with Luther’s great hymn that has been described as ‘the national anthem of the Reformation’, this hymn is essentially an exhortation to Christians to remain firm in faith and in expectation of Christ’s final victory over sin. The tone of the hymn is solidly (not frothily) joyful, celebratory. It recalls the story in which Jesus was taken up to heaven[1], whence believers were to expect that he will come again in the same way you saw him go to heaven[2]. The hymn also acknowledges that the faithful suffer fiery ordeals and devouring assaults by your adversary the devil. Thus, like ‘Ein feste Burg’ nearly six centuries ago, ‘Enthroned beyond earth’s highest good’ is a piece of theological and moral defiance of evil in all its manifestations.

It begins on a note that combines praise and consolation: ‘Life’s servant, Love’s first seed and fruit’, who is ‘the brightest star in heaven’s bright dome … leaves not his own, again will come.’ The cosmology here (as in Scripture) is theological, not physical. The brightest star in heaven’s bright dome is the One who is enthroned beyond earth’s highest good; that is: there are no terms adequate to the task of expressing the greatness and the glory of Christ. Astronomical superlatives are employed as suggestive metaphors, intimating reality beyond description. Yet by speaking analogically, these very metaphors fail to express the reality. All attempts to encapsulate Christian truth within any (including theological) language need to be recognised as just that, attempts; anything else is category error.

The bereft apostles who stood looking up to heaven – the forerunners of worshippers who keep the feast of ‘Now you see him, now you don’t’ – were and are to rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed[3]; or, as the hymn expresses it: ‘Dear waiting friends, rejoice: Christ’s glory be your choice’. So this is not an empty time. The time between Christ’s ascension and return is filled with the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God who rests on you, ‘lives in you, (and) is making all things new …’ Their task is to ‘stand firm, and work till all be done’.

In this hymn the work is conceived and briefly summarized as sharing peace with ‘both foes and friends’. It is a less than satisfactory condensing of the Christian mandate, for both ‘sharing’ and ‘peace’ have been trivialized in recent times, within the Church as well as society at large. Peace-building may thus be misrepresented as behaving passively in the face of evil, for passivity and pacifism are easily conflated in the minds of people and institutions who believe that death-dealing weapons and readiness to use them are essential for the preserving of life. Yet if the issue of peace-making is not elaborated in the hymn (it really is not the right occasion), this brief reference is to ensure that believers are kept on track, committed to ‘the peace that is from above’.

Worshippers are invited to find in the line ‘Distress may blight your days’ not only a reference to 1 Peter 4.12, but with it an allusion to the second half of the last verse of ‘Ein feste Burg’: ‘And though they take our life, goods, honour, children wife …’ The Scriptural and the Reformation witness is unambiguous: even in the midst of rejoicing the sovereignty of Christ Jesus, believers may expect (perhaps precisely because it is Christ they celebrate rather than Caesar) to be tortured in countless ways. Yet we are to ‘hold to Christ always, for all to grace will yield and glory be revealed’.

The closing line sets every anxiety in redeeming perspective: the foundation and the superstructure within which creation presses on its self-reproducing and evolving way is the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, who also will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you[4]. Or, as the hymn has it, ‘God’s heart of love shall bear it’.

[1] Acts 1.2

[2] Acts 1.11

[3] 1 Peter 4.13

[4] 1 Peter 5.10