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Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies
“Give up all hope to look upon the skies!” cries the old boatman Charon to the souls who have gathered at the shores of the swampy river, to be ferried across to You Know Where. It’s not a good day for them. In Dante’s Italian, which is the language that that line comes from, you have the same word for “heaven” as for “sky,” and so it is in German and Greek and a lot of languages. So I might have translated it as “heaven,” but I thought, “What it would be like to be told you’d never see the sky again?” You go outside for the first time in the morning, and what do you do? You look up at the sky. It may be a quick glance, but you do look. If you can see the blue, it’s a pleasing sight. I remember standing at the bus stop when I was in high school, early on a winter morning before the sun had risen, and the sky was that deep pure blue you never find elsewhere in the world, unless in the gleam of a sapphire, and no matter how cold it was, it was good to be there. You want to see the sky.
I’m told that when the first Russian astronaut went in orbit round the earth — his spaceship, I mean, while he was in it — the Russians brought word back that they’d found no “heaven” and no God. Thanks, Russians, for assuming what nobody has believed in two thousand years. The heavens above us, said Saint Augustine, aren’t heaven, and we might just as well call them “earth,” because they’re a part of this created world we live in. Yet they do suggest things to us, and rightly so. They are vast, spacious, beautiful, apparently boundless, and well do we imagine the kingdom of heaven as something like the skies.
But how can you get yourself ready for what you’ve never seen? A spaceship won’t do. Standing in the still morning and gazing up at the last bright stars before the dawn — that would be better. But better still is what the author of our Hymn of the Week, Charles Wesley, prays for, in “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies.” You could make a great case for Charles Wesley as the greatest hymn writer of all time. All that he saw in his life, all that he felt, all that he heard of, all the seasons of the heart, all the stages and the turns of the Christian journey, all the feasts of the year, and all the words of the Lord could inspire him to write his songs, enough to fill ten hymnals alone, and of such high quality that you will find many of them translated into dozens of languages — Arabic, Malay, Japanese, Welsh, you name it. And in this hymn he prays for morning, not the one that appears over the eastern rim of the world, but the one that dawns within us. And that dawn comes only by “Christ, the true, the only Light,” to “pierce the gloom of sin and grief” and to fill us with faith and hope and love.
“What do you wish?” said Jesus to the blind man. “Lord,” he replied, “that I may see.” How odd it was, when he first opened his eyes and couldn’t figure out what he was looking at, because he saw “trees walking,” namely, other people! What he thought when he saw the sky for the first time, we aren’t told. What we will think when we see that new and eternal blue, I can’t say. But may we see it, in the day that has a morning and no evening, whose light dawns and shines, and never sets.
Christ, whose glory fills the skies, Christ, the true, the only Light, Sun of righteousness, arise, Triumph o'er the shade of night; Dayspring from on high, be near; Daystar, in my heart appear. Dark and cheerless is the morn Unaccompanied by Thee; Joyless is the day's return, Till Thy mercy's beams I see, Till they inward light impart, Glad my eyes, and warm my heart. Visit then this soul of mine, Pierce the gloom of sin and grief; Fill me, Radiancy Divine, Scatter all my unbelief; More and more Thyself display, Shining to the perfect day.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.