Our Central Baptist Church choir includes this hymn in our 2014 Christmas program, a traditional use for it, though it comes from a eucharistic liturgy about sixteen centuries old. Tradition names St James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem, as its author who infused its lines with imagery from Habakkuk 2:20, Zechariah 2:1-3, Revelation 19:16, Luke 22:19-20, Matthew 16:27, and Isaiah 6:2-3. So, the hymn is rich in biblical imagery. It has a Syrian origin, and that may be consistent with a role for James the Less.
Let All Mortal Flesh was a priest’s chant, drawing attention to the great mystery and wonder of “Christ our God” present among his people, God among us as Man. The Supper of the Lord (or Eucharist, or Communion, later depending on one’s church tradition) was a picture and enactment of Christ’s sacrifice for the people in obedience to the Father. The priest chanted as the Bread and the Wine were brought to the Table, while the standing congregation looked on in amazement.
The Eucharist could be much more, certainly not mere symbol, but participation by the congregation of the people in Christ’s sacrifice and the redemption He accomplished through His sufferings and death, burial and resurrection. This was a hymn for the “little-c” catholic church found in the Levant, including Syria, during the early Byzantine period, and long before other Christian communions had spread beyond Rome in the West. Certainly, this differed from a modern, Protestant memorial.
The tune for the Prayer and the Cherubic Hymn of the Liturgy of St James was first published in 1860. ‘Picardy’ is the traditional French tune. The arrangement familiar to us is the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose 1906 work was published in The English Hymnal. The Anglican pastor and chaplain Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885), translated the lyric from Greek to English in 1864. He produced many hymn translations and composed many original hymns, publishing them in hymnals during his career.
There is much more to this. We have many arrangements of Let All Mortal Flesh as hymn or anthem. In most (hopefully all) cases, I expect it is beautiful, moving, and resilient by virtue of overwhelming tune and lyrics. We will enjoy singing it in our program, even as we do in rehearsal.
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, French Carol; Sandra T. Ford