During Advent, we read from the Book of Isaiah – a lot. One of the more familiar passages is the first reading for tomorrow — Tuesday in the Second Week of Advent. It is Isaiah 40:1-11. If you are familiar with this reading, you will probably be humming one or more hymns before you reach verse 11. Starting with verse 3,
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low;
The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (v. 3-5)
A voice says, “Cry out!” I answer, “What shall I cry out?”
“All flesh is grass, and all their glory like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower wilts, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.
So then, the people is the grass.
Though the grass withers and the flower wilts, the word of our God stands forever.” (v. 6-8)
Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings;
Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!
Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm;
Here is his reward with him, his recompense before him,
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care. (v. 9-11)
We sing some of my favorite hymns during Advent. Because the season is limited to four weeks, the hymns remain special for many years. (unlike Christmas carols and songs that we have been hearing since the middle of November!) Several composers have set Isaiah 40:1-11 to music. The 1982 hymn of Michael Joncas is called “A Voice Calls Out.” Notice how the verses echo the reading from Isaiah.
Console my people, the ones dear to me
Speak to the heart of Jerusalem:
“The time of your mourning is ended now
the Lord of life will come.”
A voice cries out in the wilderness prepare a way for the Lord;
A voice cries out in the wilderness make straight a highway for God.
Every valley is made a plain every mountain is leveled;
The glory of God shall be revealed and nations will sing your praise.
A voice shouts: “cry”; O, what shall I cry? All flesh is like grass and its flowers;
The grass may wither the flowers may fade but the word of the Lord is forever.
Zion shout from the mountain top lift up your voice, O Jerusalem
And say to the people of God’s own land: “Behold, behold your God.”
The Lord will appear as a shepherd holding his lamb in his arms,
Keeping his flock so close to his heart leading them all old and young.
Here are some of my other favorite hymns based on Isaiah 40:1-11: (You can find a performance of each by googling the title and composer.)
“All Flesh is Like the Grass” (2006) by Fernando Ortega
“Ready the Way” (1986) by Bob Hurd
“Ready the Way” (2004) by Curtis Stephan
“Let the Valley Be Raised” (1977) by Dan Schutte
“Every Valley” (1970) by Bob Dufford, SJ
and one, based on Isaiah 40:9-11 that we sing throughout the year:
“Like a Shepherd” (1976) by Bob Dufford, SJ
Q. What are your favorite Advent hymns?
Q. Are any of these hymns based on Isaiah 40:1-11 among your favorites?