For this month’s hymn, Martin Draper offers a Michaelmas classic ‘bright with splendour’
I have an unshakeable belief in the holy angels and the feast of St Michael and All Angels is probably my favourite feast, after Trinity Sunday. I ‘learned the faith,’ as they used to say, in a parish served by the brethren of the Society of the Sacred Mission, itself under the patronage of the angels, and the date of their feast, as well as the angels themselves, have figured prominently in my ministry, not least because I was ordained priest on that day.
Michaelmas is one of the few feasts to lift us from our earth-centred world and open up the vastness of creation, which includes life in forms different from ones that we already know. This is certainly not to suggest that angels might be some sort of alien life from a planet far away in the cosmos, but scientific advances reinforce the evident truth for men and women of faith that ‘what you see is not all there is.’ Angels represent and express the reality affirmed in the Nicene Creed that God is the Creator of ‘all things, visible and invisible’.
Most people’s favourite Michaelmas hymn is the Office Hymn, which begins, ‘Christ, the fair beauty of the holy angels’. Whilst I don’t dislike this ninth-century text, I prefer to use it in the context for which it was composed, though it does provide a suitable Communion hymn, because it is addressed to Christ.
My preference is for hymns with more poetry and drama – the same is true of hymns about heaven – because, where words fail us, poetic words can convey something of what is just out of reach; in a way, they can express the inexpressible. So, I like St Joseph the Hymnographer’s Greek hymn, Stars of the morning, so gloriously bright, but my personal favourite is Francis Judd’s text, written for the consecration of Kelham Chapel (SSM’s mother house) in 1928. I can hardly believe that no other published hymnal includes it.
SONS of the Holy One bright with his splendour,
Wakened to life at creation’s new day,
First to uplift in the joy of surrender
Spirits to worship and wills to obey.
2 Armies of Michael, a heavenly wonder
Crashed to the onset with evil on high,
Till the proud angel, o’ercome by their thunder
Dropped on his darkening wings from the sky.
3 Stars of the morn, for creation returning
Praise to the wisdom ordaining the whole,
Hushed their glad songs, in amazement discerning
God’s very likeness in man’s living soul.
4 Sentries of Paradise, knew ye no sorrow,
Guarding the way with a flame of the sword?
Visioned ye not on a glorious morrow
Man by a tree to his Eden restored?
5 Gabriel came with his high salutation,
Burning with ardour and eager in flight.
‘Ave Maria!’ The dawn of salvation
Rose at its music and banished our night.
6 Lo, ever since, on a stairway all golden
Angels ascending, descending again!
Sion is here, if our eyes were not holden,
Praise would not fail for their service to men.
7 Praise God for Michael, in strife our defender,
Praise him for Raphaël, our healer and guide,
Praise him for guardians, watchful and tender,
True to their charges in need at their side.
8 Laud to thee Father of spirits supernal!
We with the angels adore thee, O Son!
Comforter holy, proceeding, eternal,
In thee be glory to God three in One. Amen.
In the first verse, the angels are described as ‘sons of the Holy One’: the ‘sons of God’ of the book of Daniel and other extra-biblical material. They are seen as the first beings to be created, able to give themselves in joy to worship and obedience to God’s will. But, even in this world of spiritual bodies, before the physical universe existed, the Book of Revelation sees evil emerge as the rejection of God’s will. So in the second verse, we see Michael ‘crash to the onset’ and win the battle.
The angels are present at the creation of the physical world as well, with Stars of the morning, so gloriously bright having them give a spiritual three cheers once it was finished. In verse 3, Judd, on the contrary, has them reduced to silence in their pure amazement at the wonder of human beings in ‘God’s very likeness.’ There’s yet another angelic reaction to God’s work in the fifth century Office Hymn for Ascension Day, in which they are said to ‘tremble, when they see how changed is our humanity’ through the redemptive work of Christ.
The third verse already looks forward to that work and suggests, through what seem to be rhetorical questions, that the cherubim weren’t sorrowful when God cut off our mythical forbears from the Tree of Life, but could already see human beings redeemed and restored by Christ on the ‘Tree of glory’ of the Passiontide Office Hymn.
The Annunciation to Our Lady follows in verse five and gives an affirmative answer to those questions. Note the ‘ardour’ and ‘eagerness’ of Gabriel, rushing through the skies with his message. Organists, please note: the dawn of salvation requires a crescendo at ‘rose at its music and banished our night’!
The first three words of verse six mark a return from the slight alteration in the New English Hymnal to the author’s original words, for it is a verse which resonates with the Authorised Version translation of two New Testament texts. Unlike the angels ascending and descending the ladder in Jacob’s dream in the book Genesis, ‘ever since’ the incarnation of Christ, the angelic traffic on the ‘stairway all golden’ is made visible to all of us. This is the plural ‘ye’ of Christ’s promise to all his disciples in John 1. 51 (AV). But we can’t see it when we are like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, whose eyes were ‘holden’ (Luke 24. 16 AV).
The hymn concludes in praise, for and with ‘angels and archangels’ united in adoration of God in Trinity.
The words were written for the tune Liebster Emmanuel, but also fit the exhilarating unison tune Wessex. The Victorian tune Epiphany undermines the magnificence of the words. The stresses fall on the wrong syllables if the words are sung to most other tunes in 11 10 11 10 metre. Highwood, O perfect love, Strength and Stay, Welwyn, Lord for the years and Londonderry Air, for example will not fit at all.