shepherd sounds

Hymn of the Month: December 2014 · II

Unto us a boy is born [Hymn 98]

The words of Hymn 98 aren’t too hard to understand, but there are some things in it that are worth saying more about.

Right from the beginning, the hymn reminds us that the little baby born at Christmas was also God, the ‘King of all creation’ and ‘Lord of every nation’, and that He came to our ‘forlorn’ (sad and lonely) world that was, and is, very badly in need of love and hope. The hymn goes on to say that, right from the time Jesus was born, He was so special – He had so much love to give to everyone because He was God, and God is love – that even the cows and donkeys in the stable somehow knew it.

Another important Latin Christmas song tells us that the animals’ presence at Our Lord’s birth was a great mystery and even a wonderful sacrament – a way that God shows that He is with us and loves us – because it showed He was willing to leave His rightful place in heaven and become a poor, helpless baby who had no earthly power or status, but only His life to offer.

There are of course thousands of pictures of the birth of Our Lord. Here’s one by Giotto (JOT-toe), an important Italian painter in the 1200s and 1300s:

Hymn of the Month: December 2014 · I

Unto us a boy is born [Hymn 98]

This hymn was written in the 1400s and has been very popular ever since, especially after it appeared in a collection of songs called Piae Cantiones (PEE-ay Can-tee-OH-ness, which means ‘Holy Songs’ in Latin). This book, which was put together in 1582 by a school headmaster in Finland for his pupils, was very popular, which is why there are several hymns from it in our Hymnal. You’ve even sung at least one of these before if you’ve been in choir for at least a couple of years. Can you find it by looking up ‘Piae Cantiones’ in the Index of Authors, Translators, and Sources (that is, where the words came from) or the Index of Composers, Arrangers, and Sources (that is, where the music came from) in the back of the Hymnal?

We also use a different version of this tune to sing a couple of other hymns (Hymn 124, ‘What star is this with beams so bright’, at Epiphany, and Hymn 193, ‘That Easter day with joy was bright’, at Easter). That other version uses mostly the same notes, but only three beats per measure (3/4 time) instead of four (4/4 time) as in this one.

Here’s a recording of the hymn:

Here’s a picture of the title page of Piae Cantiones

and one of this hymn as it appears in that book.

Hymn of the month: November 2014 · IV

O come, O come, Emmanuel [Hymn 56]


Christ in majesty
Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 500s

The term Desire of Nations comes from the Old Testament book of Haggai (2:7) and has found its way into several hymns, including the one we studied back in January. What a beautiful way to refer to Our Lord – to say that He and His ways are the very thing that people want most! And what are His ways? to bring peace and unity between one person or nation and another, and between us and God. What is more, we who follow Jesus have an important part to play in spreading this peace and unity. The Catechism – an outline of what the Church teaches, found near the back of the Book of Common Prayer – says that the very mission of the Church is ‘to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ’ (page 855).

The music

The melody we sing this hymn to today wasn’t written with these words in mind. The words were written, in Latin, around 1700, based on some other Latin words from around 800. The music was written around 1500 for a completely different text. When the Latin hymn was translated into English in the 1850s, it was set to this tune, and we have been singing it that way ever since, usually with a very grand organ accompaniment.

But the tune, which is an example of ‘Gregorian chant’ or ‘plainsong’, was written at a time when probably the only accompaniment to its singing was other voices. In fact, in the earliest known book that includes this tune, there is a harmony part alongside it. Here you can see  images of the tune in this very book, which is now in the National Library of France. The tune is on the left-hand pages, starting at the top of the first left-hand page (in this version, the first phrase is repeated) and ending near the end of the second line on the second left-hand page. The harmony part is on the right-hand pages.

And here you can hear ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ sung in Latin to this tune, both by itself and with the harmony part (the harmony begins around 1'25" into the video):

Hymn of the month: November 2014 · III

O come, O come, Emmanuel [Hymn 56]


Jesse tree, St Quentin Basilica

Remember Isaiah from last time? He wrote one of the longest books in the Bible, urging people to put their trust and hope in God, during a time of terrible war. Israel was so badly beaten, scattered, in fact almost completely destroyed, that it was like an almost-dead tree or vine, one that looks like it has no more life in it. But Isaiah, knowing that God still loved God’s people and would never abandon them, wrote that ‘a shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’ (Isaiah 11:1) – a little bit of green growing out of a dead-looking plant.

Jesse was the father of David, who was the greatest King of Israel (he lived maybe 300 years before Isaiah). Much, much later, the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesse was the great-great...(25 greats in all!)...grandfather of Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph, meaning that Jesus was the ‘shoot’ or ‘branch’ growing out of ‘root of Jesse’: a sign of hope for God’s people. Many old books and churches have paintings of Jesus’s family tree springing from Jesse like the one above.


The source of the phrase Key of David is once again the prophet Isaiah (22:22). The original meaning of the phrase doesn’t have to do directly with Jesus or with this hymn, but the verse from Isaiah is used again in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, where St John writes that Christ has, or is, the ‘Key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens’. Both heaven and hell, though they are not places in the physical sense, are often described as having gates: hell is like a prison, and heaven is like a garden (the word ‘paradise’, which is another word we use for heaven, originally meant ‘a walled garden’) or a city with gates. We believe that because Christ overcame death by living and dying completely unselfishly – by living in perfect harmony with God and other people – he has the power to lock the gate of hell and open the gate of heaven. In the picture above, Christ is shown holding the Cross that is also a giant key, and rescuing people from hell. And so we pray that we may live a heavenly life with Him.


The sun over a lake by JMW Turner

Dayspring is just a poetic way of saying ‘dawn’ or ‘sunrise’. What does it mean here? In the daytime we can see, for example, and so we feel safer, while at night, we can’t see the people or animals or objects around us that might surprise or even hurt us, and so we might feel afraid sometimes. So we often use day and night to talk about other good and bad things (you’ll see this all through the Bible, Prayer Book, and Hymnal as you use, read, and study them more and more). ‘Day’ might stand for warmth, health, safety, happiness, home, friends, family, even life itself, while ‘night’ might remind us of cold, sickness, fear, sadness, loneliness, or even death. This hymn, and the Bible verses it’s based on, tells us that Christ is like the sunrise: when we let Him come near to us by following His teachings, showing love to everyone (and being loved by others), receiving His Body and Blood in the Communion, then it’s like we light up inside, and we can spread that light to a world that can often seem very dark. God doesn’t necessarily make evil disappear, but the Light of Christ helps us see the bad things around us (and even those of our own thoughts and wishes that aren’t very nice) and helps us to overcome the things we can and to survive the things we can’t, knowing that God is always right there with us.

Hymn of the month: November 2014 · II

O come, O come, Emmanuel [Hymn 56]


St Mary and Jesus
from a church of ancient Nubia, in what is now Egypt and Sudan

Emmanuel means ‘God with us’. The prophet Isaiah lived about 2,700 years ago, 700 years before Jesus lived on earth. During his lifetime, the nation of Israel was constantly at war with its neighbors, and many of its people were killed, taken as slaves, or driven from their homes. But Isaiah knew that God still loved God’s people. He preached that people should trust in God rather than in earthly kings or military might, and he believed that God would bring new life to God’s beloved. And so he wrote that ‘The Lord himself will give you a sign: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14). St Matthew told us in his Gospel – his story of Jesus’s life – that Jesus was this child (Matthew 1:22–23). Because Jesus was both God and a human being, he really was ‘God-with-us’.


Wisdom is a slightly mysterious figure (the traditional way of picturing her, as shown above, is very strange indeed!) who is talked about in some parts of the Old Testament (Proverbs 8, Wisdom 8, Ecclesiasticus 24). Wisdom in this case doesn’t mean ‘cleverness’ or even ‘good advice’, but something much bigger and deeper – maybe we could say ‘the way God creates and sustains the universe’, or ‘the way everything fits together and works best’, from the galaxies and stars and planets, to all the incredible life on Earth, to the ways we humans ideally should interact with each other, to how all those things are somehow connected to each other and to God. Some of the New Testament books (John 1, Colossians 1) connect Wisdom with Jesus Christ, using very similar language to the Old Testament books we just mentioned. These writers tells us that in Jesus’s life and teaching we can see and understand some of what God is like, and how God’s ways are really best. We’ll talk a bit more about this in some of the following posts.


Lord of might (sometimes we say ‘Lord of hosts’, or ‘Almighty God’) is one way the Old Testament describes God, since God is more powerful than anyone or anything else. The Book of Exodus tells about God giving the tablets of the Law to the ancient people of Israel through Moses, their leader (Exodus, chapters 24, 31–32, and 34). You’ve probably seen pictures of the Ten Commandments written on two pieces of stone. In the above picture, they are written in a Bible (in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament) as though they are on two stone tablets. We recite the Ten Commandments (sometimes called the ‘Decalogue’, from the Greek for ‘Ten Laws’) on Sundays during Lent, and many older Episcopal/Anglican churches have, or used to have, the Commandments written on two panels behind the altar.

God has told us in many different ways how we should live for our own good and for the good of others: in the Ten Commandments, through the prophets who wrote much of the Old Testament, through the teaching of Jesus and his followers who wrote the New Testament, and through the teaching of the Church all the way up to our own time. We don’t always understand God’s ways perfectly, but we can always remember what Our Lord said: ‘The first and greatest commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:37–40) If we truly do these things, then we can’t go far wrong.

Hymn of the month: November 2014 · I

O come, O come, Emmanuel [Hymn 56]

The hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ is one that we sing a lot in the season of Advent – the four weeks before Christmas – so the tune is probably familiar. But the words are full of ways of describing God that are very imaginative and maybe a little hard to understand, even though they are very beautiful. We’ll try to explain them a bit so you can enjoy singing this hymn even more. You’ll want to look up this hymn, Hymn 56, in your Hymnal so that you can read the words alongside these explanations.

The word advent simply means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. We usually think of the season of Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas, when we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus. But this is only one part of what Advent means, and only one way that God has been made known on earth. During this season we read a lot from the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, who understood a bit more than the rest of us what God is like and the different ways we can come to know God. We prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming to earth as a baby, but we also read about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry and teaching when He was grown up. We read and pray about Christ’s ‘Second Coming’ at the very end of the world, when we believe all the things that are wrong in the world will finally be put right. And in between all of that, the Lord comes to us in our own lives in many different ways. This hymn is a prayer that Christ will indeed make Himself known to us in all these ways, some of which we will talk about in the following posts.

Choral Evensong: October 2014

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23 A [RCL · SC]
12 October 2014

Exodus 32.1–14
St Matthew 22.1–14
Psalm 106.1–6, 19–23
     tone: in B-flat minor (Herbert Howells)
Phos hilaron
     text: ‘Enchanting light’ (para. Patricia Blaze Clark)
     tune: ‘Sancta civitas’ (Herbert Howells) 
Magnificat & Nunc dimittis
     Collegium Regale (Herbert Howells)
     text: ‘I sat down under his shadow’ (Song of Songs 2.3–4)
     text: ‘All my hope on God is founded’ (Robert Bridges)
     tune: ‘Michael’ (Herbert Howells)
     Psalm-Prelude Op. 32, No. 2 (Herbert Howells)
     on Psalm 37.11

At the kind encouragement of my colleague Jonathan Babcock, I am posting (further edited) these notes which appeared in the service leaflet for last night’s Choral Evensong.

Tonight’s lessons deal primarily with lack of faith – or, which is perhaps the same thing, lack of vision.

In the lesson from Exodus, appointed as part of the ongoing tour through the Old Testament that is one option in the Revised Common Lectionary (and echoed in the Psalm portion for tonight, which is taken from one of a pair of psalms that together recount the history of the people of Israel), we find the Israelites, wandering through the desert, once again impatient and dissatisfied with their precarious and seemingly pointless situation. Moses, for his part, has ascended the mountain seeking divine guidance – but as he lingers there, the people grow anxious; they wish for a more concrete sort of reassurance and more decisive action, so Aaron, Moses’s brother and right-hand man, decides to provide them an easy answer, a sort of figurehead. But God’s person and purposes are always more elusive than we would like them to be; the moment we try to freeze them into a solid, contained, fully apprehensible form, we have almost certainly ceased to see with heavenly eyes, and ceased to ‘seek the things that are above’, as a much later follower of Moses would put it.

In the lesson from St Matthew’s Gospel, we have a similar account of failure of vision, set in the meal / party context that appears throughout the Scriptures. As this parable is traditionally explained, the King is God, the guests originally invited are the People of Israel, the slaves are the prophets, and those latterly invited are the Gentiles – and it is clear who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. But the parables beginning ‘the Kingdom of God may be compared to...’ are rarely so simple; the foregoing explanation is not given in the text itself and does not account for the ‘interloper’ who has refused to wear the wedding garment that would have been provided by the giver of the banquet. Indeed, lest we be tempted to think, or to protest that these passages appear to proclaim, that unfaithfulness is, or was, a characteristic only of a certain group or nation, the text does not make clear which group this guest belongs to – only that he, with the party going on all around him, has refused to participate in it. One could just as easily read the original group of invitees as Adam and Eve, or humanity in its intended state (clothed in glory, i.e., with appropriate attire for a divine banquet).

The point is that this refusal to see and join in the reality we call the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven, which Our Lord and his Forerunner St John the Baptist taught was not just a future but a present reality – already here, all around us – the refusal to accept the unconditional love, forgiveness, reconciliation, communion of the divine life – this, the Lessons remind us, is the thing (and the only thing, we might add) that can cast us out of the great Supper of the Lamb into the nothingness that is the only alternative, and which the violent reactions of the Lord / the king – which amount to annihilation (literally, making into nothing) – symbolize.

The canticles which answer the Lessons at Evensong (as well as tonight’s voluntary) in many ways speak to this issue of vision. The pieces in question were all written in the midst of war – the former near the end of the Second World War (for the Collegium Regale – the King’s College – at Cambridge), the latter in the thick of the First – a time when it is all too easy to lose sight of the Kingdom, and yet when, as in any crisis, the Kingdom can be very strongly felt as people must come together simply to survive. In Howells’s setting of the Magnificat we can hear all this anxiety and uncertainty – and Our Lady must have felt a good deal of both – but the text affirms that God is doing wonderful things, remembering promises, casting down the proud, and lifting up the lowly. Indeed, both St Mary and St Simeon, despite any misgivings they may have had about the calls they received, are supreme examples of prophetic vision, of those who were able to see at least enough of God’s works and purposes to trust in them: ‘mine eyes have seen thy salvation’, as St Simeon sings.

All these themes are summed up in a way by the concluding hymn (though here too the music avoids simple answers; Howells wrote the tune in 1936 for this text and named it for his young son, Michael, who had died suddenly the year before). Robert Bridges, sometime Poet Laureate of England, and writer and scholar of hymns, wrote this text after the hymn ‘Meine Hoffnung stehet feste’ by the seventeenth-century Reformed minister and hymnist Joachim Neander.* It reminds us that the plans and pretensions cooked up from the ordinary human point of view are likely to be short-lived, but that the creative, loving, joyful, generous ways of the Holy One are everlasting.

And so tonight we pray that the Lord’s ‘grace may always precede and follow us’ as it did (in cloud and fire) the Hebrews in the wilderness; that God may indeed bring us ‘to the banqueting house’ that we may taste the sweetness of the fruit of the Kingdom; that we may be among the meek who ‘shall inherit the earth, and delight themselves in the abundance of peace’.

Eric Mellenbruch

*Neander is best known for the hymn translated as ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty’, which we happened to sing this morning. The Neanderthal (Neander Valley), near Düsseldorf, was so named in Neander’s honor after his death, as he often spent time and held preaching services there. It was in a cave in this valley, in the nineteenth century, that the type specimen of the extinct human species that now bears its name was discovered.