I love Advent hymns. My mother was always adamant that Christians had no business singing Christmas hymns prior to at least Christmas eve. We only have four Sundays on which to sing Advent hymns, so there’s no musical reason — and no theologically sound reason — to rush past our season of hopeful expectation.
Well, I love most Advent hymns. I get very tired of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” sung far too slowly. If we must sing slowly, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is preferable.
I love Rowland Prichard’s melody (called HYFRYDOL) with any hymn, and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” to it is probably my favorite Advent hymn, for that reason and for the theologically rich text.
“Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” is an adaptation of the closing verses of Psalm 24, the anticipation that the mighty Lord, who has supported the Israelites in battle, will now make a triumphal entrance:
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.
According to Artur Weisler, many commentators have proposed that the psalm refers to the processional bringing of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. More likely, he suggests, the psalm refers to the presence of God within the temple. According to tradition, “the psalm was sung at a later period every Sunday in the Jewish worship of the Temple.” Weisler’s conclusion is very helpful for framing our thoughts in Advent:
the ancient song of the epiphany of God in the Temple of Jerusalem could become for the God-fearing man of [ancient Israel] a hymn which in spite of the great interval in time told him of the coming of God in his own time and of God’s future coming. And this is the same faith, joining together the things of the past, the present and the future, which inspires us to celebrate every year the advent of God in Jesus Christ by singing the hymn, ‘Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates!’ — the faith in the God who is and who was and who is to come.
Christians, naturally, think about a second entrance into Jerusalem, an incarnate King of glory who comes with humility and grace.
The psalm was adapted by a German minister named George Weissel in 1623. It’s the first hymn in the German Protestant hymnal. Catherine Winkworth translated Weissel’s text in the mid-nineteenth century, and it appears in many American hymnals. However, I much prefer the melody common in Germany, a setting by Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen.
Here’s a lovely rendition, by the Leipzig Thomanerchor: