When I was a child, to feign off boredom in church, I used to thumb through the hymnals. Once, when I was visiting a friend’s church, I came across the Christmas hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Tired of people telling me to be quiet, I moved on. The next time I remember hearing the song, I was in college. I borrowed my friend’s Cynthia Clawson Hymnsinger cassette tape (Ok, so I’m old) and listened to the song multiple times. I found it mysterious and even somewhat haunting, but honestly, I paid little attention to the lyrics.
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence is one of the oldest Christmas hymns still in use. It’s based on the Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn in the Liturgy of St. James. This liturgy was thought to be the work of James, the brother of Jesus, but now it’s believed that it was written during the 4th century and is often referred to as the Liturgy of Jerusalem.
Using portions of the Psalms, Isaiah 6, and Revelation 4, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence compels the worshipers to engage in welcoming the Incarnation of Christ and gain a sense of actually entering into the Holy of Holies. Obviously, it was written from the perspective that the bread and wine actually transform into the body and blood of Jesus during communion. To add to the dramatic flair, It was sung as the communion bread and wine were carried into the place of worship.
During the liturgy, the leader would say, “We remember the sky, the earth and the sea, the sun and the moon, the stars and all creation both rational and irrational, the angels and archangels, powers, mights, dominations, principalities, thrones, the many-eyed Cherubim who say those words of David: ‘Praise the Lord with me.’ We remember the Seraphim, whom Isaias saw in spirit standing around the throne of God, who with two wings cover their faces, with two their feet and with two fly; who say: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabbath.’ We also say these divine words of the Seraphim, so as to take part in the hymns of the heavenly host.”
No matter your stance on what happens to the bread and wine (or juice) during communion, it is easy to see how this Christmas hymn would enhance the worship experience of these ancient Christian worshipers. What better way to celebrate the birth of our Savior than to focus on his life’s purpose of giving His life, His blood, His body for us.
Check out the lyrics written below.
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 lord, 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 pow’rs 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 courtesy of Dan Kiefer