Thursday, April 17, 2014

Father, We Praise Thee

Praise for the Lord #143

Words: Medieval Latin hymn; trans. Percy Dearmer, 1906
Music: CHRISTE SANCTORUM, Paris Antiphoner, 1681; arr. La Feillée's Nouvelle Methode, 1782

This is a translation of the Medieval hymn "Nocte surgentes vigilemus omnes" (Rising up by night, let us all keep vigil") from the Roman Catholic liturgy, originally sung during the nighttime prayer hours in the summer months (Walpole 265). Dearmer's English translation tweaked the original to make it a morning prayer, more suitable for his Anglican audience. Christopher Gray's excellent Liber Hymnarius website has the full Latin text and a good literal translation, which is worth comparison to Percy Dearmer's rather free rendering.

These lyrics are traditionally attributed to Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), whose work in organizing the music of the Roman Catholic liturgy caused his name to be attached to the entire repertoire still known today as "Gregorian" chant. The earliest documented instances of "Nocte surgentes" are found, however, from only the 10th century forward (Analecta Hymnica 51:24). Walpole, in his classic study Early Latin Hymns, notes that it does not seem to fit with the simpler style of chants known to date from Gregory's era. Its meter is a particularly unusual and sophisticated "Sapphic mode" (so-called because of its use by the ancient Greek poet Sappho) of four-line stanzas in the syllable pattern Walpole notes instead the hymn's strong similarity to another work in Sapphic mode by the 9th-century scholar Alcuin of York (c.735-904); if it is not a work of Alcuin himself, it at least seems to fit better in the hymn-writing style of his era (265).

The translation before us is a paraphrase by Percy Dearmer (1867-1936). Brought up under the influence of the Oxford Movement, Dearmer advocated the recovery of specifically English Catholic traditions from earlier eras, and though he was undeniably Anglo-Catholic, his Parson's Handbook (1899) was widely influential across the spectrum of Anglicanism (Southwell). He was vicar of St. Mary's of Primrose Hill in London when he recruited Ralph Vaughan Williams to assist him in compiling The English Hymnal (1906), a watershed moment in the hymnology of the 20th century. In addition to continuing the Oxford Movement's penchant for translating medieval works, Dearmer carefully excised what he considered the worst excesses of Victorian hymnody. Vaughan Williams matched this "treasures old and new" approach with a selection of music from all eras, including many folk tunes, and with a focus on strong melodic contours. When one entered an Anglican place of worship in the early 20th century, the distinctive light green binding of The English Hymnal was an immediate indicator of a certain kind of "high church" progressivism, just as the more soberly bound Hymns Ancient & Modern signified the more traditional mainstream (Atwell).

Stanza 1:
Father, we praise Thee, now the night is over;
Active and watchful, stand we all before Thee;
Singing, we offer prayer and meditation: 
Thus we adore Thee.

The opening phrase of this stanza in the original Latin, "Nocte surgentes," may have been inspired by the beginning of Psalm 119:62 in the Vulgate, "Medio noctis surgam," "At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You, because of Your righteous judgments." But whether at midnight or morning, any time is a good time for prayer! Paul tells us to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and the examples are many of good servants of God who prayed on the spot, when the need arose. Nehemiah said a quick prayer before appealing to Artaxerxes for help in rebuilding Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:4). Hezekiah, on receiving the Assyrian demand for surrender, went immediately to the temple and prayed for God's favor and guidance (2 Kings 19:14-15). If you need to pray, God is always ready to listen. But there is a great value in planning times of prayer, so that our prayers do not become afterthoughts. Daniel prayed three times a day as a matter of habit (Daniel 6:10). The writer of Psalm 119 proclaimed, "Seven times a day I praise You for Your righteous rules" (Psam 119:164). Whether that is meant literally, or is figurative in the sense of "many times a day," we see a pattern of purposeful communion with our God on a daily basis.

The early morning hours seem to have been a favorite time for daily prayer down through the ages. Perhaps there is something to be said for the freshness of mind that we may experience before the day's distractions begin. Perhaps it is simply a good way to set priorities--to make an appeal to God, and thanksgiving to Him, the first order of business for each new day. David's Psalms mention this idea several times:
O LORD, in the morning You hear my voice;
In the morning I prepare a sacrifice for You and watch.
(Psalm 5:3)
But I will sing of Your strength;
I will sing aloud of Your steadfast love in the morning.
(Psalm 59:16a)
Let me hear in the morning of Your steadfast love,
For in You I trust.
Make me know the way I should go,
For to You I lift up my soul.
(Psalm 143:8)
And when we look at the brief but busy years of Jesus' ministry, we find an incident mentioned that was very likely typical: "And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed" (Mark 1:35). Given the demands on His time, when there was not always even opportunity to eat a meal in peace (Mark 6:31), it is not surprising that Jesus sometimes set aside the quiet early morning hours for prayer.

But just having the habit of wording a prayer in the morning is not enough; it can all too easily become a thoughtless routine. This hymn insists instead that we be "active and watchful" as we stand before God. One could compare this to the earnest statement of the 130th Psalm, "my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning" (v. 6). Paul told the Colossians, "Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving" (4:2). Genuine, powerful Christian prayer is a purposeful act in which we do our best to express our thanks and adoration to God, as well as unburdening our concerns and needs to Him.

We know that Jesus is mediating on our behalf before the Father (1 Timothy 2:5), and that the Spirit of God is intervening when we do not know how to say what we mean (Romans 8:26), so we have more than enough assistance; but we also grow spiritually through the struggle to express our thoughts in prayer. Psalm 115:8 asserts that people become like what they worship--if we worship idols, the lifeless things of this earth, we become as dull and earthbound as any lump of wood or stone. Is not the same principle true of worshiping the Almighty? If we devote ourselves regularly to "prayer and meditation" toward the One who is perfect in holiness, compassion, justice, and faithfulness, will it not draw us toward these same qualities ourselves?

Stanza 2:
Monarch of all things, fit us for Thy mansions;
Banish our weakness, health and wholeness sending;
Bring us to heaven where Thy saints united
Joy without ending.

Dearmer's translation of this stanza is a significant departure from the sense of the original Latin:
That, to the Holy King together singing,
With His saints may we merit the hall
Of heaven to enter, and likewise a blessed
Life to lead.
(Liber Hymnarius)
 Lionel Adey notes that the idea of "merit" seems to have put Dearmer off, causing him to focus instead on the blessed life of "health and wholeness." This expresses a more Protestant view of the Christian as the passive recipient of sanctification, as well as a modern emphasis on moral and mental soundness rather than the supernatural overtones of the original (39-40). Now certainly we are unable to "merit" our salvation, and for that matter, the original language of the third stanza of this hymn clarifies its intent with the plea for God to "grant us this" salvation. But in another sense, Scripture repeatedly tells us to live in a manner that is worthy--"worthy of the calling to which you have been called" (Ephesians 4:1); "worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Philippians 1:27); "worthy of the Lord" (Colossians 1:10).

One of the ways that we behave in a manner worthy of such honors is to express our praise and gratitude. The Psalms are so full of such expressions that just a few will suffice to illustrate the point:
Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous,
And shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
(Psalm 32:11)
But the righteous shall be glad;
They shall exult before God;
They shall be jubilant with joy!
(Psalm 68:3)
Especially telling is the last phrase of Psalm 33:1,
Shout for joy in the LORD, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Expressing praise and thanksgiving in song "befits the upright"; it is one part, at least, of walking in a manner "worthy" of the halls of heaven. Failing to praise God for His blessings, and to rejoice in our salvation, is not only an unhealthy symptom, but is insulting to the extravagant grace He has given us. In Deuteronomy 28:47-48, the Israelites were told, "Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies." (I am indebted for this last observation to a thoughtful sermon by brother Ben Williams on "The Joy of the Lord.")

But if we embrace praise and thanksgiving as our duty and privilege as children of God, we will not only fulfill His commands; we will grow in the "health and wholeness" of the Christian life that is training us for a heavenly home. A Christian's song should spring from a heart "filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18-19), in which the "word of Christ dwells richly" (Colossians 3:16). It is a natural companion of Bible study and prayer. Basil of Caesarea wisely said, in his homily on the 1st Psalm:
When, indeed, the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey.
Spiritual thoughts wedded with music reinforce those beneficial insights gained from study, and help us to express ourselves to God in return. Truly it was said,
It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
To sing praises to Your name, O Most High;
To declare Your steadfast love in the morning,
And Your faithfulness by night.
(Psalms 92:1-2).
Stanza 3:
All-holy Father, Son and equal Spirit,
Trinity blessed, send us Thy salvation;
Thine is the glory, gleaming and resounding,
Through all creation.

As this morning prayer-hymn draws to a close, its makes a final appeal for aid throughout the day from the God whose glory is "gleaming and resounding / Through all creation." The recognition of God as Creator is not just a fact to be learned, but a principle that underlies our relationship to Him in everything we do. It brings to mind the common phrase in the Psalms that describes the Lord as the One "who made heaven and earth" (Psalms 115:15; 121:2; 124:8; 134:3; 146;6). Artur Weiser, in his commentary on the Psalms, noted the consequences of this phrase:
Because all things are God’s handiwork, He has the power to help whatever may happen; for even now all things are still in His hand. The distinctive character of the Old Testament concept of creation . . . represents not a piece of knowledge but a decision to submit oneself to God’s creative will and power (747).
The evidence of God's glory is not hidden or subtle; it is "resounding" throughout His creation, "sounding" over and over again. Even in a world marred by sin, the goodness of God is evident every day in the beauty and abundance of His works. The writers of the Hebrew Testament frequently represented the creation as though it has a literal voice for us to hear:
Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel (Isaiah 44:23).
Or as Jesus said, when His enemies criticized the praises being heaped upon Him by the crowds as He entered Jerusalem, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out" (Luke 19:40). All creation praises God, every day; all, that is, except those of His creatures who have chosen to ignore Him. But for those of us who have been redeemed by Him, enjoying the blessings of His love and grace, how can we keep silent?
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning,
(Lamentations 3:22-23a)
As we go through the day, we are moving through God's world, walking in God's ways. Yes, there is sin and corruption; yes, there is an adversary against us; but we are citizens of "a kingdom that cannot be shaken" (Hebrews 12:28). May God help us to remember this, and to give Him thanks for every new day He grants us!

The video below is a good a cappella rendition of the hymn, but in a different harmonization from that found in Praise for the Lord, or the Vaughan Williams arrangement in the old English Hymnal. Still, it is a lovely recording, and a good way to learn the tune.

About the music:

The tune known as CHRISTE SANCTORUM has an interesting and rather tangled history. So far as I can tell, it was first published under this name in the 1906 English Hymnal. That makes this all the harder to say: I think the music editor, Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of my very favorite composers, made a mistake.

There are several plainchants beginning with the text "Christe sanctorum," but none of them correspond to this melody (Hymnal 1982, 2). In the "new revised edition" of François de La Feillée's Méthode du plain-chant (Lyon: Rusand, 1823), however, the melody is found with the text "Christe pastorum caput," as seen in the image below (144). The English Hymnal attributes the melody to La Feillée's collection (238-239), so it seems obvious that someone (let's blame the type-setter) misremembered and put "sanctorum" for "pastorum".

The Hymnal 1982 Companion notes that this melody is probably not of medieval origin, but was more likely a relatively recent addition from the 17th century. (The musical notation, even of newly composed plainchant, was still traditionally written in the old Medieval style seen in the image above.) The melody is thought to trace back no further than the 1681 Antiphonarium Parisiense, edited by François de Harlay de Champvallon (1625-1695), and published by Josse Fratres of Paris (2).

Curiously, however, the editors of the Companion attribute the melody to the chant "Ceteri nunquam nisi vagiendo" in the 1681 Paris Antiphoner (2). That chant is also in La Feillée's Nouvelle Methodep. 143, with a completely different tune. I was not able to examine the 1681 Paris Antiphoner--the only copy is in the library of the Sorbonne. But there is an online facsimile of a similar collection, the manuscript Antiphoner RES-2293 held by the music section of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. In this collection the hymn "Ceteri numquam" (p. 442) has the same minor-key tune found with that text in Feillée's Nouvelle Methode. Unfortunately, the Bibliothèque nationale manuscript does not appear to include the chant "Christe pastorum caput," but this seems enough to suggest that La Feillée's version might be the same in the 1681 Paris Antiphoner. Unfortunately I seem to have reached the limits of "armchair musicology" on this subject for the time being.


Adey, Lionel. Hymns and the Christian Myth. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1986.

Antiphonarium Parisiense. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Musique, RES-2293. ca. 1650-1725?

Atwell, Robert. "The English Hymnal a hundred years on: the view from Primrose Hill." St. Mary's Primrose Hill.

Basil of Caesarea. "On the value of singing Psalms" (from his Homily on the 1st Psalm).  Православие.Ru.

De La Feillée, François. Méthode du plain-chant, nouvelle édition augmentée. Lyon: Rusand, 1823.

Dreves, Guido Maria. Die Hymnen aus Thesaurus Hymnologicus H. A. Daniels, vol. 51 of Analecta hymnica medii aevii. Leipzig: Reisland, 1908.

The English Hymnal, with Tunes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1906.

"Father, we praise Thee." The Hymnal 1982 Companion, v.3A, p. 1-2.

Gray, Christopher. "Nocte surgentes." Liber Hymnarius.

Southwell, F. R., F. R. Barry, Donald Gray. "Dearmer, Percy." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Walpole, Arthur S. Early Latin Hymns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922.

Weiser, Artur. The Psalms: A Commentary, 5th revised edition, translated by Herbert Hartwell. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962.

Williams, Benjamin J. "The joy of the Lord." Sermon delivered at the Glenpool Church of Christ, Glenpool, Okla., 3 September 2012.

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