The Hymns of Charles Wesley are among the finest treasures of Christian verse, sung by Anglicans, Methodists, and others around the world. Today, I selected one of his hymns for the Unapologetically Episcopalian Facebook page, "O Thou Who Camest From Above." As I listened to the music and read the words, I had an epiphany. It dawned on me that, even though this hymn is included in both The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal) and The United Methodist Hymnal, I don't recall ever choosing it for corporate worship. In fact, I don't remember ever singing it at any time during my 49 years of ordained ministry.
The text is a reflection upon a verse from the Book of Leviticus: “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar; it shall not go out” (Leviticus 6:13 NRSV). It has sacramental overtones in Christian liturgy as in the traditional Great Thanksgiving handed down to Anglicans and Methodists alike, we pray, "And here we offer unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee..." Those familiar with the Christian experience of both Charles Wesley and his brother John Wesley, may recognize an allusion to their experience, which John described as one that gave him faith in Christ who kindled a flame in the "altar of my heart."
Interestingly, Hereford, the tune to which the hymn is set in the aforementioned hymnals and in the recording below is by composer Samuel Sebastian Wesley, grandson of Charles Wesley, who was Organist of Hereford Cathedral early in his career. His father, Samuel Wesley, was also a noted English organist and composer.
This hymn is a supplication to our Savior to supply the spiritual guidance and gifts to allow his followers to fulfill the vocation to work, think, and speak for him every day. It is a perfect prayer for any Christian's daily life and I commend it to you. Perhaps it will become a spiritual practice for you in your journey of faith in the Way of Love.
1 O thou who camest from above
the fire celestial to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
on the mean altar of my heart!
2 There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return
in humble prayer and fervent praise.
3 Jesus, confirm my heart's desire
to work, and speak, and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up the gift in me.
4 Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat;
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue