All My Heart This Night Rejoices

Paul Gerhardt, 1653; stanzas 1, 5–7 trans. Catherine Winkworth, 1858
Addressed to each other, then the Lord
All my heart this night rejoicesLuke 2:8–20
   as I hear
   far and near
sweetest angel voices.
“Christ is born,” their choirs are singing
   till the air
now with joy is ringing.
Forth today the Conqu’ror goeth,Rev. 5:5
   who the foe,
   sin and woe,
death and hell, o’erthroweth.1 Cor. 15:56–57
God is man, man to deliver;John 1:14
   his dear Son
   now is one
with our blood forever.Heb. 2:14
Shall we still dread God’s displeasure,Rom. 8:31–32
   who, to save,
   freely gave
his most cherished Treasure?Matt. 3:17
To redeem us, he hath given
   his own Son
   from the thronePhil. 2:6–7
of his might in heaven.
He becomes the Lamb that takethJohn 1:29
   sin away
   and for aye
full atonement maketh.1 John 2:2
For our life his own he tenders;
   and our race,
   by his grace,
meet for glory renders.John 17:24; 2 Cor. 3:18
Hark! a voice from yonder manger,
   soft and sweet,
   doth entreat:
“Flee from woe and danger.Matt. 4:17; 1 Tim. 6:11
Brethren, from all ills that grieve you,Heb. 2:11
   you are freed;Gal. 5:1
   all you need
I will surely give you.”Matt. 6:32–33; John 14:13–14
Come, then, banish all your sadness,
   one and all,
   great and small;Matt. 19:14
come with songs of gladness.Ps. 118:15
Love him who with love is glowing;1 John 4:9–10
   hail the star,2 Pet. 1:19
   near and far
light and joy bestowing.Matt. 2:10
Dearest Lord, thee will I cherish.
   Though my breath
   fail in death,
yet I shall not perish,John 11:25; Phil. 1:21
but with thee abide forever
   there on high,
   in that joy
which can vanish never.Is. 61:7; John 16:22

Gerhardt’s hymns often give us the best aspects of Pietism without any of the more sentimental side-effects of it. This one is no exception. It begins by placing us with the shepherds who first heard the good news of Christ’s advent. Gerhardt sums up the angel’s famous declaration simply as “Christ is born.” While this may seem like a violence against Luke’s gospel, Gerhardt fills in the missing information, which the angels gave, in this and the following stanzas. The angels’ “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy” is captured in the first stanza’s first and last lines. Their “a Savior who is Christ the Lord” is explained in the second stanza. But it is also amplified. Gerhardt describes the advent of Christ in terms of a conqueror going out to battle. This is especially poetic given the lowly estate of Christ’s first coming.

In an age with much less fear of God than Gerhardt’s seventeenth century, the third stanza of this hymn may have less effect. A modern evangelical audience is not as often tempted to fear God’s displeasure, but this stanza reminds us that, but for Christ, we certainly should. By explaining the advent as a proof of God’s love for man, Gerhardt puts the mystery of advent in evangelical perspective. The medieval catholic church was amazed at the advent because, embroiled in Platonism as they were, it seemed mysterious and wonderful that God would take on flesh. But our flesh, as Scripture teaches us, was made in his image and we shouldn’t be offended to find God taking it on. The most amazing thing is that he took it on to atone for a race of rebels. That is Gerhardt’s cause for amazement.

The fourth stanza’s clear explanation of the atonement in scriptural language ought to elicit wonder and joy, but if it doesn’t, the fifth stanza surely will. It begins as a fanciful invitation to hear the “soft and sweet” voice of the baby in the manger, delighting the sentimentalist in us all. The delight, however, is disarming, for—as inclined as we are in self-righteous complacency to domesticate the gospel—if we lower our guard for a moment, we may find ourselves vulnerable to its full force. The baby, it turns out, is not cooing but entreating: “flee from woe and danger.” Yes, we have ills that grieve us, but Christ has freed us from them. Thus the sixth stanza calls Christians to rejoice, and, fitting with the simplicity of the hymn, includes great and small. Finally the hymn closes with a reflection on eternal life in Christ.

Given the many topics covered in the hymn, it may at times seem to gloss over theological detail—a criticism often levelled at Pietistic hymns. In actuality, it does no more of this than a children’s catechism question. Gerhardt’s text describes the joy of the shepherds and angels at Christ’s birth, then it describes the saving work of Christ and the comfort and joy this gives us, and concludes with a statement of devotion and hope. A summary of these topics, given out to one another in a single song, can be very helpful in the same way that the occasional topical sermon can also be helpful.

It was Arthur Sullivan’s idea to combine this text with the seventeenth-century tune WARUM SOLLT’ ICH MICH DENN GRÄMMEN (sometimes called BONN), which makes the most of Gerhardt’s marvellous pattern of rhythms and rhymes, and makes them come alive in the congregant’s memory. The second sentence or clause of every stanza begins by moving in the opposite direction from the first, but with the same rhythm, so that as “All my heart this night rejoices” ascends, so “Christ is born” descends. The silences that come next (in measures 4 and 12), if strictly observed, add to the mnemonic power of the tune, since rests in hymn tunes are rare. It’s almost as if we pause to listen for the angel voices. The snappy three-syllable couplets in the middle of each sentence or clause fall happily under the dance-like rhythms of the tune, and the inverted melodic relation between lines 1 and 5 is handsomely balanced by the parallel relation between lines 2–4 and lines 6–8. Congregations, when they learn the tune, are likely not to forget it. And with it, they will receive a simple and comprehensive homily on the birth of Christ.