02 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (3): ‘Long ago,
prophets knew’ (No 133)

‘Ring, bells, ring, ring, ring! / Sing, choirs, sing, sing, sing! … the monastery bells in Vlatádon, Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning I have chosen Fred Pratt Green’s ‘Long ago, prophets knew’ (No 133, Irish Church Hymnal), which we sang at the Advent Procession in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday evening [30 November 2014].

The Revd Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) was an English Methodist minister who wrote numerous plays and hymns. His hymns reflect his rejection of fundamentalism and show his concern with social issues. Many were written to supply the liturgical needs of the modern Church, looking at topics or events for which few traditional hymns were available.

He also translated a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the hymn, “By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered.” His poem “The Old Couple” was included by Philip Larkin in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973).

The tune for ‘Long ago, prophets knew’ is the much older ‘Personent hodie,’ from a Christmas carol first published in 1582 in a Finnish collection, Piae Cantiones.

It was first translated into English in by Jane M Joseph (1894-1929):

On this day earth shall ring
with the song children sing
to the Lord, Christ our King,
born on earth to save us;
him the Father gave us.
Id-e-o-o-o, id-e-o-o-o,
Id-e-o gloria in excelsis Deo!

His the doom, ours the mirth;
when he came down to earth,
Bethlehem saw his birth;
ox and ass beside him
from the cold would hide him. Refrain

God’s bright star, o’er his head,
Wise Men three to him led;
kneel they low by his bed,
lay their gifts before him,
praise him and adore him. Refrain

On this day angels sing;
with their song earth shall ring,
praising Christ, heaven’s King,
born on earth to save us;
peace and love he gave us. Refrain

The carol first became popular in England in 1916 with an arrangement by Gustav Holst (1874–1934), whose version often forms part of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, and was part of the service broadcast from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, by BBC 2 last Christmas.

There are several recorded folk versions, but one of my favourites in by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band on their album A Tapestry of Carols (1987), in Latin as Personent Hodie.

As you prepare for Christmas, join with me in singing:

Jesus comes!
Jesus comes!
We will make him welcome!

‘Long ago, prophets knew’ (No 133), Irish Church Hymnal)

Long ago, prophets knew
Christ would come, born a Jew,
come to make all things new;
bear his people’s burden,
freely love and pardon.

Ring, bells, ring, ring, ring!
Sing, choirs, sing, sing, sing!
When he comes,
when he comes,
who will make him welcome?

God in time, God in man,
this is God’s timeless plan:
He will come, as a man,
born himself of woman,
God divinely human: Refrain

Mary, hail! Though afraid,
she believed, she obeyed.
In her womb, God is laid:
till the time expected,
nurtured and protected, Refrain

Journey ends! Where afar
Bethlem shines, like a star,
stable door stands ajar.
unborn Son of Mary,
Saviour, do not tarry!

Ring, bells, ring, ring, ring!
Sing, choirs, sing, sing, sing!
Jesus comes!
Jesus comes!
We will make him welcome!

Tomorrow: Lo! he comes, with clouds descending (No 132)

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