I love the Advent season, with its many stories and images of expectation and patient waiting for the coming of Christ. One of these images, that of the Church as Bride and Christ as Bridegroom, occurs in several Advent hymns or anthems that we sing at Compline at this time of year. It refers to Christ’s return on the Day of Judgment, which is another Advent theme.
And will Christ come at midnight, as in the parable of wise and foolish virgins (and the wonderful Audivi vocem de caelo by Thomas Tallis)? Or will it be at dawn, as in the hymn, “Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding”:
Waken’d by the solemn warning,
Let the earth-bound soul arise;
Christ, her sun, all sloth dispelling,
Shines upon the morning skies.
I was reminded of this latter image while on vacation in Montana several months ago. Our train arrived in Whitefish at 4:45 in the morning; We picked up the keys to our rental car (left trustingly at the station counter), and set off for Missoula in the early-morning darkness. It happened that as I was driving around the west side of Flathead Lake, I saw a wonderful brightening beginning in the eastern sky, and parked for ten or fifteen minutes in the chilly silence. The picture shown here was one of the last, when everything was at its most glorious.
I had never really taken the time to watch a sunrise, but I kept thinking of Peter Hallock’s setting of “The Dawning” by the 17th-century mystical poet Henry Vaughan (1622-1695). Peter wrote this for the Compline Choir in 1988, and it was the first of his two compositions for men’s voices accompanied by five ‘cellos. It was commissioned by The Cathedral of St. John, Denver, Colorado. The piece is more than eight minutes long, so it’s ideal for listening when you have some time to put aside the busyness of the season for a little Advent reflection.
AH! what time wilt Thou come? when shall that cry,
The Bridegroom’s coming! fill the sky;
Shall it in the evening run
When our words and works are done?
Or will Thy all-surprising light
Break at midnight,
When either sleep or some dark pleasure
Possesseth mad man without measure?
Or shall these early, fragrant hours
Unlock Thy bow’rs,
And with their blush of light descry
Thy locks crown’d with eternity?
Indeed, it is the only time
That with Thy glory doth best chime;
All now are stirring, ev’ry field
Full hymns doth yield;
The whole Creation shakes off night,
And for Thy shadow looks the light;
Stars now vanish without number,
Sleepy planets set and slumber,
The pursy clouds disband and scatter,
All expect some sudden matter;
Not one beam triumphs but from far
O at what time soever thou
Unknown to us the heavens wilt bow,
And, with Thy angels in the van,
Descend to judge poor careless man,
Grant, I may not like puddle lie
In a corrupt security,
Where if a traveller water crave,
He finds it dead, and in a grave.
But as this restless, vocal spring
All day and night doth run, and sing,
And though here born, yet is acquainted
Elsewhere, and flowing keeps untainted;
So let me all my busy age
In Thy free services engage;
And though (while here) of force I must
Have commerce sometimes with poor dust,
And in my flesh, though vile and low,
As this doth in her channel flow,
Yet let my course, my aim, my love,
And chief acquaintance be above;
So when that day and hour shall come,
In which Thyself will be the sun,
Thou’lt find me drest and on my way,
Watching the break of Thy great day.
(Recording: The Compline Choir, from the CD Night Music, c2001. Baritone soloist: Vernon Nicodemus. A companion piece for five ‘cellos, Jubilemus Omnes, was written in 1997 and revised in 2003.)