Sunday, December 29, 2019

St Ambrose’s Christmas Hymn Veni, Redemptor Gentium

The Roman Breviary traditionally has only two proper hymns for Christmas, Jesu Redemptor omnium, which is said at Vespers and Matins, and A solis ortus cardine at Lauds. The church of Rome took a long time to accept the use of hymns in the Office at all, and in its habitual liturgical conservatism, adopted fewer of them than other medieval Uses did; although the major liturgical seasons have three proper hymns, one for Matins, one for Lauds and one for Vespers, most feasts have only two, that of either Vespers or Lauds being sung also at Matins.

One of the gems which is therefore not found in the historical Roman Use is the Christmas hymn Veni, Redemptor gentium, which is attributed on strong evidence to St Ambrose himself. It is quoted by Ss Augustine and Pope Celestine I (422-32), both of whom knew Ambrose personally, the latter attributing it to him explicitly, as does Cassiodorus in the following century. It was sung at Vespers of Christmas in the Ambrosian Rite, of course, in the Sarum Use, and by the religious orders which retained their proper liturgical Uses after Trent, the Dominicans, Carmelites, and Premonstratensians.

In many parts of Germany, it was sung in Advent, rather than Christmas; the last stanza before the doxology “Praesepe jam fulget tuum – Thy cradle here shall glitter bright” was omitted, however, until it was sung for the last time at First Vespers of Christmas. In the post-Conciliar Office, it is sung in Advent without the German variant, and without the stanza “Egressus ejus a Patre.”

Here are two versions, one in plainchant, and a second in alternating chant and polyphony. The English translation by John Mason Neale (1851) is one of his finest such efforts, both for its literary merit as English and its exactitude as a translation.

Veni, Redemptor gentium,         Come, Thou Redeemer of the earth,
Ostende partum Vírginis:           And manifest Thy virgin birth:
Mirétur omne saeculum:            Let every age adoring fall;
Talis decet partus Deum.           Such birth befits the God of all.

Non ex viríli sémine,                   Begotten of no human will,
Sed mýstico spirámine               But of the Spirit, Thou art still
Verbum Dei factum caro,           The Word of God in flesh arrayed
Fructusque ventris flóruit.        The promised Fruit to man displayed.

Alvus tumescit Vírginis,             The virgin womb that burden gained
Claustra pudóris pérmanent,    With virgin honor all unstained;
Vexilla virtútum micant,            The banners there of virtue glow;
Versátur in templo Deus.           God in His temple dwells below.

Procédens de thálamo suo,       Forth from His chamber goeth He,
Pudóris aulo regia,                     That royal home of purity,
Géminae gigans substantiae     A giant in twofold substance one,
Alácris ut currat viam.               Rejoicing now His course to run.

Egressus ejus a Patre,                From God the Father He proceeds,
Regressus ejus ad Patrem:        To God the Father back He speeds;
Excursus usque ad ínferos        His course He runs to death and hell,
Recursus ad sedem Dei.            Returning on God’s throne to dwell.

Aequális aeterno Patri,              O equal to the Father, Thou!
Carnis trophaeo accíngere:      Gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
Infirma nostri córporis             The weakness of our mortal state
Virtúte firmans pérpeti.            With deathless might invigorate.

Praesépe jam fulget tuum,        Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
Lumenque nox spirat novum,   And darkness breathe a newer light,
Quod nulla nox intérpolet,        Where endless faith shall shine serene,
Fidéque jugi lúceat.                    And twilight never intervene.

Gloria tibi, Dómine,                   O Jesu, Virgin-born, to thee
Qui natus es de Vírgine,            Eternal praise and glory be,
Cum Patre et sancto Spíritu,    Whom with the Father we adore
In sempiterna sæcula. Amen.    And Holy Spirit, evermore.

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