Today will be perceived by many as Superbowl Sunday, or Groundhog Day. What a tragic diminution of experience.
For the Church it is the last Sunday during the Epiphany season before the three pre-Lenten “Gesima” Sundays. And it is the feast day variously known as The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and Candlemas. The first of these designations is the most ancient, dating back to the early fourth century, making it one of the most ancient of Christian holidays. The more explicitly Christocentric name became more popular after the Reformation. And the least common term for February 2 — Candlemas — recognizes the tradition in many churches of the bringing of household candles to the local church to be blessed, an echo of the infant Christ, the Light of the world, being brought to the Temple and blessed by Simeon. (The invention of electric lighting may have emptied this ritual of its power.)
Since we’re still in Epiphany, we are still celebrating the fact of Christ’s universal rule. The Introit for the fourth Epiphany Sunday, with verses from Psalm 97, acknowledges this Kingship of Heaven and Earth: “All ye angels of God, fall down, and worship before him: Sion heard of it, and rejoiced, and the daughters of Judah were glad. The Lord is King, the earth may be glad thereof: yea, the multitude of the isles may be glad thereof.”
Our opening hymn reflects on the heavenly worship of the King of Kings. The text to “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” was written by Athelstan Riley (1858-1945), an Anglican layman who was one of the compilers of The English Hymnal (1906). One of his colleagues in that remarkably influential endeavor was the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who most likely produced the harmonization that accompanies this grand hymn tune. The tune is also used to sing “All creatures of our God and King,” which is (sadly) not included in our Hymnal. The tune is called VIGILES ET SANCTI in our Hymnal, but it is better known by its original German name, LASST UNS ERFREUEN. Those are the first three words in the first line of the hymn text first associated with this melody in a 1623 hymnal: “Lasst uns erfreuen herzlich sehr” (Let us rejoice most heartily).
One might assume that a tune from an early seventeenth-century German hymnal would be part of the Lutheran heritage of hymnody, but in fact the 1623 Auserlesen Catholische Geistliche Kirchengesäng was a product of the Counter-Reformation, presumably an effort to beat the Lutherans at their own game. As Chairman Mao once proclaimed, let a hundred flowers bloom.
Here is the hymn as sung by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted by Richard Marlow.
The text to our Sermon hymn — “Thine arm, O Lord, in days of old” — was written by Edward Hayes Plumptre (1821-1891), a noted classical and biblical scholar. John Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology (1907) tells us that Plumptre was “educated at King’s College, London, and University College, Oxford, graduating as a double first in 1844. He was for some time Fellow of Brasenose. On taking Holy Orders in 1846 he rapidly attained to a foremost position as a Theologian and Preacher. His appointments have been important and influential, and include that of Assistant Preacher at Lincoln’s Inn; Select Preacher at Oxford; Professor of Pastoral Theology at King’s College, London; Dean of Queen’s, Oxford; Prebendary in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London; Professor of Exegesis of the New Testament in King’s College, London; Boyle Lecturer; Grinfield Lecturer on the Septuagint, Oxford; Examiner in the Theological schools at Oxford; Member of the Old Testament Company for the Revision of the A.V. of the Holy Scriptures; Rector of Pluckley, 1869; Vicar of Bickley, Kent, 1873; and Dean of Wells, 1881.”
Plumptre produced translations of Sophocles, Æschylus, and Dante, as well as a number of hymns, including the one we sing today and “Rejoice ye pure in heart” (#579), which we sing once or twice a year.
The two pieces sung by the choir today were composed by Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784), a Franciscan friar, composer, and music teacher (often referred to familiarly as Padre Martini). During his lifetime, he was best known as a music teacher, and most of his compositions are unpublished today. It is reported that Mozart’s father sought out Padre Martini for advice about the schooling of his precocious son.
At the Offertory, the choir sings his setting of Dextera Domini, a text from Psalm 118, and the Offertory proper for this Sunday: “The right hand of the Lord hath the pre-eminence, the right hand of the Lord bringeth mighty things to pass: I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.”
During Communion, the motet sung is Martini’s setting of O salutaris hostia, part of a Eucharistic poem by Thomas Aquinas. The text is familiar as the hymn “O saving Victim” (hymn #209).
Today’s Communion hymns are “Here O my Lord I see thee” and “Let thy Blood in mercy poured.” The closing hymn is “My soul, be on thy guard.”
As a postscript to this post, let me recommend, in honor of the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, that you check out the page on this site about the Nunc dimittis, Simeon’s poetic and prophetic utterance upon holding the Holy Child in his arms. Also take note of this page about the Lutheran paraphrase of Simeon’s song. Both pages present a lot of music to listen to.