Let all mortal flesh keep silence

Happy second Sunday of Advent!

Two weeks ago, I’d never heard of this hymn. One week ago, I had over ¾ of it committed to memory. Have a listen to any of the two renditions below:

Audio version (opens in a new window)

Not for the faint of heart, the original Greek version.

Here are the words: [Source]

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

I was intrigued at how—for a hymn I found in the ‘Advent’ section of the hymnal—at how unconcerned it was with the events at Bethlehem. I also wondered at the John 6 reference in the last line of the second stanza. So I did some research.

The words of this hymn are taken from the Liturgy of St James, which as far as I can tell is used only in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The hymn is a celebration of the Eucharist, not the Incarnation, as I was informed by a comment under one of the many YouTube videos I sampled. I am thus fully aware that by including it in my Advent roundup, I’m propagating an improper use of the hymn. So why did I choose it?

First, the idea of singing the same song that countless other brothers and sisters in Christ have sung throughout the centuries blew me away. The liturgy of St James is said to go all the way back to the brother of our Lord Jesus, though its current form is from the 4th century. It is always good to remember that God’s redeemed people have been singing to Him long before our time 🙂

Second, I think the hymn does an excellent job  of presenting the incarnation (without all the contemporary sentimental fluff). Yes, Christ did descend as a baby, but he is also King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the object of the angels’ unending praise.

As to scriptural allusions, here’s what I think:

  • The first line is an echo of Habakkuk 2:20 or Zechariah 2:13 or Zephaniah 1:7.
  • The titles ‘King of Kings’ and ‘Lord of Lords’ are found in Revelation 19:16.
  • ‘As of old on earth he stood’ may be an allusion to the last line of Micah 5:2 (the Bethlehem verse)
  • Christ’s taking on human flesh is found in John 1:14.
  • The last two lines of the second stanza allude to John 6:25-59 (the Bread of Life discourse)
  • The themes of light and darkness (stanza 3) are prominent in John’s gospel. Christ is the light of the world (8:12)
  • Isaiah’s vision (6:1-7) introduces us to the six-winged seraphim. Incidentally, their cry, “Holy, holy,holy,” is here modified to “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

And what a climax that is, for the hymn ends with our gaze resting on the Lord Most High!