Monday, January 01, 2007

O happy day!

Some hymns just get left out of the new hymn books, not always with justice.

There's a hymn set in the English Hymnal for the feast of the Circumcision, which I don't think I've ever sung in Church. Its first line is "O happy day when first was poured..."

The fact that I've never sung it in Church might have something to do with the fact that no one used to go to Church on New Year's Day until the Church got all confused by the so-called Millennium in 2000 (and 2001), at which time the C of E tried to invent some connection between Christianity and the practice of counting of years starting afresh from January. Now I was always brought up as a child strictly to understand that the Church had no interest in secular years, because the new year for the Church was Advent Sunday. And even if we count years of Our Lord, we should surely think that they begin on the day we mark his birthday, no? So I'm not sure why the feast of the circumcision should be the first day of anyone's year. But anyway, that's by the by.

In any case, for whatever reason, at LSM we do make an attempt at a Sung Mass for the feast which they now prefer to call the Naming of Jesus on the 1st of January. Not that the New English Hymnal provides any useful hymns for such a festival. There's a fairly tedious New Year hymn, number 258, written by Timothy Dudley Smith (born 1926, now retired ex Bishop of Thetford) which is set to the Londonderry Air—it goes "O Christ the same through all our story's pages"—a nice idea until you realise that the Londonderry Air has a range of a twelfth, which means that even if it is set in the key of D flat major, your congregation has to negotiate a top F and a bottom B flat. Now when did you last have a large enough congregation on the feast of the circumcision to make that sound really strong and lusty? Fortunately we don't attempt that one, though I remember a previous vicar at another church trying to implement it on the 1st of January in the year 2000.

Besides that hymn, the NEH provides an office hymn for the 1st January, number 153, "O let the heart beat high with praise". I've never sung that either. It has a plainsong tune and an alternative tune, both unknown.

The English Hymnal provided two little known but perfectly nice hymns for New Year, numbers 285 and 286. "Another year is dawning" went to the tune of the Cherry Tree carol and was probably quite fun, and "For thy mercy and thy grace faithful through another year" went to a simple 1657 chorale called Culbach. Both eminently suitable, though I'm quite certain I've never sung either of them in any Church.

But for the feast of the circumcision two wonderful hymns were provided in the English Hymnal. One is a perfectly lovely hymn, originally in Latin (victis sibi cognomina) but translated as "Conquering Kings their titles take" which goes to a merry little tune called Innocents which is also know to our family as the tune for the birthday song "Comes a birthday once a year, happy day, O happy day!" which was sung at the SS Mary and John First School (to which our children went in the 1990s). I could write a Blog entry about Conquering Kings, which, as I say, is an extremely fine hymn. But it's the other one I wanted to mention now.

The other one is "O happy day, when first was poured..." Also originally in Latin (Felix dies quem proprio) this was written by Abbé Sebastian Besnault (the source named by Cyberhymnal, Revised Paris Breviary 1736, can't be the original since Besnault died in 1724). It too, like the other, is translated by J. Chandler. This is how it goes:

O happy day, when first was poured
The blood of our redeeming Lord!
O happy day, when first began
His sufferings for sinful man!

Just entered on this world of woe,
His blood already learned to flow;
His future death was thus expressed,
And thus His early love confessed.

From heaven descending to fulfill
The mandates of His Father’s will,
E’en now behold the victim lie,
The Lamb of God, prepared to die!

Lord, circumcise our hearts, we pray,
Our fleshly natures purge away;
Thy Name, Thy likeness may they bear:
Yea, stamp Thy holy image there!

O Lord, the virgin born, to Thee
Eternal praise and glory be,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost for evermore.

Well it is a little gruesome perhaps. I suppose it wouldn't seem so bad in Latin, so the mistake was to translate it into the vernacular. But the imagery—the idea that the circumcision is a foretaste of the future suffering, and that the child undergoing circumcision is like the sacrifical lamb on the altar—all that is quite evocative, as is the idea that we might "circumcise" our hearts to purge away fleshly preoccupations.

But the interesting thing to ask is this: why don't we say very much about how gruesome circumcision must have been? Why don't we make much of the fact that Jesus went through it? Why do we talk more about the naming of Jesus than about his circumcision? And why have they eliminated that hymn from the Hymn Books? Are we too squeamish? Or are we too embarrassed? Or what exactly? I sometimes wonder.
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