“Christ Comes, the Promised Peace of God”

I LOVE the season of Advent.  There is something about its longing, its visions, its sense of expectant hope that resonates very deeply within me.  For some years now I have tried to keep this season by deepening my appreciation for contemporary hymn texts. That has involved choosing a “Hymn of the Week” (more accurately, two hymns for the time before 17 Dec and two hymns for the time after 17 Dec) and then using them when I pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  I’d like to share with the readers of PrayTell the four hymn texts I’ve chosen to mark the four weeks of Advent this year.

The hymn text I’ve chosen for the First Week of Advent is “Christ Comes, the Promised Peace of God” by Sr. Genevieve Glen, OSB.  Copyrighted in 2001, the hymn text appears in Voices From the Valley: Hymn Texts with Biblical Reflections from Oregon Catholic Press (Portland, OR: OCP Publications, 2003).

Christ comes, the promised peace of God,
His hands with healing filled;
In him is brokenness made whole
And love from hate distilled.
And when he comes, for whom we long,
Then will all strife be stilled.

Christ comes, the promised hand of God,
To cast the veil aside
That shrouds the world in bitter grief,
Where none from death can hide.
And when he comes, for whom we long,
Then will all tears be dried.

Christ comes, the promise kept by God,
The faithful One, and true.
In him is every hope confirmed
And every fear subdued.
And when he comes, for whom we long,
Then all will be made new.

As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, the first weeks of Advent in the Roman Rite pick up the themes of the last weeks of the Liturgical Year as we turn our attention to the end times and the Second Coming of Christ.  What I love about Sr. Genevieve’s text is that it doesn’t revel in the destructive imagery of apocalyptic, but presents the Second Coming as just as radical a positive transformation of the present order.  Christ’s coming heals the broken, stills strife, removes the mourning veil, confirms hope, subdues fear, and makes all things new.  The text is truly masterful in yoking material from Micah, Isaiah, Ephesians, and (especially) Revelation.

The English major in me delights in the author’s mastery of alliteration (promised peace, his hands with healing), rhymes both exact (sts. 1 and 2) and slant (st. 3), and strong mono-syllables (Christ comes, And when he comes, for whom we long).  The progress of thought is very easy to follow due to the regularity of the verse structures: Christ is “promised peace,” “promised hand”, “promise kept;” the results of his coming that “all strife be stilled” (more alliteration), “all tears be dried”, “all…be made new.”  The notion of love being distilled from hate as a fine brandy is distilled from lesser wines was truly arresting.  I even enjoyed the slightly convoluted “And when he comes, for whom we long” rather than the more straightforward “And when the One we long for comes” even though the syllable count would be the same, because the slightly stilted locution achieves the effect in language of the longing described.

As deeply as I appreciate the hymn text, I am equally delighted that Sr. Genevieve recommends that this text be associated with the 86.86.86 hymn tune MORNING SONG, a melody that I associate with the American shape-note singing tradition.  (Although the tune appears in Sixteen Tune Settings in Philadelphia in 1812, I think it was most widely encountered through Kentucky Harmony of 1816.)  I first heard this tune yoked to another text I associate with Advent: “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns.”  There is something so plaintive yet strong about this minor modal 4/4 tune; its spareness captures for me the power of poignancy of Advent’s dreams.

13 comments

  1. I, too, love Sr Genevieve’s hymn writing. For me, she is in the forefront of this genre of the text-writer’s craft today.

    Slightly puzzled by the MORNING SONG tune, which is 86.86, as is “The King shall come” and other texts commonly sung to this tune. Are lines 3 and 4 repeated to make it into an 86.86.86 melody? (I am not at my desk and don’t have a copy of the OCP compilation to check against.)

    1. I, too, am a great admirer of Sr. Genevieve’s hymn texts and also of her poetry.
      I had the honor to meet with her at the convent of St. Walburga in Wyoming and she is a thoroughly delightful woman with a ready smile and a great dedication to and love of her work.
      Also an English major, I revel in her use of parrallelism in verse structure
      and the aforementioned alliteration! Thank you, Michael, for sharing this Advent meditation with us!

  2. Slightly off-topic, since no singing is involved, but what are the colors of Advent? For a brief time Advent was treated as a season of Hope, so the colors were Blue-Blue-Rose-Blue. Now all I see is the old Purple-Purple-Rose-Purple. Are we back to Advent as a mini-Lent?

    1. I’ve never seen blue used for Advent, only heard of it – always been purple where I’m from.

      I’ve never heard the hymn referenced above, but the poetry in it seems rather nice.

  3. My guess is that this text would be treated like W. Russell Bowie’s “O Holy City, Seen of John,” which attributes MORNING SONG as 86.86.86. and repeats the last two lines.

    And yes, the melody is wonderfully versatile: sturdy in a cappella singing like at daily Mass, and well rendered by practically any accompanying instrument or ensemble. I prefer the arrangements that maintain the modality and resist using the hint of harmonic minor.

  4. There is a lot to admire here, but I was put off by the line “love from hate distilled.” Love is never a distillation of hate; I can only assume she had in mind a kind of divine alchemy that turns one thing into another, but the metaphor did not work for me on a natural level.

  5. There is so much to love about this text… for me, the favorite is the beginning of the last stanza: “Christ comes, the promise kept by God.” Mmm.. Mmmm.. why could I have not thought of that? Beautiful.

  6. “Love from hate distilled” worked OK for me. If I can’t stand something, it’s generally because I stand very strongly for something else. Repentance is often a matter of uncovering what that is and moving “upstream”, toward something positive. At least that was how I interpreted it. Doesn’t St Thomas say somewhere that joy is prior to sorrow and love to hate? That may be stretching the metaphor of distillation, though …

  7. I noticed that line right away and went “Huh?” Sometimes intent does not shine through clearly. The great composers had no fear of revising such things. I think the text is fine until “every fear subdued.” I know it’s not trendy, but I think a little fear is a good thing. Lack of it makes us complacent.

    BTW blue is not a liturgical color in the Roman Rite.

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