15 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(26): ‘Virgin born, we bow before thee’

Marco Palmezzano, ‘The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints John the Baptist and Lucy’ (1513), the National Galley of Ireland … an image for Mothering Sunday

Patrick Comerford

Today [15 March 2015], is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) are: Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2: 1-10; and John 3: 14-21.

This Sunday is also Mothering Sunday and the lectionary readings are: Exodus 2: 10 or I Samuel 1: 20-28; Psalm 34: 11-20 or Psalm 127: 1-4; II Corinthians 1: 3-7 or Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 33-35 or John 19: 25-27.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as Laetare Sunday because of the incipit of the traditional Introit: Laetare Jerusalem, “O be joyful, Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66: 10, Masoretic text).

For my reflections and devotions each day during Lent this year, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

This morning [15 March 2015], as we prepare to mark Mothering Sunday, I encourage you to join me in listening to the hymn ‘Virgin born, we bow before thee’ by Bishop Reginald Heber (1783-1826).

This hymn is found in both the New English Hymnal (187) and the Irish Church Hymnal (No 185). It is addressed to Christ, but praises his mother, the Virgin Mary.

In the New English Hymnal, this hymn is set to the melody Mon dieu, prête moi l’orielle by Louis Bourgeois (ca 1510-1561) in the French Psalter of 1542 (Psalm 86), and harmonised for the English Hymnal in 1906 by Vaughan Williams. However, this tune is the only second choice of setting for this hymn in the Irish Church Hymnal.

The same tune was also used by Gustav Holst in 1920 as the basis for his setting of Psalm 86 for chorus, string orchestra and organ.

Louis Bourgeois was the choirmaster of Saint Peter’s Church, Geneva. Under the patronage of the Reformer John Calvin, he was the music editor of successive versions of the Geneva Psalter from 1542 to 1551.

The author of this morning’s hymn, Bishop Reginald Heber, also wrote ‘God that madest earth and heaven’ (‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’), which we listened to last Thursday [12 March 2015].

Heber wrote this hymn with the Third Sunday in Lent in mind, with lines 2 and 5 of Stanza 1 (“blessed was the womb that bore thee”) echoing the closing words of the Gospel reading originally appointed for that Sunday in The Book of Common Prayer: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked” (Luke 11: 27).

Today, this hymn is often used on the Feast of the Presentation (2 February), the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March), and Christmas Day (25 December), as well as being suitable for singing on Mothering Sunday.

Virgin-born, we bow before thee:
Blessèd was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
Blessèd was she in her Child.
Blessèd was the breast that fed thee;
Blessèd was the hand that led thee;
Blessèd was the parent’s eye
That watched thy slumbering infancy.

Blessèd she by all creation,
Who brought forth the world’s salvation,
And blessèd they, for ever blest,
Who love thee most and serve thee best.
Virgin-born, we bow before thee;
Blessèd was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
Blessèd was she in her Child.

Tomorrow: ‘Firmly I believe and truly’

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