October 26th is dedicated on the calendar of commemorations to three stellar hymnwriters: Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heerman, and Paul Gerhardt. Where would we be without their rich texts? Nicolai was also a gifted composer, writing the text and tune for "Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying," known as the "King of Chorales," as well as "O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright," known as the "Queen of Chorales." The circumstances which called into being these two great hymns and the classic chorales to which they are wed are tragic. Pestilence raged in Westphalia. At Unna, where Nicolai was pastor, 1,300 villagers died of the plague between July, 1597, and January, 1598. During one week in August, 170 victims were claimed by death!
From the parsonage, which overlooked the churchyard, Nicolai witnessed the steady procession of burials and the regular digging of graves. In the midst of all this death and sadness, Nicolai wrote a series of meditations entitled, "Freuden Spiegel," or "Mirror of Joy." His purpose, stated in the preface, dated August 10, 1598, was "to leave it behind me (if God should call me from this world) as a token of my peaceful, joyful Christian departure, or (if God should spare me in health) to comfort sufferers whom He should also visit with the pestilence....There seemed to me nothing more sweet, delightful and agreeable, than the contemplation of the noble, sublime doctrine of Eternal Life obtained through the Blood of Christ...I...searched the Scriptures as to what they revealed on this matter...then day by day I wrote out my meditations, found myself, thank God! wonderfully well, comforted in heart, joyful in spirit and truly content." Both of these classic hymns appeared for the first time in his "Mirror of Joy." As a title to "Wachet auf" Nicolai wrote, "Of the voice at Midnight, and the Wise Virgins who meet their Heavenly Bridegroom. Mt. 25." The title to "Wie schon" reads, "A spiritual bridal song of the believing soul concerning Jesus Christ, her Heavenly Bridegroom, founded on the 45th Psalm of the prophet David." Two treasures. The first is presented here:
"Wake, awake, for night is flying,"
The watchmen on the heights are crying:
"Awake, Jerusalem, arise!"
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices:
"Oh, where are ye, ye virgins wise?"
The bridegroom comes, awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
With bridal care
To meet the bridegroom, who is near."
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
And all her heart with joy is springing;
She wakes, she rises from her gloom.
For her Lord comes down all-glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious;
Her star is ris'n, her light is come.
Now come, Thou Blessed One,
Lord Jesus, God's own Son,
We enter all
The wedding hall
To eat the Supper at Thy call.
Now let all the heav'ns adore Thee,
Let saints and angels sing before Thee
With harp and cymbals' clearest tone.
Of one pearl each shining portal,
Where, joining with the choir immortal,
We gather round Thy radiant throne.
No eye has see the light,
No ear has heard the might
Of Thy glory;
Therefore will we
Sing hymns of praise and joy to Thee!