Hymn of the Day - Advent to Epiphany

Dec 01 Hark what a sound, and too divine for hearing – David Blanchflower

Frederick William Henry Myers (1843-1901)
Public Domain

Tune: HIGHWOOD: Richard Runciman Terry (1864-1938)
Public Domain

David Blanchflower photo resized

David Blanchflower

Hark what a sound, and too divine for hearing,
Stirs on the earth, and trembles in the air!
Is it the thunder of the Lord’s appearing?
Is it the music of his people’s prayer?

Surely he cometh, and a thousand voices
Shout to the saints, and to the deaf are dumb;
Surely he cometh, and the earth rejoices,
Glad in his coming who hath sworn: I come!

That hath he done, and shall we not adore him?
This shall he do, and can we still despair?
Come let us quickly fling ourselves before him,
Cast at his feet the burden of our care.

Through life and death, through sorrow and through sinning,
He shall suffice me, for he hath sufficed;
Christ is the end, for Christ was the beginning,
Christ the beginning, for the end is Christ.

This is my choice as an Advent hymn. Sadly, as a Methodist, it is no longer a choice I can make if I use Singing the Faith, the latest Methodist book. It has been omitted.

Most of the words were written by Frederic W H Myers, who was born in Keswick, Cumberland in 1843. Myers was the son of a clergyman and educated at Cheltenham College and Trinity College, Cambridge. We are told that Myers was both intellectually and physically distinguished, having learned Virgil by heart at school and being the first Englishman to swim the river beneath Niagara Falls. At Trinity he won various scholarships and University prizes and in 1865 became a Fellow of Trinity where he lectured in Classics.

The final three verses of this hymn were part of a one hundred and fifty verse poem, St Paul, written as his entry into the Seatonian Poetry prize. A prize he did not win.

Myers counted himself as a Christian for only a few early years of his life, before becoming an agnostic. Later in life he became interested in spiritualism and psychical research. After a career in the Department of Education he died in Rome in 1901.

The opening verse of the hymn is from an unknown source and was first used in the Congregational Hymnary (1916). This verse gives the present hymn its clear Advent theme as the unknown writer imagines a sound that is too divine for hearing, (angel music?) a sound that could be either the ‘thunder of the Lord’s appearing,’ or the ‘music of his people’s prayer.’ Both of these alternatives are Advent themes, the ‘Lord’s appearing’, as Christ is at last seen in all things; or the constant music of the prayer of God’s people, Maranatha - ‘Come, Lord come.’

The second verse imagines a thousand voices calling to the saints, but not heard by those deaf to the call. Surely the whole earth will rejoice at the realisation of the Lord’s promise to come into all things. ‘Christ will come again.’

The third verse asks how we could fail to adore Christ, or how we could ever despair at the realisation of his promise. The invitation is given to cast all our cares at the feet of our Lord.

For me it is this final verse, (based of 2 Corinthians 12:9, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,’) which makes the hymn so special. At the 1975 World Council of Churches Assembly in Nairobi, Pauline Webb, the first woman to be elected as an officer of the their Central Committee, was invited to preach at the final act of worship. Pauline’s sermon, broadcast on BBC radio, was very powerful and I was particularly moved by the way she ended the sermon, a summing up of her theme, with the final words of this hymn.

Through life and death, through sorrow and through sinning,
He shall suffice me, for he hath sufficed;
Christ is the end, for Christ was the beginning,
Christ the beginning, for the end is Christ.

Ever since hearing Pauline’s sermon these words have been a mantra for my life. Wherever life takes me, however difficult experiences may prove, however far I fall, Christ has and will prove sufficient.

Today the hymn is usually sung to the tune HIGHWOOD (see above), written by Sir Richard Runciman Terry (1864-1938), said to be the most influential Catholic Church Musician of the Twentieth Century in Britain. He composed HIGHWOOD to accompany the hymn, ‘O perfect love, all human thought transcending.’ It was first set to ‘Hark what a sound,’ in the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book, since when it has become the standard tune.

Prayer

GRACIOUS God,
we thank you for the gift of Jesus
who came to reveal the fullness of your gifts of grace.
We thank you for his life, death and resurrection;
and in this Advent season we thank you for the promise
that Christ will come again to complete all things.

We pray that we may know your continuing presence with us
in all the highs and lows and the humdrum events of life.
We thank you for the promise that nothing in life or death,
nothing in the sorrow and sin we experience
can ever separate us from your love,
for Christ who was there at our beginning
is the one who will be with us
and with all creation at the end;
in his name we pray. Amen

I am grateful to The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk) for details of the author and composer

Hark what a sound sung at Blackburn Cathedral

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