Some hymnologists trace this hymn text back to St Ambrose, one of the original four “doctors” of the church. Although Ambrose of Milan lived in the fourth century, and there is little evidence that this text goes so far back, it is at least from the tenth century. Originally written in Latin, as were all sacred and liturgical texts, Edward Caswall (1814-78) originally translated the first line as “Hark, an Awful Voice is Sounding.” (!) Bless the Victorians, it is probably a fortunate happenstance of fate that subsequent translators have altered that particular line.
Each Sunday of the year, our hymns, music, and preaching focus around the pericopes—the sensible arrangement of the Old Testament, Epistles, and Gospels in a manner that reflects Christ’s life, teaches us the fundamentals of the Christian faith, and ensures that we hear a good portion of the Bible over its three year series. Sometimes, planning music around particular pericopes is difficult, such as during the long summertime in which the readings don’t often seem to have coherence amongst each other, at least at first glance. During Advent, we have read that John the Baptist’s disciples greet Jesus, asking Him if He is “the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” In response to Jesus’ miracles, they return to John to affirm that Jesus is indeed the Messiah of whom John had been prophesying. Jesus speaks highly of John, saying to the crowds, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? . . . A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing live in luxury are in kings’ courts. . . . What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” This is the quintessential theme of Advent—we all prepare for the Messiah. Advent is not just Christmas “gearing up” slowly until the celebration of Christmas Eve. Advent, like its concomitant partner season of Lent, serves to prepare us for Christ, just as John prepared the world for Christ.
We sing that this “thrilling voice is sounding! ‘Christ is near,’ we hear it say.” In response, we “cast away the works of darkness.” Advent is not a passive season, but demands something from us. And, it is Christocentric—always focusing on Christ as opposed to the silly commercialism of society. We sing of “The Lamb, so long expected, comes with pardon down from heaven. Let us haste, with tears of sorrow, one and all, to be forgiven.” Advent, like Lent, is a season of repentance, and repentance involves action—a change from the status quo, but the Gospel is always central. Just as Christ came 2,000 years ago, we know he can come again even tomorrow as the next stanza reminds us, “So when next He comes in glory and the world is wrapped in fear, He will shield us with His mercy and with words of love draw near.” As with most Latin hymns, the final stanza is doxological.
Advent is somewhat strange, at least according to this hymn. It is not about a soft baby in a manger sleeping peacefully. It is not really about peace and goodwill toward men. It is not about cultural relevance. It is about preparing for that final day in which Christ will come and bring His Church to eternal glory. Advent, and ultimately Christmas, is not about looking back at a historical narrative, but looking to the future and that coming eschaton. We can rejoice in the coming joy that is ours in heaven.