08 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (9): ‘The angel
Gabriel from heaven came’ (No 139)

A challenging image of the Annunciation ... ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini!’ (1850), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, now in the Tate Gallery, London

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. Today [8 December 2014] is marked in the Roman Catholic tradition as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is celebrated nine months before the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 8 September 8.

Today’s feastday, as it is named, is a relatively recent innovation, first solemnised as a Holy Day of Obligation in 1708, and Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception as a Roman Catholic dogma in 1854. Until then, most missals referred to today’s feast as the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it is still known by this name in the calendar of many Anglican Churches, including the Church of England (see Common Worship, p. 16, where it is a Lesser Festival), although it is not marked in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have never accepted the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and they celebrate tomorrow (9 December) as the Feast of the Conception by Saint Anne of the Most Holy Theotokos.

So, this morning, on 8 December, I have chosen as my Hymn for Advent The angel Gabriel from heaven came (Irish Church Hymnal, No 139), translated from the Basque by the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924).

As “Gabriel’s Message” or “The angel Gabriel from heaven came” (Basque: Birjina gaztetto bat zegoen), this is a Basque Christmas folk carol about the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary by the Archangel Gabriel that she would become the mother Christ. It quotes the Gospel account of the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38) and the Virgin Mary’s response in the canticle Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55) with the opening lines:

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
“All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,
most highly favoured lady.” Gloria.

This carol was collected by a French music teacher and composer, Charles Bordes (1863-1909), who was commissioned by the French government to collect folk songs in the Basque region. It was paraphrased in English by the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould. It is commonly sung to the tune Gabriel’s Message, an arrangement by an English organist, choral conductor and music editor Edgar Pettman (1866-1943) and published in his 1892 book Modern Christmas Carols.

Pettman was the organist at a number of London churches, including Saint Mary’s, Kilburn, and Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly, until he retired in 1924. In his Modern Christmas Carols, he arranged a number of now popular carols such as I Saw a Maiden and Gabriel’s Message, both harmonised hymns based on Basque carol melodies. He was also an early editor of the works of Thomas Tallis, publishing an edition in 1900.

It has become a favourite carol for many because of its regular use in the Christmas broadcasts from King’s College, Chapel, Cambridge, and because of the use of the lilting phrase “Most highly favoured lady.”

The Revd Sabine Baring-Gould was an English Anglican priest, biographer of saints, historian and novelist. But he is remembered particularly as a writer of hymns, the best-known being Onward, Christian Soldiers and Now the Day Is Over. He came across this song when he was travelling through the Basque region and first wrote about it in 1907/ His English text was first published in 1922 in The University Carol Book.

In his Advent Devotional Calendar for this year, the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, suggests reading Isaiah 35 today, and asks us to pray for all pregnant women, for those facing special hardship and difficulty, and for those whose pregnancies are long awaited.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came by Sabine Baring-Gould

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
‘All hail,” said he, ‘thou lowly maiden Mary,
most highly favoured lady’.

‘For known a blessed mother thou shalt be,
all generations laud and honour thee,
thy Son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,
most highly favoured lady.’

Choir only

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
‘To me be as it pleaseth God,’ she said,
‘my soul shall laud and magnify his holy Name’:
most highly favoured lady.

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born
in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say
‘Most highly favoured lady,’

Tomorrow:Round orange, round orange, you serve as a sign’ (No 178)

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