Thursday, May 20, 2021

A Medieval Hymn for the Ascension

The Roman Breviary of St Pius V derives from the medieval use of the Papal Curia, which was traditionally very conservative in most regards, and especially so in its repertoire of hymns. Many feasts, including some of the greatest solemnities (e.g. Christmas and Epiphany), have only two proper hymns, one of which is sung at both Vespers and Matins, and the other at Lauds; the same is true of almost all of the common Offices. When the Office hymns were revised in the post-Conciliar reform, the corpus was considerably broadened by the addition of new texts, among them, a very nice hymn for the Ascension previously used only in the Ambrosian Rite and by the Cistercians. In the Liturgy of the Hours, it is appointed to be said at Lauds on the Ascension itself, and the days that follow until Pentecost.
The version used in this recording has several discrepancies from the one given in the table below, which I have taken from an Ambrosian Breviary printed in 1539. (The sung text and a French translation are given in the comments on YouTube.) The original form of the hymn given in volume 51 of the Analecta hymnica (p. 92) dates from the 10th century, possibly earlier, and has a number of metrical and grammatical flaws typical of that period. These were subsequently corrected in various ways; it was also reworked for use in the Liturgy of the Hours, somewhat less cack-handedly than usual. The English translation is taken from the second volume of Early Christian Hymns, by Daniel Joseph Donahue (a much appreciated suggestion from one of our regular readers and commenters, Fr Dcn Sergius Miller.) It is fine as poetry, but not especially literal as a translation.
Optatus votis omnium,
Sacratus illuxit dies,
Quo Christus, mundi spes, Deus,
Conscendit caelos arduos.
The morn has dawned upon the sky,
The sacred day of joy and light,
When Christ, our hope arose on high
Above the stars in glory bright.
Ascendens in altum Dominus,
Propriam sedem remeat;
Gavisa sunt caeli regna
Reditu Unigeniti.
To heaven ascends Our Lord and King,
As King and Lord he takes his throne;
Rejoicing choirs of Angels sing
Triumphant songs to greet the Son.
Magni triumphum proelii
Mundi perempto principe,
Patris praesentat vultibus,
Victricis carnis gloriam.
Our glorious prince, in battle tried
With sin and death and deep disgrace,
In human form all glorified,
Now stands before the Father’s face.
Est elevatus nubibus
Et spem fecit credentibus,
Aperiens paradisum,
Quem protoplasti clauserant.
He rose in glory through the skies,
And gave to all a hope sublime,
He opened the gates of Paradise,
That long were closed
   by Adam’s crime.
O grande cunctis gaudium,
Quod partus nostrae Virginis
Post sputa, flagra, post crucem,
Paternae sedi jungitur.
O wondrous joy! the Virgin-born,
Our hope, our love, our Holy One,
After the blows of spite and scorn
Is seated on the Father’s throne.
Agamus ergo gratias
Nostrae salutis vindici,
Nostrum quod corpus vexerit,
Sublimem ad caeli regiam.
Let thanks arise on every side
To Christ our help, our God of might,
Who hath our body glorified
And raised it to the throne of light.
Sit nobis cum caelestibus
Commune manens gaudium,
Illis, quod se praesentavit,
Nobis, quod se non abstulit.
Abounding joy shall e’er remain,
And earth and heaven with glory fill:
In heaven, that Christ returns again,
On earth, that Christ is with us still.
Nunc provocatis actibus
Christum expectare nos decet
Vitamque talem vivere,
Quae possit caelos scandere.
Then let our hearts with love o’erflow,
Our words and deeds be all of light,
That when we leave these walks below,
Our souls shall climb
   the heavenly height.
Gloria tibi, Domine,
Qui scandis super sidera,
Cum Patre et Sancto Spiritu
In sempiterna saecula. Amen.
To Christ the Lord sing praises meet,
Who rose in might the stars above,
Unto the Father and Paraclete,
Give equal meed of praise and love.
The first part of the hymn Optatus votis in an Ambrosian Breviary printed in Venice in 1539. The rubric at the top says “On the vigil of the Ascension of the Lord”; until the Tridentine reform, the term “vigil” was commonly used to mean “First Vespers” in both the Roman and Ambrosian Rites.
A couple of the expressions used in this hymn show very nicely the ability of Latin to say a great deal with very few words, and perhaps call for some explanation. In the third stanza, “Victricis carnis gloriam”, literally means “the glory of the conquering flesh”, a very terse way of saying that the Incarnation, the taking on of our human nature in the flesh, was the means by which Christ both defeated the devil and raised us up to the glory of heaven. Likewise, in the fifth stanza, the unknown author called the Virgin Mary “our Virgin”, as a way of saying that She is the source from which our human nature is united to the divine nature.
As noted above, before the post-Conciliar reform, this hymn was used outside the Ambrosian Rite only by the Cistercians; there is an interesting story about how this came to be. Hymns were first introduced into the western Church by St Ambrose, and because of this, St Benedict in his Rule uses the term “ambrosianum” for them, rather than “hymnus.” When the Cistercians were founded at the end of the 11th century as an order which intended to follow the letter of the Rule as strictly as possible, they took this term to mean not “hymn” generically, but rather, the specific corpus of hymns introduced by Ambrose in person, which they assumed must be the very same ones then used in the rite of his episcopal see. They therefore sent people to Milan to copy out the Ambrosian Office hymnal, and then incorporated it into their own proper Use of the Office, a change which brought them much unfavorable criticism. In the specific case of Optatus votis, they divided it into two parts, with the first four stanzas at Vespers and Matins, and the rest at Lauds. In the post-Tridentine period, however, the Cistercian Use was heavily romanized, and the hymn was replaced with the traditional Roman ones; a later reform restored “O grande cunctis” at Lauds, but not the first part at Vespers and Matins.
The hymn Optatus votis in the hymnal of a Cistercian breviary printed at Strasbourg in 1494. The Roman hymn for Vespers Jesu, nostra redemptio is assigned to Compline, and a truncated version of the Roman hymn for Matins Aeterne Rex altissime to Terce.
Since today is the octave of the Ascension, here is a nice recording of the propers of the Mass from the Abbey of Triors in France.

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