Danish: Zions vægter hæver røsten
German: Wachet Auf! Ruft uns die Stimme
Icelandic: Vakna, Sions verðir kalla
Norwegian: Sions vekter hever røsten
Swedish: Väktarns rop I natten skallar
Matthew 25:1-13; Revelation 21:21
Text: Philipp Nicolai (1566-1608) Tune: Philipp Nicolai (1566-1608)
1. "Wake, awake, for night is flying," The watchmen on the heights are crying; "Awake, Jerusalem, arise!" Midnight hears the welcome voices And at the thrilling cry rejoices: "Where are the virgins pure and wise? The Bridegroom comes: Awake! Your lamps with gladness take! Alleluia! With bridal care and faith's bold prayer, To meet the Bridegroom, come, prepare!"
2. Zion hears the watchmen singing, And in her heart new joy is springing. She wakes, she rises from her gloom. For her Lord comes down all-glorious And strong in grace, in truth victorious. Her star is risen, her light is come! Now come, O Blessed One, Lord Jesus, God's own Son. Sing hosanna! We answer all in joy your call; We follow to the wedding hall.
3. Lamb of God, the heavens adore you, The saints and angels sing before you With harp and cymbals' clearest tone. Of one pearl each shining portal, Where, joining with the choir immortal, We gather round your radiant throne. No eye has seen that light, No ear the echoed might Of your glory; Yet there shall we in victory Sing shouts of joy eternally! Tr. Catherine Winkworth
MEDITATION In the summer of 1991, I was in Europe for a meeting of the International Hymn Society and my sister and her family came along. One Saturday afternoon, I took my seven year old nephew to the town of Unna, not far from Düsseldorf, to see where Philipp Nicolai had been when he wrote this chorale and "How Lovely Shines the Morning Star/Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern."
It was a lazy August afternoon. Some were sitting in the town square drinking their beer and conversing. Across the way was the church. I wanted to see it for one reason: Nicolai had written these two chorales, tune and text, now known as the King and Queen of chorales. He had done so during the year of the plague, 1598, which had broken out in the city. Half of the population--1300 souls--had died. One week over 170 people had succumbed. Their caskets piled up in the graveyard awaiting burial. Nicolai had to preach to the survivors and give comfort. It is said that one early morning he looked over the stacked up caskets and saw above them The Morning Star, the inspiration for the hymn ”How brightly beams the Morning Star.”
This one, called the King of Chorales, reflects on the text for today, Matthew 25:1-13. The five wise and foolish virgins. They were part of his book of meditations, The Mirror of Joy/Frewdens Spiegel. A hymn describing the incomparable beauty of heaven. He wrote it to leave his survivors a “token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure or (if God should spare me in health) to comfort other sufferers whom He should also visit with the pestilence.” (tr. Raymond Glover)
Imagine the fear in the small town during that pestilence! With half of the population dead or dying, this pastor found the source of joy and wrote this hymn, with nothing about suffering, but only joy and ravishing beauty awaiting us. He used it to comfort and encourage his grieving, fearful flock.
Fear is a basic human emotion. Jesus and the angels know that: their first words were frequently “Fear not! Be not afraid!” Fear destabilizes us, it makes us unwilling to take risks, to venture out into life. In order to live a life filled with joy, fear needs to be quelled. No wonder those were the first words out of the angels’ mouths. We are not free if we are too frightened to act. The gospel which gives everlasting life gives freedom because it gives us courage.
Right now the virus and the political situation have many people living in fear: fear of death, illness, infecting others, losing friends and family, or even fear of speaking one’s mind. For freedom Christ has set us free. In our contentious political and pandemic situation, we should all be wary of anything that silences others or us. We are all heirs to brave men and women who did speak up and suffered for it, saints whom we now revere for taking a stand for the truth, the gospel.
It is something to note here that when the plague in Unna took half of the population, Nicolai found joy, not fear, in the gospel. I think of those who survived the Spanish influenza in 1918 that took .5% of the population--some 500,000 in the US. (Today the US has lost about .001% of its population to the pandemic.) Christians find peace and comfort in the hymns and writings of men and women like Nicolai and in others who live around them. In some ways this is all we have now. We don't even have the lunch after the funeral when people gather around food, friends and family, and enjoy each other. This is serious.
We do not know the consequences of all these privations and we should think about them seriously and engage in vigorous debate about how we should live. The fear that has sunk over us is lethal and needs addressing. We should talk.
And repair to the great truths of Christ. They give people the freedom to live with courage against all enemies, even the final one. Wake, Awake! Sing shouts of joy eternally!
Philipp Nicolai was born in Mengeringhausen in Waldeck, Hesse. His father was a Lutheran pastor who lived through the early Reformation times. Nicolai faced theological battles himself, fired from his pastorate in Herdecke because of the Counter-Reformation. He received a doctorate from Wittenberg University, where Luther had taught, and after that came to Unna in Westphalia. There he wrote these two great chorales, texts and tunes, included in his book, The Mirrror of Joy. In 1601 he received a call to St. Katherine’s church in Hamburg. Some put him in the tradition of Hans Sachs the Meistersinger who wrote both texts and tunes. Bach wrote two fine cantatas on them. Many use this as an Advent hymn, but the church thinks it fits best with the end of the church year.
LINKS St. Olaf Christmas Festival singing Christiansen’s anthem https://youtu.be/wdN7vC2q9Mc
Bach’s Cantata 140 Wachet Auf! Ruft uns die Stimme Netherlands Bach Society https://youtu.be/DqZE54i-muE
Chorale Organ Prelude on Wachet Auf! BWV 645 https://youtu.be/VSkz3j9b23Y
Danish choir singing cantata on hymn by Raastad https://youtu.be/3tWmCRhZTmI
Norwegian/Pastor’s Wang's Jazz group https://youtu.be/1zHieKyo7HI