Once in Royal David’s City

Cecil Frances Alexander

Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) has the distinction of being one of the few women hymn writers  before the twentieth century. There certainly were some women hymn writers (one thinks of Elizabeth Cruciger from the Reformation Era), but they stand out because they were relatively few. By the Victorian Era, women were making a significant contribution to hymnody. We can think of Fanny Crosby (“Blessed Assurance”) or Charlotte Elliott (“Just as I Am”) or even Catherine Winkworth who, whilst not a hymnwriter herself, translated many of the German chorales into English.

Cecil Alexander was born in Dublin, Ireland, and lived there most of her life, having married William Alexander, who became Bishop of Armagh. She wrote about 400 hymns in half a dozen collections, one of her most beloved hymns being “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Alexander had always a concern for children, being particularly concerned that they were taught the faith in a manner they could understand, and that they had devotional resources for their own use.  This hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City,” appears in her Hymns for Little Children (1848). This curious little hymnal is structured catechetically—she composed hymns to be based on baptism, the creed, the commandments, and prayer. The majority of the hymnal, though, is structured around the elements of the creed, and this hymn is found under the section entitled “Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary. . .” The emphasis of this hymn, therefore, is Christmas, but it is mainly a children’s hymn teaching about Christmas as its language is clear, lucid, and unencumbered with theological terms (which are necessary, but not in every hymn!) Consider this stanza which is omitted from all hymnals these days: “And through all His wondrous childhood He would honour and obey, love and watch the lowly maiden in whose gentle arms He lay. Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as He.” In modern terms, this stanza seems very antiquated and stifling, but consider it in context with the following, our modern stanza 3, “For He is our childhood’s pattern, day by day like us He grew; He was little, weak, and helpless, tears and smiles like us He knew; and He feels for all our sadness, and He shares in all our gladness.” There certainly is much Victorian conservatism in this entire hymn, but the goal is to become more Christ-like. We will find no encouragement for children to find or express themselves or develop an individuality outside of their parents and dominant society—thoughts which are prevalent today, so far as the writer of music notes can tell. No, children singing this hymn are not those who choose their own clothes and determine their own bedtime! But before the progressive among us become upset, consider that the Victorian Era—roughly the 1840s until 1900—ushered in an age in which attention was actually paid to childhood. Children were seen more for themselves as opposed to being little adults who were to be exploited at the farm or in industry as soon as they were of sufficient size. The great increase in child labour brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and critiqued by activists and philosophers including Charles Dickens (think Oliver Twist), resulted in the Factory Act (1833) which forbade employing children under 9 in factories (!) and required at least two hours a day of schooling for children under age 13 provided by their employers. This may seem too little and too late for us moderns, but this represented a change in philosophy toward the child which had held sway for hundreds of years, if not the beginning of time. By 1870 in Britain, compulsory education was mandated and most children, even poor ones, would spend their childhood in school rather than in industry. To combat childhood woes in her own way, Alexander donated the proceeds for her hymnal to a school for deaf and mute children in County Derry.

Alexander’s hymnal represents a means to teach children something important about their faith in language they can understand. Yet, it is not simplistic. As fun as some of our modern children’s songs can be, they tend to lack the substance this hymn contains. Consider the eschatology in the last stanzas of “One in Royal David’s City,” “And our eyes at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love; for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above; and He leads His children on to the place where He is gone.” Here is reference to Christ’s redemption and our salvation. Alexander takes us even further away from the manger and into heaven in the final stanza, “Not in that poor, lowly stable with the oxen standing by Shall we see Him, but in heaven, set at God’s right hand of high. Then like stars His children, crowned, all in white, His praise will sound.” Our Christmas season is not ultimately about a baby’s birth, but about the salvation effected by Christ by His death and resurrection. This hymn does not leave us in the romanticized notions of Christmas, but takes us, and its littlest readers, forward to the end times in which Christ reigns over a new heaven and a new earth.

 

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”

Charles Wesley

This quintessential Advent text comes from the pen of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), co-founder of Methodist with his brother John.  Much like Luther, neither of the Wesleys intended to found a denomination.  As ordained Anglican priests, they noted the lack of deep spirituality characteristic of many priests and congregants.  John in particular traced his “conversion” to the Aldersgate experience in which he remarked after attending a Bible study in 1739 that his “heart was strangely warmed.”  Although he was already a theologian at that time, he considered this experience as his first as a “true” Christian.  (Luther as well had a similar, probably-not-apocryphal experience during a thunderstorm.)  Through John’s fervent preaching and Charles’s almost 6,000 hymns, the Methodist movement spread throughout England, Wales, and even to the United States.

Charles Wesley’s hymns are characterized by this concern for the “heart” rather than an intellectual assent to certain doctrines.  His language is emotive rather than didactic, “Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set Your people free;  From our fears and sins release us. . .”  During Advent we have this longing for the birth of Christ which we know will cumulate in His death, resurrection and His subsequent freeing humanity from sin.  His second stanza implies this relationship between Advent and Lent, both of which are characterized by preparation.  “Born Your people to deliver, born a child and yet a king.”  As we profess in the creed, Christ was very God of very God, begotten, not made. . . was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.  The incarnation means Christ was both a human (child) and God (king) at the same time.  Both Advent and Lent have profound elements of humanity—a baby is born, gifts are brought, its parents love it, shepherds bring sheep to play with the baby.  In Lent, pain, humiliation and betrayal are all experienced by Christ.  Good and bad, we all experience these same emotions to differing degrees.  But Christ was also God, conquering death by His resurrection on Easter morning.  Such is the irony of the incarnation, and Wesley is so adept at capturing these thoughts in poetic form.

 

Magnificat

“The Annunciation,” Fra Angelico

The Magnificat is simply the Latin term for Mary’s song of praise as found in Luke 1: 46-55 as she joyfully responds to the message that she will bear the Son of God.   The Latin phrase “magnificat anima meum” is translated “my soul magnifies the Lord.”  Remember, Latin was the official ecclesiastical language of all Western Christendom until the Reformation, and the Roman Catholics retained its use up to the 1960s.  To refer to major sections of the bible in Latin, particularly the psalms or songs, was not unusual.  Many of us still refer to the Te Deum, the Nunc Dimittis, or the Sanctus.

I am always struck by the similarity between Hannahs’s song in 1 Samuel 2 and the Magnificat.  Hannah had prayed for a child, but none had been given to her.  Consequently, she was in “great anguish” (I Sam. 1: 16b.)  However, the Lord blessed her with a son, Samuel, who would become a great prophet.  She sings this song in joyful response as she dedicates Samuel in the Temple.  Consider its similarity to the Magnificat of the New Testament:

My heart rejoices in the Lord;  in the Lord my horn is lifted high.  My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in Your deliverance. . . the bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.  Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more.

Both Hannah’s song and later Mary’s song contrast the lowly and weak with the mighty and powerful.  The imagery of the mighty falling and the poor being lifted speaks metaphorically of the reality of Christ and His Church.  He was born in a humble stable and was crucified as a criminal, but yet He was simultaneously King of the Jews and King of Creation.  The similarity between Hannah’s song, sung hundreds of years before Mary was born, and Mary’s own song, demonstrates that Mary most likely knew the Hebrew scriptures so thoroughly that her spontaneous “song” was either consciously or unconsciously shaped by this old song which she had read many times.  Mary’s thorough grounding in Scripture—so complete that even her spontaneous thoughts cannot stray from Scripture’s principles–may give some human evidence as to why God might have chosen her above any other to bear Christ.   

Mary’s song is profound in many ways.  She acknowledges that “From now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1: 48b.)   Most “Protestants” are fearful of undue reverence toward Mary.  Yet, this has perhaps led to many not sufficiently appreciating Mary as the theotokos, the bearer of God.  Mary’s song is one of humility.  She even states that the Lord “has been mindful of the humble state of His servant.”  As in Hannah’s song, Mary makes a sharp contrast between the rich and poor and the powerful and lowly.  Clearly, Mary sees herself as lowly, having only been “lifted up” because “the Mighty One has done great things for me.”  She does not boast. . . never does she give herself credit for being “worthy” of the honor.

The Magnificat is one of the traditional canticles for Evensong.

Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding

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.

Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People

John Calvin

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.