09 December 2009

Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying

I would love for our churches to sing Advent hymns all year round. Why? Because they convey the aching sense of longing that all of us Christians have as we continue to live between the times. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it,

Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent — that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters and one rejoices in the words of the angels: “On earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” Learn to wait, because he has promised to come. “I stand at the door?” We however call to him: “Yes, come soon, Lord Jesus!” Amen.

Another of my favourite hymns nicely communicates this sense of anticipation of Jesus’ second Advent: Philipp Nicolai’s immortal 1599 text: Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns die Stimme, translated into English in the mid-19th century by Catherine Winkworth as Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying. Inspired by Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25: 1-13, it describes the coming nuptial feast in which the Bridegroom arrives to receive his bride, summoning the wise virgins who have been ready and waiting for this moment:

“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:
“Oh, where are ye, ye virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes, awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
With bridal care
Yourselves prepare
To meet the Bridegroom, who is near.”

I had some difficulty locating a video performance of Wachet Auf that was not from J. S. Bach’s eponymous cantata, numbered BWV 140. I finally found this organ performance at the Friedenskirche in the north German city of Fedderwardergroden. This arrangement is closer to the original rhythm of Nicolai’s tune and is suitable for congregational singing.

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