The Backstory of “The Infant Priest”: From a Student’s Meditation, to a Scrap of Paper, to a Communion Hymn

Over the weekend, my son and I were paper archaeologists. We dug through some of my yellowed, dusty files to see what discoveries awaited us. We unearthed handwritten writing assignments from high school, short stories from college, and my very first published work: an article in the September, 1992, issue of the Lutheran Witness. Among our finds, however, the two that I treasure the most were early versions of what eventually became my first, and still my favorite hymn, “The Infant Priest Was Holy Born.”

A Student’s Meditation

In February of 1997, this Texas boy was freezing his way through a final winter at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN. Ordination was mere months away. As was customary, when Lent approached that year, the students prepared a devotional booklet for the campus which contained a meditation per day for the season leading up to Holy Week. I was asked to write one on Hebrews 4:14-16, to be read on Thursday, February 20. Among the finds that Luke and I discovered this weekend was that meditation. Here it is.

Humbly arrayed in the priestly garments of human flesh, the Infant Priest, divinely ordained prior to all, emerged pure from the temple of His holy mother’s womb. Worshiped by heavenly hosts seen and unseen, His veiled glory diminished not the laudatory rivers flowing from angelic lips. A new Abel was born of the new Eve, destined to be a sacrificial victim whose blood would speak a better—more salvific—word than the blood of Abel.

By Jordan’s waters anointed, armored with the Spirit’s authority, He who led the armies of Israel marched with purposed stride to the devilish battleground of the Tempter. His divinity camouflaged in humanity, this Davidic youth hunted fearlessly the hellish Goliath, armed solely with the sling of incessant obedience to His Father. With three smooth Scriptural stones chosen from the brook of Torah, he defeated the uncircumcised Foe and struck fear into the hearts of every fiendish spirit allied with the fallen one. The victory battle foreshadowed victory war.

Unparalleled in piety, no stranger to demonic assault, this Priest—blessed be He—traversed the holy land, leaving in His path purified worshipers, the holiness of His flesh sanctifying the uncleanness of their own. From His mouth wafted wise words as fragrant as incense, His tongue the coal upon which the Father’s frankincense fell.

 He approached the place of sacrifice undaunted by the absence of a lamb…for the Lamb was He. Upon the crucifixion altar, at which wailing angels dared not gaze, He lay bound by the cords of human infidelity. The fire quenched, the plague stayed, the veil rent, alive again He arose triumphantly to lead pious children into the paternal throne room where they bask in the regal radiance of grace. Midnight spirits upon whom the baptismal sun has risen, we with faces aglow recline roundabout the Incarnate Ark and feast on the sacramental showbread of His flesh. Flesh and blood dripping down the clouds of His body fills to overflowing the priestly chalice of redemption, bedewing cracked lips as we drink deeply in the gold-laden Holy of Holies.

Poetic Scribbles on a Scrap of Paper

Almost every author has had someone who’s helped him believe that he actually is a writer, that he has a gift, and that that gift needs to be shared with readers. During seminary, my encourager was Donald Deffner, one of my beloved professors. Already during my first year, when I shyly handed him a couple of short stories I’d written, he began to buoy my confidence.

When he read my meditation on Hebrews 4, he recommended I attempt to transform this prose into poetry, to craft a hymn from this meditation. That was a literary path I’d never traveled before, but, as it turned out, one that I still remain on today. While Luke and I were rummaging around, I found this, the scrap of paper upon which the first draft was written.

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A Communion Hymn

Word by word, a hymn emerged from those inky scratches. I showed it to Richard Resch, the Kantor on campus, who shared it with the committee that was in the final stages of preparing Hymnal Supplement ’98 (HS98), a collection of additional hymns not included in our (then) current service book. In all honesty, I was amazed that the committee even considered it. So you can imagine my shock when I received the news from Resch that it was accepted, that it would be included in the supplement.

“The Infant Priest” eventually made its way into the section of Lord’s Supper hymns in the Lutheran Service Book. Even though I still find myself calling it my hymn, it has truly ceased to be. It is part of the church’s hymnody now. And so it should be. To me, that is one of the characteristics of a hymn writer that sets him apart from a poet. A poet’s works, even though they may be enjoyed and even treasured by the general public, remain that poet’s works. A hymn writer composes for the church, that his words, echoing the Lord’s own words, might become her words.

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16

 

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12 thoughts on “The Backstory of “The Infant Priest”: From a Student’s Meditation, to a Scrap of Paper, to a Communion Hymn

  1. revgraniemann on said:

    a new “Able,” or Abel? if the former, good pun!

  2. Beautiful, Chad. The meditation, the scrap paper, the hymn, the story. All of it.

    • Thank you, Rebekah. The scrap paper is a special treasure to me. It’s the closest thing to a snapshot of my mind at 27 years old that I’ll ever have.

  3. Thank you so much for the story of the hymn and the meditation on Hebrews 4.

    I have to ask; were you reading Lewis’ Space Trilogy at the time? The “blessed be He” reminds me so much of the closing to Perelandra. Also some of the language reminds me of That Hideous Strength.

    Great stuff as always, Chad.

    • Thank you, Sam. No, I actually read the trilogy a few years later. I picked up that language from rabbinic writings. They frequently include ‘Blessed be He’ after mentioning the divine name.

  4. Hi Chad, Can’t tell you how important this post is for me. I’ve been patiently awaiting some kind of Companion to the LSB hymnbook for 4 years. In that type of book we get a comment or two on the author and how the hymn was composed. You have now provided the whole 9-yards, so I thank you sincerely for this. The original ‘meditation’ is jam-packed with inspiration.
    Trained as an organist for my local LCA parish in the mid-60s, I was to know a hymnal backwards and forwards, so I’ve been a reader and player of hymns a long time & I recognize a top-quality hymn when I read it. I was over 1,000 days late in getting through the LSB, but when I did, I couldn’t find any info on the writer of this hymn. You were going through some very tough times during that period as I later found out, but my question was, “How could such a genius for hymns drop off the radar…”

    I studied the hymn structure and decided I wanted to ‘render’ it into my favourite hymn language: Latin.
    A translation, it is not; and why I changed the themes of verses 4,5 and 6 is irrelevant. I consider this rendering an honour to your own spiritual direction and genius for collating so many Biblical messages into one cohesive poetic jewel.

    Infante dulce ! Sacerdotem/Pro nobis quoque impiis;/Caeleste ab aeterno fanum/Vivendi templum pariet.’/
    2. Antistes quam clemente nobis/Salutem semper ministret ;/Justitia divina sua/Image Patris, quotiens./
    3. Instetit Agnus ad altarem/Intrepide, dum Angeli/Velamen capit fleti, ‘Vide’ !/Hic est sacerdos victima.
    4 Tametsi caedes non vinceret;/Prae Deus a ligno regnat;[LXX Ps.95:10]/Nos immo intimo pasceret/Oh, vellum pone ! Pater vult !/[Gen.22]
    5 Videmus vellum/ scissum estne?/Flectamus genua expetens/De primo infantati sumus/Panem supersubstanti’am./
    6 Corporem Agni et manducat/Oh, Dei Unigeniti/ Et sumit hagiam sanguinem/ tunc denuo jucundius./
    7 Cum vocis Angeli Tersanctum/Canemus Christo Domini/Qui Rex et Agnus et Sacerdos/Amatus in aeternum sit.

    • Walter, if there were ever a reason to dust off my Latin, this is surely it. Thank you for providing it! I share your frustration with the delay in a publication of a companion to LSB. Hopefully we will have one soon. I’m glad to have provided the background to The Infant Priest. It almost forms part of my autobiography, linking as it does my past to my present. I deeply appreciate your work and your kind words.

  5. Dennis Schlecht on said:

    Once again, Chad, you have me asking, “Why can’t I write like that?” Even though I’m retired now and trying to abide by the rubric that retired pastors should remain silent in relation to his congregation’s pastor, I’m going to exhort my good pastor to choose this hymn for the Feast of the Nativity.

    Sidebar: my wife’s mother was a first cousin of Don Deffner’s father. I don’t know what to call the “cousin-ship” of Don and my wife, much less whether I can claim any status at all. More important was his role in the formation of the theological poet you have become as well as a creative “thinker” in biblical theology.

    • Thank you, Dennis, for the kind words. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that, if any of my writings continue to be a blessing to the church, I hope it is “The Infant Priest.” And, yes, it would be a fitting hymn for the Feast of the Nativity. I’m grateful that it falls within the Lord’s Supper section of the hymnal, so it can serve as a hymn during the celebration of the Sacrament as well.

      I had noticed, before attending seminary, that Dr. Deffner had several articles published that, while still scholarly, were more oriented toward laypeople. That’s why I first approached him to look at my own writings, because my goal too was to reach everyone, not just write for pastors or the academy. He was incredibly supportive of me. There are few seminary professors who can both teach and exemplify pastoral care, but Don was among them. I thank God for him and the influence he had on me.

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