Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Now the Heavens Start to Whisper'

History of Hymns: 'Now the Heavens Start to Whisper'

By James Stanley, Guest Contributor

Bringle headshot
Mary Louise Bringle

“Now the Heavens Start to Whisper”
by Mary Louise Bringle
Glory to God, 94

Now the heavens start to whisper,
as the veil is growing thin.
Earth from slumber wakes to listen
to the stirring, faint within:
Seed of promise, deeply planted,
child too spring from Jesse’s stem!
Like the soil beneath the frost line,
hearts grow soft to welcome him.*
*© 2006 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Mary Louise Bringle (b.1953) is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Brevard College in North Carolina. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Guilford College, and she earned her doctorate from Emory University. Notably, Bringle served as president of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada as well as chair of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song, which developed the denomination’s hymnal Glory to God. She began writing hymns in 1999 and has since authored two collections of hymns available through GIA: Joy and Wonder, Love and Longing (2002) and In Wind and Wonder (2007).

Many of Bringle’s texts start with a melody. This hymn is no exception. The author describes the hymn’s origins:

In the fall of 2005, Randy Sensmeier wrote me from GIA and asked if I would write an Advent text “with text with a Celtic flavor” for the Welsh melody SUO GAN. To get in an appropriate frame of mind for the assignment, I went to the Brevard College library and checked out a few books on Celtic spirituality. I was very drawn to the notion of “thin places”—places where earth and heaven, or secular and sacred, seem to be in closer touch with one another than elsewhere. Advent strikes me as a “thin”—or at least a “thinning”—time, an idea reflected in stanza one of the text. Other images (the “softening: of hearts, Christ as the Sun of justice, etc.) come from various Celtic prayers. (Bringle, 2007, p. 83)

Carl P. Daw Jr., commenting on this text, notes, “Those gifts and graces come from the ancient seat of wisdom and compassion, the heart, the goal and climax of every stanza” (Daw, 2016, p. 94.)

“Now the Heavens Start to Whisper” (2005) describes the observation of Advent with two extremely vivid biblical metaphors: Christ as a branch of the tree of Jesse and Christ as light. The use of these metaphors within the same hymn describes both the heavenly and earthly nature of Jesus; he comes down from heaven as light and yet springs from the earth like a sapling.

Stanza 1 focuses on the earthly Jesus, sprung from the root of Jesse. Evocative imagery opens the hymn as the earth is described as dormant, waking to what is happening within. The final lines reveal the completion of the metaphor: we are the soil. We are the earth. We must wake to the coming of Jesus in Advent, and our hearts must soften, as the soil beneath the frost line, to welcome the Christ child.

Stanza 2 shifts perspective from the soil to the sky as a second metaphor is introduced: Christ as the morning star come to brighten a dark world. An expansion of the metaphor further describes Jesus as “Heaven’s ember,” warming the hearts of those who invite him in.

Stanza 3 revisits both metaphors briefly in an invocation inviting Jesus to come. Rather than communicating through extended symbolism, this stanza states plainly that Jesus must come to the lonely, the stranger, and the outcast. The text ends with an entreaty that Jesus teach our hearts to welcome him. This last line turns the structure of the two previous stanzas around. Whereas stanzas 1 and 2 conclude with a passive action of the heart readying itself for the coming of Jesus, stanza 3 requests that Jesus take action to change us.

The Welsh tune SUO GAN complements Bringle’s text with syncopation by suggesting forward momentum without hurrying the tempo. This enables the text to be sung like a lullaby without feeling slow. Furthermore, the AABA form of the melody ensures that a congregation will easily learn this tune. The tune JEFFERSON, found in Johnson’s Tennessee Harmony (1818) is also used with this text.

The hymn originally was included in the author’s collection, In Wind and Wonder (2007). In addition to Glory to God (2013), the text also appears in Celebrating Grace (2010), One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (2018), Ritual Song, 2nd Ed. (2016), Voices Together (2020), and Worship, 4th Ed. (2011).


Mary Louise Bringle, In Wind and Wonder (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc. 2007).

Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

Chelsea Stern. “Mary Louise Bringle,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/m/mary-louise-bringle (accessed March 14, 2024).

James Stanley is the Director of Music and Worship Arts at First United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he has worked since 2016. He has been continuously employed in church work for twenty years as an organist, choir director, praise team leader, and youth leader. James holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University in organ and organ pedagogy, respectively. He is an active recitalist and contemporary worship clinician. His organ compositions are published by Lorenz. He is a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music program, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

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