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“Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” is called the “King of Chorales.” The words and tune were composed by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608) and published in 1599. Nicolai also wrote the hymn “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star”, which—as we learned in last month's newsletter—is the “Queen of Chorales”!

“Wake Awake” is associated with both Advent and the End Times. The tune, Wachet Auf, is based primarily on Matthew 25:1–13, Jesus’ parable of the bridesmaids, some of whom were prepared and some who were not. The verses also include numerous other biblical references:

In addition, we have, of course, the title's references to the sentinels' cries of joy from Isaiah 52:8.

The hymn is said to be related to the “watchmen’s songs” used in the Middle Ages. Instead of “the watchman summoning workers of darkness to flee from discovery, Nicolai summons the children of light to awaken to their promised reward.” (James Mearns, in Julian) The hymn tune first appeared in 1599 and is similar to the Fifth Gregorian Tone, a chant used by monks. Many composers, starting with J.S. Bach, have created instrumental and vocal arrangements of this great and solemn melody.

Wake Awake has only three verses, compared to the seven of “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star.” It is a jubilant song of praise which also reminds us of the Lord’s Supper. The banquet hall is mentioned near the end of verse two, but in the original German text the word Abendmahl, or “Lord’s Supper” is used. The hymn is also often used in weddings. In fact, when the text is centered—either in English or in German—it takes the shape of a wedding or communion chalice.

“Wake, a-wake, for night is fly-ing.”
The watch-men on the heights are cry-ing:
“A-wake, Je-ru-sa-lem, at last!”
Mid-night hears the wel-come voi-ces
and at the thril-ling cry re-joi-ces:
“Come forth, you maid-ens! Night is past.
The bride-groom comes, a-wake!
Your lamps with glad-ness take!
Rise and pre-pare
the feast to share;
go, meet the bride-groom who draws near!”

As we begin our Advent season with this lovely joyful song, remember that congregations have been singing Nicolai's hymn for 414 years! The Lord’s beautiful parable leads us in anticipation to his birth, where we truly experience Emmanuel, “God with us.” So Wachet Auf!

Enjoy more information about new hymns or the hymns you already love as we explore the Lutheran hymnody. Use this month’s hymn in your devotions and get to know the tune. We’ll be singing it a few times in worship over the next month or so and adding it to our growing congregational repertoire! Information for this article came from The Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Augsburg Fortress Press) and the Hymn Stories series (Kregel Press).