“O Mercy Divine” Wesley’s Original Text and Weir’s New Carol Setting for Nine Lessons and Carols

On Christmas Eve a new setting of a Charles Wesley Christmas hymn by Judith Weir was premiered as part of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge University. Weir set nine stanza’s of Charles Wesley’s 1745 text “O Mercy Divine.” The premier performance may be heard as part of free on-demand streaming of the festival at the BBC Radio 4 website until January 21. It begins at 1:05:30. The text and a note from the composer appear in the order of service on the college’s website. The stanzas included in Weir’s setting are:

O mercy divine,
how couldst thou incline,
my God, to become such an infant as mine?

What a wonder of grace,
the Ancient of Days
is found in the likeness of Adam’s frail race!

He comes from on high,
who fashioned the sky,
and meekly vouchsafes in a manger to lie.

The angels, she knew,
had worshipped him too,
and still they confess adoration his due.

Their newly born king,
transported they sing,
and heaven and earth with the triumph doth ring.

The wise men adore,
and bring him their store,
the rich are permitted to follow the poor.

To the inn they repair,
to see the young heir;
the inn is a palace, for Jesus is there.

Who now would be great,
and not rather wait
on Jesus their Lord in his humble estate?

Like him would I be,
my master I see
in a stable; a stable shall satisfy me.

A cello accompanies the choir. In her note on the carol, Weir describes the accompaniment as “a musical ‘flying carpet,” on which the choir can comfortably tread and later float above. The cello’s interludes between sets of stanzas help structure the hearer’s experience of the text.

Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord (London, 1745) in which Wesley first published these words contains seventeen other hymns. One of these, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus” is frequently sung. The others are not. Weir’s carol followed the scripture telling the story of the coming of the wise men. Accordingly she omits four stanzas that mention the animals, Mary, the angels, and the shepherds. She also omits the final two stanzas. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is often said of Wesley’s hymns that they begin on earth and end in heaven. While this cannot be said of the text as Weir sets it, it is true when the last stanza is included. As reprinted on the website of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, It runs as follows:

O mercy divine,
how couldst thou incline,
my God, to become such an infant as mine!

What a wonder of grace,
the ancient of days
is found in the likeness of Adam’s frail race.

He comes from on high,
who fashioned the sky,
and meekly vouchsafes in a manger to lie.

Our God ever blest
with oxen doth rest,
is nursed by his creature and hangs at the breast.

So heavenly-mild
his innocence smiled,
no wonder the mother should worship the child.

The angels, she knew
had worshipped him too,
and still they confess adoration his due.

On Jesus’s face,
with eager amaze,
and pleasure extatic the cherubim gaze.

Their newly born king,
transported they sing,
and heaven and earth with the triumph doth ring.

The shepherds behold
him promised of old,
by angels attended, by prophets foretold.

The wise men adore,
and bring him their store,
the rich are permitted to follow the poor.

To the inn they repair,
to see the young heir;
the inn is a palace, for Jesus is there.

Who now would be great,
and not rather wait
on Jesus their Lord in his humble estate?

Like him would I be,
my master I see
in a stable; a stable shall satisfy me.

With him I reside:
the manger shall hide
mine honour; the manger shall bury my pride.

And here will I lie,
till raised up on high
with him on the cross I recover the sky.

The reprinting of the hymn including that at Hymnary.org reprintings of the hymn arrange it for a four-line meter by combining the first two lines of each stanza into one and combining the stanzas in pairs. Since this requires an even number of stanza’s the penultimate stanza is omitted.

Weir’s note in the order of service reflects this shorter version. She states that Wesley’s full text was fourteen stanzas, not the fifteen found in the 1745 printing of the collection.

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