Singing of the Baptist Every June 24

One of the potential (but now rarely realized) delights of the Anglican lectionary is the number of saints and other holy days during the year, and the opportunities it presents for the choir or even the congregation to sing the faith. If you’re an English cathedral musician running a tourist service — or a medieval monk singing the Liturgy of the Hours — it breaks up the week to remember the various saints, particularly in the five or six months after Trinity Sunday.

Conversely, in an American context, a typical parish doesn’t have a sung midweek service, let alone parishioners attending it. (A clever exception is used at the REC cathedral in Dallas: hold your Wednesday evensong before choir practice). Thus these opportunities for singing to the saints are few and far between.

Admittedly, some of these non-Sunday holy days are more holy than others. Many, if not most churches observe Epiphany, Ascension and All Saints, both midweek and the following Sunday. Almost as common are the midweek Holy Days during the 12 days of Christmas, and the Transfiguration in August.

Singing of — but not to — the Saints

But what about remembering — and singing about — the saints? As a kid and a choirboy, I was captivated by the vision of the saints captured by Lesbia Locket Scott’s familiar poem.[1] Still, since I started my Anglican Music blog in 2007 and thus collecting hymnals, it has felt like there is a shortage of hymns about specific saints[2] for their respective days. Emblematic of this is a saint I’ve been meaning to write about for the past two years — John the Baptist — as prompted by hearing an interview about his feast day aired by my favorite Lutheran podcast.[3]

In the Book of Common Prayer, the list of saints remained constant from 1662 until 1979. For example, among those classified as “Apostles and Evangelists,” there were 15 for the first 400 years, with two more (an extra St. Peter and St. James the lesser) added in 1979 — as well as Joseph and Mary Magdalene. The ACNA’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer keeps the same list.

But when it comes to planning liturgical readings — let alone writing a hymn — some saints have more Scriptural evidence than others. St Luke and St. Paul wrote more than half the NT, so there is plenty of insight there; Thomas (like Joseph) is rarely mentioned, but his main scene is memorable from both a narrative and theological standpoint. At the other extreme, St. Bartholomew is mentioned in four verses of Scripture — all as among a group of apostles.

There is extra-canonical material, but this seems risky if the purpose of a hymn is (as Luther advocated) teaching doctrine through singing. For example, Horatio Nelson’s 1864 “For all thy saints in warfare” — which offers a targeted verse for each of a wide variety of saints — assumes that Bartholomew is the same as the Nathanial of John 1:43-51 that Christ saw under the fig tree — a linkage that is implied but not explicit in the gospels.[4]

John the Baptist

One would hope that there would be enough material for John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, who is both the last prophet of the Old Covenant and chronologically the first prophet of the New Testament. Jesus himself says “among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28, Mark 11:11) and even that John is “more than a prophet” (Mark 11:9).

Beyond this praise from his relative-Messiah, the story of John’s adult ministry is presented in three phases. The first is John as the ascetic messenger preparing the way of the Lord, preaching repentance and (notably) offering baptism to all who will repent. This is how John is first mentioned in Matthew, Mark, and John, as well as Luke 3.

The 2019 BCP emulates its 1979 predecessor in using these synoptic stories of John the Baptizer[5] for the Advent 2 Gospel reading. Testimony to John’s greatness (as in Mark 11 or Luke 7) is also read in Advent, as with the Advent 3 Gospel in the BCP from 1549 to 1928[6] (Matthew 11:2-15), or Year A in the 1979 BCP (Matthew 11:2-11).

These readings are thus well represented by the two familiar Advent hymns. One is “Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding” (Hymnal 1940: #9, Hymnal 1982: #59 and Magnify the Lord: #19).[7] The other is “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry (H40: #10; H82: #76; MTL: #17). The generic saints’ day hymn by Horatio Nelson (H82: #232; MTL: #168) also has a verse about John, one that summarizes his ministry in 40 words or less.

Advent is also when John’s first prophecy is noted in utero, when he leaped in the womb during the Visitation by Mary (Luke 1:39-45). In the one-year lectionary, the passage is read on Wednesday morning before Christmas, while in the three-year lectionary of 1979 and 2019, it is Advent 4 in Year C.

This passage is referenced by “Praecursor altus luminus,” the Johannine hymn by the 8th century English historian, the Venerable Bede. It was translated by John Mason Neale in Hymnal Noted (1854) as “The great forerunner of the morn,” which in 1861 was published by Hymns Ancient & Modern (#250, or #235 or #415 in later editions). The third of the verses translated by Neale says:

John, still unborn, yet gave aright

his witness to the coming light;

and Christ fulfill’d it, at His Birth,

Right gloriously o’er all the earth.

This text is missing from the 1906 and 1986 English hymnals, but returned with adaptations in Hymnal 1982 paired with two different tunes (H82: #271, #272).

John Plays Second Fiddle

The second phase of John’s ministry is when Jesus comes to be baptized in the Jordan. However, despite his signature role, John has 3rd or even 4th billing — after the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as reflected by its role in the liturgical calendar, hymnody, and preaching.

In the two recent prayer books on the three-year cycle, the baptism of Jesus from Matthew, Mark, and Luke is read as the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Epiphany — a season dedicated to the various signs of the manifestation of Christ’s divinity to the world (The lectionary from 1549-1928 instead read an earlier manifestation, the boy Jesus teaching in the Temple).

Not many hymns directly address this. An exception is the 1973 praise hymn “When Jesus Came to Jordan,” written by British Methodist Fred Pratt Green and copyright 1980 by Hope Publishing. On my bookcase, the oldest copy I found was in Catholic Worship III (1986), which begins:

When Jesus came to Jordan

To be baptized by John,

He did not come for pardon

But as the sinless one

According to Hymnary.org, variations of this text also appear in more recent Presbyterian, Methodist, and (unofficial) Anglican hymnals.

John Passes On

The final act of John’s life comes when he’s imprisoned and eventually executed by order of Herod at the request of his stepdaughter. During this final phase, John’s disciples mostly shift to following Jesus. John’s final soliloquy in recorded in the fourth gospel:

 I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:28-30).

Despite a diligent search, I could not find an English-language hymn that celebrates the beheading of John or the triumph of Salome. This even though the beheading was observed by every August 29 by medieval English Christians using the Sarum missal, the key Latin precursor to Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.

While our Eastern and Roman brethren still observe a feast for John’s death, it was dropped by Cranmer from his 1549 BCP:

Cranmer omitted this latter feast from the Prayer Book, despite its Scriptural foundation, probably because he did not consider St. John the Baptist a Christian martyr — he did not die for faith in Christ.[8]

June 24: The Nativity of John the Baptist

Despite the dearth of death-designating denominations, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are joined by Anglicans and Lutherans in observing the Nativity of John the Baptist. As noted early in the 20th century, “The commemoration of his Nativity is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honour a saint.”[9] An unreliable source (i.e. Wikipedia) dates the feast to at least 506 A.D.

Because Luke reports that Elizabeth became pregnant six months before Mary, the feast is observed by these historic churches on June 24.

In Cranmer’s first prayer book, he penned a new collect for this feast day; in modern spelling, it says:

ALMIGHTY God, by whose providence thy servant John Baptiste was wonderfully borne, and sent to prepare the way of thy son our saviour, by preaching of penance; make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

While the “preaching of penance” was replaced by “preaching of repentance” in 1662, the collect has remained unchanged ever since, except for the concluding mediation clause.[10] The “St. John Baptist” feast of the first four centuries became “St. John the Baptist” in 1979.

To mark the nativity, the Eucharistic Gospel for every English and US prayer book thus reads the birth narrative for Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John, as recounted only in Luke (1:57-80).

The night before the feast day, the Evening Prayer reading for the 1662, 1928 and 1979 BCP foreshadows John’s birth with the visitation and prophesy to Zechariah by the Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:5-25), a prophesy of miraculous birth that echoes that given by God to Abraham and Sarah regarding Isaac. Gabriel’s prophesy is referenced by Verse 2 of Neale’s “The great forerunner of the morn” as reprinted in H82:

With heavenly message Gabriel came,

that John should be that herald’s name,

and with prophetic utterance told

his actions great and manifold.

Saved by Paul the Deacon

It turns out that for 1200 years, there has been a popular hymn for John’s nativity feast — one that centuries ago eclipsed the efforts even of Bede. In writing about the latter, a definitive 1909 English hymnal reference concluded:

This Hymn is by the Venerable Bede (673-735). It attained to no widespread liturgical use, for as the hymn cycle grew up the famous Sapphic hymn of St. John Baptist, the “Ut queant laxis” of Paul the Deacon (c. 730-799) took the position…[11]

Alas, while American Anglicans have the Bede-Neale text in our 1982 hymnals, Paul’s offering is not found. In addition to his poems, Paul — a Lombard nobleman, monk and onetime supplicant to Charlemagne — is best known for his history of the Lombards in the sixth through eighth centuries.[12]

We don’t have translations of “Ut queant laxis” in American hymnals, but our British cousins published two versions. The English Hymnal (1906) offers hymn #223:

Let thine example, holy John, remind us,

Ere we can meetly sing thy deeds of wonder,

Hearts must be chastened, and the bonds that bind us

Broken asunder!

while New English Hymnal (1986) has its own translation in #168:

On this high feast day honour we the Baptist

Greatest and last of Israel’s line of prophets,

Kinsman of Jesus, herald of salvation,

Chosen forerunner.

After telling of Gabriel’s visit — and Zechariah’s doubt — the fourth verse echoes Christ’s assessment of his kinsman:

Greater art thou than all the sons of Adam,

Lowly in spirit, faithfully proclaiming

Israel’s Messiah, Jesus our Redeemer,

Thus we exalt thee.

Both hymnals pair their texts with medieval plainchants (Mode i and Mode ii respectively) — neither of which seems singable without a well-practiced choir for support — but both also offer an 18th century tune as an alternative. In the 1906 book, that’s Iste Confessor, the tune for “Lord of our life, and God of our salvation,” while for 1986, it’s Diva Servatrix (offered with “God everlasting, wonderful and holy”).

Neither text nor classical tune would be familiar to American congregations, although both could be learned. The earlier text is out of copyright and thus easily obtained online.[13] However, if the goal is to teach the faith, the later translation offers a more balanced summary of John’s life.

Short of commissioning a new translation — and finding another tune with the exotic 11.11.11.3 meter — “On this high feast day honour we the Baptist” is the recommended hymn to sing every June 24.

Footnotes

  1. “One was a solider and one was a priest,” Anglican Music weblog, October 29, 2010, URL: http://anglicanmusic.blogspot.com/2010/10/one-was-solider-and-one-was-priest.html

  2. Despite my strong Anglo-Catholic leanings, my feet are planted firmly on this side of the Tiber: like other Protestants, we sing of the saints but not to the saints.

  3. David Petersen and Todd Wilken, “Looking Forward to Feasts and Festivals: The Nativity of John the Baptist (1-Year Lectionary),” Issues Etc. June 21, 2018, URL: http://issuesetc.org/2018/06/21/1723-looking-forward-to-feasts-and-festivals-the-nativity-of-john-the-baptist-1-year-lectionary-pr-david-petersen-6-21-18/

  4. In Nelson’s original — and the 2006 Lutheran Service Book and 2019 Magnify the Lord — the verse for Bartholomew refers to the apostle “whom underneath the fig tree thine eye, all seeing knew.” Hymnal 1982 rewrote the verse while other recent hymnals drop it entirely.

  5. Strangely, some Lutherans are unable to call John a “Baptist”, any more than the ESV translators and other evangelicals are unable to translate “epískopos” as “bishop”.

  6. These editions include the 1549, 1552, 1559 and 1662 editions of the BCP in the Church of England, and 1789, 1892 and 1928 editions in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America.

  7. For a contrast of Magnify the Lord with the two more familiar Episcopal Church hymnals of 1940 and 1982, see Joel W. West, “Hymnal Choices for North American Anglicans,” North American Anglican, June 15, 2020, URL: https://northamanglican.com/hymnal-choices-for-north-american-anglicans/

  8. Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), 242.

  9. Charles Souvay, “St. John the Baptist.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), URL: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08486b.htm

  10. The concluding “through Jesus Christ our Lord” of the 16th and 17th century became “through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord”, while the traditional language versions of the 1979 and 2019 collects add “who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.”

  11. William H. Frere, ed., Hymns Ancient and Modern: Historical Edition (London: Wm. Clowes and Sons Ltd., 1909), 334.

  12. Patricius Schlager, “Paul the Deacon.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), URL: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11591b.htm

  13. The English Hymnal, with Tunes. (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), pp. 322-323, URL: https://archive.org/details/theenglishhymnal00milfuoft/page/n353/mode/2up



Joel W. West

Joel is director of Mission Communities for the Diocese of the Holy Trinity of the Anglican Catholic Church, and also serves on the Continuing Forward task force for mission & evangelism of the G-4 Continuing Anglican jurisdictions. A researcher on Anglican and ecumenical hymn singing, he is the author of the Anglican Music weblog, and is currently a seminarian at Cranmer Theological House.


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