Another important part of the Advent season is the story of John the Baptist, the second cousin of Jesus. John's was an unexpected birth, as told in Luke 1:5-24. His father Zechariah received a visit from the angel Gabriel to announce the birth and foretell some of the child's destiny. Elizabeth, his mother, was in the midst of her pregnancy when her kinswoman Mary came for a visit, to tell of her own angelic visit and another coming child. In Luke 1: 39-45, we hear that Elizabeth's yet-unborn child “leapt in her womb” at hearing Mary's greeting.
These aspects of John's story, are incorporated into this Latin hymn from the eighth century (Praecursor altus luminis) written by the Venerable Bede, a scholar and writer known more for his historical and theological writings than his handful of hymns. It was translated by John Mason Neale and first appeared in his Hymnal Noted. (1854).
The great forerunner of the morn,
The herald of the Word, is born:
And faithful hearts shall never fail
With thanks and praise his light to hail.
With heavenly message Gabriel came,
That John should be that herald’s name,
And with prophetic utterance told
His actions great and manifold.
John, still unborn, yet gave aright
His witness to the coming Light;
And Christ, the Sun of all the earth,
Fulfilled that witness at his birth.
But why should mortal accents raise
The hymn of John the Baptist’s praise?
Of whom, or e’er his course was run,
Spake God unto the Promised One?
“Behold, my herald, who shall go
Before thy face thy way to show,
And shine, as with the day-star’s gleam,
Before thine own eternal beam.”
All praise to our Creator be,
All praise, eternal Christ, to thee,
Whom with the Spirit we adore
Forever and forevermore.
the Venerable Bede, 8th cent.
tr. John Mason Neale, 1854; alt.
Tune: HERONGATE (L.M.)
English traditional melody
arr. Ralph Vaughan WIlliams, 1906
The window below is in St. Thomas's Church in Colnbrook, Berkshire, showing Elizabeth and her young son John. The banner around her depicts her most famous quotation, spoken to Mary at the great news: Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Little John is carrying the sign Vox clamantis in deserto (a voice crying in the wilderness).
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