Have you ever wondered about “The Big Book” from which the celebrant at the altar reads on Sunday mornings? Before the Reformation and the publishing of the Book of Common Prayer, the reading from “The Big Book” was a mystery, especially when read in Latin to a mostly illiterate body of worshippers.
As modern society, we have a difficult time realizing how revolutionary hearing the Mass read in English was, much less what an impact printing the Book of Common Prayer in English and putting it into the hands of the faithful had on civilization.
“The Big Book,” also known as the missal (liturgical book containing all texts necessary for celebrating the Mass during the Christian year), is still called by this name in the Roman Catholic and many Anglican traditions. Roman Catholics use the Missale Romanum, and Anglicans use the Anglican Missal.
In the Episcopal Church, we have renamed this book The Altar Book, and it contains all things necessary for the celebrant who leads worship and liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer. Some of its contents are celebrant-specific or deacon-specific such as the full chant music for the Exsultet sung at the Great Vigil of Easter.
The Missale Romanum contains specific seasonal refrains/antiphons for liturgies throughout the Christian year, different and tailored for the Mass by season or particular feast day. Some feast days have different refrains/antiphons for morning and evening celebrations, which is the case for the text of the Parish Choir’s 10:30 service anthem this Sunday (Nov. 6).
This traditional anthem text for the Feast of All Saints’ is taken from the antiphon used with the Magnificat canticle at the Second Vespers Mass on All Saints’ Day. (Yes, that’s a mouthful.) In other words, this short text was/is used, coupled with the singing of the Magnificat canticle (“My soul doth magnify the Lord,” the Song of Mary) in the liturgy for the evening Mass on All Saints’ Day.
This Vespers antiphon is taken from the Revelation to John, chapter 7, verse 9:
After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes.
The text of the actual Vespers antiphon is:
O quam gloriosum est regnum,in quo cum Christo gaudent omnes Sancti! Amicti stolis albis, sequuntur Agnum, quocumque ierit.
O how glorious is the kingdom wherein all the saints rejoice with Christ! Clothed in white robes they follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.
Composers throughout the centuries have beautifully set this important text, from the Italian Luca Marenzio (1553-1599) to the Spanish Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) to the English William Byrd (1548-1623). Canadian-born composer Healey Willian (1880-1968), a significant contributor to Episcopal Church music, composed the little choral gem that the Parish Choir will sing. The beauty and mastery of this piece is in its simplicity, smoothness and dynamic control.
Listen to Healey Willan’s “O how glorious” sung the Chamber Choir of First United Methodist Church, Evanston, Illinois here.