I am more used to the St John’s College Cambridge version, but this one is rather good. The text contains some of the best from the Prophet Isaiah (vi.1-4). The second stanza is the 3rd verse of Ave, colenda Trinitas, an anonymous Latin hymn of the 11th century, translated by John David Chambers (1803-93).
This whole anthem is a meditation of the glory and transcendence of God. Truly, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom:
I saw the Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up,
and his train filled the temple.
Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings;
with twain he covered his face,
and with twain he covered his feet,
and with twain he did fly.
And one cried unto another,
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts:
the whole earth is full of his glory.
And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried,
and the house was filled with smoke.
O Trinity! O Unity!
Be present as we worship Thee,
And with the songs that angels sing
Unite the hymns of praise we bring.
We find the Preface and Sanctus of the Mass reflected, and these are indeed the parts of our divine service that introduce us into heaven upon earth. This is particularly appropriate for Trinity Sunday as we contemplate this ineffable mystery of faith.
The house was filled with smoke. God’s presence was always veiled in the Old Testament in those moments of revelation: the cloud over Mount Sinai, the pillar of smoke that guided the Israelites by day towards the Promised Land. There are so many examples of revelation but yet behind a veil, as man cannot see the Beatific Vision in this life. The smoke of incense in the church, as in the Temple of old, is a powerful symbol of God’s presence and our prayers ascending towards the Godhead.
This anthem by Stainer is a monument of nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholicism and the desire of a Christian way that goes beyond preaching and morality, a true way of contemplation and pure prayer.