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History of Hymns: “We Would See” guides us from Nativity to Epiphany

by C. Michael Hawn

“We Would See Jesus”
J. Edgar Park
UM Hymnal, No. 256

We would see Jesus; lo! his star is shining
above the stable while the angels sing;
There in a manger on the hay reclining;
haste, let us lay our gifts before the King.

J. Edgar Park

The opening line (incipit) of “We Would See Jesus” is firmly situated in Scripture, John 12. This chapter begins (verses 1-11) with the anointing of Jesus by Mary with expensive perfume when he came to Bethany to visit Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. Then the chapter continues in verses 12-19 with one of the Gospel accounts of the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday).
Finally, in the next verses we encounter the passage that inspired this hymn, which we’ll cite from the King James Version since this was the source used by the poet: 

“And there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast: The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus. Philip cometh and telleth Andrew: and again Andrew and Philip tell Jesus. And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified.” (verses 20-23) 

J. Edgar Park was not the first hymn writer to take note of this particular passage. UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton Young, notes that Anna B. Warner (1827-1915) inspired Park in her hymn with the same incipit, “We would see Jesus, for the shadows lengthen” (1852). 
Both hymns are interesting because neither use the phrase that inspired the incipit within the context of the passage. Warner’s hymn appropriates the passage to express the idea that Jesus is the guiding light that strengthens us on our weary pilgrimage in life:

We would see Jesus; for the shadows lengthen
Across this little landscape of our life;
We would see Jesus, our weak faith to strengthen
For the last weariness, the final strife.


Park skillfully adapts the phrase, again out of its biblical context, to fit the season of Epiphany, the time of the Christian year when we are aware of the various manifestations of Jesus that point to him as the Christ, the Anointed One, who has come to save us. 

In both cases, the hymn writers’ motives are laudable and creative, if not biblically sound. Furthermore, both hymnists were only doing what so many preachers have done—that is take a particular biblical phrase out of context, perhaps even a somewhat insignificant phrase—and turn it into a 30-minute sermon. As Dr. Young correctly, and somewhat irreverently, notes: This hymn “was apparently prompted by this Scripture that has spawned countless somnolent sermons.” 

Thankfully, Park’s poetic interpretation stands on its own merit more than probably all the sermons that have come from this imperative: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” 

Published first in 1913 in Worship and Song, the hymn’s five stanzas all begin with the assertion, “We would see Jesus.” In stanza one, the star above the stable lights the manger as we, joining the magi, “lay our gifts before the King.” In stanza two, Jesus is the “light of the village life from day to day”—a glimmer of the one who later declares, “I AM the light of the world.” (John 8:12) In stanza three, Jesus is teaching on the mountainside to all who will listen. Not only is Jesus teaching, but also “birds and flowers and sky above are preaching the blessedness which simple trust has found”—an image that connects Jesus with all of creation. 

Stanza four reveals Jesus as a healer who is both “divine and human,” giving himself “in loving service” to humanity. Finally, stanza five invites us to join the disciples by the lakeshore “in the early morning” and respond to his call to “Follow me!” The hymn ends with our sung commitment to “give ourselves to thee.” 

John Edgar Park (1879-1956) was born in Belfast, Ireland and died in Cambridge, Mass. His education was truly remarkable and international, including universities in Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh, Leipzig, Munich, Oxford and Princeton. As a Presbyterian minister, he served lumber camps in the Adirondacks, and then Second Congregational Church in West Newton, Mass. After teaching at Boston University School of Theology for one year, he became president of Wheaton College in Newton, Mass., serving in this capacity from 1926-1944.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns