This one isn’t an Advent hymn, per se….Maybe…. Some hymnals place it in Advent, others actually list it under “Christmas songs”, and still others present it under more general sections – like the green GIA Gather book, where it is found in songs of praise. I love this hymn year-round, but it has a certain poignancy at Advent. Through the lens of the season, we can read it as if all of heaven looks on in reverent awe as Christ descends to earth to take on “human vesture”, residing in the womb of his mother, awaiting birth.
The piece beautifully straddles both the majesty of the recent Feast of Christ with King (glorious words) and the stark, penitential overtones of Advent (slow beat/minor key). It seems to invoke many things – the coming of Christ as a human child to Mary’s womb; the birth of God-made-man in a lowly, ordinary stable; the victory of Christ in heaven after his death; and the Final Coming of Christ at the end of all ages. Oh, and Eucharist – lots of Eucharistic tones here.
In fact, the origins of the words are bound with the Eucharistic Rite. Attributed sometimes to the apostle St. James the Lesser, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, it is more commonly believed to be 4th or early 5th century. The words “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” begin the “Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn”, an Offertory chant from the ancient Divine Liturgy of St. James, the oldest known complete liturgy. The congregation is invited to join in singing with the angels in reverent awe as the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar to become the Body and Blood of Christ.
Today you can still hear this ancient chant in some Eastern Byzantine churches on the Feast of St. James (Oct. 23). Some articles I read said it can be said on Holy Saturday and Christmas Eve, but I am not very familiar with the different Eastern Rites, so I am not sure.
If you want to explore the Scriptural background of the “Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn”, read Habakkuk 2:20 (But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him! ), Isaiah 6 and Revelations 4.
While the words to the hymn first took form in the early life of the church, the song as we know it today originates much later. In 1906, Ralph Vaughn Williams published his arrangement in The English Hymnal, a collection of Anglican hymns. Williams took the 17th century French folk tune PICARDY and combined it with the translation of the “Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn” set to verse by Anglican priest Gerald Moultrie (1829-1885). Most of what I read said Moultrie is the translator of the text from Greek into English, although some say Moultrie in turn was inspired by the prose translation of the ancient chant by fellow Anglican JM Neale (1818-1866).
All that is to say: WHO wrote the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is not going to be answered succinctly! And really, how beautiful that this song – one of the earliest known hymns we still sing today – has been formed by so many heart, minds, souls, and hands.
All I know is this – When I hear it, I want to weep.
Honestly, it is difficult to find a bad version of this hymn. There may be some more or less to your liking, but not really qualitatively bad. There are a billion (or slightly less) versions on Youtube – I encourage you to browse and find some that really move you.
Fernando Ortego really knows how to present hymns. This one is beautiful.
This haunting version for Kin Collective features a gorgeous-voiced lead singer.