Oxford-educated William Walsham How (1823-97) confounded his contemporaries. He was a “modernist,” curious about science, even evolution, in which he saw evidence of God’s great mystery and ingenuity.
In the Church of England he accumulated a range of impressive titles: curate, rector, deacon, canon, Bishop Suffragan in London, Bishop of Wakefield.
To the slum-dwellers of East London, however, he was known by more affectionate names: “the poor man’s bishop,” “the children’s bishop,” and, because he always took public transportation with them, “the omnibus bishop.” He served the people who breathed the foul air and smoke that spewed from nearby factories. He breathed the same air. It was a mystery to well-heeled Anglicans when he turned down several lucrative posts and life in a bishop’s mansion.
During his years of ministry, he wrote almost sixty hymns. Only a few are still sung today, including “For All the Saints” and “O Word of God Incarnate.” Sadly, his 1867 hymn, “O JESUS, THOU ART STANDING,” has fallen out of favor. The language, if not the sentiment, sounds old-fashioned to our ears.
O Jesus, Thou art standing outside the fast-closed door,
in lowly patience waiting to pass the threshold o’er.
Shame on us, Christian brothers, his name and sign who bear,
O shame, thrice shame upon us, to keep him standing there.
Bishop How said he was inspired to write these lyrics after reading “Brothers and a Sermon,” a poem by Jean Ingelow. Rich in sentimental Victorian imagery of “foaming passion” and “seething billows,” the poem is a meditation on Revelation 3:20 in which Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
Another influence on How would have been the painting “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt, hugely popular at the time. Creative people are inspired by the work of other creative people. So it was in the shaping of this hymn.
WHAT DOOR IS THIS?
In the Bible, the door on which Jesus is knocking was a church door — specifically the door of a church in Laodicea, a wealthy city located in what is today southwest Turkey. The church community there was one of the seven addressed in the heavily symbolic vision described in Revelation 3: 14-22 by John of Patmos.
In this vision, Jesus is not happy. He accuses the Laodiceans of being complacent, lukewarm Christians: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot.”
He denounces their selfish consumerism: “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’” They are rich in things, but poor in their love of God and acts of Christian kindness.
The Jesus of John’s dream is blunt in his condemnation and warns, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth!”
But in John’s vision, Jesus doesn’t give up on the church. He calls on the community to repent. We picture Jesus as Hunt drew him, standing in the dark, weeds up to his waist, knocking on a door without a handle.
21st CENTURY CHURCH DOORS
There is talk now around the globe and in the USA of closed borders and the need for walls. Desperate people seeking sanctuary are caged or turned away for lack of proper papers.
To many of us, it seems a dark time in the world and in our churches. The words of Jesus are being twisted into words of privilege, bigotry, judgement, and persecution.
But even as some church communities preach deportation, detention, and closed doors, and harden their hearts to the cries of the most vulnerable, others ask, ”Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you…?”
We reread Matthew 25: 31-46 and contemplate the images we’ve seen on the evening news of those who are the least privileged, the least powerful among us. Then, we hear the voice of Jesus say, “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
TO GO DEEPER
“O Jesus, Thou Art Standing,” Words and music at Hymnary.org
Related blog meditation on “Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door” by Pam McAllister, Ask Her About Hymns, January 25, 2017
“Immigrant Children: WWJD?” by David Horsey (with political cartoon of Jesus at the border), The Seattle Times, June 18, 2018
“Prayer for Immigrants” on Evangelicals for Social Action website
“Worship Materials on Immigration” Prayers, hymns, scripture verses compiled by the Unitarian-Universalist Association