2017 is almost over, and today we have two choral pieces to conclude our year with, one early, one modern, both settings of one of the readings for the first Sunday after Christmas, Isaiah 61:10-62:4. The first is the delightfully joyous “Gaudens Gaudebo in Domino” by the 16th century German composer Philip Dulchius. The text comes from the opening to the song, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord”, which Mary echoes in her Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel. A modern reimagining of this text is the late Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt’s beautiful “I will greatly rejoice”, similarly jubilant but with simpler harmony. Both settings, looking not only to our own salvation but the saving of all nations, are wonderful calls to praise and prayer at the end of 2017.
Rejoice in your new clothes,
for the old is done.
The saving one has clothed you with joy
and in the bright raiment of His saving day.
Look to the east, to the west, where the sun
is rising and setting and setting the way,
where the hope of the new is calling, and calling,
where the world is enwrapping in light.
Rejoice in your new clothes;
rejoice greatly now in renewing delight.
For the old is done, the new bright as son,
bright as bridegroom and bride,
bright as the new spring in their eyes,
bright as wedding dance of old foes,
bright as the diadem in your thinning hair,
bright though the year be dimming.
But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.
Magnify, soul. Let mind expand; let heart
Take in what cannot be contained. Discern,
Yet know the limits of your thoughts. Return
Again, again, to faith. Take humble part
In grandest story. This is just the start
Of nations in upheaval; kingdoms burn
Beneath this unexpected cosmic turn.
Take heart. Take faith, though angels will depart.
What will this mean when Joseph hears the news?
Or when the labour pains make all this seem
Confused, a blur, too far-fetched for a dream?
Remember Sarah, Hannah. Look back on
The stories of this mystery-grace, beacons
Of the secret glory now contained in you.
Two women who knew the truth of a God who exalts the humble were Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Both were unlikely mothers, one a virgin, the other barren and ridiculed by her husband’s other wife, Penninah. When Mary heard the news that she was bearing the saviour of the world in her womb, she looked to the song sung by Hannah, the barren mother, a thousand years earlier, to express the topsy-turviness of God’s act of grace expressed in Jesus.
This poem is inspired by Bach’s setting of Mary’s prayer, a beautiful piece which my fiancée (also called Hannah) performed tonight at St Paul’s Cathedral. The movement that inspired it is the setting of these words: “He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.” In his setting, Bach uses two recorders, an instrument used also in his Brandenburg Concerto No.4 to express the lifting up of the humble. I hope my simple words tonight can express something of this exalting grace.