First Sunday in Advent Non-Random Song: “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending”

The Episcopal Hymnal includes two musical settings for this Advent hymn written by John Cennick with later edits by Charles Wesley. My favorite is the one we sang in church this morning, the tune “Helmsley” by their 18th-century contemporary Martin Madan. It has a memorable complexity yet every phrase resolves in a way that makes sense.

In fact, I find it more of an unmitigated pleasure than the words, some of which can be troubling to a modern ear. I’m not so PC as to purge the worship service of all martial references. In my opinion, the Christian imagination needs both masculine and feminine moods, both the appealing vision of peace and the recognition that justice requires struggle.

However, I suspect there’s a veiled anti-Jewish polemic in the second verse: “those who set at nought and sold him….deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see”.

When we sang these words today, I did some creative updating in my mind, recasting “those” as my fellow Christians who persecute others in Jesus’ name, profiting from hate. I’m still not sure that this is a completely skillful sentiment to indulge in, but as compared to the original interfaith hostility, it has the advantage of reminding us that we shouldn’t take Jesus’ approval for granted simply because we invoke his name.

Sing along (if you dare) at Oremus Hymnal.


Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at nought and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Now redemption, long expected,
see in solemn pomp appear;
all his saints, by man rejected,
now shall meet him in the air:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
See the day of God appear!

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

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