Hail to the Lord’s anointed

An Advent hymn to sing along with…

The words to this hymn were written by James Montgomery (1771-1854). He was born in Scotland but eventually settled in Sheffield. He wrote over 600 hymns including:
Angels from the realms of Glory
For ever with the Lord
Lord, teach us how to pray aright

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
Songs of praise the angels sang
Stand up and bless the Lord

This hymn is based on Psalm 72:

1 Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king’s son.
2 He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.
3 The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.
4 He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.
5 They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.
6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.
7 In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.
8 He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.
9 They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.
10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.
11 Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.
12 For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper.
13 He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.
14 He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight.
15 And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: prayer also shall be made for him continually; and daily shall he be praised.
16 There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon: and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.
17 His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed.
18 Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things.
19 And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen.
20 The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.

Psalm 72

When the hymn was written in 1821 there were eight verses but modern hymnals only include five or four (the omitted verse being He comes with succour speedy). Five verses are probably enough for singing along with, but the complete text is fairly faithful to the Psalm. The missing text is shown below.

The original melody was written by Johann Crüger (1598-1662). It appeared in his publication Neues vollkomliches Gesangbuch of 1640. It was adapted by William Henry Monk (1823-1889), the editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Crüger was appointed as (Lutheran) cantor at the St Nicholas church at Berlin in 1622 ( a post he held for the rest of his life) and published much church music.


Hail to the Lord’s Anointed!
great David’s greater Son;
Hail, in the time appointed,
His reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
to set the captive free;
to take away transgression,
and rule in equity.

He comes with succour speedy
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
were precious in His sight.

He shall come down like showers
upon the fruitful earth,
and love, joy, hope, like flowers,
spring in His path to birth:
before Him on the mountains
shall peace, the herald, go;
and righteousness in fountains
from hill to valley flow.

Kings shall fall down before Him,
and gold and incense bring;
all nations shall adore Him,
His praise all people sing;
to him shall prayer unceasing
and daily vows ascend;
His kingdom still increasing,
a kingdom without end.

O’er every foe victorious,
He on His throne shall rest,
from age to age more glorious,
all-blessing and all-blessed:
the tide of time shall never
His covenant remove;
His name shall stand for ever;
that name to us is Love.

The original verse 3 seems to have been dropped quite early on, probably in the 19th century. The original verse 4 is usually omitted these post-imperial days, and the original verses 5 and 6 have been shortened and combined into one stanza.

3 By such shall He be fearèd
while sun and moon endure;
beloved, obeyed, reverèd;
for He shall judge the poor
through changing generations,
with justice, mercy, truth,
while stars maintain their stations,
or moons renew their youth.

4 Arabia’s desert ranger
to Him shall bow the knee,
the Ethiopian stranger
His glory come to see;
with offerings of devotion,
ships from the isles shall meet,
to pour the wealth of ocean
in tribute at His feet.

5 Kings shall fall down before Him,
and gold and incense bring,
all nations shall adore Him,
His praise all people sing;
for He shall have dominion
o’er river, sea, and shore,
far as the eagle’s pinion
or dove’s light wing can soar.

6 For Him shall pray’r unceasing,
and daily vows ascend;
His kingdom still increasing,
a kingdom without end;
the mountain dews shall nourish
a seed in weakness sown,
whose fruit shall spread and flourish,
and shake like Lebanon.

Ye servants of the Lord

An Advent hymn (that can be sung at other times too)…

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Matthew 25:1-13

This parable is one of several told by Jesus in answer to the question in the previous chapter: “And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matthew 24:3).

So – be ready for the Day of Judgment and the Second Coming! It’s what Advent is all about.

The words to this hymn were written by Philip Doddridge (1702-1861). He also wrote My God and is Thy Table spread and you can read more about him on that post.

The melody for this hymn tune was published in Johannes Leisentritt’s Catholicum Hymnologium Germanicum of 1584. A harmonised version appeared in 1619 in the Kathol­ische Kirch­en­ge­sang (Co­logne, Ger­ma­ny), and this was adapted by by Revd William Henry Havergal (1793-1870) to provide the well-known Narenza. W H Havergal was the father of Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879) who wrote Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee. Father and daughter are buried side by side at St Peter’s church Astley, Worcestershire.


Ye servants of the Lord,
each in his office wait,
observant of his heavenly word,
and watchful at his gate.

Let all your lamps be bright,
and trim the golden flame;
gird up your loins as in his sight,
for aweful is his name.

Watch! ’tis your Lord’s command,
and while we speak, he’s near;
mark the first signal of his hand,
and ready all appear.

O happy servant he
in such a posture found!
he shall his Lord with rapture see,
and be with honour crowned.

Christ shall the banquet spread
with his own royal hand,
and raise that faithful servant’s head
amid the angelic band.

2nd Sunday of Advent 2020

A sermon by Canon Veronica

The Church of England has decided to post some encouraging messages for Advent under the overall heading “Comfort and Joy”. Not particularly original as a phrase you’ll agree, but then Advent is an ancient season in itself! And I expect many of you will now be humming away, trying to link up the refrain “Comfort and joy” to the first line of the carol in which it is embedded!

Yes – in our (temporarily shelved) hymnbook it can be found at number 254 (although the words are slightly different from this traditional version):

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
let nothing you dismay,
for Jesus Christ our Saviour
was born upon this day,
to save us all from Satan’s power
when we had gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy!

Of course the final verse will be especially difficult for us this year, as it seems to encourage us to go against current Government ruling when it says: “Now to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place, and with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace”… !

But nevertheless, despite all the sadness and restrictions that COVID-19 has brought over these last nine months or more, we are here and we can hear again the resounding words of the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,”… and that she is able to walk freely away from all that threatened to confine and imprison her, and she is able to go home safely. All obstacles to her thriving have been taken away, there is a smooth level path and “all people together” will be able clearly to see the glory of God revealed (as St Paul would later say) in the face of Jesus Christ.

The same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob stoops down in all humility and comes to feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them close to his heart, and gently lead those who have so recently been through the painful labour of giving birth to new life, and who seek to nurture the next generation. Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep”, meaning not just those of this fold, but the whole human race.

The Good Shepherd and two angels. Mosaic (6th C)

John the Baptist in today’s Gospel (Mark 1:1-8) calls all who would listen to “prepare the way of the Lord” – to turn around, whether they considered themselves worthy or unworthy; all John’s hearers, just like all Isaiah’s audience in exile, whether faithful or unbelieving, all were called to take radical steps, to get themselves up to a high mountain and proclaim that a new Kingdom of gentleness, kindness, forgiveness, peace and joy was about to begin!

If you look on our Facebook page or on our website (link below), spend a few moments watching the short “Comfort and joy” animation encouraging us to celebrate what is at the heart of Christmas, necessarily pared down considerably as are all the trappings of the season this COVID year, and poignantly noting that in many or most households this Christmas there will be an empty chair around the table.

Isaiah and John the Baptist today call us to see beyond our limited horizons and to look out towards the great and mighty Wonder that is at the heart of the Gospel – that God stoops down in gentleness and vulnerability to bring us hope and light just when we feel plunged in the depths of despair or overwhelmed by dark waves of sadness. “I have baptised you with water” says John – which meant for his followers the distinctly uncomfortable experience of being completely plunged beneath the waves of the sacred River Jordan and repenting of all their sins, great or small – but having then been brought back up to breathe in the welcome rush of air above the surface of the river. John the Baptist confirms to the newly baptised that Jesus the Son of God “will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”

But what does that mean? For an answer, since being a shy teenager in March 1967, I have turned from time to time back to a letter I was sent whilst at boarding school, from the parish priest who had been Vicar of the parish where I and my family had worshipped (St Paul’s Haringey in North London, where my father had been the church organist) and where on Christmas Eve 1960 my Dad had suffered a severe stroke on the way home from playing the organ at Midnight Mass. This proved to be fatal, as he died in hospital the day before Epiphany 1961. Six years later, the Vicar (now at a new parish) wrote to me to offer me this encouragement in my Christian journey:

My dear Veronica,
I will have you in my thoughts and prayers on Thursday when you are confirmed. I hope it will be a wonderful day, with a memorable and happy service, and that thereafter you will never doubt the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in your life even though times might be hard. You are old enough to be told that the times are going to get harder for Christians; our numbers are going to shrink, we are going to be increasingly considered old fuddy duddies, and to live a good Christian life is going to become more complicated. BUT God will not leave us comfortless (and you know, don’t you, that “comfort” means “strength” in the Bible). The power of the Holy Spirit which you will receive in his fulness on Thursday is greater than all the powers of evil and indifference. Ours is a great and loving Lord to whom it is more than worthwhile to offer one’s life.
God bless you now and always,
As ever,
Derek Bond

True “comfort and joy”!
(Incidentally, the late Derek Bond’s pastoral skills were later acknowledged by his being consecrated as Bishop of Bradwell.)

The Holy Spirit is known as “the Comforter”, the Strengthener who offers us eternally the inspiration for our lives. Today, 6 December, is also the feast of St Nicholas – patron saint of sailors, amongst others – and we will do well to remember today that we can all, in small or greater ways, offer a lifeline to others as we voyage together through the often turbulent seas of this world. “Speak tenderly,” says Isaiah – be gentle, reach out and offer even small acts of kindness to your companions along the way, old and young alike, and through even the smallest of gestures of love and care, like offering a friendly word, writing an encouraging letter, or simply smiling at a stranger who seems disheartened. In these ways we may embody the grace of God as highlighted in our post-Communion prayer for today, and maybe help others to know themselves forgiven and able to finally come home.

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that, when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him
with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Comfort and Joy on our website

On Jordan’s banks

An Advent hymn to sing along with…

The words were published in 1736. They were written in Latin by Charles Coffin (1676-1749). He was Rector of the University of Paris from 1718. The 1736 publication Pa­ris Brev­i­a­ry and Hym­ni Sac­ri Auc­to­re Ca­ro­lo Cof­fin was a collection of 100 of his hymns and poems.

The first three verses were translated by John Chandler (1807-76), who also translated Christ is our corner-stone. The translator of the other verses is unknown.

The melody Winchester New was adapted from a tune in Musikalisches Hand-Buch (published in Hamburg in 1690) by Revd William Henry Havergal (1793-1870), the father of Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879) who wrote Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee. Father and daughter are buried side by side at St Peter’s church Astley, Worcestershire.

Winchester New

On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry
announces that the Lord is nigh:
come then and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings from the King of kings.

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

For Thou art our salvation, Lord,
our Refuge and our great Reward.
without Thy grace our life must fade,
and wither like a flower decayed.

Stretch forth Thy hand, to health restore,
and make us rise, to fall no more:
once more upon Thy people shine,
and fill the world with love divine.

To Him who left the throne of heaven
to save mankind, all praise be given:
like praise be to the Father done,
and Holy Spirit Three in One.

Hark the glad sound

An Advent hymn to sing along with…

The words were written by Philip Doddridge (1702-1861). He also wrote My God and is Thy Table spread and you can read more about him on that post.

The tune appeared in The Whole Booke of Psalmes: With The Humnes Evangelicall, and Songs Spiritual published in 1621 by Thomas Ravenscroft (c1588-1635). Of the 150 Psalms, 78 have tunes by Ravenscroft (although some tunes are duplicated). Little is known of his early life; it is thought that he was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral. Apart from a number of hymn tunes, much of his music has been forgotten. He also wrote the words to a number of songs, although he is not often credited as the author of his most enduring creation – Three Blind Mice.

The tune was set in his psalter to a metrical version of Psalm 16 (and also Psalm 64). As is often the case, Ravenscroft put the melody line in the tenor part.

Each line of the tune begins and ends with a long note. This original rhythm is preserved* in the setting provided here (although some modern hymnals, including ours, have “modernised” the rhythm). Here the first two verses have the melody in the top line, the third verse is in the Ravenscroft format, and the last verse has a modern descant. (*although the first note of the last line of verse 3 is split to accommodate the first two syllables of “to enrich”, which appeared as “t’enrich” in the original version of the words.)


Hark, the glad sound! The Saviour comes,
the Saviour promised long!
Let every heart prepare a throne,
and every voice a song.

He comes the prisoners to release,
in Satan’s bondage held;
the gates of brass before Him burst,
the iron fetters yield.

He comes the broken heart to bind,
the bleeding soul to cure,
and with the treasures of His grace,
to enrich the humbled poor.

Our glad Hosannas, Prince of Peace,
Thy welcome shall proclaim;
and heaven’s eternal arches ring,
with Thy beloved Name.

O quickly come

An Advent hymn to sing along with…

It was traditional to preach on each of the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell) on the four Sundays in Advent. I get the impression in the words of this hymn that the author would like to get all this over with as quickly as possible.

There’ll be a more cheerful hymn tomorrow!

Revd Lawrence Tuttiett (1825-1897) was ordained deacon in 1848 and priested the following year. his first curacy was at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, and after a a few parish posts in England he was appointed as Rector of St Andrews, Scotland in 1870. He wrote a number of hymns, but most have fallen out of fashion. This is one of the few that appear in modern hymnals.

The original composer of the tune Vater Unser (the opening words of The Lord’s Prayer in German) is unknown. It appeared in Valentin Schumann’s Geistliche Lieder in 1539 and was used by Martin Luther for his hymn based on The Lord’s Prayer. (The first of its nine verses is given below along with an English translation.) The harmonisation of the melody is by Johann Sebastian Bach. If I’m perfectly honest, I have included this hymn more for the tune than the words. There aren’t all that many English hymns that would go with this tune, the metre is more suited to the German language. Eternal father, strong to save and O come, O come Emmanuel would fit, although these have perfectly good familiar tunes.

Vater Unser

O quickly come, dread Judge of all;
for, aweful though thine advent be,
all shadows from the truth will fall,
and falsehood die, in sight of thee:
O quickly come, for doubt and fear
like clouds dissolve when thou art near.

O quickly come, great King of all;
reign all around us and within;
let sin no more our souls enthral,
let pain and sorrow die with sin:
O quickly come, for thou alone
canst make thy scattered people one.

O quickly come, true Life of all,
for death is mighty all around;
on every home his shadows fall,
on every heart his mark is found:
O quickly come, for grief and pain
can never cloud thy glorious reign.

O quickly come, sure Light of all,
for gloomy night broods o’er our way;
and weakly souls begin to fall
with weary watching for the day:
O quickly come, for round thy throne
no eye is blind, no night is known.

Here is the start of Luther’s hymn expounding the Lord’s Prayer:

Vater unser im Himmelreich,
Der du uns alle heißest gleich
Brüder sein und dich rufen an
Und willst das Beten von uns han,
Gibt, daß nicht bet allein der Mund,
Hilf, daß es geh von Herzensgrund.

Our Father in the heaven Who art,
Who tellest all of us in heart
Brothers to be, and on Thee call,
And wilt have prayer from us all,
Grant that the mouth not only pray,
From deepest heart oh help its way.

O come, O come, Emmanuel

This ancient advent hymn originated in part from the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons,” part of the medieval Roman Catholic Advent liturgy. On each day of the week leading up to Christmas, one responsive verse would be chanted, each including a different Old Testament name for the coming Messiah. Five of the seven verses were translated by Revd John Mason Neale (1818-1866).

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew 1.23

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

Isaiah 11.1

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1.76-79

And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

Isaiah 22.22

And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.

Exodus 19.16

The tune now known as Veni Emmanuel was not associated with the hymn in ancient time (although as the Latin metre is the same as that of the English translation, it would fit). It has been found in a 15th century French manuscript in a set of processional chants for burials and may have an earlier source in a Missal. The tune was first published with an earlier version of Neale’s translation in 1851. A selection of arrangements is provided here.

Veni Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save
and give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
and drive away the shades of night,
and pierce the clouds and bring us light!
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height
in ancient times didst give the law
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Lo! he comes with clouds descending

An Advent hymn to sing along with…

 Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.

Revelation 1.7

The original hymn Lo! He cometh, countless Trumpets was written by John Cennick (1718-1755). Although raised in an Anglican family, he became associated at various times with Quakers, Wesleyans, Calvanistic Methodists, Baptists and Moravians.

His hymn was published in 1752.

The hymn was substantially re-written by Revd Charles Wesley (1707-1788) to provide the version we know today (although there are a number of varying texts). It was first published in 1758.

The basic structure survives, along with a few phrases. (Cennick’s version is shown below).

The melody of the tune Helmsley has been attributed to Thomas Arne (1710-1778) and also to Thomas Olivers (1725-1799). It was the latter who published the tune in 1765, reputedly after hearing it whistled in the street.


Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for favoured sinners slain;
thousand thousand saints, attending,
swell the triumph of his train:
Hallelujah! [x3]
God appears on earth to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, [x3]
shall the true Messiah see.

All the tokens of His passion
still His dazzling body bears:
cause of endless exultation
to His ransomed worshippers;
with what rapture [x3]
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Saviour, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for Thine own.
O come quickly! [x3]
Hallelujah! Come, Lord, come.

Here is the text by John Cennick (as published in 1821, several decades after his death):

Lo! He cometh! countless trumpets
blow, to raise the sleeping dead;
midst ten thousand saints and angels
see their great exalted Head.
welcome, welcome, Son of God.

Now his merit, by the harpers,
thro’ th’ eternal deep resounds;
now resplendent shine his nail-prints,
every eye shall see his wounds:
they who pierc’d him
shall at his appearance wail.

Full of joyful expectation,
Saints behold the Judge appear:
truth and justice go before him,
now the joyful sentence hear.
welcome, welcome Judge divine.

“Come, ye blessed of my Father,
enter into life and joy;
banish all your fears and sorrows,
endless praise be your employ.
welcome, welcome, to the skies.

Now at once they rise to glory,
Jesus brings them to the King;
there, with all the hosts of heaven,
they eternal anthems sing.
boundless glory to the Lamb.

Creator of the starry height

An Advent hymn to sing along with…

This 7th century Latin hymn Conditor alme siderum used to be ascribed to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century Bishop of Milan, but modern scholarship dismisses this as a legend.

The hymn was traditionally sung at Vespers (Evening Prayer).

Saint Ambrose is the patron saint of bee keepers, candle makers, bishops, geese and police officers. Although he may not have written this hymn he did write many others, perhaps the best known being O strength and stay, upholding all creation.

It is one of the many hymns translated by Revd John Mason Neale. You can read more about him on the post O what their joy and their glory must be. The words provided here are a more familiar version of Neale’s original text (see below).

The tune Conditor Alme is a traditional plainsong melody and is provided here with various harmonies. Please note that verse three has a conventional hymn tune format, but the melody line is a little different in a couple of places.

Plainsong developed during the earliest centuries of Christianity, influenced possibly by the music of the Jewish synagogue and certainly by the Greek modal system. It has its own system of notation, employing a staff of four lines instead of five. If two notes are written one above the other, the lower note is sung first. You can see this in the way the Amen is written:

Conditor Alme

Creator of the starry height,
Thy people’s everlasting light,
Jesu, redeemer of us all,
hear Thou Thy servants when they call.

Thou, sorrowing at the helpless cry
of all creation doomed to die,
didst come to save our fallen race
by healing gifts of heavenly grace.

When earth was near its evening hour,
Thou didst, in love’s redeeming power,
like bridegroom from his chamber, come
forth from a virgin-mother’s womb.

At Thy great name, exalted now,
all knees in lowly homage bow;
all things in heaven and earth adore,
and own Thee King for evermore.

To Thee, O Holy One, we pray,
our Judge in that tremendous day,
ward off, while yet we dwell below,
the weapons of our crafty foe.

To God the Father, God the Son,
and God the Spirit, Three in One,
praise, honour, might, and glory be
from age to age eternally.

Neale’s original version of the text seems rather old-fashioned now:

Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people’s everlasting light,
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all,
And hear Thy servants when they call.

Thou, grieving that the ancient curse
Should doom to death a universe,
Hast found the medicine, full of grace,
To save and heal a ruined race.

Thou cam’st, the Bridegroom of the bride,
As drew the world to evening-tide;
Proceeding from a virgin shrine,
The spotless victim all divine.

At whose dread name, majestic now,
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
And things celestial Thee shall own,
And things terrestrial, Lord alone.

O Thou whose coming is with dread
To judge and doom the quick and dead,
Preserve us, while we dwell below,
From every insult of the foe.

To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Laud, honour, might, and glory be
From age to age eternally.

4th Sunday of Advent 2019

Brian Reader

I can’t quite wish you a Happy Christmas yet, but my WELCOME together with LOVE is part of the theme I would like us to consider on this the 4th and last Sunday of Advent. Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about the approaching birth of Jesus from the point of view of Joseph. From other New Testament sources we know that Mary was an excited Galilean girl, probably very nervous, but nonetheless looking forward to welcome the birth, of her baby who she knew, was to be a very important boy.

OK for her then, but what about Joseph. It is assumed that he was probably older and more staid than Mary and it must have come as a great shock to find out that his young fiancée was pregnant. Wow, that was a stoning offence. I doubt if HE welcomed the news when he first heard it. But God is good; He knew the characters of both of them. That Joseph, her husband-to-be, was an upright man, and that he wouldn’t want to make a public example of her. God also knew, that while Joseph was deciding to set the marriage aside privately, that he would listen and follow the will of God, when it was explained to him by an angel in a dream – who said

The child she is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus…

The only point where the two Gospel stories come close is when the angel says to Joseph, as Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That is an important word for us, too, as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth.

At this point those who are not Christians will be heard laughing out loud. “From the Holy Spirit; A virgin birth, you must be joking!” Since a boy I have always accepted that the conception of Jesus was just another of the wonderful mysteries of the Christian faith. However, I also remember reading as a school boy, in the now defunct Sunday Pictorial that a number of women had claimed virgin births, but they had only produced girls. And surprise surprise, some fifteen years ago on the web, I found that while it would be a scientific anomaly to give birth while a virgin, it is not a scientific impossibility. This has been known to happen in nature, although it is rare. When it does happen, all offspring are female; it’s all to do with females having two X chromosomes. However, there is 1 in 5 million chance for a women to have both an X and Y chromosome, so, the birth of a son cannot be completely ruled out as impossible.

In the Bible, we are told that it was through the activity of the Spirit that Mary became pregnant. That is indeed all that needs to be said, since we are concerned with the entry of the infinite God into his creation. This is something that cannot be described, any more than the act of creation can be described in any detail. Nor can the virgin birth be rejected simply because it is a miracle. The miracle is the incarnation itself, that God chose to have his Son born as a human, and if we can accept that miracle, there should be no difficulty about accepting the means by which God chose to effect it.

Bishop Tom Wright accepts that for centuries now many opponents of Christianity, and many devout Christians themselves, have felt that these stories are embarrassing and unnecessary – and untrue. Some go further saying that this story of a miracle birth, has had an unfortunate effect. They have given the impression that in its self sex is dirty and that God doesn’t want anything to do with it. They have also given rise to the legend that Mary stayed a virgin for ever, (something the Bible never says; indeed, here and elsewhere it implies that she and Joseph lived a normal married life after Jesus’ birth). This has promoted the belief that virginity is better than marriage, and all that it implies.

It is of course true that strange ideas have grown up around the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, but Matthew (and Luke) can hardly be blamed for that. They were telling the story they believed was both true and the ultimate explanation of why Jesus was the person he was. They must have known that they were taking a risk. In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a thing, or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it? Wouldn’t it be opening Christianity to the sneers of its opponents, who would quickly suggest the obvious alternative? Well, yes, it would; but that would only be relevant if nobody already knew that there had been something strange about Jesus’ conception.

In John’s gospel we hear the echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage. It seems as if Matthew and Luke are telling this story because they know rumours have circulated and they want to set the record straight. Everything depends, of course, on whether you believe that the living God could, or would, act like that. Some say he couldn’t (‘miracles don’t happen’); others that he wouldn’t, because ‘if he did that, why doesn’t he intervene to stop wars and genocide?’ But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Israel – in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways – and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself.

Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals within it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the Holy Spirit? That is a question everyone must answer for themselves. In the OT reading we heard Isaiah proclaiming that God himself will give a sign. ‘A woman has conceived and will bear a son named Emmanuel.’ Now, the name ‘Emmanuel, was not given to anyone else, perhaps because it would say more about the child than anyone would normally dare. It means ‘God with us’.

Matthew’s whole gospel is framed by this theme: at the very end, Jesus promises that he will be ‘with’ his people to the close of the age. God is present, with his people; He doesn’t ‘intervene’ from a distance. He is always active, and sometimes in most unexpected ways. And God’s actions are aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight, demanding that he take the initiative and do things people had regarded as (so to speak) inconceivable.

This is the God, and this is the Jesus, whose story Matthew will tell us through the Gospel readings in the coming year. This is the God, and this is the Jesus, who still comes to us today when human possibilities have run out. God with his powerful grace and love always offers us new and startling ways forward, in fulfilment of his many promises. During the Christmas season we will have Joy, but there also the challenge, to remember Christ all the year round. We must not put him away in a box together with all the other Christmas decorations. We also have to remember that Christ does not remain a child. He grows into manhood and challenges us to follow in his footsteps and to obey the commandments and the will of God. A challenge which most of the world finds too difficult to accept. Joseph accepted God’s word and welcomed Jesus as any other normal father would, and I’m sure he loved him as he watched him growing up, and while he was passing on his skills as a carpenter to Jesus.

Yes, welcome and love. That’s what we have to do, welcome and love baby Jesus this Christmas tide. WE also have to allow him to grow and be the man who will challenge us by revealing the true nature of God. As well as loving God, Jesus also teaches us that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. Do we welcome and love our friends who are non-Christians this Christmas time? Probably yes. But do we love and welcome those we do not know when they come to church at Christmas or for baptisms or weddings or funerals? God loves us all and we too should always be loving and welcoming to all of God’s children. WE owe it to God, we owe it to them!

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.