Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Word of God, Come Down on Earth"

History of Hymns: "Word of God, Come Down on Earth"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Word of God, Come Down on Earth"
James Quinn
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 182

James Quinn

Word of God, come down on earth,
living rain from heaven descending;
touch our hearts and bring to birth
faith and hope and love unending.
Word almighty, we revere you;
Word made flesh, we long to hear you.

Father James Quinn, SJ (1919-2010) was one of the most important hymn writers in the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he was educated at Saint Aloysius' College and Glasgow University, joining the Society of Jesus in 1939.

Following his study at Heythrop College in Oxfordshire, he taught at Saint Wilfrid's School in Preston. After his ordination in 1950, Fr. Quinn taught at Wimbledon College in South London and also served at Sacred Heart Parish, Edinburgh.

Fr. Quinn was involved in ecumenical activities. He was an observer at the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (1964) and a consultant to the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order conference in Louvain (1972). He also participated in ecumenical dialogues with the British Council of Churches, and served as the Secretary on the Scottish Commission for Christian Unity beginning in 1980. In 1987 Fr. Quinn was appointed as Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenism in the Archdiocese of Edinburgh. He also participated in the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) from 1973-1976. Though a Joint Commission of Catholic Bishops Conferences, the Commission had many ecumenical ramifications for liturgical reform.

Though cherished by the Roman Catholic Church, Fr. Quinn's hymns had an ecumenical influence as well. The Journal of Anglican Musicians (1998) lauded "Fr. Quinn’s ability to articulate the orthodox aspects of Christianity in new and fresh ways." His paraphrases of the psalms and other Scriptures appear in many English-language hymnals published since 1970. His hymns for the Liturgy of the Hours, prayers observed seven times a day, and his hymns on Mary are beloved by Roman Catholics.

Fr. Quinn's purpose in writing hymns was to create a "catechism in song." He said, "Hymns fundamentally declare the Christian faith. They are our source book for teaching and for sermons." Hymns "are to convey the words of Christ memorably." He stated that the language of hymns should be "clear but not banal and above all simple."

"Word of God, Come Down to Earth" is a skillful commentary on John 1:14, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory." Stanza one describes the presence of the Word made flesh through the metaphor of "living rain from heaven descending." "We long to hear" what the Word made flesh has to say to us.

Stanza two articulates the antithesis between the "Word eternal, throned on high" and the "Word that came from heaven to die." The stanza ends with an imperative: "speak to us" of "your love outpouring."

Stanza three, referring to Christ’s miracles, states that the "Word . . . caused blind eyes to see." Then he petitions Christ to "speak and heal our mortal blindness." The stanza also asks for our deafness to be healed and that our tongues should be loosened "to tell your kindness." Just as Christ healed others during his earthly life, Fr. Quinn asks that Christ "heal the world, by our sin broken."

The final stanza contains echoes of a Trinitarian doxology. The stanza begins with the "Father’s love," spoken by the Word, who is "one with God" (Christ). The Word also "sends us from above, God the Spirit." The final stanza closes with an unmistakable Christological reference, "Word of truth," and Eucharistic allusion "Word of Life, with one Bread feed us."

Always proud of his Scottish roots, Fr. Quinn worked for the canonization of St. John Ogilvie, who in 1976 became Scotland's first saint in 700 years. Furthermore, St. John Ogilvie was the only Scottish Jesuit canonized.

Fr. Quinn’s first collection of hymns, entitled Hymns for All Seasons, was published in 1969. These hymns and hymns written since then are available through Selah Publishing Company in the collection Praises for All Seasons (1994). He composed approximately 300 hymns.

* © 1969 James Quinn. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

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