December 17, 2018
As I finish my first liturgical year as Music Coordinator at the JPII Newman Center, I’ve been excited to explore the musical possibilities for the coming Christmas season. After paging through lists of songs, I’ve been struck by a sense of vastness. Over the centuries, so many beautiful carols and hymns have been written to celebrate the birth of Our Lord. It’s difficult to narrow down the options.
With such monumental music surrounding Christmas itself, it can be easy to forget to savor the subtler, more contemplative music of Advent—music that is, admittedly, often more restrained than the joyous carols of Christmas, but no less beautiful. Indeed, the color and character of advent hymnody is mysterious and deeply haunting: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is a familiar example of this, with its ambiguously shifting tonality between major and minor that perfectly captures the heart’s unresolved longing for the Savior’s arrival.
There is another beautiful Advent song that captures this spirit of anticipation, although it’s less familiar. Its name is “Wake Awake, for Night Is Flying,” and it’s a 16th century Lutheran hymn that’s been absorbed into the broader Christian tradition of music.
Although this hymn dates back to 1599, the arrangement of “Wake Awake” that appears in modern hymnals today is an arrangement by Johann Sebastian Bach written in 1731. This piece, still found in many hymnals today, bears all the telltale musical fingerprints of Bach: witty, independent interplay between the 4 choral voices, wide intervalic leaps in the supporting parts that yearn as they reach high and dive low, and a strong emphasis on a simple, singable tune.
Equally striking is the language of the hymn, which is a text based on the parable of the Ten Virgins from the Gospel of Matthew. Through the lens of Advent, the words are a call to wakeful vigilance as we await the arrival Christ, portrayed as the bridegroom:\
Wake, awake, for night is flying;
The watchmen on the heights are crying:
Awake, Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices;
Oh where are ye, ye virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes, awake!
Thy lamps with gladness take!
With bridal care thyselves prepare
To meet the Bridegroom who is near.
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
And all her heart with joy is springing;
She wakes, she rises from her gloom;
For her Lord comes down all glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious.
Her star is risen, her light is come.
Now come, Thou blessed One,
Lord Jesus God’s own Son
The joyful call we answer all
And follow to the nuptial hall.
Now let all the heavens adore thee,
Let men and angels sing before thee,
With harp and cymbal’s clearest tone.
Of one pearl each shining portal,
Where, dwelling with the choir immortal,
We gather round thy radiant throne.
No vision ever brought,
No ear hath ever caught,
Such great glory;
Therefore will we eternally
Sing hymns of praise and joy to thee.
I must confess, in the past several weeks I’ve been listening to this hymn rather obsessively. At first I attributed my fascination to more technical musical aspects, but upon reflection I realized my love for the piece is equally inspired by the text. There is something rousing and deeply inspiring about its call to wakeful worship: the invitation to throw aside ordinary things to meet the Lord here and now. It’s no coincidence that it’s the central message expressed not only in “Wake, Awake,” but in many of our best loved hymns:
“All ye who hear, now to His altar draw near”
“Come, Christians, join to sing”
“Come, now is the time to worship”
“Come awake, come awake, come and rise of from the grave”
There is something simultaneously challenging and comforting about this call to offer ourselves to the Lord in worship. On the one hand, it can be a great sacrifice and act of trust to give everything—even our most treasured possessions—to the Lord. Like a Bronze Age king laying his prized treasures before the feet of a foreign newborn, there can be a sense of absurdity and even wastefulness. There can be an uneasy sense of, “Lord, are you sure you want me to give this?”
On the other hand, what a joy it is to know that our Nativity gifts, once heavy burdens carried great distances, now find their rightful purpose in the presence of the newborn Jesus. What a reassurance it is to know that whatever offerings we bring to the manger are no longer ours, but His. The anxious fatigue of clutching what was once our precious property becomes the comforting relief of open, empty hands—hands now fully freed to reach outward to others in service, and upward to God in praise. Indeed, only after we set down our cumbersome belongings are our arms open enough to embrace the Christ child.
In this obedient act of waking and going to the stable to worship, we as a Church throw off the drowse of nighttime illusions. The darkness is cast out, and in the morning light of truth we are reminded of our identity in Christ. We fulfill our calling as creation simply by naming God our creator, and we rightly recognize our smallness in the eyes of an all-powerful God. This is a joyful and grateful realization. I can think of no better words to express it than those of the Mass itself:
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
Michael Stevens | Music Coordinator, JPII Newman