The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Abyssinian Hymns

William Chatterton Dix

Source: Robert H. Baynes, Ed., The Churchman's Shilling Magazine And Family Treasury. Vol. 2, September 1867-February 1868 (London: Houlston and Wright, 1868), October 1867, pp. 212-217.

The great attention which has of late been paid to the study of hymnology has done much to make the loyal children of the English Church lovers of hymns. Any one, upon looking back for a few years, must see how Tate and Bradyism, in all its phases, has been giving way. Not that it is by any means extinct, but that it is rapidly disappearing is fully proved by the strides made since the appearance of " Hymns Ancient and Modern." Both editors and hymn-writers will, I think, bear me out in the assertion, that from all quarters numerous applications are being constantly made for permission to print this or that hymn, on the ground that it supplies a want in existing publications. Hence the numerous supplements to "Hymns Ancient and Modern," and the many " compilations" or " selections" edited by clergymen for use in their parishes. In all of these the psalm element is almost entirely expunged, and it is certainly a pity that the book before alluded to contains so much of it. But with all its shortcomings and sins of commission, I think the lovers of hymnology ought to be grateful to those whose labours resulted in such a valuable gift to the Church of England. Its adoption in cathedrals, where for years and years people had been expected to exhaust their praise in two verses of those miserable parodies of David's Psalms at the end of the Prayer-book, and the suspicion and dislike betrayed towards it in ultra-Protestant quarters, speak loudly in its favour.

Having written in other places on translations and versifications of ancient hymns, on variations of modern ones, and on hymns for the lesser holy days of the English calendar, it will possibly afford some illustration of the charming variety of this interesting subject if I devote the present brief paper to hymns of the Abyssinian Church.

Those who are familiar with the late Dr. Neale's graceful Eastern hymns will remember his three translations of the Canon for Apocreos, or Sexagesima, in which is commemorated the second and impartial coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such readers may not find it uninteresting to compare with these translations from St. Theodore (ninth century), the following poem on the same subject of Jared the Psalmist (fifth century). I would only premise that my work is but a versification from an English blank verse translation, and I must at once disclaim any attempt (which would be most presumptuous) to rival Dr. Neale's terse, fascinating, and altogether unequalled productions.


When the earth hath all restored,
When the Father, God adored,
Retribution's robe puts on,
Sins start up, thought past and gone;

When shall come the Son of man,
Sinners 'midst the just to scan;
Powers of earth and heaven be shaken—
All the careless be o'ertaken;

When the sun shall stand aghast
As the trumpet sounds its blast,
As the watcher angels speed
To the faithful in their need;

When the throne of God appears,
When like winter-waters, tears'
From the sinner's eyes o'erflow,
They who see but would not know;

When shall haste the Angel throng,—
All Archangels with their song,
Priests with crowns of choicest gold,
As the awful doom is told;

When the recompence is come,
When it is the time for doom,
When salvation's day hath sped,
What shall to the soul be said?

See the lightning as it gleams,
As from east to west it streams;
So the coming unto thee
Of the Son of Man shall be.

All the slothful, loving sleep,
Then shall see Him; seeing, weep;
Full of bliss the righteous stand,
Joyful they on God's right hand.

Now it will very naturally be asked, Who is this Jared? We know of hymns from the Saxon Breviary, from the Paris Breviary, from Anglo-Saxon Hymnaries, from Coblentz MSS., from the Missal of Saintes, the Utrecht Missal, the Drontheim Missal, the Noyon Breviary; we know the names of Ambrose, of Venantius Fortunatus, Bede, Adam of St. Victor, St. John Damascene, Prudentius, St. Bernard, St. Germanus, St. Anatolius, and a host more, but who is Jared? I will answer in the words of the learned translator of "Aethiopic Prayers and Baptismal Offices, and Selections from the Degua or Hymnal of Jared," the Rev. J. M. Rodwell. The translations "are contained in a most beautifully written quarto MS. of 536 pages, with double columns in each, called Dcr/ua, an Ethiopic word, of which the origin and meaning is unknown. This volume, of which only two other copies have ever found their way into Europe, was brought by the late Mr. Jowett from Cairo; it is probably of the fourteenth century, and appears, from an Ethiopic inscription on the fly-leaf, to have been presented to* an Abyssinian monastery by a lady of the name of Waleta Michael, who has added to the words of presentation a solemn curse, in the name of Peter and Paul, upon any one who should steal, alter, or deface the manuscript. How it was removed from the monastery can, of course, never now be known, but the donor's imprecation has apparently had the effect of preserving the MS. uninjured, as its state is in every respect as perfect as when it left the hands of the scribe." Jared is supposed to have lived in the fifth century, and there is a tradition that he was caught up into heaven. A brief history of him will be found, says Mr. Rodwell, in Dillman's Cat. MS., JEth., Brit. Mus., p. 3"2.

It is certainly a glorious thought that not only Latin, and Greek, and French, and German sources can be laid under contribution to our English hymnals, which thus become truly and intensely catholic, but that we can glean from the old writings of the Abyssinian Church as well. "The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge Thee."

I now give another illustration from Mr. Rodwell's interesting pamphlet (which, I may here say, is a reprint from the Journal of Sacred Literature), and in doing so I think it will be interesting to place the translated rhythmical prose from which I have written in conjunction with the hymn itself. It is called— and I should certainly retain the title—as being eminently suggestive and beautiful, "The Hymn of the Flowers and of the Sabbath Day."

The sower and the reaper hope in Thee;
Of the riches of Thy grace hast Thou ordained the Sabbath,
And the earth hast Thou decked with flowers;
"Who is merciful like Thee?

Maker of life art Thou, who hast ordained the Sabbath for rest;
So the flowers and lilies bloom!
Let the bride break forth into praise, and say,
The winter is past and bencdiction hath come.
For man’s rest hath he ordained the Sabbath ;
With stars hath He decked the heaven;
Flowers without number hath He brought to view;
To the peoples hath He given peace.
Marvellous His wisdom, hard to grasp !
High above all height! yet hath He had mercy on us,
Crowning the heaven with stars of light,
Adorning the earth with flowers of purity :
The sweetness of saints is like the flower of the lily of the valley;
The cinnamon and the nard are in bloom!
Not even Solomon was anayed like one of these.

Hallelujah ! hallelujah! hnllelujah !
Let the birds break forth into praise, and say,
Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field,
The winter is past and blessing come.

Thou hast dressed a vineyard for us with grapes of blessing,
To Christ all land is due who hath brought us to this hour;
For the righteous doth He bless the year,
He satisfies the hungry soul.
Sweet are Thy words, the food of saints. Hallelujah!

This hymn surely is pregnant with beautiful thoughts. Who does not love to think of Sunday and flowers together? God’s own day and God’s own gifts seem very naturally to associate themselves in our minds. Doubtless many of my readers will remember instances of Sunday floral decoration, long before the adornment of our sanctuaries with these beautiful gifts of nature was so prevalent as it is now. The tradition has never died out, here a pulpit, there a tomb, or there again the holy table have in some places never been without a Sunday posy, as George Herbert would say. I myself recall two such instances, and these in old city parishes in the west of England. Certainly, the lesson is not hard to learn that while we adorn the place of God’s honour with flowers, we are in fact exalting Him who is the Rose of Sharon, in His own courts and on His own day.

Sower and reaper hope in Thee,
Thou Who hast decked the earth with flowers,
Thou Who in mercy boundless, free,
Ordainest peaceful Sabbath hours.

Maker of life who givest rest,
And lilies in our path dost cast,
The bride lifts songs she loveth best,
Her blessing come, her winter past.

With stars the heavers above are bright,
Flowers without number spring to view;
Thy wisdom wondrous, infinite,
None grasp it, none its depths pursue.

Like lilies in the valley's gloom,
The sweetness of the saints is found,
Like cinnamon and nard in bloom,
Their fragrance gently steals around.

Not even Solomon, arrayed
In glory shone as one of these;
The pure ones to the earth displayed
The crowns of heaven, who Jesus please.

With grapes of Eshcol Thou hast dressed
The vineyard for Thy chosen bride,
For righteous souls the year is blessed,
The hungry soul is satisfied.

"Come, my beloved," this the cry,
"Let us go forth and seek the fields,
Winter is past and blessing nigh;"
And thus to Thee her will she yields.

Sweet are Thy words, the food of saints,
To Thee, O Christ, thanksgiving be;
Brought to this hour, who doubts or faints?
Sower and reaper hope in Thee.

Now, of course, in treating such rhythmical proses, two methods may be used. First, we may follow the text strictly, the most desirable plan; or, secondly, we may take the backbone found therein, the skeleton, if you will, and clothe it with our own expressions, and to a certain extent our own thoughts, always taking care, however, that these are subordinate to and in harmony with, the original. I think that in one or both these ways many beautiful centos may be made from the hymns now under consideration. As an inducement, I give the titles of some, trusting that by this means I shall give publicity to a most interesting branch of the study of hymnology. "The Festival of the Cross;" '* Holy Gabriel;" " Hymn for the Feast of the Resurrection;" "The Hymn for Martyrs;" "The Hymn of the Just;" "Hymn for Priests;" "Song of Saints;" "Hymn of the Light." The last I have thus rendered, and if any think it worth singing, I can recommend them to try it to that noble, soul-stirring melody from "La FeilleV' to be found in the "Hymnal Noted," where it is set to a hymn most strangely overlooked in many recent compilations.

Praise to the Saviour, Who clothed with the light,
True light in Himself, hath descended in might;
From light He hath hastened, to light He would lead
The souls whom in pity and love He hath freed.

He whom the prophets of old had foreshown,
The Crown of the martyrs, the Strength of His own,
The Pilot of spirits, Who led by a star
The ancients in wisdom who came from afar.

The Light of the world is the Bridegroom, the King,
For gladness the children of light are to sing;
In sorrow He comforts and shows them His love,
And leads through the darkness to glory above.

He reigns o'er the treasures of light, Who, arrayed
With light for His garment, the universe made;
The Firstborn of Zion, in beauty supreme,
Who came in time's fulness the world to redeem.

O send out Thy light and Thy truth! let them lead
To the hill of dear Zion, where never they need
The light of the sun, for the True Light is there,
In marvellous brightness which passes compare.

As will be seen, these Abyssinian hymns are full of mystical meaning and poetical ideas, much enriched with Scripture and very forcible. Indeed, one cannot help being struck with the absence of anything like modern namby-pambyism in all old hymns. They rather abound in clear, broad, dogmatic statements; at the same time, as I think I have shown, they may be so treated as not to present a rugged or archaic aspect to modern hymn admirers, — to those, I mean, whose tastes have been moulded by the use of an effeminate class of compositions.

And thus it is that we of the dear old Church of England love to glean things new and old, and gather them into her august treasury. From wheresoever the Sacred Name is named we have stored our own spiritual home with the songs of Zion.

Peace be with thee, holy Christian Church, abode of peace. Adorned are thy walls, and painted with the topaz. Hail, then, holy Church! the pure golden vessel wherein is laid up the manna, the Bread that came down from heaven, and giveth life to all the world!

Such are the beautiful words of the ordinary Canon of the Abyssinian Church. Surely we may make them our own, as in the very words of East and West, singing hymns to Christ as God, we are one with the blessed company of all faithful people.

Editor's Note.

Also see Dix's article Devotions of the Abyssinian Church (The Monthly Packet, 1868)

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