Let there be light!
In keeping with the themes of the day and the collect in which we pray “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world…” our hymns and anthems proclaim this Truth and its subsequent meaning for us and the world. In our opening hymn, we boldly proclaim “Thou reignest in glory, thou rulest in light,” and each stanza of the concluding hymn ends with the proclamation “Let there be Light!”
Both the Offertory and Ministration anthems were written by 20th Century composers who served as organist/choirmaster at major Episcopal parishes in New York City. An English-born organist, composer, and choirmaster, T. Frederick Candlyn spent most of his professional career at two churches in New York, most notably St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue. At the Offertory, the Chorale sings the Candlyn’s setting of the Charles Wesley text “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies.”
Harold Friedell held several influential positions as well, most notably at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. His music continues to be sung by choirs world-wide. Using a text by Percy Dearmer, Friedell composed the communion hymn “Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether” specifically for use on Pentecost Sunday 1945. Several years later, he used the hymn as the basis for his anthem of the same title that we hear at the Ministration.
Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee
On this the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we commemorate the baptism of Christ and read about the Holy Spirit descending as a dove and speaking the words “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.” Christ’s baptism is one of the five major milestones in the gospel narrative of the life of Jesus, the others being the Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. The anthem texts sung today are devotional in character, recognizing God Incarnate in the Christ Child. They also point to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross on our behalf. He is the “hope of every contrite heart” and “Savior of the World.” The first line of the Appalachian Carol sung during communion reads “I wonder, as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus, the Savior, did come for to die. For poor ornery people like you and like I.”
The devotional 12-Century Latin hymn “Jesu, dulcis memoria” has been widely sung over the centuries in both its original Latin form and later in a 19th Century English translation, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” Our worship begins with a 16th Century setting of the Latin text by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. At the Offertory, the chorale sings a contemporary setting of the English text by British composer Simon Lole. The hymn can also be found as #642 in The Hymnal.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the peoples of the earth. During the first centuries of the Christian Era, the winter solstice was kept on January 6. In opposition to pagan festivals, Christians chose this day to celebrate the various manifestations, or “epiphanies,” of Jesus’ divinity. These showings of his divinity included his birth, the coming of the Magi, his baptism, and the Wedding at Cana where he miraculously changed water into wine. The day was called “The Feast of Lights.” Celebration of the Son of God replaced celebration of the sun. Baptisms were done, and a season of preparation was instituted which later became known as Advent.
In keeping with today’s themes, we renew our Baptismal Vows in each of our liturgies, and we baptize several individuals at the 11am service in the Church. We also sing the carol “We Three Kings.” It was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857, the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City.
At the Offertory, the Chorale sings an early 17th Century text which speaks of God’s Incarnation in the baby Jesus. The musical setting presented today, “The Word Made Flesh,” is by contemporary British composer, organist, and choir director Philip Wilby.
You are invited to return this afternoon at 5pm to celebrate “The Feast of Lights” in a contemplative service of Taizé prayer and song with music led by the children and youth choirs.
Tonight, we raise our voices in glorious song and carols. The St. John the Divine Chorale is joined by brass quintet and timpani, as we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord.
At the Offertory, the SJD Chorale sings two familiar choruses from Handel’s Messiah: “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and “Glory to God.” The latter, the song of the angels, is preceded with a short recitative sung by soprano Nora Benedict Catalano.
As candlelight lights the darkness of the sanctuary at the end of communion, the Chorale offers the words of the Psalmist “Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God. Alleluia.” The austere musical setting of the text by Pavel Tschesnokoff creates a profound moment in tonight’s liturgy. This hymn comes to us from the Russian Orthodox tradition and was composed as the fifth in the composer’s collection Ten Communion Hymns.
This evening’s celebration of The Nativity concludes with a commissioned work composed especially for St. John the Divine and premiered last year on Christmas Eve. At the Postlude we hear a festive Toccata for organ and brass based on the final hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” written by Samuel Hunter. Samuel was on staff at St John the Divine for several years as a member of the Chorale and as an administrative assistant in the music and worship office. He currently serves as Communications and Administration Specialist at The Cathedral of All Souls in Ashville, North Carolina.
The fourth Sunday of Advent traditionally celebrates the Annunciation, the visitation of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary announcing that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. At the 9am Introit, the Chorale sings the prayer “Ave Maria” as set to music by the renowned Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff in his “All Night Vigil.” (At 11am, we hear this anthem at the Ministration.) The Magnificat (Latin for “My Soul Magnifies the Lord”) is a canticle taken directly from today’s Gospel where it is spoken by Mary upon the occasion of her Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. It has been part of the liturgy of the church from earliest of times. In our tradition, it is one of the appointed canticles for evening prayer along with the Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis). The Chorale sings the Magnificat at the Offertory, as set to music by Anglican composer Charles Stanford. It features soprano solo, sung today by Virginia Hesse. The hymn we sing at the end of communion is “Tell Out My Soul,” a metrical version of the same text.
The hymn sung prior to the gospel reading, “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus,” combines an Advent text by Charles Wesley with an old German melody. It enjoys ecumenical popularity, as it appears in most denominational hymnals as well as that of the Roman Catholic Church. “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus” was also the opening hymn of SJD’s first worship service 79 years ago.
The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday. The day takes its name from the Latin word Gaudete (“Rejoice”), the first word of the Introit of this day’s mass: Gaudete in Domino semper (Rejoice in the Lord Always, and again, I say rejoice…. Philippians 4:4-6). In keeping with the theme of Rejoicing, we light the pink candle of the Advent wreath and sing joyful music, as we celebrate the Good News of Christ’s coming. Hymns include “Rejoice, the Lord Is King,” “Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart,” and “Rejoice! Rejoice Believers.” Our liturgy concludes with an exuberant dance at the Postlude with Bach’s famous Jig Fugue.
As with Advent 2, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints a Canticle to be sung in place of a Psalm for today. Last week it was the “Song of Zechariah” and today it is the “First Song of Isaiah.” In the Anglican tradition The First Song of Isaiah (Canticle 9) is one of the canticles appointed for Morning Prayer. Today, we sing Jack Noble White’s popular setting of this canticle during the Ministration.
We welcome our children and youth choristers today who lead us in the sung portions of the liturgy. At the Introit, the trebles sing an elegant setting of “Ave Maria” by contemporary English composer Colin Mawby. At the Offertory, the combined choristers sing Johannes Brahms’ noted setting of the prophetic poem “The White Dove.”
Our worship begins and ends (Prelude and Postlude) with two poignant settings of the Advent hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come” (Hymn 54) as arranged by Johann Sebastian Bach. The melody is highly ornamented in the soprano at the Prelude and is boldly stated in the pedal with long notes at the Postlude. We also sing this hymn during the Ministration.
The Benedictus (also known as the Song of Zachariah) is one of three canticles in the opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke, the other two being the Magnificat (Song of Mary) and the Nunc dimittis (Song of Simeon). The canticle received its name from its first words in Latin, “Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel,” (Blessed be the Lord God of Israel). In the Anglican tradition, it is one of the canticles appointed for Morning Prayer, and it has two parts: the first is a song of thanksgiving for the realization of the Messianic hopes of the Jewish nation, but to such realization is given a characteristically Christian tone. The second part of the canticle is an address by Zechariah to his own son John the Baptist, who was to take so important a part in the scheme of the Redemption; for he was to be a prophet, and to preach the remission of sins preparing the way before the coming or the Dawn from on high. The Benedictus is the appointed canticle for today and is to be sung in lieu of a Psalm. We sing it at 11am to Anglican Chant.
The old German carol “Lo, How a Rose” is both an Advent and Christmas hymn that expresses and acknowledges a particular tension we ought to be aware of during the Christmas season. Just as, in the prophecies from Isaiah, a “rose,” or stem, shoots up from the stump, so too do we celebrate Christ’s birth in the knowledge that He brings life out of death. Our celebrations of Christmas must always point us to Easter. The Chorale sings an elegant setting of this carol by 20th Century German composer Hugo Distler at the 9am Introit and during the Ministration at 11am. At the Offertory, we hear the prophetic words of Isaiah, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” in a familiar chorus from Handel’s Messiah.