St Ambrose (c.340-97), tr. John Mason Neale (1818-66) and others
Tune: PUER NOBIS NASCITUR, German Carol melody, adpt. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), harm. G R Woodward (1848-1934)
Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth;
let every age adoring fall,
such birth befits the God of all.
Begotten of no human will,
but of the Spirit, thou art still
the Word of God, in flesh arrayed,
the promised fruit to man displayed.
The virgin womb that burden gained
with virgin honour all unstained;
the banners there of virtue glow,
God in his temple dwells below.
Forth from that chamber goeth he,
that royal home of purity,
a giant in twofold substance one,
rejoicing now his course to run.
From God the Father he proceeds,
to God the Father back he speeds,
runs out his course to death and hell,
returns on God’s high throne to dwell.
O equal to thy Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now,
the weakness of our mortal state
with deathless might invigorate.
Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness glow with new-born light,
where endless faith shall shine serene,
and twilight never intervene.
O Jesu, Virgin-born, to thee
eternal praise and glory be,
whom with the Father we adore
and Holy Spirit, evermore. Amen.
This text is remarkable. As the hymnologist John Julian said, it seems to be ‘not much used’, even given the relative lack of Advent hymns when he was writing. Nevertheless, it has found a place in certain influential English-language hymn books, from the mid-19th century to our own day.
The reason for its lack of use may be its didactic focus, making it sound rather like a theological treatise. The reason for its appearance in books is that it is, arguably, the oldest of all our Christian hymns to have come down to us in complete form. As the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk) reminds us, Ambrose was ‘the true founder of Christian hymnody in Latin’. Given such a pedigree, this text surely merits our close attention.
We can be confident that the author was St Ambrose, the fourth-century Bishop of Milan. No less a figure than St Augustine of Hippo, who was himself baptised by the Bishop, tells us so (Sermon 372). As does Pope Celestine I in 430AD, along with other witnesses.
The complete eight-verse text with its eventually-accepted first line, Veni, Redemptor gentium, has been recognised as being so important that it has been translated at least fifteen times into English! Among these, the best-known is that by the 19th-century Tractarian priest-scholar, John Mason Neale, published in 1851. It keeps close to the original and makes up most of the translation we have here. In addition, it faithfully preserves the 22.214.171.124. (LM) metre of the original Latin. When we sing it, therefore, we make contact with our Christian heritage in a way which few other hymns allow us to do.
Neale did not originally see it as an Advent hymn but rather one for the Christmas season. There is no doubt, however, that, in its inviting us to call on Christ to come and reveal himself to all, it is more suitable for an Advent meditation.
There is little of direct sentiment in the words; this is because the focus here is on Christ, rather than the singers. There are only two brief references to humans: one, that we are mortal (v.6) and the other, drawn from Scripture (v.2), that of St John 1:13 – ‘born, not of the will of man…but of God’ and v.14 – ‘We have seen his glory.’ The other Scriptural reference – to Psalm 19:5,6 in vv.4 & 5 – portrays Christ as the sun, completing his course. And this deliberate focus on the object of worship unites the singers in their worship, which is surely the writer’s intention.
The hymn can be described as the forerunner of all hymns intended to fulfil a teaching function for the Christian community, while at the same time giving firm grounds for believers to worship. The third Person of the Trinity is certainly present – in action at Christ’s birth (v.2) and in the Doxology (v.8). But the prime focus here is to confirm the Persons of the Father and the Son as co-equal and co-eternal.
But why such insistence on the Virgin Birth and Deity of Christ? The reason is that the hymn was written at a time of great theological ferment about the Church’s understanding of the nature of Christ. Supporters of Arianism contended that Jesus was a created being, and indeed Ambrose succeeded an Arian as Bishop of Milan, despite the first ecumenical Church Council (at Nicea in AD325) having determined that Christ is God, ‘consubstantial with the Father’.
Ambrose was firmly Trinitarian, as we now understand it, and in this developed, poetic statement of faith, he enjoins believers to call on God’s Son, who, while ‘Redeemer of the earth’ (v.1), is also ‘God of all’. The locus of the whole text is surely found in v.6: ‘O equal to thy Father, thou!’ As such, this may well be the earliest example we have – outside of Scripture – of Christological theology designed to be sung collectively. As later Church Councils would demonstrate, Ambrose was on the right side of history…
The mediaeval German carol tune PUER NOBIS NASCITUR was set to the Latin text by the German composer Michael Praetorius in 1609. It readily transferred to Neale’s 1851 English translation and has remained wedded to it in its noble simplicity.
The article on St Ambrose in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology suggests that this hymn, while intended to ‘set the record straight’ about Christ’s Divinity, was also in all likelihood written ‘to lift the morale of the Milanese faithful, besieged by the Arians.’ In these febrile days, when the notion of truth itself is being challenged, perhaps as never before, here is a hymn from early in the Church’s story which can give us new confidence in those truths which underpin our faith and unite us as believers. And in these pandemic times, when we feel perhaps more keenly ‘the weakness of our mortal state’, it can point us to our union with the One who strengthens us with might that overcomes death.
The hymn began to gain in popularity, thanks initially to the recording by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1961, and to the promotion of Advent Carol Services, based on the King’s model.
If this remarkable text is in our hymn books, let us determine, if we have responsibility for worship in Advent, to choose it. And if we have the opportunity, to sing it confidently!
From the very beginning was
Which spoke this world into being;
Revealed through angels' praise;
Revealed in humble service;
Revealed through a tiny Child;
Alive from the beginning of all things
And to eternity.
To your Word,
the Redeemer of the earth,
Be eternal praise and glory. Amen
Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Sir Philip Ledger