This hymn heralds Adventide just as John the Baptist heralded the coming Christ. Taken nearly verbatim from Isaiah 40: 1-5, this text urges us to “prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.” Let us speak first of the tune.
This writer of must maintain strict anonymity because of his unpopularity with organists who treat real hymnody as though it was a chore, the value to be found only in the pain endured having to get to the end. The writer of music notes has heard this tune played many times slowly, lugubriously, and quite dully, as though every bit of life had been sucked out of both the music and the singers. This tune, though, demands a different treatment.
The composer, Louis Bourgeois, was the chief musician for John Calvin’s Genevan Psalter of 1551, from which this tune came, originally set to Psalm 42. Although Calvin is known for his austerity, for he advocated the singing of psalms only rather than “hymns of human composure;” this tune is dance-like, in the style of a Renaissance dance. It alternates between duple and triple meter, and the tempo is anything but slow.
Bourgeois was entrusted with writing, selecting and arranging all the music for the Calvinist psalters, and he was highly regarded by the citizens of Geneva particularly for his teaching music and theology to children. Like many church musicians, he was known to make “unauthorized” changes in the music occasionally, and the city council sent him to jail for a day in 1551 for such changes!
The text comes from Johannes Olearius (1611-1684), written for St John the Baptist’s feast day on 24 June. Olearius was born and raised in Halle, Germany, from whence many fine Lutheran hymnwriters hail, but studied in Wittenberg where he also served on the faculty of the university. As a writer of poetry, he published Geistliche Singe-Kunst, published in the Lutheran city of Leipzig in 1671. Notice the rich biblical imagery in this hymn—it is taken directly from Isaiah 40 but never directly mentions Christ (who is never mentioned in Isaiah, of course.) However, it is clear through the editorially-capitalized “Him” to whom this hymn is addressed, and for whom we prepare. This is a hymn of preparation. It does not tell us all we need to know of the Christian faith, just as John the Baptist did not tell the “full story” of Christ—John merely prepared the way so that Christ could reveal Himself fully. The Advent season consistently anticipates the Incarnation, but Advent is still clearly rooted in the Old Testament in which the Hebrews do not know the full truth of the Messiah. We moderns do know the rest of the story, so we seem to want to skip Advent and sing those beloved Christmas carols right away. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is also much advantage to hearing these Old Testament messianic prophecies so prevalent in our lectionary throughout Advent. For in so doing, and in trying to recreate the anticipation of those ancient Hebrews, we ourselves can appreciate more fully the gift that was Christ’s Incarnation.