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Savior of the Nations, Come
by Wil Smith
Savior of the Nations, Come,
Virgin’s son, make here your home.
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.
This ancient hymn was written by Ambrose of Milan back in the 4th Century, and translated by Martin Luther in the 16th shortly after the Lutheran Reformation. The angular melody and stark harmonies for me capture something that seems to be the opposite of advent: a sense of urgency. Many of Martin Luther’s hymns musically are more syncopated, more dance-like. But this one, as declamatory as the text, is direct and to the point.
In music and art, I always love when opposing ideas are brought together and made to exist in the same space. Here, it’s the juxtaposition between Advent, the season of waiting, coupled with the urgency of the text and tune. It’s almost as if we can wait no longer, that the text is summoning up the birth of Jesus (whether he’s ready or not!)
Many composers have been inspired by this text and melody, including my favorite, J.S. Bach. I frequently play one of his settings on the first Sunday of Advent each year. This year, I played my own setting that I wrote when I was in grad school. All of the notes that you hear in the piece are solely the 6 notes of the melody, stretched out into a chord that seems to be frozen in time. Sometimes that chord is stretched apart, and sometimes it is clumped together. And it’s always moving very slowly, evoking both the sense of waiting and urgent anticipation.
Now your manger, shining bright,
Hallows night with newborn light.
Night cannot this light subdue;
Let our faith shine ever new.
As we celebrate this end of the advent season and our anticipation crescendos toward Christmas, remember to slow down and listen, and appreciate the quiet and the stillness.