Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence — Christmas at CBC Marshall, Texas

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.

REFERENCES

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, French Carol; Sandra T. Ford

Review by: Richard Stanislaw
The Choral Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2 (SEPTEMBER 2000), p. 94
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23553597.  Accessed 1 October 2014.
Hymnary.org.  http://www.hymnary.org/text/let_all_mortal_flesh_keep_silence.  Accessed 1 October 2014.

Sacrifices Remade

In his big little book, Fruit of Lips or Why Four Gospels, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy made a late-in-life-and-career statement about the four Gospels.  He spoke about Matthew’s impolite (so Official Israel took him to be) emphasis on blood sacrifice and salvation.   The sacrifice Who dared to speak spoke and died as a demonstration of the Way of the Cross for all who were to follow Him.  Most Christians miss the point, though, in practice.  So, Rosenstock-Huessy writes (p. 71):

The whole expression of a Body of Christ,

With the head in heaven,

Meant exactly this,

That we who would crucify the Lord every day,

In our rage and envy and indifference,

Now, with our eyes opened once

For what we have done and are doing,

Declare solemnly:

We, now, together with our Head,

Step on the side of the silent victims

And offer ourselves to our Maker

So that he can remake the sacrifice

As he pleases.

How else could ever a new inspiration

Befall us as a people

Unless we offer ourselves

As the body for this inspiration?

Time and again, man has to be ripped open

By the ploughshare of suffering

And open himself

Like a dry and desiccated earth

To dew and rain.

And ever since one man did this

Manifestly all alone by himself,

His congregations relieve the members

Of the total pressure of absolute loneliness.

In every generation, the group

Which may be remodeled,

May increase, until the whole of mankind

Will be allowed to fall silent

And to cleanse themselves

From the chatter and clatter of the day,

And to listen to the spirit,

Simultaneously.

Table fellowship, the sharing of a meal together, gained a new depth of meaning and purpose, far beyond what men had practiced from the beginnings of society.  E-H explains this more fully in his meditations on the Gospel according to Matthew.