This past Monday was the Feast of the Epiphany. Our Prayerbook reminds is that the holiday commemorates “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The birth of Israel’s Savior was never understood as an event significant only to the Jews. This “King of the Jews” feared by Herod was also the King of Kings, and thus a greater threat than he imagined.
Our Processional hymn — “Earth has many a noble city” — makes explicit the fact that Jesus was, with the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, worshipped by Gentiles. The tune to which the text of our hymn is set — STUTTGART — will remind us of the first Sunday of Advent, as it’s the same melody to which we sang “Come, thou long expected Jesus.” Perhaps we will also recall the claim in the second stanza of that hymn that Jesus is the “dear Desire of every nation.” This saving King is the one whom all men and women were created to love and honor.
The Introit to today’s service (with texts from Isaiah 6 and Psalm 100) insists on this comprehensiveness of the Kingship of Jesus: “On a throne exalted I beheld, and lo, a man sitting, whom a legion of Angels worship, singing together: behold, his rule and governance endureth to all ages. O be joyful in God, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness.”
Our Sermon hymn is one of the many hymns we sing by James Montgomery (1771-1854). “When Jesus left his Father’s throne” was originally written in 1816 for use in a children’s Sunday School. It underscores the apparent paradox in the humble manner in which the King of Creation enters his Creation. One of Montgomery’s original stanzas is omitted from our Hymnal:
Jesus passed by the rich and great
for men of low degree;
he sanctified our parents’ state,
for poor, like them, was he.
The Offertory anthem today is one of two works in the service by the Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594). Jubilate Deo is a brisk setting of the first few verses of Psalm 100, which are chanted before the anthem as the Offertory Proper for today: “O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: Serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song. For the Lord he is God.”
During Communion, the choir sings Fili, quid fecisti nobis, a motet by Lassus based on the Communion Proper for today: “Son, why hast thou done so to us? Behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said to them: How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (To learn more about the life and work of Lassus, read my essay “Eloquent Lamentation.”)
Our first Communion hymn — “Only-begotten, Word of God eternal” —dates back to at least the ninth century. It was traditionally sung at the consecration of churches. Our second hymn — “Humbly I adore thee” — was not originally intended for congregational singing but for private devotion. And it was probably not written by Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274) as indicated in our Hymnal, but it does date to the 13th century.
The service closes with another Epiphany hymn: “As with gladness men of old.” It was written by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), a scholarly layman who managed a marine insurance company. He also gave us “What child is this, who, laid to rest” and “Alleluia! sing to Jesus.” He wrote “As with gladness” during an illness, after reading the Gospel for Epiphany (St. Matthew 2:1-12).
“As with gladness, men of old,” arranged by Sir David Willcocks
Sung by the Choir of the Chapels Royal, conducted by Stephen Tilton