Music Notes | Second Sunday of Easter

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

The Hymnal 1982 is blessed with a sizeable collection of hymns for Eastertide. Several of them can fairly be called carols; among these is this week’s first hymn, ‘Good Christians all, rejoice and sing’ (205). The lively music – made so not only by the use of a quick triple meter, but also by short–long rhythms in the second and third lines where one might expect long–short pairs, and topped off by a jubilant threefold Alleluia spanning the entire octave range of the melody and extending the phrase-structure of the piece – was written by Melchior Vulpius, a German composer of the turn of the seventeenth century, for the earlier text ‘Gelobt sei Gott im höchsten Thron’. The present English text was written for the appearance of this music in the 1931 Songs of Praise, an important collection of carols, school songs, and other fare that did not fit the scholarly and liturgical character of the English Hymnal (1906 and 1933). This carol will also be heard in a setting for organ by modern American composer Gilbert Martin.

Where ‘Good Christians all, rejoice and sing’ captures beautifully all the jubilation of Easter, ‘We walk by faith, and not by sight’ (209) deals with the distance we can sometimes feel, two thousand years later, from the bodily appearances of the risen Christ. The first two stanzas contrast the experience of the first disciples with our own: ‘We walk by faith, and not by sight’ (II Cor. 7); we do not hear directly the words of the one who spoke like no other (as Our Lord’s old acquaintances said of him when he visited his hometown) – but we nonetheless believe in his presence. We cannot touch his wounds – but like St Thomas we recognize and acclaim him Lord and God, with the implied prayer that we may be among those who are ‘blessed…who have not seen, and yet have come to believe’. The last two stanzas, which form one continuous thought, then ask for faith in the midst of doubt (like the father of the boy who suffered seizures, Mark 9.24) to seek the Lord (Isaiah 55.6), so that at the last we may see him as he is (I John 3.2). The text was written by Henry Alford, a 19th-century Church of England priest who was a brilliant scholar as well as an artist, musician, and poet; he is also the author of ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’ (290). It appeared in both the 1892 and 1916 editions of the Episcopal Church’s Hymnal with a total of three different tunes, none a very inspired match, and was dropped in the 1940 edition before being lightly modernized and paired much more successfully with the lilting ‘St Botolph’ – an early-20th-century tune in the style of the 18th – for the Hymnal 1982.

The Introit antiphon for the Second Sunday of Easter –

As with infants newly born [,] spiritual and uncorrupted [,] milk should be your desire

– culminates a week-long series of proper chants and other texts addressed to those who were baptized and made their first communion (the completion of their baptism) at the Easter Vigil, and who anciently underwent instruction in Easter Week to explain the sacraments they had experienced. In those same early days of the Church, the neophytes, in addition to receiving the Body and Blood, were administered milk and honey (referred to in more than one chant during Easter Week, and previewed in the Introit for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the notes for which please see), symbolic of new birth, nourishment, sweetness, and abundance, particularly with reference to the Promised Land, now seen to be the Church, and the Consolation of Israel (Isaiah 40–55 and especially 55.1, which refers to ‘milk without price’), understood to be fulfilled in Christ. The antiphon is paired with verses from Psalm 81: ‘open your mouth wide and I will fill it’ (one is reminded of communicants receiving the Host on the tongue, like baby birds being fed by their Mother, the Church); ‘Israel would I feed with the finest wheat / and satisfy him with honey from the rock.’ 

The bracketed commas in the foregoing translation of the antiphon reflect various possible interpretations of the Latin text and its Greek original (I Peter 2.2; the English translations in use also reflect some of the difficulty): in the Greek, the words here translated ‘spiritual’ and ‘uncorrupted’ modify ‘milk’, but the Latin translations vary; the Latin phrase literally meaning ‘without deceit or fraud’ could apply to either the infants, the milk, or the desiring, while the word translated ‘spiritual’, which really refers to what we rather vaguely call our ‘higher nature’, in some sources modifies ‘milk’ and in others, ‘infants’. Read with the first comma, the Introit reads as the Greek does: ‘like newborn infants, crave the milk of [i.e., that nourishes one for] full, mature humanity in the likeness of God’ (which milk is, by implication from the scriptural context, the word and Word of God, and from the liturgical context, is the Eucharist). Read with the second comma, we may arrive at what the Latin is trying to get at – and in a way, at what the Greek ultimately means: that the infants in question (i.e., the neophytes) are newly born [as] pure and [only now] beings truly capable of higher nature, of ‘growing to salvation’ as the next verse (I Peter 2.3) says, or coming ‘to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (Ephesians 4.13). Like them, we all of us should continually crave the Word and Sacrament which nourish us to grow in the likeness of God.

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