Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “O Love, How Deep”

History of Hymns: “O Love, How Deep”

By C. Michael Hawn

O Love, How Deep
Fifteenth-Century Latin
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 267

O love, how deep, how broad, how high,
It fills the heart with ecstasy,
That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortals’ sake.

We enter the season of Lent knowing how the story ends. This does not make the story any less important or meaningful. To the contrary, knowing the beginning, middle, and end of the story adds to the anticipation.

The hymn “O Love, How Deep” provides the opportunity for congregations to sing the story of salvation from the birth through the ascension of Christ—a rare scope for a hymn. The incipit (the opening line of a poem) appears to be drawn from Ephesians 3:17-18 (NIV*): “How wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

The original anonymous poem consists of 23 stanzas in 92 lines with rhymed couplets of aabb. Most hymnals include only six stanzas. The United Methodist Hymnal includes a translation of stanzas 2 and 9-12, plus an unidentified concluding doxological stanza. The translator from a fifteenth-century Latin creedal and devotional poem began with the second stanza “O amor quam exstaticus.”

The Latin was found in a fifteenth-century Karlsruhe (Germany) manuscript and printed in a volume in 1853. Some have attributed the text to Thomas à Kempis (b. c. 1380 – d. 1471), the fifteenth-century German monk who is generally said to have authored the important devotional work, The Imitation of Christ (c. 1427), because of the similarity in tone and theme of the two sources and the similarity between the handwriting of the Latin poem and that of à Kempis.

The English translation comes to us through the efforts of Benjamin Webb (1819-1885), an Anglican clergyman who served as a curate in several parishes in England. Webb was the editor of two journals, The Ecclesiologist (1842-1868) and the Church Quarterly Review (1881-1885). His connections with the Oxford Movement’s John Mason Neale (1818-1866), a movement that provided English translations of Greek, Latin, and German texts, led to a collaboration with Neale on two volumes, An Essay on Symbolism and A Translation of Durandus. These scholarly publications influenced his contributions to two important English hymnals, The Hymnal Noted (1854) and The Hymnary (1872).

The missing stanzas include the one that follows the first stanza printed in the hymnal:

He sent no angel to our race
Of higher or of lower place,
But wore the robe of human frame
Himself, and to this lost world came.

The following stanza was placed before the third printed in the hymnal:

Nor willed he only to appear;
His pleasure was to tarry here;
And God and Man with man would be
The space of thirty years and three...

The hymn begins with sheer wonder and ecstasy at the mystery of the Incarnation. A distinctive feature of the hymn is the almost incessant repetition of the two words, “for us” in stanzas 2-5—twelve times! The effect is to stress that every event and action of Christ’s life was done for the benefit of humankind. The willingness of God to take on human form in Jesus was for the sake of all humanity. Thus, the theology of the great kenosis (self-emptying) hymn found in Philippians 2:5-11 permeates the text.

Numerous scriptural allusions saturate the stanzas. Stanza two refers to Christ’s baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), temptation, and fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Stanza three comments on Christ’s daily activities—“words and signs and actions”—as a ministry “not for himself, but us.” This stanza alludes to Christ’s ministry as found throughout the gospel accounts. Stanza four, referring to Christ’s suffering, draws upon a multitude of scriptural passages including 1 Peter 3:18, 2:24; and I Thessalonians 5:10. The resurrection and ascension are themes of stanza five, referencing Matthew 28.

The final stanza is a doxology that appears in several variations. An earlier version uses language that is more archaic for the ears of the modern singer:

All honor, laud, and glory be,
O Jesus, virgin-born to Thee!

All glory, as is ever meet
To Father and to Paraclete.

A later version is less archaic:

To him whose boundless love has won
salvation for us through his Son,
to God the Father, glory be
both now and through eternity.

The most common version adapted for recent hymnals effectively draws upon the initial line of the hymn, though the adjectives are rearranged:

All glory to our Lord and God
For love so deep, so high, so broad...

The tune DEO GRACIAS is also from the fifteenth century. It was originally a victory song, “Our King went forth to Normandy,” in celebration of Henry V’s conquest over the French at Agincourt in 1415. In some hymnals, the melody is called AGINCOURT. If sung in a lively rhythmical manner, this melody carries the story of the life of Christ in a triumphal manner.

As we begin the season of Lent, we look ahead with joy toward later events in the story – a story that is still unfolding in the lives of Christians today.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

*Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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