Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates | O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates | O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Liturgy Lesson: December 8, 2019 – Advent 2
Prelude (Ending with Kids Choir)
Musical Introit – O come, o come Emmanuel
Call to Worship: John 1:1-5, 14
Prayer of Invocation
Kids Choir Anthem: Laudamus Te
Hymn of Adoration: Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates (#198)
Prayer and Song of Confession: Come, Lord Jesus
Word of Assurance: Isaiah 62:11-12 and Col. 1:12-14
Hymn of Praise: Thou Who Wast Rich (#230)
Advent Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Advent Doxology: The First Noel (last verse)
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
Supper: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (#194); All Praise to Thee, Eternal God
Closing Hymn: O Come, All Ye Faithful (#208, vss. 1-3)
Sung response: Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates!

Text: Georg Weissel (1642), tr. by Catherine Winkworth (1855)
Tune: Anonymous (ca. 1789)

This hymn, based on Psalm 24, was written by a Protestant minister named George Weissel. He wrote it for his congregation in the small German town of Königsburg (“Town of the King”). Normally associated with Advent or Palm Sunday, it is a fanfare-like declaration of the coming of the Messiah. The celebratory spirit of the anthem is especially meaningful when we consider that it was written at the height of the Thirty Years War, which by 1642 had decimated the population of Germany by 40% or 50%. Some historians speculate that the Swedish army’s invasion and the famine and disease that resulted, dwindled the German male population by two-thirds. 18,000 villages and over 1,500 towns were destroyed in Germany. Because the war was largely fought in rural areas, Weissel’s town was deeply affected. This brings added meaning to his authoring of the second and third stanzas, which declare, “O blest the land, the city blessed, where Christ the Ruler is confessed,” in which “happy hearts and happy homes” can look to Christ as “the helper just” who brings “pity in distress.” The One Year Book of Hymns comments on the writing of this hymn, telling us that “despite the horrors that surrounded him, Weissel found a reason for rejoicing because of God’s arrival in our world in the person of Jesus Christ. He was Immanuel – “God with us.” Weissel eventually died at the height of the war, but that death brought the glad realization of the hope that he held in his heart, the hope that he penned in the words of this hymn. Consider the first and last stanzas in which we have the very heart of that hope, and the very summary of the Advent season.

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates!
Behold, the King of Glory waits;
The King of kings is drawing near,
The Savior of the world is here.

So come, my Sovereign, enter in!
Let new and nobler life begin.
Thy Holy Spirit guid us on,
Until the glorious crown be won!

Last Sunday we began our worship with “Joy to the World.” One interesting thing to note is that the opening melodic line of “Lift Up Your Heads” is an exact inversion of “Joy to the World.” In their opening four measures, these two fraternal “tw-hymns” (ok, that’s a stretch) both span the whole octave and are identical in rhythm. They are only separated by one page in our hymnal. As a fun experiment, try singing the opening line “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” and then sing the opening phrase of this hymn as an immediate response. You will end up right back where you started. This mirrors the biblical journey that starts and ends in paradise. If we look at our hymns this way, then the music, irrespective of the text, is frequently taking us from Genesis to Revelation. This journey from creation to re-creation, of course, applies not just to the Advent season, but to the entire Christian life.

This brilliant tune is from an anonymous source and was published in Psalmodia Evangelica in 1789 by Thomas Williams. Some historians attribute the tune to Handel, who famously set the text to Psalm 24:7 in a chorus from Messiah, which can be heard here. The great composers always know how to be economical in their writing. They achieve great effects with minimal effort. In that manner, this tune has evidence of a master’s hand. It has a grace and uniformity from start to finish. It’s one long brush stroke, a direct flight without layover, where each phrase leads seamlessly into the next. This sort of writing helps illuminate the full meaning of each verse of text, particularly when the sung text is a long, extended thought. This is the case in the fourth verse, which is an uninterrupted sentence, and by itself is a brilliant summary of the liturgical purpose of our call to worship:

Fling wide the portals of your heart;
make it a temple set apart
from earthly use for heaven’s employ,
adorned with prayer and love and joy.

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Choir/Organ version
Guitar-only version

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Text: Latin antiphons, 12th cent., translated 1851
Music: Plainsong chant, 13th cent.

This is perhaps the closest thing to pure chant that we have in our hymnal. Imagine you are in a glorious old cathedral, one of those with a three-second reverb. Hear the haunting opening phrase that starts in minor key as it effortlessly expresses the desperation and longing of your heart for a savior. Then take a deep breath, and inhale the Holy Spirit, and let that quiet moment of inspiration be like the downward motion of the diving board as it prepares you to spring up and out into the shouts of “Rejoice! Rejoice!”. This is where the chant (even without any harmony grounding it) hints at G-major, reassuring us that Christ is coming! It is, if only for two measures, a musical depiction of Hebrews 11: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.”

This ancient advent hymn originated in part from the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons,” part of the medieval Catholic Advent liturgy. One way that the medieval Christians heightened their anticipation for the second coming was by praying the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons.” Antiphony basically means “one sound against another”; put simply it is a call and response, an echo effect that was employed quite frequently in the old cathedrals, where one (or several) voices would sing a phrase, and it would then be answered by the choir or congregation. Sometimes this musical tennis match would be played from balcony to balcony or back to front of Cathedral. In the case of this particular chant, the dialogue is obvious. Each verse that starts with “O come” is the cry for help, and the “rejoice” refrain is the answer.

During the late middle ages, on each day of the week leading up to Christmas, one responsive verse would be chanted, each including a different Old Testament name for the coming Messiah. Each of the seven prayers expounds upon one of the names for the Messiah:

“O Emmanuel”: God with us (Isaiah 7:14, Mt 1:23)
“O Radix Jesse”: Rod of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1)
“O Oriens”: Dayspring, Morning Star (Malachi 4:2, Luke 1:78-79)
”O Clavis David”: Key of David (Isaiah 22:22)
“O Rex”: King of Gentiles (Isaiah 60:3)
“O Adonai”: Lord of might, give of the law, Ruler over house of Israel (Exodus 19:16)
“O Sapientia”: Wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24)

The first seven letters of these titles form an acrostic, which in Latin would spell “Ero cras,” which means “I am coming tomorrow.” This playful and prayerful puzzle points to the birth of Christ, and gives Him a silent but very present voice in the chant. With a form like this we are taken into dialogue with God Himself. As these verses unfold, Christ is whispering in our ears and writing on our hearts the truth that sets us free. “I am coming, and even now, I am here.” What a beautiful embodiment (an ‘incarnation’ if you will) of that profound and mystical reality of Emmanuel—God with us! Remember, worship is not a meeting about God. It is an encounter with God. During this sublime chant, if only for a few moments, we can approach Emmanuel, Rod of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords; we can kneel before him and hear him breathe. Each exhale of His spirit is saying, “I am here, I have come, and I am coming again.” As you sing, lean in closely and listen. You may even hear heaven’s antiphony, an ancient echo of the prophet Isaiah. “Comfort, comfort my people” says your God, “speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, and her iniquity is pardoned” (Is. 40:1-2).

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