Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain

John of Damascus, 8th century; translated by John Mason Neale, 1853
Addressed to one another
Come, ye faithful, raise the strainEx. 15:1
   of triumphant gladness;
God hath brought his IsraelEx. 15:13
   into joy from sadness;John 16:20
loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yokeLev. 26:13; Ezek. 34:27
   Jacob’s sons and daughters;
led them with unmoistened footEx. 15:19
   through the Red Sea waters.
‘Tis the spring of souls today; Is. 55:10–11
   Christ hath burst his prison,Acts 2:24
and from three days’ sleep in deathMatt. 12:40
   as a sun hath risen;Mal. 4:2; Mark 16:2
all the winter of our sins,
   long and dark, is flyingSong 2:11; John 1:29
from his light, to whom we give
   laud and praise undying.Ps. 115:18
Now the queen of seasons, bright
   with the day of splendor,
with the royal feast of feasts,1 Cor. 5:8
   comes its joy to render;
comes to glad Jerusalem,Is. 40:2, 9
   who with true affection
welcomes in unwearied strains
   Jesus’ resurrection.
Neither might the gates of death,Job 38:17
   nor the tomb’s dark portal,
nor the watchers, nor the sealMatt. 27:66
   hold thee as a mortal:
but today amidst thine ownMark 16:14
   thou didst stand, bestowingLuke 24:36
thine own peace, which evermoreJohn 20:19, 21, 26; Phil 4:7
   passeth human knowing.

We may remember from some bygone poetry lessons the difference between the following figures of speech:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field (Matt. 13:44).
Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up (Matt. 15:13).

The first is a simile and the second is a metaphor. When our Lord uses them, he not only communicates his point well, he models for us the rhetorical value of such figures. The poetry of Scripture is rich with simile and metaphor, and if we are inerrantists we must believe that the poetics of Scripture are as perfect as its content. Given the hymn above, it seems John of Damascus believed this too, and he through this hymn’s translator preaches to us even today by those poetic means.

The first stanza, set alone, seems to report on the Exodus crossing of the Red Sea. But look carefully. The first line refers to “ye faithful” who, in the context of a congregational song, must be congregants. This is our only clue that the remaining lines of the first stanza are metaphorical. Though all the Israelites leaving Egypt must have had some faith to walk between walls of water held fast by an invisible hand, this isn’t quite what we think of when we sing “ye faithful” here. The reason why is a touch clearer by the third line. “His Israel” makes one think of Galatians 6:16’s “the Israel of God.” We must wait, however, until the second stanza to be completely sure that the recollection of Exodus 15 is used here as a metaphor. By the second line of stanza 2 we know for certain—“Christ has burst his prison.” The God of Israel redeemed his covenant people from slavery in Egypt, and the Israel of God is redeemed by Christ from slavery to sin. The metaphor is expanded in the opening line of stanza 2, which identifies the season in which the Exodus occurred. The day of resurrection is to souls what springtime is to inhabitants of earth. The imagery of spring is strengthened by an oblique reference to hibernation (Christ endures “three days’ sleep”) and a more concrete reference to “winter of our sins” which “is flying.” Notice that in this stanza a simile is added to the larger metaphor, with the comparison of Christ’s rising to that of the sun.

Carrying on the seasonal metaphor, the third stanza describes spring as the “queen of seasons, bright with the day of splendor.” The best thing about spring—what gives the queen her effulgence—is Easter. The metaphor gives way to allegory (where personified ideas act in a narrative) in the fourth line when spring “comes, its joy to render” to Jersusalem, a type for the church.

When Christ speaks in metaphor and simile, he often follows it with an interpretation, so his meaning is entirely clear. One thinks of the parable of the soils wherein Jesus presents a beautiful metaphor and then, much to the poet’s chagrin, dissolves all its images away for the sake of his disciples’ understanding. So too, John of Damascus. Our last stanza strips away both of the poetic devices and presents the thing signified. Christ’s resurrection is declared, in confessional language, along with the blessing which comes from it.

ST. KEVIN was composed for this text, with a melodic ascent in line 1 for the words “raise the strain.” The structure of the tune is fairly complex, with each of the first six lines assuming a different melodic shape, but this complexity is offset by a recurring rhythm that spans every pair of lines and that makes ST. KEVIN remarkably easy to learn. And a stately rhythm it is.

ST. KEVIN rhythm

Lines 1–2 (measures 1–4) survey the two pitches below and the two pitches above “mi” (A). Lines 3–4 develop the rhythm in a new, descending direction to match the changes of state described in the poem (being brought in st. 1, waking in st. 2, coming in st. 3). Then, lines 5–6 uncover yet further possibilities, but in a generally ascending direction for the loosing of the yoke and the flight of winter. The great drop at the end of line 6 comes unexpectedly, since everything has been preparing for a climactic high “do” (F). But it does not appear. Rather, a low “do” segues nicely to a triumphant return of the melody of lines 1–2 for the Red-Sea crossing in stanza 1 and for the concluding reference to Philippians 4:7 in stanza 4. Were the high “do” not supressed, there could be no such peroration. It is a peculiar musical pleasure—and one right for Easter—when the real ending is so much more satisfying than the one you saw coming.