Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Mass of St John of Mathaa - Juan Carreno de Miranda

The Mass of St John of Maatha – Juan Carreno de Miranda

Habakkuk 2:20: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” 


After all that about silence, what comes to mind is the hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’; I am really not sure that,when this was set as a hymn at church or school, our elders realised that this is an ancient hymn first written in Greek as part of the Divine Liturgy of Saint James and that it dates from around 275 AD.  It is a work of complete seriousness. When, for example, “Christ the God to earth descendeth”, He is not descending in some vague theologically abstract way, or at some time in the past, or descending somewhere over there.  He is descending now and descending here. He is also not Christ our friend, youth leader, hippy, rockstar, Che lookalike or social worker. He is Christ our God.

Forget for a minute the Vaughan Williams setting, fine and weighty though it may be, and realise that the original brings to our understanding the absolute mystery and glory of the Eucharist and the reverence with which it should be approached.  In the Great Entrance which forms part of the Liturgy, it is believed that the angels enter the sanctuary with the clergy.  To read the words of the hymn with these things in mind is to understand a tiny bit the utter seriousness of the rite and its antiquity – which its High Anglican translator Gerald Moultrie undoubtedly did. Modernism and ‘relevance’ in the light of this understanding seem like the games of children, and naughty children at that. The idea of a hymn as a bit of nice music to fill in the gaps and give people something to do feels a little embarrassing when you think that the angels are present and listening – perhaps in some pain.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Image rights here.

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