Hymns were not officially part of the Mass in the traditional Roman Rite, nor of the Anglican Communion service until quite recently. Instead, hymns found a place at the Office, the daily round of services based upon the singing of the Psalms and other Scripture. English Church legislation of 1559 allowed ‘an hymne or suche like song’ to be sung before or after Morning or Evening Prayer, while the Roman Rite assigns a hymn for each Office for each season or feast. A number of hymns in our Hymnal, then, are such Office hymns.
A common morning Office hymn for Advent is ‘Vox clara ecce intonat’, translated in our Hymnal as ‘Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding’ . In the first two stanzas a number of Scriptural images and allusions (clearer in the Latin, but traceable in the English) are tied to the early morning time in which the hymn is traditionally sung: ‘cast away the works of darkness’ [Romans 13.12]; ‘children of the day’ [I Thess. 5.5, from Sunday’s Epistle]; ‘wakened’ [Isaiah 60; Matthew 24–25; Ephesians 5.14; others]; ‘Christ our sun…shines upon the morning skies’ [Malachi 4.2; Revelation 22.16; perhaps also Psalm 19.5 and others]). Sleep may be a time of physical refreshment, but here it is used to speak of spiritual sluggishness which we are exhorted to shrug off.
The next two stanzas then refer to Our Lord’s First and Second Comings: St John the Baptist (who, crying in the wilderness, can be understood as the ‘voice’ of stanza 1) points out the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world [John 1.29], and we, heeding the Forerunner’s call to have a change of heart, run to receive the pardon the Lamb offers. Thus, we pray, when Christ comes again we, having asked, received, and lived into that forgiveness, will be prepared to meet him.
The coming of day has always been seen as a time and symbol of life and renewal – all the more so before the advent of electric lighting. Yet as our Biblical writers remind us, the light also exposes and even burns away many things that we might prefer to stay hidden. It behooves us, then, to ‘keep awake and be sober’, alert at all times to signs of the Kingdom that even now is coming, is in fact already here, being revealed to those who seek it out.
Most, if not all, Office hymns are available in translations using the poetic meters of the original (or their equivalents in English scansion), and thus can be sung to their traditional chant melodies if desired. There are many examples in the Hymnal 1982, each of which is also provided with a modern tune. In this case, however, the translation chosen (first authorized for use in the Episcopal Church in 1865, and of lasting quality) is not in the original meter and so is furnished only with a modern tune, written in 1850 and since 1861 paired exclusively with this text. Edward Caswall, the translator, was a Church of England priest who was received into the Roman Catholic Church and later ordained in that communion; he translated the entire corpus of hymns then in use in the Roman Church and published it around 1850, in the years between his reception and re-ordination. Several other translations of his appear in the Hymnal 1982 [257, 310/311, 479, 642, 682].