A Hymn Text for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

“From Deep Within a Prison Cell” takes its inspiration for the first scene of the gospel appointed for this Lord’s Day (Matthew 11:2-11). Stanzas one and two recall the interchange between John and Jesus about Jesus’ identity. The third stanza starkly transposes John’s question to the contemporary world. I hope that worshipers would hear in the anguished cry “What difference would this Jesus make / within a world so broken?” the spiritual state addressed by the Letter of James this weekend (5:7-10). Stanzas four and five raft an honest yet modest act of faith.

I assigned this 87.87.D hymn text to Arthur Sullivan’s CONSTANCE, but it could also be sung to another hymn tune of the same metrical pattern. It is copyrighted by The Jan Michael Joncas Trust and published by Oregon Catholic Press in Within Our Hearts Be Born. The Michael Joncas Hymnary: Advent and Christmas.

From deep within a prison cell
a prophet prayed and pondered
God’s high command, his destiny,
the pathways he had wandered,
until his thoughts to Jesus turned
and on his meaning hovered:
“Are you the One who is to come
or should we seek another?”

The answer Jesus gave to John
evokes his kingdom’s blessings:
“The blind find sight, the deaf gain sound,
and lepers, cleansed, caressing;
the lame leap up, the dead are raised,
the poor proclaimed as brothers —
am I the One who is to come
or should you seek another?”

John’s question haunts our questing hearts,
down centuries still spoken:
What diff’rence does this Jesus make
within a world so broken?
With greed and hate and violence
so easy to discover
is he the One who is to come
or should we seek another?

Though blinded minds refuse God’s light
it shines on through the darkness.
Though deafened hearts resist God’s word
it sounds in holy starkness.
And when we act in faithful hope
God’s future to uncover
we serve the One who is to come;
we do not seek another.

For ev’ry act of suff’ring love
reveals our God in Jesus,
who donned our death that we might live,
who rescues us and frees us.
So help us, help our unbelief,
you, unrelenting Lover:
you are the One who is to come.
How could we seek another?


  1. Thank you for this. As an assist to others, this tunehound offers a note: many texts tend to be strongly trochaic (think HYMN TO JOY, IN BABILONE, NETTLETON, AUSTRIA . . . ), but this text is swings strongly iambic (ST COLUMBA doesn’t work because it’s just undoubled), so one has to take greater care in matching the text to a tune. (BARBARA ALLEN, one of the best-known English tunes in the iambic version of that meter, may not be most felicitous.) DOMINUS REGIT ME would work, as would METZ, though I don’t think the latter is particularly well known.

  2. Nick Basehore : EBENEZER could be a possibility…

    No, as Liam pointed out in #1, hymn tunes for iambic texts are quite rare (as are texts with that meter). All but a few texts and tunes are trochaic, as is EBENEZER,

    Lectionary-based hymnody, which may be used only for one Sunday every three years, needs to have tunes that the assembly knows well. I don’t think many folks in the USA are even familiar with CONSTANCE or METZ. A few may know BARBARA ALLEN. My bet would be that the only iambic tune somewhat known by Catholics in the USA is Robert Lowry’s HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING. It is used for two hymns in the Worship 4 hymnal. The remaining 52 hymns in that hymnal with meter are all trochaic.

    1. @Fr. Ron Krisman:

      It would be nice to recover the original 3/2-ish time signature of HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING (not the Proulx 4/4 with refrain version).

      And I really admire metrical indexes of tunes that distinguish iambic and trochaic patterns. There are certain texts/tunes that can swing either way (a gift of those who crafted them carefully…).

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        It would be nice to recover the original 3/2-ish time signature of HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING (not the Proulx 4/4 with refrain version).

        Agree absolutely with this. I heard it this way for the first time at Notre Dame in 1984, accompanied by hammer dulcimer. Magic!

  3. For folks who are unfamiliar with the original 19th century, and more Christocentric, lyrics of How Can I Keep From Singing? – there is no refrain:

    My life flows on in endless song; Above earth’s lamentation,
    I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off, hymn that hails a new creation;
    Thro’ all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
    It finds an echo in my soul: How can I keep from singing?

    What tho’ my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth;
    What tho’ the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth.
    No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that refuge clinging;
    Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

    I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it;
    And day by day this pathway smooths, since first I learned to love it,
    The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing;
    All things are mine since I am his; how can I keep from singing?

  4. Fr. Michael Joncas and a few other English-language hymnwriters (such as, Gracia Grindal, Michael Forster, Thomas Troeger, Joy Patterson, Herman Stuempfle, Michael Hudson, and others) are providing rich fare for the Church’s worship with their projects to create a hymn text for each Sunday and major feastday in the three-year Roman and/or common lectionary based on the gospel reading (or even on all three readings for a particular day). I am a supporter of their efforts.

    I would much rather sing a “hymn of the Gospel” or a “lectionary-based hymn” than a general praise hymn or even a seasonal hymn which has little or no connection to a particular day’s Gospel or lectionary readings. But, as I mentioned in #5 above, for success in using such hymns, the hymn tunes to which the texts are sung must be already known to the liturgical assembly. A drawback to some of the gospel-based hymns in GIA’s Worship 3 hymnal was that they had irregular or uncommon meters which necessitated new hymn tunes having to being found or commissioned. Few if any of these irregularly or uncommonly-metered hymns “caught on,” since they were used so infrequently.

    That could be a problem with this offering of Fr. Joncas. An iambic 8787 or 8787 doubled text is very rare. The only iambic 8787 tune generally known is ST. COLUMBA. And HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING is the only iambic 8787 D tune somewhat known.

    A Gospel-based hymn might be used as an opening hymn at Mass, or after the homily during the preparation of the gifts and the altar, or as a final hymn. Thus, because it may be sung before or after the Gospel reading is actually proclaimed, it should provide enough foretelling or retelling of the Gospel pericope so that the context of the hymn is clear, and then draw out a reflection or life lesson. Fr. Joncas’ text does this well: it captures enough from the reading itself, but not too much. (Sometimes Gospel-based hymns are simply paraphrases of the pericopes upon which they are based.)

    In addition to the unusual meter of this particular text of Fr. Joncas, I would voice an additional mild criticism of the imperfect rhymes in it. Metrical hymnody imposes certain retraints upon the hymnwriter as to rhyme and meter. Occasionally we may encounter a metrical hymn text which is in blank verse or which uses imperfect rhymes occasionally. But the usual expectation is that rhymes will be perfect ones, with imperfect rhymes being left to the realm of pop song lyrics.

    “Another” is the last word in all five stanzas of this hymn, part of a final-line “refrain” of sorts to provide some unification and coherence to the overall text. That word is imperfectly rhymed with hovered, brothers, discover, uncover, Lover. For me the refrain line loses much of its punch because the usual expectation of perfect rhyme is not met. Also the imperfect rhyme of “Jesus” and “frees us” in the final stanza does not appeal to me.

    1. @Fr. Ron Krisman:
      While I welcome the idea of Gospel-based hymns being added to the repertoire, I would not want that to be taken as some ideal.

      I used to be for too many years to count an enthusiastic promoter of programming-by-readings, but as time goes on, I am not enthusiastic any more, and believe that the readings (let alone the Gospel) should not serve as a the default filter for the texts of the entrance, offertory, communion or final chants/hymns.

      That kind of programming becomes monophonic, rather than contrapuntal, and I’ve grown to appreciate the chance opportunities offered by using texts that are not all filtered with the readings in mind. It’s less linear, but richer in possibilities over the longer term.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        I do not disagree with what you wrote, Liam. I would never program more than one Gospel-based hymn at a Mass, and not even every Sunday. Gospel-based hymnody is but one genre of musical possibilities.

  5. Totally agreed on the older form of How Can I Keep From Singing. The version on John Foley and John Kavanaugh’s 1973 “secular” folk LP was the standard I held to until the verse-n-chorus arrangement appeared in 80’s hymnals.

    That said about the older “Singing” text, I worry about a certain rigidity in the post-conciliar Catholic approach to hymns. Christian tradition has seen psalms and canticles go both ways: antiphon-plus-verses as well as hymns with stanzas. I worry that our hymn writers are limiting themselves unnecessarily relying so heavily on verse-only formats.

  6. I did some sleuthing regarding “How Can I Keep from Singing.” I think the first time it appeared in a Catholic hymnal published in the USA was in The Catholic Liturgy Book (Helicon, Baltimore, 1976). It was in 4/4 time and had the second half of stanza 2 in Lowry’s original (“No storm can shake…,” with “refuge” changed to “Rock”) used as a recurring refrain. I’m fairly certain that TCLB did not originate that version, but I have not checked earlier denominational hymnals to find when it was introduced.

    GIA did not include the hymn in Worship, Worship 2, or Worship 3. It first appeared in the 1988 Gather hymnal, a guitar and piano-based hymnal. Bob Batastini (not Richard Proulx) made the piano-based accompaniment. Most hymnals these days use the “No storm can shake…” recurring refrain, but they’re about equally divided as to the 4/4 or 6/2 (or 3/4) time signature. My preference is for the 4/4 version.

    1. @Fr. Ron Krisman:
      Its first widespread appearance for Catholics was in Glory & Praise 1, in 1977. Ed Gutfreund included it in his 1974 LP, From An Indirect Love. He may have originated the adaptation of verse and antiphon. That’s what NALR used for the “red” book.

  7. I agree with Fr. Krisman’s observation that my iambic 8787 D text is problematic insofar as it is difficult to find a regularly used hymn tune (at least in Catholic circles) that both fits the meter and enhances the text. I had considered ST. COLUMBA, but thought the tune a bit too sprightly for the text. I am grateful for the suggestion of HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING that, to my mind, works better yoked with my text.

    Fr. Krisman has previously shared his negative opinion of imperfect rhymes in metrical hymn texts. I simply disagree: English-language been freed to use slant rhymes in serious poetry since at least the time of Emily Dickinson, and I see no reason why they should be forbidden in metrical hymnody if the expectation is set up that they will be used consistently. In the case under discussion my decision was to offer variants of “Are you the One who is to come / or should we seek another?” as the concluding couplet of each stanza. If I had concluded the first stanza with a perfect rhyme to “another,” I believe that that would have set up an expectation that the other stanzas would conclude with a perfect rhyme as well. But the fact is that I used slant rhyme from the beginning and that decision, if anything, set up the expectation that I would use slant rhyme to conclude the other stanzas.

    To my ear “Jesus” and “frees us” forms a perfect rhyme; I too had some qualms about using it, but finally decided that it articulated the progress of thought in the stanza as I wished. Notice that I set up the expectation that perfect rhymes would be used as the conclusions to the two couplets that begin each stanza and followed through on that pattern.

    1. @Michael Joncas:

      It’s not that I have a negative opinion about slant rhymes in metrical hymn texts. After all, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) has hundreds of such rhymes in his hymns, and I don’t think a single one of them ever bothered me.

      My “mild criticism” about the imperfect rhymes in your fine text arises from the unusual iambic 8787 D meter you used for structuring the text. Here the ten pairs of rhymes are all feminine rhymes. Six of the ten are slant rhymes. Compare with the three (yes, only three) iambic 8787 texts in Worship 4: The King of Love My Shepherd Is, no. 712 (Baker); How Can I Keep from Singing, no. 684 (Lowry); We Cannot Own the Sunlit Sky, no. 802 (Duck). All have perfect rhymes, and Baker’s text even has both masculine and feminine rhymes.

  8. While I am absolutely a snob about slant rhymes (ask my wife–no, don’t, it’ll just get her dander up), I saw early on that Fr. Michael’s use of them here was a clear choice rather than an accident. For my money, I’d’ve preferred *all* the “-other” rhymes be “-over”s, which would make that choice more obvious than accidental. Either way, though, although I can write a theatre song in no time flat, a hymn text is the hardest thing I know to write, and I have nothing but admiration for those who practice this craft so well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *