Lo, He Comes

During this time whilst we can’t sing together in worship we are aiming to post a different hymn each week. For some Sundays it will be the obvious hymn in Common Praise for a particular Sunday and a brief commentary – partly with reference to The Penguin Book of Hymns edited by Ian Bradley, The Nation’s Favourite Hymns by Andrew Barr or research on the internet – will be published with our hymn choice for the week. The words of the hymn will be provided alongside a recording of the hymn, courtesy of Lucy Colbourne at home whilst Lancaster University is in lockdown. This will have been recorded by Billy Colbourne (Assistant Organist) and includes use of his Hauptwerk organ also at home, with the sounds of Salisbury Cathedral’s organ.

Charles Pavey – Organist & Choirmaster

Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending

Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
once for favoured sinners slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
God appears on earth to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshippers:
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture,
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, Amen, let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Saviour, take the power and glory,
claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Charles Wesley and John Cennick

Tune: Helmsley
Music: Melody noted by Thomas Olivers
included in John Wesley's Select Hymns with Tunes Annext

CCLI - 1073121






Hymn Commentary 

Advent isn’t advent without Lo, he comes with clouds descending…well OK it’s my favourite advent hymn and I make sure it gets at least one outing each year.  As Holy Trinity’s Hymn for the Week is now fortnightly (the current lockdown is thankfully not expected to be long enough to return it to weekly), we are only going to have time for two Hymns for the Week over the four week season of preparation and waiting that builds up to the celebration of Christ’s nativity.  Although the hymn is included in the Advent section of most hymnals, it is also one of very few hymns that involves itself with the difficult doctrine of Christ’s second coming.

So as much as the theology behind the hymn may be challenging, the literary pedigree of Lo, he comes with clouds descending is equally complex.  It started life in 1752 when John Cennick (1725-1799), the first Methodist lay preacher, published a hymn which began:

Lo, he cometh, endless trumpets
blow before his bloody sign!
Midst ten thousand saints and angels
see the Crucified shine.
Welcome, welcome, bleeding lamb!

Six years later Charles Wesley (1707-88) got hold of the hymn and, not surprisingly, virtually re-wrote it.  But it didn’t stop there because, in 1760, Martin Madan (1726-90) also got hold of the hymn, re-introduced some of John Cennick’s words and took the hymn to six verses; nowadays we sing four verses which are a mixture of all three men’s work. 

The connections to the Wesley family and Methodism continue with the hymn tune that is invariably sung to this week’s Hymn for the Week.  Called Helmsley, there are several theories about the origin of the melody but the most likely is that it was derived from an Irish concert room song – Guardian Angels, now protect me – by Thomas Olivers.  Born in the Welsh village of Tregynon, Montgomeryshire in 1725, he was a Methodist preacher and hymn-writer.  He joined The Methodist Society and met one of the founders of Methodism, John Wesley.  Olivers edited the Arminian Magazine(which was called the Methodist Magazine from 1798) but, because he lacked a formal education, printing errors became so numerous that Wesley removed Olivers from this position.  Despite this they remained good friends (often viewed as a father-son relationship) and, on his death in 1799, Olivers was buried in Wesley’s grave in London.    

The tune at least was a favourite of Queen Victoria.  When a new organist at her private chapel played another tune, which had also been published with the words in Hymns Ancient and Modern, a royal request came that only Helmsley should be used in future.  If only organists were always treated so gently when they choose the wrong tune to a hymn!  Mind you, I can’t imagine singing Lo, he comes with clouds descending to anything other than Helmsley.   

Charles Pavey - Organist & Choirmaster

Anthem for the Week