TWO TRADITIONAL HYMNS TO ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
By Fr Christopher Cook
THE HYMN “UT QUEANT LAXIS"
(Hymn to St John)
by Paul the Deacon
Ut queant laxis" or "Hymnus in Ioannem" is a Latin hymn in honour of John the Baptist, written in Horatian Sapphics and traditionally attributed to Paul the Deacon, the eighth-century Lombard historian (730-799). It is famous for its part in the history of musical notation, in particular solmization. The hymn belongs to the tradition of Gregorian chant. Guido of Arezzo is said to have composed it, but he more likely used an existing melody.
There are various English translations, but the one given here is the one given in the New English Hymnal, No 168, which was produced by the NEH editors. It is probably better for devotional use than some of the more literal translations. It can be sung to the tune “Ut queant laxis,” but it goes quite well to “Coelites Plaudant” or “Diva Servatrix.”
On this high feast day honour we the Baptist,
Greatest and last of Israel’s line of prophets,
Kinsman of Jesus, herald of salvation,
Lo, from the heavens Gabriel descending,
Brings to thy father tidings of thy coming,
Telling thy name, and all thy life’s high calling
When Zechariah doubted what was told him,
Dumbness assailed him, sealing firm the promise,
Till, at thy naming, lo, his voice resounded
Loud in God’s praises.
Greater art thou than all the sons of Adam,
lowly in spirit, faithfully proclaiming
Israel’s Messiah, Jesus our Redeemer,
Thus we exalt thee.
Father eternal, Son, and Holy Spirit,
God everlasting, hear thy people’s praises;
Let saints on earth with all the saints in glory,
Ever adore thee.
THE HYMN “PRAECURSOR ALTUS LUMINIS”
by St Bede the Venerable
There are two current tranlations of this hymn. The first version was translated from The Venerable Bede's (673-735) Latin original into English by the well known priest, scholar and hymnodist, the Revd John M. Neale (1818–1866) in 1854.
It is a Long Metre hymn (LM -188.8.131.52), and tunes that it has been set to include: FULDA, WAREHAM and WINCHESTER NEW.
The great forerunner of the morn,
The herald of the Word, is born:
And faithful hearts shall never fail
With thanks and praise his light to hail.
With heavenly message Gabriel came,
That John should be that herald’s name,
And with prophetic utterance told
His actions great and manifold.
John, still unborn, yet gave aright
His witness to the coming Light;
And Christ, the Sun of all the earth,
Fulfilled that witness at His birth.
Of woman born shall never be
A greater prophet than was he,
Whose mighty deeds exalt his fame
To greater than a prophet’s name.
But why should mortal accents raise
The hymn of John the Baptist’s praise?
Of whom, or e’er his course was run,
Thus spake the Father to the Son?
“Behold, My herald, who shall go
Before Thy face Thy way to show,
And shine, as with the day-star’s gleam,
Before Thine own eternal beam.”
But why should mortal voices raise
The hymn of John the Baptist's praise,
Of whom, before his course was run,
The Father said unto the Son:
"Behold my herald who shall go
Before your face, your way to show,
And shine, as with the Day-star's gleam,
Before your own eternal beam."
All praise to God the Father be,
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
Whom with the Spirit we adore
Forever and for evermore.
This translation from St Bede’s Latin text is by Charles Calverley (1831-84). This is the version which appears in the New English Hymnal (No 169). It is sung to the given tune “Hail, Harbinger of Morn.”
Hail, harbinger of morn:
Thou that art this day born,
And heraldest the Word with clarion voice!
Ye faithful ones, in him
Behold the dawning dim
Of the bright day, and let your hearts rejoice.
John;--by that chosen name
To call him, Gabriel came
By God's appointment from his home on high:
What deeds that babe should do
To manhood when he grew,
God sent his angel forth to testify.
There is none greater, none,
Than Zechariah's son;
Than this no mightier prophet hath been born:
Of prophets he may claim
More than a prophet's fame;
Sublimer deeds than theirs his brow adorn.
'Lo, to prepare thy way,'
Did God the Father say
'Before thy face my messenger I send,
Thy coming to forerun;
As on the orient sun
Doth the bright daystar morn by morn attend.'
Praise therefore God most high;
Praise him who came to die
For us, his Son that liveth evermore;
And to the Spirit raise,
The Comforter, like praise,
While time endureth, and when time is o'er.