Today we have a combination of ancient and modern. The words to “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” were written around the 4th cent., the tune was composed in the 17th cent., but the combination of both as we know it today was not until 1906. Ralph Vaughan Williams gets the credit for the final product, and while he is another one of those names whose association always signals something great, in this case he was working with truly excellent resources. The tune “Picardy” comes from a popular French folk song, and the lyrics date back all the way to the Divine Liturgy of St. James.
That liturgy is still sung by certain Christian churches in the East, and a few of them even maintain that it dates all the way back to James the brother of Christ, the bishop of the church in Jerusalem. This would make it of apostolic origin, but their claim seems overreaching. One obvious objection is the language. You’ll find the beautiful line, “the triune light of the Godhead, which is unity subsisting in trinity, divided, yet indivisible: for the Trinity is the one God Almighty,” which also indicates the Nicene character of the theology. While pre-Nicene Christians shared the substance of the theology, much of this terminology did not actually exist prior to the 3rd cent. The anaphora (the consecration of the bread and wine) also shows historical development from the catechisms of Cyril of Jerusalem and older Egyptian prayers. So most scholars agree that this indicates a 4th cent. origin. Still, that’s not too shabby. How old is your liturgy?
The original text for “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” occurs in the prayer of commencement during what is known as the “Cherubic Hymn.” It is called this because it is modeled after the song of the angels (which are actually there called seraphim) in Isaiah 6 and the heavenly worship service in Revelation 4. It also draws from Habakkuk 2:20 which says, “But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.” This text also highlights the original meaning. You see, it wasn’t a Christmas hymn, but a Eucharistic hymn. The idea was that Jesus was in His holy temple, which is now the Church. It was about what was happening in worship.
But that also brings us to a potential problem. Anyone familiar with even the basics of church history knows that there have been many controversies over worship, liturgy, and the Lord’s Supper. And given today’s assumptions and connotations, the Cherubic Hymn does sound a little scary. It reads:
Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself. For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful. And the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
I’ve known at least one Presbyterian to refuse to sing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” because he viewed the Cherubic Hymn as teaching a false view of the Lord’s Supper, connecting the idea that Jesus is about to “be sacrificed” to the Eucharist itself. I don’t think that this is necessarily a deal-breaker for Protestants, but I do agree that it’s potentially dangerous and has to be handled with care. I could give you legitimate theological and historical explanations at this point. The word “sacrifice” can actually mean several things (to “offer” being the most basic), the hymn occurs towards the beginning of the liturgy and not during the consecration of the elements (thereby not signalling a “change” in the elements), and the Reformed actually do teach that believers feed upon Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Still, I understand the concern.
Connecting the Eucharist to the Incarnation is tricky business. On one level it is correct. The bread and wine do symbolize Jesus’ humanity. But we don’t believe that they actually turn into his humanity, nor do we believe that the parallel is absolute in every way. You see, the bread and wine also sacramentally communicate Jesus’ divinity. There is no “hypostatic union” between the divine nature and the bread and wine, and pushing it that far really shows the problems. Just leave it at the level of symbol and sacrament. The Supper is a covenantal marker. Additionally, “Christmas,” along with the rest of the liturgical calendar, does not recycle through Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. Those things all happened in history and are not repeated. We don’t do them again and again. The liturgy commemorates and memorializes them, even holding them up to God as a covenantal testimony, but they don’t repeat each time we meet for worship.
But perhaps that’s all too complicated and none of it would ever have occurred to you while singing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” Well good, because that’s the right answer! You see, the hymn we sing today, even though it has a history of development, is not the Cherubic Hymn of Saint James’s Divine Liturgy. No, it is something else. It’s “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” The words have been expanded, and that it is now associated with Christmas shows that there’s been a fundamental shift in meaning. And that’s perfectly good. It’s what we want.
In fact, we could kick it up a Protestant notch and say that the fact that this song is now a Christmas hymn moves it further away from strictly Eucharistic overtones and avoids any potential problems associated with that history. Instead of folks thinking about Jesus coming into the bread and wine and being sacrificed during the service, now the overwhelming connotation is that Jesus came at His incarnation, when he was “born of Mary,” and that He “gives His own self for heavenly food” in His sacrifice on the Cross and through the gospel. Don’t you think that works quite naturally now?
Again, this is my philosophy of liturgy and hymnody– it is all made for man and not man for it. We use the tools of worship to assist and aid our worshiping of God. This doesn’t mean we should be overly casual with it, changing everything all the time. In fact, as a general rule, the more often you make changes, the worse your service will be. Still, there are times when it is appropriate and even necessary to make changes, and we all have to live and move and have our being in the place where God put us. A lot of change and development has already occurred, and most of it is now the default setting for our communities. If you first have to explain to everyone why what they’re doing really means something other than what they all think it does, then you’re probably over-thinking it (and making a pastoral mess in the process). The fact is, for the overwhelming majority of us, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is simply a beautiful song about the Incarnation which we most closely associate with the Christmas season. When we sing it, we think about God’s kindness in sending His Son to be made man, to be our savior. And we are stirred to worship. That’s what it’s all about, and so embrace it and enjoy it.
The point of liturgy is to aid worship. It should teach a little, and in that sense it needs to be orthodox, but its primary function is to guide the believer in devotion. And that’s what this song does as well. Let us all join with the angels in singing God’s praises to His glory. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Lord Most High!
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.
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 heavenly food.
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 powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.
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!