All Glory be to God on High

This hymn text was written by Nikolaus Decius, born in 1485 and an early convert to Lutheranism.  After graduating from the University of Wittenberg studying Reformation theology, Martin Luther recommended him to become an assistant pastor in Stettin.  Throughout his life he served congregations as pastor as well as cantor, or chief musician.  (It is said he played harp well.) His death date is not known, but Decius must have died sometime after Martin Luther died in 1546 since Luther continually mentioned Decius until the time Luther died.  Presumably, after his own death, Luther would not mention anyone, much less Decius. . .

This text is a paraphrase of the Gloria in excelsis.  A paraphrase takes an idea and expresses it in different words than the original, although the meaning is kept the same.  Instead of the traditional opening text of the Gloria (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace goodwill toward men”) Decius writes, “All glory be to God on high and thanks to Him forever! The Gloria continues, “We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we give thanks to Thee,” whilst Decius paraphrases in the second stanza, “We worship You, we trust in You, We give You thanks forever.”  The final stanza devotes praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively.

The tune is original to this text, with Decius having adapted it from a medieval Gloria plainchant.  Notice, though, the meter.  It is in a strict triple meter (3/4) meaning that the first beat/syllable of each measure is strong, whilst the remaining two syllables are weak.  Since dance waltzes are always in triple meter, this hymn has been ascribed the appelation, “Lutheran waltz.”  One might also think of the Christmastide “In dulci jubilo,” or “Good Christian Men Rejoice” which is similarly set in a strong triple meter.  Interestingly, Decius radically altered the character of the music, since medieval plainchant had no musical meter;  rather, its free-flowing character allowed the music to accent the text solely.  The music was completely and solely a vehicle for the text.  In fact, medieval music would avoid any hint of triple meter even when it naturally occurred in the text, for triple meter recalled the secular peasant dances and were inappropriate for divine worship.  Decius and the early Lutheran hymnists did not hold such an aversion to a triple meter and used it to their advantage.  Although this hymn may sound very “hymnlike” to us, it had a familiar sound to the common German peasant of the 16th century.  This was folk music that had grown from their community and it was a style with which they were familiar.  Unfortunately, 21st century Christians increasingly have less of a folk style upon which to draw.  Certainly there is plenty of “familiar” music out there, but it is meant 1) to sell more of itself and 2) melodically is only appropriate for soloists to sing.  Corporations and people who call themselves musicians bestow this music on the unwary populace below.  This is commercial music, not folk music as Decius was utilizing here.  Decius masterfully blended the sacred and the secular to create an enduring expression of hymn of praise to the Holy Trinity.  It is good he was not born 500 years later!


O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

“Tree of Jesse” Icon

This is one of the most beloved of Advent hymns, and it dates back to the ninth century, to the time of Charlemagne.  Originally in seven stanzas, each stanza addressed Christ by a different name;  we sing four of the most common stanzas:  “Emmanuel,” “Rod of Jesse,” “Day-Spring from on High,” “Key of David,” with the omitted ascriptions being, “Wisdom,” “longed-for King,” “Lord and Leader.”  In some ways, this is a similar technique to the modern praise song “Jesus, Name Above All Names” which also addresses the different names of Jesus.  Let us look at some of these names:

Key of David:  Isaiah 22:22: “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder. When he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.”  In both OT and NT contexts, the key has been the traditional symbol of kingly authority.  Through this “key,” the power of heaven is held or loosed.  In Matt. 16: 19, Jesus states, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven;  whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Rod (or “Root”) of Jesse:  Isaiah 52:13, 15; 53:2: “See, my servant shall prosper…So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless. …He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot.”  Christ is David’s descendant in that He was both genetically related to David, and He is also inheritor of both the earthly (David’s) and heavenly (God the Father’s) kingdom.

Dayspring from on High:  Isaiah 9:1: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”  Interestingly, “dayspring,” also translated as “rising dawn” or “morning star,” refers to an object which is not so luminescent in itself than it reflects a light greater than itself.  This emphasizes Jesus’ divinity as a reflection of His Heavenly Father and reminds us that Jesus’ does not stand alone but with the Heavenly Father regarding our salvation.

Wisdom from the Most High:  This ascription comes directly from apocryphal (not directly biblical for most Protestants) sources, although Christ as “Wisdom” is referred to in John 1:1.  He is the Logos (“Word”) or Wisdom who is present with God before even the beginning of time.

Emmanuel:  Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”  “Emmanuel” means “God with us.”  Christ has taken on human form so that we might relate to Him.  He is not a stranger to us—He is no god who sits idly back and watches the world from afar.  He was active in it in a very physical and real sense, and we should expect that He is no less involved in the world today.  Christ has become one of us;  but, as the other antiphons remind us, He is still Almighty God!

The mystery of Advent and Christmas is that this Almighty God became manifest in our world for our salvation.  Christianity teaches that Christ is completely God and yet completely human.  How can this be?  The essence of our faith is that Christ somehow accomplished this for our benefit, and it is not necessarily for us to understand.

Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending

This hymn was written by Charles Wesley, brother of Methodism’s founder John Wesley and author of over 6,000 hymns.  Charles remained a priest in the Church of England his entire life, as he never considered himself a Methodist as much as he considered himself an Anglican.

This hymn refers to Jesus’ return and to the resurrection when “Ev’ry eye shall now behold Him.”  What is for Daniel a mere prophecy and what for us can only be imagined will, in fact, one day come to pass.  Charles Wesley is careful to treat this somewhat abstract subject with a grounded reality.  He writes in the third stanza, “Those dear tokens of His Passion still His dazzling body bears, Cause of endless exultation To His ransomed worshipers. . .”  Much like the apostle Thomas, who doubts the Risen Christ until he can see Christ’s wounds, we will no longer doubt because we, too, will see those real “tokens of His Passion.”

Note the “cosmic” scope of this text.  If the writer of music notes did not know this hymn was by Charles Wesley, he would probably ascribe this hymn to Isaac Watts, who wrote such universally-themed and expansive hymns as “Nature with Open Volume Stands,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God Our Help in Ages Past.”  Charles Wesley’s hymns usually end up focusing on Christ “in the heart.”  Wesley’s most famous hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” characteristically prays, “Come, Desire of Nations, come, fix in us Thy humble home;  O, to all Thyself impart, Formed in each believing heart.”  Our hymn text today certainly evokes an emotionalism proper to such a fantastic event.  After all, the second stanza laments that those who “pierced and nailed Him to the tree” will be “deeply wailing.”  The second stanza contrasts this with the feelings of believers:  “With what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars!”  So, Wesley here employs imagery that is consistent with subject emotionalism.  But, one must think that the profound magnitude of the eschaton evoked in Wesley not so much a sense of the importance of a “spiritual heart,” but rather an acute awareness of the universality of the whole Christian Church both past, present and future.  His fourth stanza bears this out, “Savior, take the pow’r and glory, claim the kingdom for Thine own.”  Everyone will rise from the dead, and everyone will be judged, some to eternal life and others to death.  Wesley here is probably trying best to convey this sense of cosmic grandeur, omnipresent justice and everlasting righteousness.  This is not always a pleasant thought for modern Americans, which makes it all the more important as a concept for the Church to sing!

The composer of the tune, Thomas Olivers, was born in 1725 in Wales.  His parents died when he was four and he was passed from relative to relative, whilst minimal attention was paid to his upbringing.  He was an uneducated and troublesome knave who set out to travel the world. . . or at least Britain. . . at age 18.  He eventually became convinced of his godless ways after hearing George Whitefield, the great evangelical preacher of the 18th century.  Although he wished to follow Whitefield, he was discouraged from doing so but finally found John Wesley, with whose preaching he became enamored.  Olivers, under the guidance of Wesley, continued evangelizing throughout his life, even at one point editing a Wesleyan magazine (albeit unsuccessfully, for illiterate editors were not in demand in those days like they are now.)  Olivers and Wesley must have been quite a team and good friends, for at his death in 1799 in London, Olivers was interred in Wesley’s own tomb at City Road Chapel near what is now Old Street underground station.  The writer of music notes likes to eat lunch with Wesley and Olivers, for their rather large, obelisk-like tomb makes a great place to sit and eat a sandwich, although the chapel churchyard is now overlooked by a monstrous, glass-walled office building.  Olivers’ hymn text, “The God of Abram Praise” is chiseled on the side of the tomb.

It is possible that Olivers composed the tune we sing this morning after having heard it whistled on the street;  a similar tune is found in Thomas Arne’s comic opera Thomas and Sally. Thomas Arne composed “Rule, Britannia” (which we know as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) and was a popular and rather bourgeois composer of the time, so it is not unlikely that Olivers would have heard this whistled by a common person on the street.  (Arne also composed that great eighteenth century pop song, “Where the bee sucks, there lurk I.”)

Although prior music notes have delved into the Wesleys and this text in particular, do note how the broad, regal, soaring, and resplendent melody captures the cosmic scope of the hymn text, in which Christ is “robed in glorious majesty.”

The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns

Advent is not as solemn a season as Lent, but we approach the liturgy with a bit more austerity throughout these four weeks, allowing us fully to experience the joy of Christmas.  The simplicity with which the service begins, omitting the usual Kyrie and Gloria, exemplifies the theme of preparation which encompasses the Advent season.

Hymnologist John Brownlie

This text was written by the Scottish hymnologist John Brownlie (1859-1925), a scholar and expert in ancient Greek hymnody.  Brownlie translated many hymns from the ancient Greek, publishing them in such volumes as Hymns of the Early Church (1896) and Hymns from East and West (1898).  “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns” is found in his Hymns from the East (1907), although, since no original Greek source has ever been found, it is supposed that Brownlie composed this text himself.  We note one prominent characteristic of this text which is shared with original Greek hymns—there is a strong use and contrast of light and dark.  The first stanza almost could be an Easter text, as it paints a picture of light “breaking triumphantly,” awaking the “eastern hills.”  This is followed by a reference to crowning the “little child” with “glory like the sun that lights the morning sky,” continuing still with noting, “Oh, brighter than the rising morn when Christ, victorious, rose.”  In the fourth stanza we sing of that “bright, glorious morn.”  Brownlie’s intimate connection with Greek hymnody formed the framework through which he himself composed hymn texts, and one of the Church Fathers might have found its themes familiar and its message contemporary.

We find this metaphorical “light” motif found throughout scripture, but most notably in the Gospel of John which, like all the New Testament, was written in Greek, but, unlike much of the New Testament, was aimed particularly at those who considered themselves ethnically, socially, and philosophically Greek.  Instead of relating the historical particulars of the Nativity, John starts his gospel with an abstruse prologue in which he writes, “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”  (John 1: 4-5)  In this same gospel Jesus will go on to state, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  (John 8: 12)

Every Eastern Orthodox church (Greek or otherwise) will have a small, elevated “sand candelabra” in its narthex, in which every worshipper lights and places a candle before entering the nave, a remnant of which is found in our Easter Vigil liturgy.  It was incumbent upon every worshipper to remember Christ the Light of the World and that each worshipper likewise becomes a light to others.  The daylight will continue to wane until around Christmas, at which time (roundabout) we may begin to celebrate the increasing light in the sky and the growth of Christ and of our knowledge of Him.


Savior of the Nations, Come

Mary and Joseph kneel at the crib of the infant Christ in this detail of an icon from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. 

Savior of the nations, come,
virgin’s Son, make here Thy home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.

Not by human flesh and blood,
but the Spirit of our God,
was the Word of God made flesh–
woman’s Offspring, pure and fresh.

Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
Of the Virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
still to be in heav’n enthroned.

From the Father forth He came
and returneth to the same,
captive leading death and hell–
high the song of triumph swell!

 Thou the Father’s only Son,
hast o’er sin the vict’ry won.
Boundless shall Thy kingdom be;
when shall we its glories see?

Brightly doth Thy manger shine,
glorious is its light divine.
Let not sin o’ercloud this light;
ever be our faith thus bright.

Praise to God the Father sing,
Praise to God the Son, our King,
Praise to God the Spirit be
Ever and eternally.

This ancient hymn is appointed to be sung each year on this first Sunday of Advent. Composed by Ambrose of Milan (who baptized St Augustine) before 397 AD, the hymn was so important in the medieval church that Martin Luther translated it to German in 1524.  Even the tune is a modification of a medieval chant melody, VENI REDEMPTOR GENTIUM.  Ambrose is careful to maintain an explicit Trinitarian theology throughout the hymn.  The second stanza expounds on Christ’s divinity, “Not by human flesh and blood, By the Spirit of our God, Was the Word of God made flesh—Woman’s Offspring pure and fresh.”  So, although he was born a human like us, he was without sin;  ie., “pure and fresh.”  This stanza seems to allude to John 1 in which Jesus is described as the “Word.”  Further, the fourth stanza emphasizes further Christ’s estrangement of the world as we sing, “From the Father forth He came and returneth to the same, Captive leading death and hell—High the song of triumph swell!”  This stanza captures the eternality of Christ;  existed before His earthly birth and He existed after his death and resurrection.  The final stanza is a doxology, affirming the unity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  All hymns from this time contain a final doxological stanza as a means to counter Arianism, a heresy which maintained that Christ was not truly divine and was merely another created being.

With its didacticism, this hymn is a good example of what constitutes the Lutheran chorale, that unique body of hymnody that developed during the Lutheran reformation. Chorales were sung in the vernacular (ie., German in this case), were sung by the congregation (as opposed to the clergy or choir) and were highly doctrinal. After all, the late medieval times were characterized by great superstitions but very little doctrinal understanding (are twenty-first century people much different?) The chorale texts, whether composed new or reconstructions from the chant repertoire, as this hymn is, were often narrative, and conveyed doctrine almost as a story. One can see that in the narrative account of this hymn—the first stanza prays for the “savior of the nations” to come, the second begins recounting that “not by human flesh and blood. . . was the Word of God made flesh,” the third mentions the “maid found with child,” whose birth begins “His heroic course.” Continuing, the fifth stanza alludes to Christ’s death, for “into hell His road went down, back then to His throne and crown,” which action redeems humanity from our sin, as exemplified in the next stanza which is now directed as a prayer to the Son, “By Your mighty pow’r make whole all our ills of flesh and soul.” We return then to the “manger” which shines in “glory through the night.”

It is always good to give thanks for Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, and the great hymnody they left for us.