December 4, 2011

A Hymn for John the Baptist

I attended a wonderful Service of Nine Lessons & Carols for Advent at Pittsburgh’s Calvary Episcopal Church this afternoon. Music was provided by the Calvary choirs and Chatham Baroque. The service included a number of congregation hymns—it is always wonderful to sing hymns in a reverberant space with a large congregation—all on Advent themes.

The text of one of the hymns, “The son of Zechariah,” had unfamiliar words, though it was set to the familiar Es flog ein kleins Waldvögelein. As it happens, the hymn was written by Calvary’s rector, the Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, who is responsible for quite a bit of poetry. The hymn is the only one I can think of that is substantially about John the Baptist. As I sang the hymn, which is reprinted below, the words alternately surprised and delighted me. (I have done my best to render the text, which was printed in the program with music, as a proper poem.)

The son of Zechariah


The son of Zechariah to Jordan’s shores once came.
The Harbinger, the Herald, in Jesus’ holy Name
He preached to all repentance, to crowds, the vipers’ brood,
With camel’s hair his raiment, and locusts as his food.

A voice, in desert crying, “Prepare for God a route,
Your Savior soon is coming, from Jesse’s Tree a shoot,
To rescue you from Satan, and from the snares of Hell,
To bring you to his bosom, the Lord, Emmanuel.

The people, so expectant, Messiah-seeking horde,
Asked John if he were Jesus, the long-awaited Lord.
“I baptize you with water. One mightier than I
Is coming; I his sandals, cannot presume to tie.”

“He will baptize with fire, the Holy Spirit’s blaze,
He old men will astonish, the youth he will amaze.
The tax collectors, soldiers, and folk of every kind
Will claim Him as Redeemer, and in him peace will find.”

Forerunner of our Savior, who leapt in Lizbeth’s womb,
Declared that in Christ’s Kingdom there is for sinners room.
You baptized Christ the Savior, and then the heavenly Dove
Descended on him boldly, sign of the Father’s love.

O blessed John the Baptist, with wonder, awe, and mirth
Help now to make us ready to celebrate Christ’s birth,
Attended by his angels and all the heavenly host,
We sing to God the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost.

Copyright © 2009 by Harold T. Lewis. Reproduced by permission.

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