Hail thee, festival day! Blest day that art hallowed forever,
day when the Holy Ghost shone in the world with God’s grace.
Lo, in the likeness or fire, on those who await his appearing,
he whom the Lord foretold suddenly, swiftly descends:
Forth from the Father he comes with sevenfold mystical offering,
pouring on all human souls infinite riches of God:
Hark! for the myriad tongues, Christ’s own, his chosen apostles,
preach to the ends of the earth and his wonderful works:
Praise to the Spirit of Life, all praise to the fount of our being,
light that dost lighten all, life that in all dost abide.
This festival hymn for the Day of Pentecost is among this parish’s “top ten” favorites. “Hail thee, festival day!” is, indeed, one of the most ancient texts in The Hymnal 1982. The original poem written in Latin by Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540-600), Bishop of Poitiers, contains 55 stanzas.
The poem was in honor the newly converted Saxons, baptized by Felix, Bishop of Nantes, at the Easter Vigil, sometime between 567 and 576.
The entire poem is considered to be a cento (hotchpotch, mixture). It became popular quickly and was set to music and adapted for singing in procession for festivals such as Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Corpus Christi.
Various versions of the hymn, including stanzas added to Fortunatus’ original poem, survive in two primary sources, The Sarum Processional and The York Processional. The city of Old Sarum, the earliest settlement in England, is known today as Salisbury.
Our hymnal contains three separate versions of this hymn: Pentecost, with four stanzas; Ascension, with six stanzas; and Easter, with eight stanzas. Of the Pentecost setting, which we will sing this Sunday, only the refrain is original to Fortunatus; the Pentecost-specific stanzas are from The York Processional, as first printed in The English Hymnal in 1906.
Famous British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), served as music editor of The English Hymnal and wrote this hymn tune for that book. He named his tune Fortunatus in honor Bishop Fortunatus.
In the Christian Church, Fortunatus is best known for the two poems that have become standard parts of the liturgy: “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle” (Hymn 165 & 166), which we sing on Good Friday, and “The royal banners forward go” (Hymn 162), which is also found in the Holy Week section of our hymnal.
We will sing our four Pentecost stanzas on Sunday (not all 55) to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit among us.