In the second week of Advent, our attention is still focused somewhat on the Lord’s coming as Judge at the end-times, however, with a bit of a twist: God’s People are now ready (or should be) to greet Him – so that fear is banished and replaced with confidence and even joy.
People, Look East
People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.
Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.
Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.
Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.
The author of this hymn was Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965). It was first published in 1928 and thus is a relative new-comer to hymnody. Farjeon was a native of London and a devout Catholic who viewed her faith as “a progression toward which [her] spiritual life moved rather than a conversion experience.”
• The title of this hymn is not only its first line but serves as a refrain. So, what’s the big deal about “looking east”? As pointed out in a CWR article last month, the early Christians believed that the Lord would come again in glory from the East (whence rises the sun) and, further, that His Parousia would occur during the celebration of the Eucharist, so that liturgical celebrations traditionally took place ad Orientem (toward the Rising Sun), with priest and people facing that direction together. In fact, whenever possible, churches were constructed, so that the apse/sanctuary stood at the east end of the edifice. In an interesting historical anomaly, since St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome faces west, at the beginning of the anaphora or Eucharistic prayer, the deacon would urge the faithful to “turn toward the Lord” – and the whole assembly turned toward the front door of the Basilica, ready to greet the Lord, all the while turning their backs on the Pope!1
• The hymn has a cosmic scope, not unlike several of the hymns found in St. Paul’s “Captivity Epistles”: All creation is called upon to join in welcoming the Lord of the Universe.2
• The first verse speaks of this season as “the crowning of the year,” and the faithful are bid to make their houses fit for the coming King. At one level, the house is obviously their dwelling; at yet another – and even more importantly – the “house” is none other than one’s person which, through Baptism, has become “a dwelling place for God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:22). And this is where the penitential aspect of Advent comes into play; indeed, the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent has us pray: “. . . may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company.”
• We cannot fail to notice that we are awaiting “Love,” who comes as our “guest.” The first time that happened was on the day of our Baptism, but it also happens each and every time that we make a worthy Communion: Jesus, the Guest, inhabits our dwelling, our soul, our very self.
It is also worth mentioning that speaking of Christ as our “Guest” has a long pedigree in Christmas lore; I am thinking, for instance, of the lovely French carol, “Jésus Christ s’habille en pauvres” (Jesus Christ comes in the guise of the poor) as a poor family on Christmas Eve share their festive dinner with one even poorer than themselves, only to discover they have entertained the Lord Himself.3
• The next verse presents Jesus as “the rose.” Later in the season, we shall consider the lovely “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming,” wherein the “rose” there appears to be the Blessed Virgin. In this hymn, it is clearly Christ. However, no problem – because like begets like: Mary the rose brings forth Christ the Rose. It is also interesting to see how the hymnographer encourages the land to do its job, that is, to provide the necessary environment for the rose to grow; in doing that, the earth is fulfilling its mission and thus gives glory to God.
• The stars addressed in the third verse would have us jump ahead to Christmas night when the sky shines with all the stars, but one in particular stands out among them all. The Book of Revelation refers to Jesus as “the Morning Star” (22:20), which is apparently what our composer has in mind.4
• Finally, the angelic hosts are enlisted to take their part in this triumphal welcome as they most surely did, again, on that first Christmas night. The peaks and valleys highlighted here should bring to mind the prophecy of Isaiah: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (40:4). And don’t those lines conjure up the thrilling strains of that aria in Handel’s Messiah?
• Yes, Love – the Guest, the Rose, the Star, the Lord – is on the way. And it is our Advent privilege to make sure that we not impede His coming; rather, that we facilitate it through a spirit of repentance and conversion.
Hail to the Lord’s Anointed
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 transgressions,
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 turned to light,
Whose souls, condemned and dying,
Were precious in His sight.
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.
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.
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 oceans
in tribute at His feet.
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.
For Him shall prayer 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.
O’er every foe victorious,
He on His throne shall rest;
From age to age more glorious,
All blessing and all-blest.
The tide of time shall never
His covenant remove;
His name shall stand for ever
His changeless name of love.
This hymn by James Montgomery (1771-1854) is a musical rendition of Psalm 72, composed as a royal psalm, that is, as a prayer in honor of an Israelite king and for his intentions. The note attached to this psalm in the Revised Standard Version refers to this as “Prayer for Guidance and Support for the King.” The Church, in an exercise of the sensus plenior,5 has applied this psalm to Our Lord Christ.
• Immediately, we are brought into the realm of the “Anointed,” the English rendering of the Hebrew “Mashiach” or the Greek “Christos.” In biblical Israel, priests, prophets and kings were anointed, marking them out for their sacred duties. All three roles converge in Jesus, not by human conferral but by divine right. Through Holy Baptism, the Christian shares in those same three roles: priest, by offering spiritual sacrifice; prophet, by engaging in the task of evangelization; king, by working to expand the Kingdom of Christ.
• Who is “Great David’s greater Son”? It is none other than the Lord Christ, acknowledged by David himself as such (in calling his son “Lord”) in Psalm 110 (prayed by the Church at Second Vespers of Sunday every week).
• We sing that the Messiah’s “reign on earth” has “begun.” Is it not here in its fulness? No, as several of Our Lord’s parables indicate, the Kingdom of God is here only in seminal form; it grows day by day but will not reach its fulfillment until Christ comes again in glory. The place where that Kingdom is most apparent and most active is in the Church.
• Next we hear of the Messiah’s work, which can be best summed up as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – and if they are the works of Christ, then they must be the works of all the “little Christs,” that is, us Christians.
• Those who perform the works of mercy and those who are the recipients of them – alike – are called to a holy fear. It is important to stress that the fear envisioned is not a servile fear (the fear of a slave cowering before a cruel master) but a filial fear (the fear of a child who never wants to “disappoint” a loving Father). That is spelled out rather well here as loving, obeying and revering the Lord. After all, Jesus Himself taught us: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15).
• We should observe that there is a permanency to the Messiah’s mission, as enduring as the sun and the moon and the stars. That mission is to judge “with justice, mercy, truth,” precisely the characteristics of the messianic reign. Justice, tzedek in Hebrew: giving to each his due, starting with our responsibilities toward God and then neighbor (St. Joseph is described by St. Matthew as a “just” man); mercy: racham in Hebrew, the same root as “womb,” thus suggesting that God’s mercy is like the love of a mother for the child of her womb; truth: emet in Hebrew, also translatable as “faithfulness” or “fidelity.” As St. Paul reminds his son in the priesthood, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Tim 2: 13).
• The hymn, like the psalm, links peace and justice. Justice is the only secure foundation for peace. Again, justice means, first and foremost, rendering to each his due, starting with God. That is why secular programs and hopes for peace are doomed to failure from the outset. As the great Dante reminded us, “in His will is our peace”: We experience the peace of the Kingdom to the extent that we conform our wills to His. All this we recall as we hear the stirring description of Christ’s Kingdom in arguably the most beautiful preface of the Roman Liturgy on the Solemnity of Christ the King: “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”
• Now we are in position to behold the Messiah in all His glory, harking back to the shekinah that accompanied the Hebrews during years of wandering in the desert, en route to the Promised Land, and the same shekinah that hovered over the Mercy Seat in the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus reveals that divine glory in His very Person, and we believers come to know that glory in the most powerful way in and through the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, which perpetuates the mystery of the Incarnation – Emmanuel, God with us.
• The hymn brings before our mind’s eye the adoration of the Magi, foreshadowing the homage to be accorded Christ by all the kings of the earth, for He is truly the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16). Just hearing those words should make one want to rise up to the triumphant strains of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
• As our prayers “to” Him and “for” Him (not for Him as such but for the growth of His Kingdom), we might recall St. Augustine’s profound and moving insight about the prayer of a Christian: “Orat pro nobis ut sacerdos noster, orat in nobis ut caput nostrum, oratur a nobis ut Deus noster. Agnoscamus ergo et in illo voces nostras et voces eius in nobis.” (He prays for us as our priest, He prays in us as our Head; He is prayed to by us as our God. Recognize, therefore, our own voice in Him and His voice in us.”).6
• As we proclaim that Christ is “o’er every foe victorious,” we mean that He is ultimately victorious, not necessarily in any instantaneous fashion. Who would have thought that the great Roman Empire would collapse, or that Soviet Union would come crashing down? Even internally, our own infidelities do not bring down the Kingdom of Christ in His Church – although they do mar her beauty. Think about the Christian realism of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi (Secretary of State for Pope Pius VII) in response to Napoleon’s threats to destroy the Church of God: “Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the Church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
• To believe in the indefectibility of the Church is not presumptuous or foolish because it is grounded in the sure promise of the Lord, expressed here as “the tide of time shall never His covenant remove.” Yes, to repeat, God is faithful, even when we are not. Why? Because “His changeless name” is “love.” “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), a love demonstrated most definitively in the divine condescension of becoming Man – the mystery we long to celebrate with holy joy during the Advent that leads us to Christmas.
The Gospel for this Sunday introduces us to the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist. He will feature mightily in next week’s Gospel. Lend an ear to the intriguing thoughts of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman on the Precursor of the Messiah:
The Holy Baptist was sent before Our Lord to prepare His way; that is, to be His instrument in rousing, warning, humbling, and inflaming the hearts of men, so that, when He came, they might believe in Him. He Himself is the Author and Finisher of that Faith, of which He is also the Object; but, ordinarily, He does not implant it in us suddenly, but He first creates certain dispositions, and these He carries on to faith as their reward. When then He was about to appear on earth among His chosen people, and to claim for Himself their faith, He made use of St. John first to create in them these necessary dispositions; and therefore it is that, at this season, when we are about to celebrate His birth, we commemorate again and again the great Saint who was His forerunner, as in today’s Gospel, lest we should forget, that, without a due preparation of heart, we cannot hope to obtain and keep the all-important gift of faith. . . .7
Our “hymn challenge” this week is “Hark! A Herald Voice Is Sounding,” coming from the fifth-century Latin hymn, “En Clara Vox Redarguit.” This translation is by Edward Caswall, a convert to Catholicism and a member of Cardinal Newman’s Oratory in Birmingham, as well as the founder of The Oratory School. Caswall translated hundreds of Latin hymns into very beautiful and accessible English.
Let’s see what kind of “exegesis” our Catholic school teachers and priests can provide. A helpful hint: Some translations (like Caswall’s) use “thrilling” for “herald,” but “herald” offers a better interpretive key (in my estimation) as the “voice” here is that of John the Baptist.
Hark! A thrilling/herald voice is sounding!
“Christ is near,” we hear it say.
“Cast away the works of darkness,
all you children of the day!”
See, the Lamb, so long expected,
comes with pardon down from heav’n.
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
one and all, to be forgiv’n;
So, when next he comes in glory
and the world is wrapped in fear,
he will shield us with his mercy
and with words of love draw near.
Honor, glory, might, dominion
to the Father and the Son
with the everlasting Spirit
while eternal ages run!
1Not a few junior clergy jokingly (or maybe not) modify the opening line of the hymn thus: “People, look east, including the priest!”
2See, for example: Ph 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; Eph 1: 16-23.
3The melody for that carol (Picardy) is used for the beautiful Advent/Eucharistic hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”
4In Catholic spirituality, Our Lady is often presented as “the Morning Star” because the morning star heralds the dawn, the coming of the Sun. It is not uncommon for the same image or expression to have more than one possible application. Some biblical translations even ascribe this title to Lucifer!
5The sensus plenior of Scripture refers to the Church’s reflection on a sacred text, perhaps having a rather “natural” setting (like the enthronement of an earthly king), but taking on greater meaning in light of the “Christ event.” In other words, a passage is seen as most admirably fulfilled in Christ, without denigrating its original purpose.
6Enarrationes in Ps. 85, 1.
7“Dispositions for Faith,” Oxford Sermons (5), 1856.
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