Favorite hymn no. 8
‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ derives from a hymn sung at the Offertory procession in the Liturgy of St James, the oldest complete Eucharistic rite of the Eastern Church. The hymn may be even older than that liturgy and could date back as far as the third century.
The familiar English version was made by Gerard Moultrie, a nineteenth-century Church of England priest who wrote and translated many hymns. Moultrie’s text was based upon a literal translation from the Greek made by John Mason Neale, the great nineteenth-century Anglican scholar-hymnist much interested in Eastern Christianity:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and stand with fear and trembling,
and ponder nothing earthly in itself;
for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Christ our God,
cometh forth to be sacrificed
and to be given for food to the faithful;
and He is preceded by the choirs of the Angels,
with every Domination and Power,
the many-eyed Cherubim, and the six-winged Seraphim,
that cover their faces, and vociferate the hymn,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
In many ways Moultrie stays close to his source, but he also expands upon it. He connects the angelic hymn of his text (the reference is clearly to the ‘Holy, holy, holy’ of Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4, despite the change to ‘Alleluia’) more closely to the Sanctus in its older Prayer Book form, which had ‘Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High’ instead of ‘Hosanna in the highest’. More importantly, he borrows a good deal of incarnational language from the Nicene Creed: Christ is not only ‘King of kings’ and ‘Lord of lords’, but also ‘Light of Light…who…came down from heaven, and was incarnate…of the Virgin Mary, and was made man’ – or, as he puts it, ‘King of kings, yet born of Mary, / as of old on earth he stood, / Lord of lords in human vesture…’.
Indeed Moultrie connects this hymn, and the Eucharist, much more closely with the Incarnation than with the Passion as the original does. (Christ ‘coming forth to be sacrificed’ in the original is not only a clear reference to the Passion, but also to the original ceremonial context of this hymn, in which the gifts of bread and wine are brought in elaborate procession from a side chapel into the sanctuary. Though Moultrie was no low-churchman, this change may reflect Anglican scruples regarding sacrificial language in connection with the Eucharist – or simply a different ceremonial context.) Instead of ‘cometh forth’, Moultrie (twice) has ‘descendeth’ – and Christ descends, yes, ‘our full homage to demand’ (indeed how could we fail to offer it?), but also ‘with blessing in his hand’: a fulfillment of the angelic promise that the ascending Christ, blessing his disciples, would return in the same way [Luke 24.50–51; Acts 1.11]). Ultimately he comes to ‘give…his own self for heavenly food’.
All this is to say that, as Christ once came to earth in human form, in the Sacrament he comes among us again in Body and Blood. And this sacramental Presence is none other than the Divine Presence of God which the angels attend in the aforementioned heavenly visions. When we celebrate the divine mysteries, when we join the ‘angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’ to sing ‘Holy, holy holy’, when we partake of the heavenly banquet, then we too come into that Presence, and we dare not – we cannot – ‘ponder [any]thing earthly-minded’, but rather follow St Paul’s exhortation (Colossians 3) to ‘set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’, in the faith that, as he goes on to say, ‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’
‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ was first published in 1864, but probably not much known until its inclusion in the seminal English Hymnal of 1906. Its popularity since then has been aided by its pairing in that hymnal (the work of eminent composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) with ‘Picardy’, a fine French folk tune first published in a 19th-century collection but undoubtedly much older.