"Rise, Crowned with Light"
Alexander Pope, 1712
When Jesus approached the blind beggar in Jerusalem who was begging for alms, he asked him what he wanted from him, and the beggar replied, “Lord, that I may see." The man had been blind from birth. I often wonder how we who have vision can possibly describe it to the blind. They must know that we are able, with our eyes — which they know they have, after all — perceive things at a distance, even from millions of miles away, by a thing called “light,” but exactly what that is, even if their eyes are capable of sensing some degree of lightening from total darkness, they cannot know. I have had one or two blind students in my career as a professor, and as I’m irrepressibly curious about what it’s like to live in a way so far removed from my own, I’ve asked them about it, and from their answers I can tell that they are struggling to form some idea of light and seeing, something that makes sense to them. There are also people with what’s called “aphantasia,” which means that they have no visual memory at all, and in fact they find it hard to imagine what it even means to have such. And I guess it’s hard for us to imagine — I mean to consider, to try to feel, to get a touch for — what they commonly do to remember people and places and things, all while not being aware that they’re doing it far differently from the way the rest of us do.
I wonder if it’s also like that with spiritual senses. What does it mean to see the heavenly city, Jerusalem? It can’t be just like seeing the earthly Jerusalem. What if there’s another sense involved, a sight beyond sight? We can’t imagine what that will be like, or rather we rely on such visions as we do have, or things we can guess at — like the blind man whom Jesus healed, who said, the first time his eyes were opened, that he saw “trees walking,” because that’s what it seemed to him the people he saw must be. Any of our encounters with the divine, here and now, must tax our senses to the breaking point, so that we struggle for the words, and sometimes we end up using imagery that seems wild, as in the revelation to Saint John, or vague, as when Monica said to her son Augustine that she could tell when dreams came from the Lord, because they had — she couldn’t describe it, a sort of savor, a taste; and the dream she had about his getting married didn’t have that, so she didn’t trust it. And it turns out she was right, as it was only a dream and not a vision God had granted her.
So maybe we are all in the position, now, of people with a kind of spiritual sense that is still in its infant state, or even a state before that; with spiritual “eyes” that are hardly opened, and many among us deny that there even is such a sight, because they don’t have it, or they do have it but they don’t want it. Well, that’s all a prologue to our Hymn of the Week, “Rise, Crowned with Light,” written by the great Alexander Pope, who often played it close to the vest when it came to talking about the specifics of his Christian faith. Pope’s imagery owes much to that book of Revelation, and though his lines are mighty and joyful and filled with brightness, he’s too good a poet to pretend that he can, right now, see what he prays he will one day see. That would be like a blind man trying to describe the sudden gleam of a rainbow in the heavens, when at most he can just sense a little shading in his visual field when he puts his hand over his eyes. But it is a mighty vision we are granted for our minds to contemplate, or rather a promise of a vision yet to come, in images that we see partly with our mind’s eyes but partly with that spiritual sense that is beyond even those: hence Salem is “crowned with light,” she raises her “towering head,” heaven’s portals are flung wide upon her, and flood her with the day that does not end. Why do we believe this? We are granted a glance of it here below, but our faith rests not upon glances and images, but upon the word of the Lord, who summoned light from darkness, and who healed the blind man in the earthly Jerusalem, long ago.
We could not find a sung version of “Rise, Crowned with Light” this week, so have posted a simple organ arrangement that you can listen to while reading the hymn. If you would like to hear the tune, “Woodlands,” sung you may wish to listen to “Sing Out, My Soul,” sung by the Choral Scholars of St. Martin-in-the Fields.
Rise, crowned with light, imperial Salem, rise! Exalt thy towering head and lift thine eyes! See heaven its sparkling portals wide display, And break upon thee in a flood of day. See a long race thy spacious courts adorn; See future sons and daughters yet unborn, In crowding ranks on every side arise, Demanding life, impatient for the skies. See barbarous nations at thy gates attend, Walk in thy light, and in thy temple bend: See thy bright altars thronged with prostrate kings, While every land its joyous tribute brings. The seas shall waste, the skies to smoke decay, Rocks fall to dust, and mountains melt away; But fixed his word, his saving power remains; Thy realm shall last, thy own Messiah reigns.
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Sometimes I wonder if your husband contributes lyrics to Magnificat.
Another good one to same tune: Lift up your hearts, we lift them Lord to thee.