Sunday, December 23, 2007

Hark a Herald Voice is calling

There are many Advent hymns that remain to be written about. It so happens that Advent tends to be a busy time and I don't get round to writing about them. Here's one that we sang this morning:

Hark a herald voice is calling; "Christ is nigh" it seems to say.

It's a translation by E. Caswall from the Latin sixth century original Vox clara ecce intonat. Or rather, the translation by Caswall was what we used to get in the English Hymnal. It went like this (Latin on the left, Caswall on the right):
VOX clara ecce intonat,
obscura quaeque increpat:
procul fugentur somnia;
ab aethere Christus promicat.
Hark! a herald voice is calling:
'Christ is nigh' it seems to say;
'Cast away the dreams of darkness,
O ye children of the day!'
Mens iam resurgat torpida
quae sorde exstat saucia;
sidus refulget iam novum,
ut tollat omne noxium.
Startled at the solemn warning,
Let the earth-bound soul arise;
Christ, her Sun, all sloth dispelling
Shines upon the morning skies.
E sursum Agnus mittitur
laxare gratis debitum;
omnes pro indulgentia
vocem demus cum lacrimis,
Lo! the lamb so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heaven;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven;
Secundo ut cum fulserit
mundumque horror cinxerit,
non pro reatu puniat,
sed nos pius tunc protegat.
So when next he comes in glory,
Wrapping all the earth in fear,
May he then as our defender
On the clouds of heaven appear.
Summo Parenti gloria
Natoque sit victoria,
et Flamini laus debita
per saeculorum saecula. Amen.
Honour, glory, virtue merit,
To the Father and the Son,
With the co-eternal Spirit
While unending ages run. Amen.

The hymn is not all of it a very close or literal translation, but if you look at the fourth verse about the second coming, you will see that it is quite closely rendering the original Latin words. It's about Christ's second coming, because Advent looks forward to that as well as the birth of Jesus. And it's about the idea of judgement, which is the cause of the fear in "wrapping all the earth in fear".

That's the verse that the New English Hymnal editors have interfered with, and for which the hymn gets a double obelus in that book. They didn't mind the idea that we might need to run with tears of sorrow to be forgiven, but for some reason they don't imagine that the second coming will wrap the earth in fear. Why not? I don't get this.

Here's what they give us instead:

So when next he comes in glory,
And earth's final hour draws near,
May he then as our defender
On the clouds of heaven appear.


Defender from what? If you cut out the fear of punishment, you cut out our need for a defender. Doesn't that ruin the whole motif? And isn't there something deeply unpoetic and unpictorial (unimaginative) about "and earth's final hour draws near".

What will that final hour be like? Wouldn't it be helpful to picture something of the awe and fearfulness of it? Wouldn't that help us to see why we are running for forgiveness and looking for a defender coming on the clouds. I think so.
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