Saturday, December 5, 2009

"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence": What Does It Mean?

One of the favorite hymns we like to sing in our parish men’s group is "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," taken from the 5th century Liturgy of St. James. It is set to the harmony of the French carol, “Picardy” and is a universal favorite during Advent and Christmas. More than once, primarily because of the obscurity of some of the words in the song, the question has been asked “What is the song about and what does it mean?” This is my attempt to explain some of the more arcane features of the song:

In main, the song is primarily a song about the Incarnation (coming in human flesh) of Jesus Christ. From all eternity he was the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the pre-existent Logos (Word of God) as it speaks about in John 1:1-14. Jesus steps out of eternity to become a human being while remaining fully God.

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.

All mortal flesh (we humans) should stand in awe of the fact that God has come to earth to become man. While thinking and meditating about this, all other (by comparison) unimportant matters should be pushed aside. Our God descended to earth to become one of us, while remaining God, to whom we owe worship!

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.

Even though Christ is King of kings, Lord of lords and Creator of the universe, he came in human flesh as a baby, born to Mary. It is this same human flesh, now glorified, that he now gives us to consume in the Eucharist—The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.

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.

Rank on rank…hosts of heaven—the angels (the host of heaven) are pictured as forming a vanguard (a double line of soldiers lining the path of a person of high rank, like a king or a great conqueror) for Jesus as he descends to earth.
Light of light—Jesus is, as we say in the Creed ‘light from light’; that is, of the same substance of God.
Descendeth…from the realms of endless day—Jesus came down from heaven, where there is no night or no day (Revelation 21:22-25).
The reason Jesus came was to defeat the power of hell (of death) over us, so that we will not have to live in the darkness of sin any more.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim, with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the Presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia! Alleluia!Alleluia! Lord Most High.

The seraphim are a rank of angel. The name means ‘burning ones’ as they are thought to be the angels that stand closest to God in heaven, and so are burning with the intensity of God’s love and holiness. They are mentioned in the Bible, most notably in Isaiah, chapter 6. They are pictured there as having six wings—two of which are used to cover their eyes in the presence of God, who is too holy for even them to gaze fully upon.
The cherubim are another rank of angel. It was a cherubim that guarded the entrance to Paradise after Adam and Eve were cast out (Genesis 3:24). As a sentries, they never slept.
Alleluia is a combination of two Hebrew words, hallel, which means ‘praise,’ and a contracted form of the divine name Yah-weh, which the Jews avoided pronouncing. Together, it means ‘praise God.”

You can hear a midi version of this song here:

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved this Hymn and I requested that it be sung at my mother's funeral.
    God Bless you and thank you for this!