Hymns for Advent: It’s Not Christmas Yet

“And for His marriage-feast prepare, for ye must go to meet Him there.”

When “Santa Baby” starts playing at the grocery store, I thank God I’m Catholic and try not to hum along! That can be difficult because it is a catchy—if irritating—tune.

During the Advent season, we have a tradition of hymns for Advent as we await the coming of Christ at Christmas. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is the hymn for the last days of Advent, from Dec. 17 to 23, but there are several hymns, including ancient Latin and Greek hymns translated into English, appropriate for the first days of Advent, while we are thinking liturgically about the Second Coming of Christ.

 

Be Vigilant! (The First Sunday of Advent)

As we begin the new liturgical year with the First Vespers of Advent, the theme of vigilant watching for the Second Coming of Jesus continues from the last weeks of Ordinary Time. Perhaps the most famous hymn for this theme is a translation of German Lutheran hymn by Philipp Nicolai:

"Wachet auf," ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
"Wach auf du Stadt Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde!"
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde:
"Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?
Wohlauf, der Bräutigam kommt,
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Halleluja!
Macht euch bereit zur Hochzeitsfreud;
Ihr müsset ihm entgegengehen!"

In 1731, Johann Sebastian Bach composed a cantata based on that hymn. Catherine Winkworth, (1827-1878) “the foremost 19th century translator of German hymns into English”, gave us this version:

Wake, awake, for night is flying,
The watchmen on the heights are crying;
Awake, Jerusalem, at last!
Midnight hears the welcome voices,
And at the thrilling cry rejoices:
Come forth, ye virgins, night is past!
The Bridegroom comes, awake,

Your lamps with gladness take;
Hallelujah!
And for His marriage-feast prepare,
For ye must go to meet Him there.
 
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
And all her heart with joy is springing,
She wakes, she rises from her gloom;
For her Lord comes down all-glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious,
Her Star is risen, her Light is come!
Ah come, Thou blessed Lord,
O Jesus, Son of God,
Hallelujah!
We follow till the halls we see
Where Thou hast bid us sup with Thee!

Nicolai based his hymn on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, waiting for the bridegroom to come to the wedding feast (Matthew 25: 1-13). The traditional tune for the hymn is by Hans Sach, featured in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Rev. Gerald A. Moultrie, best known for his translation of a Greek Eucharistic hymn as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”, translated what he called a “Midnight Hymn of the Eastern Church” in 1867:

Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night,
And blessed is he whose loins are girt, whose lamp is burning bright;
But woe to that dull servant, whom the Master shall surprise
With lamp untrimmed, unburning, and with slumber in his eyes.

Do thou, my soul, beware, beware, lest thou in sleep sink down,
Lest thou be given o'er to death, and lose the golden crown;
But see that thou be sober, with a watchful eye, and thus
Cry — "Holy, holy, holy God, have mercy upon us."

That day, the day of fear, shall come; my soul, slack not thy toil,
But light thy lamp, and feed it well, and make it bright with oil;
Who knowest not how soon may sound the cry at eventide,
"Behold the Bridegroom comes! Arise! Go forth to meet the bride."

Beware, my soul; beware, beware, lest thou in slumber lie,
And, like the Five, remain without, and knock, and vainly cry;
But watch, and bear thy lamp undimmed, and Christ shall gird thee on
His own bright wedding-robe of light — the glory of the Son.

These hymns remind us to be watchful, keeping our lamps trimmed and maintaining our supply of oil so we’re ready for the return of the bridegroom.

 

St. John the Baptist: Second and Third Sundays of Advent

For the liturgical year starting with the First Sunday of Advent, we are using the C cycle of readings for Sundays and Year I for daily Mass. In the C cycle, Luke is the predominant Gospel.

On the Second Sunday of Advent, the Gospel according to St. Luke tells us how “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:2-3). On the Third Sunday of Advent, St. Luke continues to recount St. John the Baptist’s mission to prepare the way of the Lord. He offers the people who come to the Jordan moral counsel but denies that he is the Messiah: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:16-17).

Charles Coffin (1676-1749) was a Parisian educator, preacher, and poet who wrote several hymns for the Paris Breviary and published his collected Latin poetry in1736. One of his Advent hymns describes the voice of St. John the Baptist at the Jordan:

Jordanis oras prævia 
Vox ecce Baptistæ quatit: 
Præconis ad grandes sonos 
Ignavus abscedat sopor.

Auctoris adventum sui 
Tellus & æther & mare 
Prægestiente sentiunt, 
Et jam salutant gaudìo. . .
.

The Anglican minister John F. Chandler translated Coffin’s hymn as:

On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
announces that the Lord is nigh.
Awake and harken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings!

Then cleansed be every life from sin:
make straight the way for God within,
and let us all our hearts prepare
for Christ to come and enter there...

Chandler was a High Church Anglican, writing translations of ancient and not-so ancient Catholic hymns for liturgical use. Inspired by another Anglican, Isaac Williams (who was a close friend of John Keble of the Oxford Movement), Chandler obtained a copy of the Paris Breviary and began to translate Catholic hymns for Protestant use.

 

The Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Visitation

The fourth week of Advent is very short this year since it begins on Dec. 23! The Gospel reading from Luke describes St Elizabeth’s greeting to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Visitation:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (1:42-45)

The modern hymn by Carey Landry, a setting of the Hail Mary with additional lyrics, is an appropriately meditative selection for this reading. And don’t forget Alma Redemptoris Mater, the Marian Antiphon for Advent.   

During Advent, I listen to two CDs featuring Advent hymns and chants: Wyoming Catholic College’s Come, Thou Dayspring from on High and Advent at Ephesus from the Benedictines of Mary. They remind me that it’s not Christmas yet and how rich this period of waiting can be.