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The Glory of These Forty Days

—from the book Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (book and CD) by Anthony Esolen, Ch. 3: Who is Christ?

The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by Whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed

The poetry is so straightforward that we might miss the artistry. Notice the word glory. That should surprise us. When Jesus went forth into the desert, what glory accompanied Him? No train of disciples, no fanfare, no parade, no earthquake. The glory, then, must subsist in the very absence of the manifestations of glory. It subsists in loving humility—a glory the world misses.

Thus we can understand the first part of the stanza only in the context of the last part. This is what’s glorious: Christ, by Whom the world was brought into being, Himself has fasted and has prayed. He Himself has done so. The pronoun is emphatic. The richness of the world’s being—all things—is placed in contrast with Jesus’ depriving Himself of food, and His attitude of complete openness, complete self-emptying, in prayer before the Father.

The example for us is obvious, but first the poet reminds us that the prophets before Jesus did the same:

Alone and fasting Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;

And to Elijah fasting came
The steeds and chariots of flame

That is really a magnificent stanza. The participle fasting, picked up from the verb in the first stanza, is repeated, once before the proper name and once after it: Fasting Moses and Elijah, fasting. These two, the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, appeared beside Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. They indicate Jesus as giver of the New Law and the establisher of the New Israel. But they were inspired in the midst of fasting: Moses on Mount Sinai, Elijah on Mount Horeb. Each man felt the hand of God. Moses received the tablets of the law, and Elijah was taken from the earth by a “chariot of fire” (2 Kgs 2:11).

The poet then turns to Daniel, who spoke of the coming of the Son of Man, and to John the Baptist, the great forerunner:

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lions’ might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The herald of Messiah’s name.

Daniel refused the rich (and, for Jews, unclean) food provided by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and instead asked only for water and a gruel of lentils (Dn 1:12), and therefore, the poet suggests, the Lord granted him mystic sight. John went into the desert to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, “and he did eat locusts and wild honey” (Mk 1:6).

Now the poet applies the lesson to us, who long to be with our Savior. Then we must join Him in the desert:

Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
Full oft in fast and prayer with Thee;
Our spirits strengthen with Thy grace,
And give us joy to see Thy face.

Who is our Savior? There He is, Jesus, entering the wilderness to fast and pray. Do we want to see His face? Then we must go where He has gone before. We cannot do so by our strength, so we pray for the grace of Christ to give us the heart to endure the fast and prayer. Then we will not simply sweat it out. We’ll have, in the very desert, the joy of seeing the face of God, in the face of Jesus. The poem ends by praising the Trinity to whom we pray:

O Father, Son, and Spirit blest,
To The be every prayer addrest,
Who art in threefold Name adored,
From age to age, the only Lord

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