1 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.
2 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 heav'nly food.
3 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 pow'rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.
4 At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
alleluia, Lord Most High!"
Source: Trinity Psalter Hymnal #292
|First Line:||Let all mortal flesh keep silence|
|Greek Title:||Σιϒησάτω πδσα Σάρξ βροτЄία|
|Paraphraser:||Gerard Moultrie (1864)|
|Source:||Liturgy of St James|
|Liturgical Uses:||Communion Liturgy, Communion Songs|
One of the lesser sung Christmas hymns, this paraphrase of Gerard Moultrie is based on a text that has been used by the church since the late fourth century: the Liturgy of St. James. Moultrie’s words come from a part of that liturgy known as the Cherubic Hymn, which would be chanted as the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist were brought forward. This old text evokes a sense of majesty at the incarnation of Christ, and the slow, almost chant-like melody in a minor tone wonderfully expresses that awe and mystery. We come before Christ in silence and in awe to reflect upon the mystery of the incarnation, joined even by the hosts of heaven to witness the miracle. Singing this hymn, one can imagine him or herself standing in the stable, angels above, in reverent silence to worship the King, born a child to banish the darkness away.
Though the exact words of this Christmas hymn come from the nineteenth century, they are based on one of the oldest texts still used by the church - the Liturgy of St. James. The actual date and authorship of the Liturgy are disputed. It is associated with St. James the Less, one of the twelve apostles, and some claim he wrote it as early as 60 AD. Others note the similarities in the text between this liturgy and that of St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century, and argue that the liturgy must have been written later. Regardless of when the Liturgy was written, it was produced for use in the Jerusalem church near the end of the fourth century or beginning of the fifth. In the early fifth century, it became the primary liturgy of both Jerusalem and Antioch, and we now know it as the Liturgy of St. James (John Witvliet - "Antiphon of St. James").
Part of the liturgy, known as the Cherubic Hymn, is a prayer chanted by the priest when the bread and wine are brought to the table of the Lord. Near the middle of the nineteenth century, Gerard Moultrie translated the text of this Hymn from Greek, and published a paraphrase under the name “Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn.” Today we know this hymn as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”
The text has stayed much the same in all hymnals that use it. Some Reformed hymnals, such as the Psalter Hymnal, have edited the text to address some sensitivities about Eucharistic theology. Other hymnals have altered words that wouldn’t be commonly understood; both of these changes amount to a few words in every verse. The biggest change comes from the Baptist Hymnal, which omits the second verse, “King of Kings, yet born of Mary.”
The tune to which Moultrie’s text is set is PICARDY, a French carol dating from the seventeenth century, and taken from the song book Chansons Populaires des Provinces de France, published in 1860 – four years before the hymn was first published in Britain in 1864. Every hymnal uses this tune, most in the key of F.
The minor tonality of this tune perfectly expresses the sense of awe and majesty that the text evokes. To follow the text, it is best to begin the hymn with limited instrumentation, and build throughout until the declaration of the “Alleluias.” Make sure though that even with limited instrumentation, you have something underneath to sustain the vocals (such as organ synth or strings). Here are some examples:
The hymn has Eucharistic emphasis, but it paints a much broader picture of the nativity of Christ. As such, it is ideal to use this hymn during the Lord’s Supper at Christmastime, but it can also be used throughout the Christmas season or during Communion throughout the year, particularly as the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.
Laura de Jong, Hymnary.org