He came to earth in poverty
Source: Singing the Faith: 246
Words: Martin Leckebusch
Music: “East Dulwich” by Paul Leddington Wright
Metre: 87.87 and refrain
Correction to music: Amend metre to “87 87 and refrain”
Ideas for use
As a hymn of God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus, these words (like Wesley’s great hymns of the incarnation, see below) are helpful for Christmas as well as at other times of the year. Because of the accessibility of Martin Leckebusch’s language, and the explanatory nature of the refrain (“Emmanuel means God has come…”), this is also a helpful hymn for those exploring the Christian faith or church membership. The openness of the hymn’s tone invites us to consider widely our response to what we see and understand in the life of Jesus without imposing any narrow directives.
You may wish to consider using this hymn alongside a reading of the biblical “Hymn of Christ” in the Letter to the Philippians: Philippians 2: 5-11.
Also explore Come, wounded Healer, your sufferings reveal (StF 271), in which Martin presents further paradoxes within the life of God-as-servant.
This is a hymn that endeavours to put in to accessible, contemporary language the core of Christian belief: that in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s presence and love can be seen and understood.
Here we are on the same territory as Wesley’s hymns of the incarnation, Let earth and heaven combine (StF 208) and, more familiarly, Hark! The herald-angels sing (StF 202). But “He came to earth” also reflects Martin Leckebusch’s stated “desire to see the language of worship expanded. Too often our ‘religious’ language is alien to outsiders or new Christians… we use one set of vocabulary on Sundays and another on Mondays.” (More than Words, Introduction)
With its refrain beginning “Emmanuel means God has come, a child of human birth”, this is in once a sense a “teaching hymn”. But it’s a text that lays out clearly what there is for us to see in life of Jesus, without imposing on the singer or reader a set response. Rather, it allows us to take what we know of Jesus and to make of it what we will. This is different from, say, Graham Kendrick’s better known From heaven you came (StF 272), with its final verse beginning “So let us learn how to serve”.
Like Martin, Graham also speaks of Jesus’ role as a servant while nevertheless being “our God”, but his hymn lays much more emphasis on the events of Easter, using the language of sacrifice to evoke Jesus’ crucifixion. Though Martin alludes to the end of Jesus’ life (“he freely took a thorny crown”, v.3), his concern is more with the whole of Jesus’ life and example.
Even more so than Graham Kendrick, John Pantry (He came to earth, not to be served, StF 445) is concerned to talk about our required response as Christians to a “life ransomed for many”. His is a highly personal response of sorrow and faith (“And so I stand, a broken soul, to see the pain that I have brought to Jesus”). He also uses language understood (or maybe not!) by those already bound up in the Church and Christian conversation. Martin Leckebusch, in contrast, avoids phrases laden with biblical meaning such as “ransom for many” and “Son of Man”.
At the same time, there are certainly strong echoes of biblical writings in this hymn – in particular the so-called “Christ hymn” in the letter to Philippians (Philippians 2: 5-11) and the expositions on Jesus’ divine and human nature in the Letter to Hebrews. Nevertheless, the way Martin describes Jesus’ life – “a servant toiling with his hands” – conjures pictures of a man at work, understanding our daily lives – and without using words that would trip up or alienate those with little experience of Christian language and traditions.