Music Notes | Third Sunday of Advent

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

On both the Second and Third Sundays of Advent the appointed Gospels focus upon the proclamation of John the Baptist: ‘Prepare / make straight the way of the Lord’. Several of our Advent hymns naturally take up this theme.

‘On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry’ originated as a Latin hymn for Advent Morning Prayer written by the French hymnist Charles Coffin. (The Hymnal 1982 Companion is too harsh in calling the translation ‘somewhat free’; the composite translation renders the Latin both faithfully and beautifully.) The text focuses not only upon the salvation and redemption wrought by Christ, but also upon his earthly ministry of healing and the need to make way for him in our hearts. The sturdy melody, of 17th-century German origin, has appeared in many forms with various German and English texts.

‘Prepare the way, O Zion’ comes to us from the Church of Sweden, where it has been sung for two hundred years. The original text (a translation of parts of which was found in Hymns III, a trial-use precursor to the Hymnal 1982) brought together Isaiah 40.3–5 and the account of Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21, with resonances in Psalms 24 and 118), with a refrain exactly quoting the Benedictus qui venit, which fortuitously forms something like a rhyming couplet in Swedish. The first three stanzas of the original focus on the majesty of the divine King and fulfillment of his promises, while the next three subvert worldly expectations of such a king. (The final stanza, regrettably, contrasts the ‘abandoned’ Jerusalem and its ‘fallen’ Temple with the eternal kingdom of Christ.) The effect of the original is in some ways close to our Hymn 74, ‘Blest be the King whose coming’, which also connects the Triumphal Entry with Advent.

The Hymnal 1982 version of ‘Prepare the way, O Zion’ is, perhaps unsurprisingly given its comparative brevity, much less specific in its content and in its Scriptural references than the original. It misses both the contrast (at first glance) between the majesty and humility of Christ the King (‘with the sword of the Spirit he fights and prevails, when he suffers’), and between the kingdom of this world and that of Christ (‘the holy kingdom is not of this world, not found by its wise ones, not won by its heroes’). Indeed the words ‘king’ and ‘kingdom’ have been expunged altogether, and the refrain, zealous to avoid the words ‘he’ (to refer to Jesus – though ‘his’ appears several times) and ‘Lord’ (to refer to God), no longer resonates very clearly with ‘Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord’. Nevertheless (aided by its buoyant melody, a Swedish variant of a folk tune of German origin) we can gladly proclaim its Advent message and rejoice that ‘his rule [i.e. kingdom or reign] is peace and freedom, and justice, truth, and love’. 

‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ was sung last week and has been covered in other entries in this series, but as it forms the basis of our Advent service music this year (in adaptations by Mark Wischkaemper), this week’s organ voluntaries are based upon it. We also hear a short organ piece based upon this Sunday’s Introit, from a huge cycle of chant-based organ works for the whole year, L’Orgue Mystique, by 20th-century French composer Charles Tournemire. This Sunday is known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday after this Introit, which quotes the Apostle’s words to the Philippians: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always…the Lord is near’.

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