I never heard this hymn until I got to seminary, one of those “higher level of institutions” that is meant to broaden your horizons or something. I had my standard way of haphazardly reading the Bible until college. That’s when I started to take into account what the Scripture meant for the people thousands of years ago, and how that context, not to mention literary and story-telling styles, cannot be overlooked when we consider what it can mean for us today. Seminary was meant to take that whole application process to a level of communal depth, not just for individual congregations, but shaping the wider church to play a role in helping bring God’s dream to a deeper reality in the present time, as if it wasn’t meant to be completely off-limits to a distant heaven.
I was taken aback when I first heard “When Long before Time” (ELW 861), as it paints an enthralling picture of the Creation scene. Yes, by the time this hymn came along and instantly became a favorite of mine, I had learned about some of the different takes of the Creation story as depicted in Scripture. And I doubt Peter W. A. Davison, who is responsible for both the text and the tune, set out to compose a history lesson of our beginning, in a sense; but it still offers a beautiful perspective not just “long before time,” but for our present day as well. He sets the scene in the opening verse:
When long before time and the worlds were begun,
when there was no earth and no sky and no sun,
and all was deep silence and night reigned supreme,
and even our Maker had only a dream—
We often think of the word dream as something only in the human experience. God doesn’t dream, right? God brings everything to reality everyday. Why would God dream? But in the context of the Creation, whether you believe in the historical accuracy of the mutliple Creation stories in Genesis or not, I don’t envision God’s “dream” being about a checklist of water and land, night and day, creeping things and a garden and more. No, I think the dream is about the peace, the tranquility, the shalom (wholeness) in the world that God loves. And if you read Scripture or other portrayals of humanity past and present, you know we have a tendency to thorougly mess that up. God unleashed a Song, as the hymn describes, of that enthralling shalom meant for the whole world to enjoy, and then…continuing with the fourth verse:
Though down through the ages the Song disappeared,
its harmonies broken and almost unheard,
the Singer comes to us to sing it again,
our God-is-with-us in the world now as then.
“The Singer comes to us sing it again,” not just with majestic music, but with enthralling acts of love and mercy, with captivating words of compassion and grace. I could be wrong, as I will be the first to admit that I have much to learn about this all-encompassing nature of God and the world that God still cares for today; but I have a feeling “our Maker [still has] a dream” for us: mind-boggling peace, soul-nourishing tranquility, and a shalom where all humanity is made whole. It may seem so utterly impossible that we just give up altogether, and wait for God to make that dream a reality in some distant heaven, After all, those are notes in a song that we cannot reach whatsoever, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much Scripture we read, no matter how often we pray, no matter how committed we are to learning from one another.
And yet, the Singer keeps coming back, as if God believes we have an essential part in the Song. Our voice must have something to contribute. No matter how broken we may feel ourselves, no matter how broken we’re convinced the world is around us, no matter how much we might believe hope is unheard anymore, “the Singer comes to us to sing it again.” Evidently, the Creation account isn’t just about our beginning. It’s about our hope now, too. It’s about our God who’s as intimately connected “with-us in the world now as then.” We cannot help ourselves but join the Emmanuel in bringing hope to life. Amen (so let it be)!
Image: from SimplyKatherine.com