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Words: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (b. Aug. 29, 1809; d. Oct. 7, 1894)
Music: Louvan, by Virgil Corydon Taylor (b. Apr. 2, 1817; d. Jan. 30, 1891)
Note: Holmes was an American medical doctor, and professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard. His son (also named Oliver Wendell Holmes) became a supreme court justice. The father was a Unitarian, but not narrowly so. He greatly loved the evangelical hymns of the church. He summed up his faith by saying he “believed more than some and less than others.”
The present hymn’s ecumenical spirit should not distract us from the profound vision it presents of Almighty God. The author called it a hymn “to the Source of the light we all need to lead us, and the warmth which alone can make us all brothers.” The hymn was published in 1848.
B igness is sometimes difficult to grasp, perhaps because it’s so relative. To an ant, we must appear to be very big. But to an elephant, not so much so. To a small child, a dollar may seem a considerable amount. But to adults grappling with a mortgage, and trying to comprehend a national debt of billions (or trillions!), it’s insignificant.
Considered one way, planet earth is big, but not in comparison to the vastness of space. One source says current scientific theory estimates that the universe is about 92 billion light years across–a light year being the distance light can travel in that time, flashing through space at 186,000 miles per second.
It’s difficult to get our minds around that! And when we turn to spiritual things, we are faced with even more mind-boggling truths. In the Bible, the Lord asks rhetorically, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jer. 23:24). That’s mighty big! In truth, “heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him” (II Chron. 2:6). And being God, He’s not partly here, and partly on Mars or Venus, or some place else, but is completely present everywhere at once.
The amazing thing is that this infinitely great God has stooped to show compassion on us, small, pitifully weak creatures that we are. Not only that, but He desires to communicate with us and fellowship with us. And when sin got in the way of that, He sent His Son to take sin’s punishment in our place (I Cor. 15:3), so we might be fitted for an eternal and intimate relationship with Him. Holmes has given us at least a glimmering of this paradox–of the bigness and remoteness of God, contrasted with His nearness and accessibility.
You won’t find many doctrinal specifics here, but the hymn gives us a sense of the immensity of God, and His transcendent glory. In a series of poetic metaphors, the author stretches our thinking to behold, at least in terms finite beings can grasp, something of the infinite.
CH-1) Lord of all being, throned afar,
Thy glory flames from sun and star;
Centre and soul of every sphere,
Yet to each loving heart how near!
CH-2) Sun of our life, Thy quickening ray,
Sheds on our path the glow of day;
Star of our hope, Thy softened light
Cheers the long watches of the night.
CH-3) Our midnight is Thy smile withdrawn;
Our noontide is Thy gracious dawn;
Our rainbow arch, Thy mercy’s sign;
All, save the clouds of sin, are Thine.
Finally, Holmes envisions the sublimation of self-will, and any attempt to feed our own pride, as we “ask no lustre of our own,” but simply offer ourselves as “living altars” aflame for God (cf. Rom. 12:1).
CH-4) Lord of all life, below, above,
Whose light is truth, whose warmth is love,
Before Thy ever blazing throne
We ask no luster of our own.
CH-5) Grant us Thy truth to make us free,
And kindling hearts that burn for Thee,
Till all Thy living altars claim
One holy light, one heavenly flame.
1) What feelings do you have of God and yourself, when you read the stirring words of Holmes’s hymn?
2) What would you answer sometime who asked: Why would an infinite God give attention to weak and finite creatures such as we are?