Advent hymn reveals creation of the universe, poetically naming its author

By Pat Wettstein | Special to The Compass | December 1, 2016

Editor’s note: This is part two of a four-part series on hymns used in parishes at Advent. Four music ministers from parishes in the Diocese of Green Bay have agreed to describe one of their favorite Advent hymns and how it is used during Advent liturgies. This week’s hymn is “Creator of the Stars of Night.”

Advent is upon us once again. So why is Advent so important? Well, there are two times during the Liturgical Year when we as Christians are reminded to slow down and reflect a bit. One is Lent which is more penitential in nature, while the other is Advent, which is more akin to looking beyond oneself to ponder on the big picture of life.

Pat Wettstein, second from left, volunteer choir director and former director of music and liturgy at Good Shepherd Parish in Chilton, is pictured with the Good Shepherd Choral Praise Choir as they perform “Creator of the Stars of Night.” (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Pat Wettstein, second from left, volunteer choir director and former director of music and liturgy at Good Shepherd Parish in Chilton, is pictured with the Good Shepherd Choral Praise Choir as they perform “Creator of the Stars of Night.” (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

I have always likened Advent to the last phase of pregnancy in anticipation of the new life that is to come. We clean the house a little more than usual and we prepare the nursery to make sure everything is in place for that new arrival. It is both an anxious and thought-reflective period; a time to think of our own mortality as we remember all those people who have come before us and shaped our lives and now we are in a position to shape someone else’s life. Eventually we become those very people who have come before — life lived and life regenerated.

There is an Advent song, an old, very-ancient Christian hymn, that gives us the chance to enter in that reflection, “Creator of the Stars of Night.” At my parish we sing this at the Liturgy of the Mass, usually during the Preparation of Gifts or at a parish Advent Evening Prayer service. It was composed in England as a monastic evening hymn between the 7th to 9th centuries and was originally in Latin. The actual origin and author is unclear.

The English version of the text was translated by J.M. Neale in 1852 when the meter was changed to a Conditor Sarum melody and included in the English first edition of the “Hymnal Noted.” The hymn’s texts have various scriptural sources, both from the Old and New Testaments. In the listing of song topics from Oregon Catholic Press, a Catholic music publisher, it is classified to be about salvation and the second coming.

So the next question is: how did it get into our modern Catholic usage as an Advent hymn? In 1903, Pope Pius X issued a moto proprio, or letter, encouraging the return to the musical traditions of earlier centuries, specifically plainsong. There are other familiar hymns along this vein, one being the very popular, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

So what is so unique about this hymn? Well first of all, it is not a cutesy hymn of Jesus’ birth. It is a hymn instead that hinges the two bookends, if you will, of our Christian belief: Incarnation and the coming of God in glory at the end times.

God came to earth and took on human flesh to give us the promise of salvation. God came as a humble child, not as a monarch king. There are texts from the hymn of St. Paul: “At thy great name of Jesus, now all knees must bend, all hearts must bow.” Further texts read: “Come in your holy might we pray, redeem us for eternal day.” The last verse is the doxology of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

What it does is teach us a theological story of the cosmology of an everlasting creation. The very first line and the title of the hymn itself set the mood for “Creator of the Stars of Night.” Not only are we starting with the creation of the universe, we are poetically naming its author.

December is the month of darkness, but at Christmas the winter solstice brings longer days. Christ’s birth gives us that burst of light and that light has transformed the earth ever since. So you see, this hymn gives us the ability to recognize the Jesus of Christmas in a much broader, more transfigured image. This is the Jesus of the universe, the Jesus who saves us and gives us new life in our birth, death and the promise of eternal salvation.

Wettstein is a volunteer choir director and former director of music and liturgy at Good Shepherd Parish, Chilton.

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