Of the Father’s Love Begotten: Praising God for the Mystery of the Incarnation - By Corrie Schwab
Near the close of the fourth century, a distinguished Roman official named Aurelius Prudentius chose to leave public life and spend his time writing poetry on Christian themes. The hymn we know as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is derived from one of these poems.
In this poem Prudentius meditates on the mystery of the incarnation and calls all creation to join in praise of Christ as eternal God, creator, prophesied savior, healer and miracle-worker, effectual sacrifice, victor over death, judge, and king. The hymn as we sing it today dwells on the same theme, though it has been heavily edited (not to mention abridged) over the centuries.
The first verse of our hymn emphasizes Christ’s nature as eternal God. “Of the Father’s love begotten ere [before] the worlds [planets—the universe] began to be” identifies Christ as the eternally begotten Son of God. The hymn goes on to call Christ Alpha and Omega, echoing Revelation 22:13: “I [Jesus] am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” By associating himself with the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Jesus is asserting his deity—the history of the world is his story. By alluding to this passage and to Christ’s work as creator and sustainer of all things, Prudentius was explicitly rejecting the beliefs of the Arians, who held that Christ is not himself God but was rather God’s first creation.
The second verse, fittingly, focuses on Christ’s human nature through the miracle and mystery of his birth. (In a religious context, a mystery is something that we can’t fully understand, at least not yet.) The reference to Jesus revealing his sacred face is reminiscent of 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This, in turn, makes me think of God’s self-revelation to Moses, after Moses begged to be allowed to see God’s glory. Do you remember what God said? “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live. … Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (Ex. 33:20–23). Through the incarnation we can now experience the glory of God in Christ’s face.
The third verse draws together these two truths, Christ’s divinity and his humanity, by emphasizing that we’re talking about one person—“this is he”—who was anticipated by the angels and the prophets and merits praise by all creation now and “evermore.”
The fourth verse expands on this call to worship. Note all the entities that we are calling upon to praise Christ: “heights of heaven,” “angel hosts,” “all dominions,” “every voice.” And note what we are urging them to do: adore him, sing his praises, bow to him, extol him—loudly and “in concert” (all together)! When we sing this as a congregation, we’re getting a foretaste of the eternal heavenly worship we are destined to be part of forever: “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ ” (Rev. 5:13).
Finally, the hymn ends with a doxology to the Trinity, reaffirming Christ’s equality with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.