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During Plague, Enduring “New Songs” Created by Philipp Nicolai

 
Preeminent German hymn writer Philipp Nicolai was a Lutheran pastor whose small town, Unna, was devastated by the plague during the winter of 1597-8 with over 1300 deaths.  He officiated at many funerals, as many as 30 a day.

He dealt with this horror creatively, producing two extraordinary hymns to comfort sufferers while publishing a collection of hymns and meditations that included what have become the “king and queen” of German chorales, known in English as “Wake, Awake…” or “Sleepers, Awake!” and “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star.”  He wrote both texts and music.

“Wachet auf…” later would be adopted in J.S. Bach’s cantata (BWV 140) and used in his oratorios, as well as by Mendelssohn and others.

In a preface to the publication with other hymns and meditations he said he wished “to leave [them] behind me (if God should call me from this world) as a token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare me in health) to comfort other sufferers whom He should also visit with the pestilence.”

The hymn draws richly from biblical sources, including images from the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) and the Book of Revelation.  The most  used translation in English is by Catherine Winkworth:
 
1. Wake, awake, for night is flying,
The watchmen on the heights are crying;
Awake, Jerusalem, at last!
Midnight hears the welcome voices,
And at the thrilling cry rejoices:
Come forth, ye virgins, night is past!
The Bridegroom comes, awake,
Your lamps with gladness take;
Hallelujah!
And for His marriage-feast prepare,
For ye must go to meet Him there.
 
2. Zion hears the watchmen singing,
And all her heart with joy is springing,
She wakes, she rises from her gloom;
For her Lord comes down all-glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious,
Her Star is risen, her Light is come!
Ah come, Thou blessed Lord,
O Jesus, Son of God,
Hallelujah!
We follow till the halls we see
Where Thou hast bid us sup with Thee!
 
3. Now let all the heavens adore Thee,
And men and angels sing before Thee,
With harp and cymbal’s clearest tone;
Of one pearl each shining portal,
Where we are with the choir immortal
Of angels round Thy dazzling throne;
Nor eye hath seen, nor ear
Hath yet attain’d to hear
What there is ours,
But we rejoice, and sing to Thee
Our hymn of joy eternally.
 
“How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” praises the incarnation in the context of eternity (as translated by Catherine Winkworth):
 
1. How brightly beams the Morning Star!
What sudden radiance from afar
Doth glad us with its shining,
Brightness of God that breaks our night1
And fills the darken’d souls with light
Who long for truth were pining!
Thy Word, Jesu, only feeds us,
Rightly leads us,
Life bestowing;
Praise, oh praise such love o’erflowing.
 
2. Thou here my Comfort, there my Crown,
Thou King of Heaven, who camest down
To dwell as man beside me;
My heart doth praise Thee o’er and o’er,
If Thou art mine I ask no more,
Be wealth or fame denied me;
Thee I seek now; None who proves Thee,
None who loves Thee
Finds Thee fail him;
Lord of life, Thy powers avail him!
 
3. Through Thee alone can I be blest,
Then deep be on my heart imprest
The love that Thou hast borne me;
So make it ready to fulfil
With burning zeal Thy holy will,
Though men may vex or scorn me;
Saviour, let me Never lose Thee,
For I choose Thee,
Thirst to know Thee;
All I am and have I owe Thee!
 
4. O God, our Father far above,
Thee too I Praise, for all the love
Thou in Thy Son dost give me!
In Him am I made one with Thee,
My Brother and my Friend is He;
Shall aught affright or grieve me?
He is Greatest, Best, and Highest,
Ever nighest
To the weakest;
Fear no foes, if Him thou seekest!
 
5. O praise to Him who come to save,
Who conquer’d death and burst the grave;
Each day new praise resoundeth
To Him the Lamb who once was slain,
The Friend whom none shall trust in vain,
Whose grace for aye aboundeth;
Sing, ye Heavens, Tell the story
Of His glory,
Till His praises
Flood with light Earth’s darkest places.
 
Modern critics may scoff at images of heavenly bliss in the midst of a plague.  This is not a place to engage all related issues, other than to remind readers of what both William Blake and Paul Tillich called the “Eternal Now.”
 
As someone who has lost his wife of 51+ years during (but not to) the Coronavirus pandemic, I am keenly aware of sufferings of this Mortal Coil while relishing the hope and peace of Eternity’s Sunrise.  Meanwhile, let us find ways to “light Earth’s darkest places.”
 
I have attempted to do so by creating new words to “Wake, Awake….”  I hereby share new verses I have written for this tune. The first draws from Romans 8:19-23 while the third is inspired by the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).
 
Wake, Awake, Creation’s groaning,
The children of the world are moaning.
Give birth, O mother earth at last!
Midnight hears the jubilation
The people of the revelation
Mid songs of peace and love, at last!
The travail and the pain
By joy have lost their reign: Alleluia!
God’s children by the Spir’t revealed
The spheres with freedom’s music pealed

Wake, Awake, Death’s forces scorning –
All hateful rage mocks Easter’s morning!
Reveal yourselves, ye saints, at last!
Fear and hatred’s days are numbered,
Love, justice are now unencumbered
When peace breaks through in human hearts.
Like mighty flowing streams
Revive historic dreams: Alleluia!
Where lambs will mute the lion’s roar
With songs their Maker to adore.
 
Wake, Awake, the hungry call us.
The sick, imprison’d, as Christ befall us.
With hope, ye saints, go forth at last.
Thirsty, naked and the stranger
Need hope and love against all danger.
You’re called to give yourself at last.
Emboldened by his words,
Make plowshares out of swords: Alleluia!
May nations put to end their rage
And peace endure from age to age.
 
Wake, Awake, God’s Word sustains us.
The Eucharist with food maintains us.
With psalms and chants our hope we sing.
While we’re here and frailly mortal
Prepare us for the heavenly portal
With strength and love. God’s mercy bring
Our souls at last to be
With God eternally: Alleluia!
Our hearts with adoration bring
When with the angel chorus sing.
 
Dedicated to the memory of Richard Ivan Pervo
 
Robert O’Sullivan, a long time resident of the Oakland/Berkeley area, has retired to a beautiful garden home in Brookings, OR on the Oregon coast. He is mourning the death of his wife of over 51 years, Alice Wildermuth O’Sullivan, in April 2020. She had distinguished careers as a musician and attorney. Three German Shepherds help to keep him appreciating the wonders of creation and are a comfort during these days of loss.

After many “career” involvements, he has discovered a new vocation as a poet and writer, deeply influenced by William Blake and Dag Hammarskjold, who both embodied brilliant Christian visions while working in remarkable ways for justice and peace. His new words to Christmas carols and other hymns and a Blake-inspired “unofficial international anthem” have appeared in Progressive Christianity, along with civil rights writings.

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