Thomas Ken (1637-1711) is the inspiration for Martin Draper’s Hymn of the Month
The Revised English Hymnal will probably contain more hymns in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary than any other contemporary hymn book. The 1953 edition of the Roman Catholic Westminster Hymnal contained 21 hymns plus two texts under the heading ‘pilgrimages’. The REH will contain 17, one of which is for use on pilgrimages. In addition, many other hymns include a verse about Our Lady or a reference to her.
After the appearance of the New English Hymnal in 1986, a priest asked if, in the well-loved text which begins, ‘Her Virgin eyes saw God incarnate born’, we had considered including the verse ‘about the immaculate conception’. In fact, we did look at that particular verse in isolation, but in a hymn which begins with Our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, it was impossible to insert it into the existing text.
In preparation for the latest edition, I searched for the whole text and found it in Bishop Ken’s long poem, ‘Sion’. It has hundreds of verses, perhaps even a couple of thousand, of which 204 (which would make 51 four-line stanzas) are devoted to Our Lady. The English Hymnal text consists of 16 lines; they are not all consecutive and the order of the first two has been changed.
A slightly larger selection (omitting the verses about Mary’s childhood – she knew the psalter by heart before she was fourteen, according to Ken – as well as her betrothal to Joseph and her presence at events in Jesus’s life) has provided an eight-verse hymn for the new edition. The four stanzas from the English Hymnal are retained as a separate hymn, because of their familiarity. The new text appears here and, in order for it to stand alone, minor changes were made. It was also possible to restore the original order of two lines in the new text.
But does verse 3 of the new text really speak of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? Being a 17th-century text, it certainly doesn’t correspond to the (infallible) Papal definition of 1854. But we can say for sure that it turns out, though clearly not its intention, to be thoroughly consonant with the ARCIC document, ‘Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ’ (2005), which speaks of how ‘Christ’s redeeming work reached “back” in Mary to the depths of her being and to her earliest beginnings’.
Ken’s text doesn’t say that, in her conception, Mary was ‘preserved free from all stain of original sin’, but that she was cleansed from it. This is Anglican – and, indeed Orthodox – theology at its best: affirming a truth, but not defining it precisely. The truth is that God was active in Mary’s very conception; Christ’s redeeming work does indeed reach ‘back’, so that her conception exactly parallels Christian baptism, through which all of us undergo the same cleansing. In a way, Mary becomes the ‘first Christian’ (a title used in a Catholic Truth Society tract, incidentally) and her conception is akin to our baptism. And, needless to say, this does not make Mary less human, but rather more so. The same grace has been bestowed on each of us, yet we know from experience that this does not prevent us from committing actual sin. The fight against sin was not in any way made easier for Our Lady than it is for us; it was only and precisely because she was ‘full of grace’ that she achieved it.
O JESU, who blest Mary did revere,
Near thee enthroned in the celestial sphere;
Help me revere the plenitude of grace,
Exalting her above all female race.
2 The favour God on other saints bestowed,
In Joachim and Anna overflowed;
God with a daughter their devotion blessed
In whose pure womb incarnate-God should rest.
3 The Holy Ghost his temple in her built,
Cleansed from congenial, kept from mortal guilt;
And from the moment that her blood was fired,
Into her heart celestial love inspired.
4 Then Gabriel from bliss flew down full speed
To tell her as she prayed that heaven decreed
She bear God’s Son according to his will,
Which was her sole ambition to fulfil.
5 When she to Bethl’em came that happy morn
Her Virgin eyes saw God incarnate born;
How high her raptures then began to swell,
None but her own omniscient Son can tell.
6 As Eve when she her fontal sin reviewed,
Wept for herself and all she should include,
Blest Mary with man’s Saviour in embrace
Joyed for herself and for all human race.
7 All saints are by her Son’s dear influence blessed,
She kept the very fountain at her breast;
The Son adored and nursed by the sweet Maid
A thousandfold of love for love repaid.
8 Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced,
Next to his throne her Son his Mother placed;
And here below, now she’s of heaven possessed,
All generations are to call her blessed.
(Thomas Ken, 1637-1711, slightly altered)