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Decently Writ XXVI: For Christmas-tide

January 3, 2021
William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860)

The story of the child Jesus in the Temple (St. Luke 2:41 ff) is the second-option Gospel reading for the Second Sunday After Christmas both in the 1979 American Prayer-Book Lectionary and in the (unfortunate) Revised Common Lectionary. Its historic place in Anglican Prayer-Book lectionary cycles was invariably as the Gospel reading for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, and also the reading at Morning Prayer on the 27th Day of March.

Nahum Tate, English Poet Laureate from 1692 until his death in 1715 (and author of the beloved Christmas hymn “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”), penned The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, which must surely be not only one of the most remarkable examples of Restoration-era Anglican devotional poetry, but also one of the most moving monologues placed in the mouth of the Virgin Mary in all of literature.

The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation,
when our Saviour, at twelve years of age, had withdrawn himself

Tell me, some Pitying Angel quickly say, 
Where does my Soul’s sweet Darling Stay? 
In Tyger’s, or more cruel Herod’s way? 
Ah! rather let his little Footsteps press 
Unregarded through the Wilderness, 
Where milder Savages resort, 
The desert’s safer than a Tyrant’s Court. 
Why, fairest Object of my Love, 
Why dost thou from my longing Eyes remove? 
Was it a Waking Dream, that did fortell thy Wondrous Birth? 
No Vision from above? 
Where’s Gabriel now, that visited my cell?
I call, I call: Gabriel! 
He comes not; flatt’ring Hopes, farewell.
Me Judah’s Daughters once caress’d. 
Call’d me of Mothers, the most bless’d. 
Now – fatal Change – of Mothers most distress’d. 
How shall my Soul its Motions guide? 
How shall I stem the various tide, 
Whilst Faith and Doubt my Lab’ring Soul divide? 
For whilst of thy dear Sight beguil’d, 
I trust the God, but oh! I fear the Child.

Equally remarkable is the musical setting of these words by Henry Purcell, which appeared in the Second Edition of his Harmonia Sacra in 1693. Taking as its starting point the sub-genre of the Restoration-era Theatre’s “Mad Song,” Purcell’s treatment is a masterpiece in miniature. And, as one expects from the pen of the British Orpheus, the music accentuates and underscores the deep anguish of the Virgin Mary, poignant already in Tate’s poetry, opening a window to the heart at prayer as only Purcell’s music can.

Here it is exquisitely sung by soprano Agnes Coakley Cox, accompanied by Nathaniel Cox on theorbo.

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