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Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Soundin


“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. Today, however, one cannot miss the liturgical theme of the service. In Luke’s gospel, we 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.

            In our entrance hymn, 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.

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Savior of the Nations, Come


“Savior of the Nations, Come”  Today’s liturgy is centered around this hymn, appointed to be sung each year on this first Sunday of Advent. The text is ancient.  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.” This highly-compact doctrinal outlay is by no means unique—consider a similar chorale, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” (555) which tells even more completely the story of Christ’s life, this time in the context of a framework of law and gospel.

            Sometimes, well-meaning church-folk defend jettisoning hymnody and chorales from the Divine Service, replacing them with little ditties which they contend are a “different style but the same substance.” Although there are some good modern hymns, many more lack the substance these early chorales do, which even a cursory reading will evidence. It is always good to give thanks for Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, and the great hymnody they left for us.



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