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Advent hymns, II

December 9, 2012

Tower window of the Church of St Michael, Brantham, Suffolk.

Tower window of the Church of St Michael, Brantham, Suffolk.

HAVING come to the second Sunday in Advent, we hear the Good News proclaimed by John the Baptist:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.1, 2.

For those who believe that the Church is an organization devoted chiefly to inclusiveness, diversity, and pot luck, Advent ought to provide a loud awakening.

Isaiah’s proclamation to a people in exile applies as much to us living in this day as it did to the ancient Israelites in captivity in Babylon. Consider the following text, from the hymn “Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding”:

Wakened by the solemn warning
From earth’s bondage let us rise;

To those enamored of the weak substance of much contemporary theology, which preaches a gospel of uncritical acceptance and approval of every man, with no corresponding call to self-examination and repentance, Christmas must be of little use, Advent less still. Who can hear the solemn warning of the coming Saviour and Judge when “Come as you are” is the order of the day? “Come as you are” is surely easier than the command to “Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor… and come, follow me.”3 Our treasures on earth–our things, our ambitions, our prideful holding onto our weirdnesses and peccadilloes under the guise of “identity”–are the very stuff of “earth’s bondage,” strong as any chain.

Fortunately for us all, there is hope.

Lo, the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from Heav’n;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven.

We are in dire need of this pardon down from Heaven, as we are quite unable to help ourselves. Not that we ought not to undertake good works, but no quantity of works, social justice, and human effort can free us from our common bondage to sin. We can’t “make up for it.” Faith without works may be dead,4 but faith in nothing more than works is the very definition of the prideful arrogance of humanity. After his days at sea, trading slaves and enslaved himself, John Newton didn’t write a hymn entitled “Amazing Works,” “Amazing Inclusiveness,” or “Amazing Social Justice.” He wrote “Amazing Grace.”

When we speak of Advent as a “season of hope,” is it this forgiveness, this amazing grace, in which we hope, as we look to our redemption on the last day. We do not have to go it alone, for we have a Saviour who goes before us. In gratitude and repentance, Advent calls us to turn from sin and toward Christ, coming with pardon down from Heaven.

Alongside the text of “Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding,” it is worth considering the contribution to church hymnody of William Henry Monk, who composed the tune (Merton) to which the hymn in question is usually set. In 1847, aged 24, Monk was appointed professor and choirmaster of King’s College, London, and became organist in 1849. There, “as editor of the Tractarian Society for Promoting Church Music’s journal, Parish Choir, through 1851, he championed the importance of both choir and congregational singing and in 1857 he was asked to act as music editor of what was to become one of the most important and widely used Anglican hymnals, Hymns Ancient and Modern.

The first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern was published in 1861 and was an immediate success. It included fifteen of Monk’s own compositions, of which perhaps the best known are Eventide, set to Henry Francis Lyte’s words “Abide with me,” and Melita (the Navy Hymn), set to the words “Eternal Father, strong to save,” written by William Whiting.

Each hymn was headed by a short Biblical quotation, chosen to reflect the theme of the hymn. Monk favored simple, austere melodies, seeking to avoid, both in his own work and in his selections for inclusion in Hymns Ancient and Modern, the sentimentality that characterized much mid-Victorian hymn-writing.”5

In 1852, Monk became organist of St. Matthias, Stoke Newington in North London, built in 1853 and a leading exponent of the Oxford Movement. There, he introduced plainchant to the singing of psalms and service music, and he adapted the parish music scheme to conform with the Prayer Book’s liturgical calendar–both considered at the time to be radically High Church innovations (for a parallel, see the the contemporary work of Dean Mansel at St. Paul’s Cathedral).

Monk, through his dedication to simple, singable melodies, has bequeathed to us one of the the greatest bodies of hymnody by a single composer. “Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding” may sit confidently among his opus.

Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding;
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say,
“Cast away the works of darkness,
O ye children of the day.”

Wakened by the solemn warning
From earth’s bondage let us rise;
Christ, her Sun, all sloth dispelling,
Shines upon the morning skies.

Lo, the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from Heav’n;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven.

So when next He comes with glory,
And the world is wrapped in fear,
May He with His mercy shield us,
And with words of love draw near.

Honor, glory, might, and blessing
To the Father and the Son,
With the everlasting Spirit,
While unending ages run. Amen.

TEXT: Latin, c. 6th century, trans. Ed­ward Cas­wall, 1849, alt.
TUNE: Merton, William Henry Monk, 1850.

1. Luke 3:4-6
2. In the old Prayer Book, this lesson wasn’t read until the fourth Sunday in Advent, and it was heard only at Morning Prayer.
3. Luke 18:22
4. James 2:20
5. Adapted from the text of an exhibition at King’s College, London, on W.H. Monk and Hymns Ancient and Modern.

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