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Ancient hymn given new life for meditation on the Incarnation

Adoration to the Blessed Sacrament

Sidney de Almeida | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 12/04/22

"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" is composer's contribution to a culture of silent adoration.

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Lessons and Carols services are a popular and time-honored way for churches to celebrate Advent and Christmas. At Our Lady of the Annunciation in Charles Town, West Virginia, they do Lessons and Carols a little differently. 

First, because Lessons and Carols are more Christmas-themed, the church doesn’t jump the gun and schedule the service during Advent. They wait until the actual Christmas Season – some time between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany.

Second, after a full program of readings and Christmas music, one of the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem, an order based at Annunciation, begins Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. A time of quiet prayer and reflection commences, culminating in Benediction. 

And the small choir at Annunciation always provides some choral meditation during that time of Eucharistic Adoration. 

The congregation has just heard the story of the Coming of Christ. Now they have a chance to meditate on the Incarnation in his presence in the Eucharist.

Annunciation is blessed to have among its singers a professional composer whose aim is to write liturgical music to glorify God and edify the faithful.

“One of the singers in the choir suggested that it would be neat for me to write an arrangement of ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’ to use during that adoration period during Christmastide,” said composer Adam Taylor. And that’s what he did. 

Taylor, who has a bachelor’s degree in music composition from nearby Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, composes a lot of the music used throughout the year at Annunciation. 

“It’s just such a part of who I am and how I experience the liturgy,” he said in an interview. “A lot of my music comes from just the love of the liturgy, and that’s the most important thing in my life. It’s kind of affected how I view and how I participate in the liturgy. A lot of times I’m thinking about the texts. I’ll find a liturgical text that inspires me, and I’ll go home and write something, start a piece of music based on that.” 

The sound of silence

Now, one can sample Taylor’s work without having to visit West Virginia. The Vos Omnes Virtual Choir recently recorded ‘Let All Mortal Flesh’ in collaboration with composer Mark Nowakowski and the Benedict XVI Institute in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The arrangement uses the familiar tune that Ralph Vaughan Williams made famous, but couches it in harmonies that are striking and stirring. 

Taylor explains that the text comes from the Cherubic Hymn of the ancient Divine Liturgy of St. James. The original prayer was sung while the priest was processing with the bread and wine to be consecrated during the liturgy.

The text was translated into English in the 19th century by the Anglican hymnographer Gerard Moultrie, and it was set to a 17th-century French tune, Picardy

“It’s kind of a neat amalgamation of all of this building up of Church history,” Taylor said. “It started as an ancient Eastern liturgical text, then it was picked up in the West as a devotional text, and they’ve got this French melody associated with it, and now it’s popular at least in English speaking countries.”

As for his arrangement, he hopes it will lead listeners to “make room for more silence in their life, so they can listen to God and focus on him more.”

“The point of ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’ is not just about being quiet; it’s making room for God, silencing ourselves and silencing our very being and making room for our creator.”

That’s very much in line with the spirit of prayerful waiting during Advent – and speechless awe at the crib of the Word Made Flesh. 

Says Taylor, “I hope that my setting of it will provide meditation for people to be able to grow closer to him, especially through the Eucharist and especially at this time of year.”

Tags:
ArtCatholicismChristmasPrayerSpiritual Life
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