Life & Soul Life and Soul

A hymn to a great saint

Members of The Catholic University of America Chamber Choir sing during a rehearsal at the Washington campus' St. Vincent Chapel (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

I have been listening to a wonderful recording of an Advent carol service from King’s College, Cambridge. It begins with the hymn Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth. With the regular “feet” of its iambic meter it makes a good processional. The choir starts singing at the west end of the chapel. Thus the music begins as a rather subdued and ethereal thing. But as the choir nears the static microphone the sound comes more into range. By the final verse, “All praise Eternal Son to thee, whose Advent sets thy people free”, it is loud and triumphant, rich in tone, and the consonants ricochet in the particular mannered style choirmasters of yore cultivated for that vast acoustic.

Something about the style and the translation by JM Neale had obscured the ancient origins of this hymn to me. It was only as we celebrated his feast last week that I realised that the original is one of many hymns attributed to St Ambrose of Milan and was a Latin Office hymn, Veni Redemptor Gentium.

St Ambrose is a fascinating figure. Indeed, a thought-provoking one in the light of the debacle at the US bishops’ meeting in November and its debates about who guards the guardians. To me, it is an interesting variation of clericalism which extols the necessity of collaborative ministry in all other areas but abhors the idea of any role for the laity in holding bishops to account for abuse.

For Ambrose was made a bishop by the popular acclamation of the lay faithful of his adopted city of Milan. When chosen, he was not even baptised (as was common in those days, he was undergoing a long catechumenate). In the space of a week, Ambrose was initiated into the Mysteries and ordained priest and bishop.

Ambrose has been credited with the authorship of many hymns and liturgical texts, perhaps most importantly the Easter Exultet. Scholars question some of the other attributions. A tradition that claims Ambrose and Augustine improvised the Te Deum antiphonally, for example, may owe more to poetic than historical truth. What is certain is that St Augustine credits Ambrose with having introduced the singing of Office hymns into the liturgy of the West and the chanting of psalms antiphonally.

Veni Redemptor Gentium contains a rich theology. It was the devotional concomitant to Ambrose’s preaching against the Arian heresy, which split the Church for almost a century by denying Christ’s divinity. So the Christ of whose coming Ambrose sings is clearly invoked as “O equal to the Father, thou! / Gird on thy fleshly mantle now”. Christ’s Virgin Birth “befits the God of all”, who comes forth from the womb of Mary as from a bridal chamber, a colossus or giant who runs the course “to death and hell before / Returning on God’s throne to dwell”.

The music of our salvation is drawing ever nearer, its tone more compelling and beautiful, its content more precise. One is coming who has all the beauty and innocence of a child, born of a pure mother, sprung from human stock so that in him we see a real human goodness which stirs our joy.

But this can only be so because the divine has come from beyond, has girded on the mantle of human flesh; not just its prelapsarian innocence but also a real humanity which has made the journey through the hell of sin and death that their darkness may be penetrated by the divine. It is God whose cradle glitters bright, to show us the way to Him, “the weakness of our mortal state” to invigorate with the “deathless might” of God.