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.

Epiphany 2011

My neighbors and correspondents may not buy my argument that we should celebrate the holy days all the way through the 12th Day of Christmas (yesterday, January 5).  Yet even my Baptist family would say it is good to make each day of the year a celebration of Christ.  But I am late with the Christmas greetings this year to many friends, too, so you discern one of my motives for writing as I do this morning.

Well, TODAY the Magi have come to honor the baby, the king, at Bethlehem, to resolve their questions about that Star of the East, and we can do the same.  Today is Epiphany in the traditional calendar of Western Christianity.  Christ is revealed, Truth is known, Insight and Light are ours.  How we need that for today and for this year!  May I recommend an MP3 program?  It’s for anyone, at BBC Radio 4 Podcasts:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/belief along with other downloads.  The one I’m recommending directly is “The Magi.”  Actually, it’s well balanced and thought-provoking.  Let me know what you think.