The text to our Processional hymn — “God himself is with us” — is by the German preacher and poet Gerhardt Tersteegen (1697-1769). The theme of the presence of God was prominent in his writing. Consider:
The secret of God’s presence is actually believed by very few, but are you aware, that if each one truly believed it, the whole world would at once be filled with the saints, and the earth would be truly Paradise? If men really believed it as they should, they would need nothing more to induce them to give themselves up, heart and soul, to this loving God. But now it is hid from their eyes. Let us pray, my beloved, that God may be made known and manifested to many hearts, and thus in the light of His divine presence, the darkness of mere human life may be dispelled, and all things cast away, both without and within the heart, which hinder the growth and life of the soul, and which this light alone discovers and unveils. In all Christian practice there is nothing more universally needful, nothing simpler, sweeter, and more useful, nothing which so sums up in itself all Christian duties in one blessed act, as the realization of the loving presence of God.
In recognition of the text of today’s Gospel reading from St. Mark, our Sermon hymn is centered on the witness of John the Baptist. “Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding” was once attributed to the pen of St. Ambrose (339-397), but that attribution is very doubtful. The hymn was traditionally sung at Lauds (i.e., the service of morning prayer in the Divine Office) during Advent.
At the Offertory, the choir will offer an Anglican chant setting of Psalm 66 by I. A. Atkins (1869-1953), who was organist at Worcester Cathedral. During Communion, Jacque, Anne, and Sarah will sing a setting of the Eucharistic hymn Tantum ergo, composed by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). We often sing an English translation of this text in Hymn #200, “Therefore we, before him bending.” Here is a literal translation of the Latin text (by St. Thomas Aquinas).
Hence so great a Sacrament
Let us venerate with heads bowed
And let the old practice
Give way to the new rite;
Let faith provide a supplement
For the failure of the senses.
To the Begetter and the Begotten,
Be praise and jubilation,
Hail, honour, virtue also,
And blessing too:
To the One proceeding from Both
Let there be equal praise.
Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Choir conducted by Rolf Beck
The Communion hymns are “My God, Thy table now is spread” and “Father, we thank Thee Who hast planted (#195). This latter hymn is a metrical paraphrase of several brief devotional prayers found in The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, known also as the Didache, a Greek treatise that may date back to the first century. The paraphrase we sing is by F. Bland Tucker. The tune RENDEZ À DIEU is the work of the renowned French Psalmodist Louis Bourgeois (c.1510 to 1515–1559 or later), editor of the Geneva Psalter. Bourgeois is best-known for his composition of the tune OLD HUNDREDTH, to which the Doxology has been sung in thousands of churches for hundreds of years (see in our Hymnal, #277 and #278). His name has been assigned to one of his tunes, sung with the text “Joy and triumph everlasting” (#129).
Our closing hymn is “Before the Lord Jehovah’s throne.” It is a metrical (i.e., rhythmically regular) paraphrase of Psalm 100 by Isaac Watts, one of the most prolific of English hymnists. “Before the Lord Jehovah’s Throne” was first published in 1719. The first stanza in our Hymnal is altered from the first two stanzas in Watts’s original. The geographical reference in the original first stanza testifies to Watts’s habit of amplifying the text, drawing out its implications, rather than offering a strict translation:
Sing to the Lord with joyful voice
Let every land his name adore;
The British Isles shall send the noise
Across the ocean to the shore.
Nations attend before his throne
With solemn fear, with sacred joy:
Know that the Lord is God alone;
He can create, and he destroy.
The alterations to this text in our Hymnal were made by John Wesley, who for a time lived and preached in the American colonies. Wesley — eager for his colonial congregants to benefit from singing this Psalm — excised the reference to the British Isles.
In 1737, another altered version of Watts’s verse was published in Charlestown, South Carolina, as part of John Wesley’s very first hymnal, Collection of Psalms and Hymns. In this setting — still in many hymnals today — the hymn opened with the words “Before Jehovah’s awful throne.” For this editorial license, Wesley was brought before a grand jury in Savannah, charged with “making alterations in the metrical psalms” and “introducing into the Church and Service at the altar compositions of psalms and hymns not inspected or authorized by any proper judicature.” I have not been able to ascertain the conclusions of the grand jury’s deliberations.
The tune we use for this hymn is WINCHESTER NEW, to which we also sing the Advent hymn, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry” (#10). Below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of this tune on piano.