αλλά νυν πολλω μάλλον εν τη απουσία μου,Philippians 2:12
μετά φόβου και τρόμου την εαυτών σωτηριαν κατεργαζεσθε
At the time of writing, it is Christmas of this year of Grace 2020. It has been, for me and for many of you, one of the very worst years. Not only has it seen the dissolution of our way of life, but as it nears its end, 2020 points to the looming disaster of 2021. We now swim in a gathering fog of uncertainty, mistrust and malevolence. In the midst of all that, the mystery of Christmas intrudes again. And, in my own corner of things, it has been a season of miracles.
Recently, I was asked to play the immortal Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence among friends. I knew, instantly, that I could not do so without being undone. As unseemly as that would have been, my refusal was, on balance, worse. In order to make up for it, I am presenting this hymn for your edification, here:
Like every great story, this song has very deep roots. They begin with the prophet Habakkuk, who lived somewhere in the 7th century Before Christ. The book that bears his name is a sobering confrontation with God. In it, the prophet yearns to understand why God is using Babylon to punish Judah. If you read it, you will hear a man’s anguish as his desires and his faith collide with one another. At one point, God answers: the righteous will live by faith. Centuries later Paul would draw this theme, out of this very book, to address the Hebrews and the Romans. This book, and Paul’s application of it, articulates the clearest possible answer to the question of why we should believe at all. As far as I can see, and age and experience simply confirm this, the answer is that we have no choice.
In the second chapter, we read: “The Lord is in His holy temple. Let the earth be silent before Him.” This is the origin of the hymn we are studying. At some point early in the life of the Church of Jerusalem, the Greek text was composed. It still occupies an important place in the Liturgy of Saint James, where it is sung in Byzantine chant:
Σιγησάτω πᾶσα σάρξ βροτεία, καὶ στήτω μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου, καὶ μηδὲν γήϊνον ἐν ἑαυτῇ λογιζέσθω· ὁ γὰρ Βασιλεῦς τῶν βασιλευόντων, καὶ Κύριος τῶν κυριευόντων, προσέρχεται σφαγιασθῆναι, καὶ δοθῆναι εἰς βρῶσιν τοῖς πιστοῖς· προηγοῦνται δὲ τούτου, οἱ χοροὶ τῶν Ἀγγέλων, μετὰ πάσης ἀρχῆς καὶ ἐξουσίας, τὰ πολυόμματα Χερουβίμ, καὶ τὰ ἑξαπτέρυγα Σεραφίμ, τὰς ὄψεις καλύπτοντα, καὶ βοῶντα τὸν ὕμνον· Ἀλληλούϊα, Ἀλληλούϊα, Ἀλληλούϊα
Along with Habakkuk, the language here recalls Paul’s admonition to the Church at Philippi, that they should work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Paul uses this phrase elsewhere, sometimes directly referring Moses’ experience of God. The text exhorts us to take our mind away from earthly things and to watch as the King of Kings comes forward, to be slaughtered and give food to the faithful. In the Greek, the words are that visceral and immediate.
Some more centuries pass, and we find ourselves in late medieval France. Picardy is a region of northern France that gets its name from the pike, the preferred weapon of its inhabitants in ancient times. Like everything in France, it is staggeringly beautiful. And like all the other regions of France, it has its own characteristic folk customs, culture and song. The tune that we all know as Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence is in fact a simple folk song called Picardy. There is something very French about repurposing a simple folk melody and changing the world in the process. We’ve spoken about how Jean de Brebeauf did this for the Huron people.
But it wasn’t a Frenchman who would complete our odyssey. In fact, we owe this hymn in this form to two Englishmen. The first of them was Gerard Moultrie, a Victorian hymnographer and schoolmaster, of all things. He translated the Greek text, with some license, of course. His version is much more than a translation; it transcends the boundaries between languages in the way that only a true poem can. It exchanges the floridity and vigour of Koine Greek for the sturdy, terse rhythm of Victorian English. Vaughan Williams, a composer about whom I have much to say, arranged the Picardy melody to go with these words.
The result is a piece of music that truly defies description. Coming to you from my little prison cell, I can only offer you my strings. But to do it justice, I’ll need an organ. Perhaps some day soon I’ll make good on that promise. In the mean time, I hope that you find some consolation in my rendition, and the meandering, miraculous story I’ve shared with you. As you listen, consider our world as we find it in our times. Consider, with fitting fear, the chastisement that is due and which, like Habakkuk, we will surely live to see.