O people of Sion, behold the Lord is nigh at hand to redeem the nations: and in the gladness of your heart the Lord shall cause his glorious voice to be heard.Ps. Hear, O though Shepherd of Israel: thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep.V. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.Introit – Advent IISarem Rite Anglican Missal
One of the advantages of working shift work those many years ago at Air Canada was that it gave me the opportunity to listen to Off the Record, a Monday to Friday early afternoon staple on the CBC. I have often spoken of how host Bob Kerr introduced me – and thousands of others – to music from his enormous and very catholic collection of recordings. So much of what I came to discover and enjoy in music was because of his eclectic and encyclopedic taste. And at no time were those discoveries more enjoyable than in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Bob would play everything from Medieval to Mady Prior to Meissen and a world beyond Adeste Fideles was revealed.
One particular favourite became Sing We Noel – Christmas Music from England & Early America by the Boston Camerata. This rather eclectic mixture of music jumped back and forth across the Atlantic mixing Medieval with American folk interspersed with readings in Old and Middle English. One of my favourite tracks was The Midnight Cry, a Southern American shape-note hymn.
Though the Parable of the Ten Virgins (see below) only appears in one of the gospels it was a favourite subject in the Middle Ages and strongly influenced Gothic art and architecture. It’s message was clear: the call to judgement could come at any time, you must be always ready. It was a warning that appealed to many of the Evangelical sects and became a popular subject for sermon and song in the Protestant church.
The shape-note tradition was to find it’s genesis when the first edition of The Sacred Harp appeared in 1844. Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha King gathered, transcribed and arranged hymns and songs of worship of the American south and published some 250 pieces – proudly announcing that it included “nearly 100 pieces never before published” – in the first edition. It was to undergo many revisions and became the standard music book for many churches until well into the early 20th century.
The Midnight Cry appeared in that first edition, and every subsequent revision. Other than the fact that the tune was first published in the Southern Harmony Hymnal in 1835 and the words a year earlier in the Baptist Harmony Hymnal little information is available concerning its origins. In the Denson revision of 1911 the writer notes: None of the books we can get hold of give the name of the author of this music. It is an old tune and has been in use for 100 years. The original text had ten verses including some rather stern admonitions to the unprepared and a rather frightening description of their impending fate. White and King reduced it to six verses and it is this version that the Boston Camerata recorded.
Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.Matthew 25:1-13KJV
Though the tale is a cautionary one I have always questioned the attitude of the Wise Virgins. After all one would think that Christian charity would have extended to sharing their lamp oil. However that is a theological discussion for another day.
December 7 – 1965: Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I simultaneously revoke mutual excommunications that had been in place since 1054.