A Great and Mighty Wonder

A mid-nineteenth century translation of a seventh century Greek carol put to the music of a sixteenth-century German tune at the beginning of the twentieth century, this carol is representative of the technique of borrowing from pre-existing carols which many of todays most popular Christmas songs arise from.

The text of A Great and Mighty Wonder comes from serial carol author John Mason Neale (1818-1866) who is perhaps best known from Good King Wenceslas. Neale had become influenced by the Oxford Movement within the Church of England while at Trinity College, Cambridge and was later ordained as a priest in 1841, becoming the Vicar of Crawley in 1842 where he was appalled that a churchwarden would stand on the altar to open the east window. His Oxford Movement orientation would bring him into conflict with members of his congregation and his diocesan bishop and by 1846 he was forced to leave he position to become the warden of Sackville College almshouses close to East Grinstead, where he remained for the last two decades of his life. His salary of £27 a year was comparatively low, but more damaging to Neale was that for the majority of this period he was denied the right to administer the sacrament at Holy Communion due to his introduction of a rood screen and vested altar which was seen as Catholic influenced by others in the church. While this may have frustrated Neale, it led him to have time to spend on his hobby of translations of early Church hymns for which he is now renowned.

Neale aimed to bring the rich traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church into the practice of the Church of England and saw the translation of carols as a means to do so. His Hymns of the Eastern Church, published in 1862, features this carol as a translation of a poem by St Germanus who lives from 634 to 734 (although Neale incorrectly attributed it to St Anatolius) and was sung in Greece on Christmas Day.

The hymn that Neale translated consisted of two stanzas, which were reversed in order in the English translation which consists of six verses – the first stanza beginning with the verse translated as “While thus they sing your monarch”. The third verse of the translation is in fact the ending of the original hymn.

For the 1906 book The English Hymnal the translation by Neale had to be modified slightly to fit to the German folk carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” which would provide the backing music. In this Neale”s third verse would become the carol”s refrain, but would lose its first line in the process. The 1906 version was modified again, omitting the last verse, in the 1950 Hymns Ancient and Modern but was restored in 1962″s Baptist Hymn Book as well as the Church Hymnary.

Percy Dearmer”s 1931 Songs of Praise also featured the carol with a revised first and second verse, closer in content to the German hymn from which the music came, as well as changing the word ransom to succour later in the carol.

In a more modern version, the 1986 Carols for Today changes the first verse again and the last line of the refrain to the less gendered “And peace on earth. Amen”

Lyrics

A great and mighty wonder
Our Christmas festal brings:
On earth a lowly infant,
Behold the King of kings!

The Word is made incarnate,
Descending from on high;
And cherubim sing anthems
To shepherds from the sky.

And we with them, triumphant,
Repeat the hymn again:
“To God on high be glory,
And peace on earth to men!”

While thus they sing your Monarch,
Those bright angelic bands,
Rejoice, ye vales and mountains!
Ye oceans, clap your hands!

Since all He comes to ransom,
By all be He adored;
The Infant born in Bethlehem,
The Savior and the Lord!

And idol forms shall perish,
And error shall decay,
And Christ shall wield His scepter,
Our Lord and God for aye.

Alternative 1st and 2nd verses by Percy Dearmer, 1931

A great and mighty wonder,
A full blessed cure!
The Rose has come to blossom
Which shall for ay endure

Word has dwelt among us
The true light from on high!
“To God on high be glory,
And peace on earth to men!”

Alternative 1st verse from 1986 Carols for Today

A great and mighty wonder,
Redemption drawing near!
The Virgin bears the infact,
The Price of peace is here.