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Reading the Hymns: For the Beauty of the Earth

May 15th, 2010 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

One of the most significant facts of Christian theology is that the death and resurrection of the man Jesus Christ empowers not only the redemption of all mankind, but the renewal of the entire created order.

That's a theological fact that I suspect we rarely take into account when we approach the communion table.

But today's hymn--in, as best as I could discern, its original form--manages to seamlessly unite the doctrines of creation and reconciliation.  While "For the Beauty of the Earth" is generally regarded as a hymn simply oriented toward the goodness of creation, it was originally written as a communion hymn.

It's author, Folliett Sanford Pierpoint, was a Cambridge scholar who taught classics as a schoolmaster and wrote poetry.  He first published this hymn in Lyra Eucharistica, a collection of hymns dedicated for Holy Communion, with the title of "The Sacrifice of Praise."  That was in 1864.  The hymn quickly proliferated the corpus of hymnals, receiving numerous modifications that stripped it of some of its most potent communion language, and was often used specifically for children.

But a communion hymn it was originally, and so that is the form in which we shall treat it.

For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies
For the Love which from our birth, over and around us lies
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise, this our Sacrifice of praise.

Pierpoint begins by pointing to the beauty of the cosmos, the reach of which is comprehensive:  beauty encompasses earth, and skies.  But this beauty doesn't stand on its own, in isolation:  from our beginnings, we are encompassed by Love, a deeper reality than even the structural beauty and order of creation.  On account of all this, in communion, we offer a sacrifice of praise--language taken from Hebrews 13 and deployed in overly peppy style by Maranatha Music in the 1970s.

For the beauty of each hour, of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light (refrain)

The litany of beauty continues, as Pierpoint lovingly and patiently directs our attention to specific features of the created order for which we offer praise.

For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and brain's delight,
For the joy of mystic harmony, sinking sound to sense and sight (refrain)

Pierpoint takes a turn away from creation in general and toward the specific features of man by which we are able to rejoice in it.  There is a touch of an ascent here--creation, the organs that make the pleasure possible, and then the pleasure itself are all occasions for worship.  But Pierpoint doesn't linger there long, returning to the "mystical harmony" which condescends to be expressed within the sensible creation.  This is what is often termed the "sacramental" aspect of creation.

For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above, For all gentle thoughts and mild (refrain)

A sacrifice of praise began in creation and proceeded toward the individual human senses now turns to the social dimension.  But like creation, which reveals a "mystic harmony," society isn't composed strictly by the living humans.  Pierpoint doesn't specify whether "friends above" means humans or angels, but there really isn't a need to choose.

For each perfect Gift of Thine, to our race so freely given,
Graces human and Divine, Flowers of earth and buds of heaven (refrain)

As this is intended to be sung during or before communion, it's probable "gifts" and "graces" are references to the bread and wine.  While the final clause gives me some pause, what seems significant to the metaphor is the origin of the flowers and buds. For Pierpoint, the gifts given in communion have a double origin:  they are not simply physical elements, but elements that are given in a particular way by a particular God.  What was a "sacramental aspect" to the created order finds its clearest expression here, in communion itself, where in the proper ordering of heaven and earth, the whole creation is renewed.

For Thy Bride that evermore, lifteth holy hands above,
Offering up on every shore, This Pure Sacrifice of Love (refrain)

Interestingly, Pierpoint places the praising of the church after the praising of the gifts given to the church. Deduce what you will.

For Thy martyrs crown of light, for Thy Prophet's eagle eye,
For Thy bold confessor's might, for the lips of infancy (refrain)

Just as Pierpoint added a litany of the particular elements of creation above, so he here lists particular constituents of the church to ensure we neglect no one.  It is a church that is composed of the dead and the living, where "the living" includes the infants on whose lips God has established praise.  The reference is to Psalm 8--a Psalm dedicated to the beauty of creation, a beauty that for Pierpoint is brought up and renewed within the people of God.

For Thy virgin's robes of snow, for Thy Maiden Mother mild,
For Thyself, with hearts aglow, Jesus, Victim undefiled,
Offer we at Thine own Shrine, Thyself, Sweet Sacrament Divine.

Pierpoint amends the refrain to explicitly point to the centerpiece of praise:  Jesus Christ's gift of Himself to us within the communion meal.  The emphasis, though, is on Jesus' own purity:  he is born of Mary, who is lauded as a maiden even as we praise God for all his virgins.  It is the confrontation with the pure, undefiled Victim in communion that grounds all other praises and restores the integrity of the whole created order.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.