Best Advent Hymn! I Wonder If You’ve Ever Heard of It

dec8-blogFor my money, the best Advent hymn ever is Veni Redemptor Gentium (Come Redeemer of the Nations), written by St. Ambrose in the 4th century. It is more widely known by the title “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth.” Sadly, it is not often sung in Catholic parishes today. Most Catholics I’ve asked have never even heard of it.

One of the beautiful things about the ancient Latin hymns is how richly theological they are. Not content to merely describe an event, they give sweeping theological vision and delve into its more hidden mysteries.

Here we are in Advent and Jesus is coming. Get ready! Well, yes, but He’s not just coming; He’s redeeming, dying, rising, ascending, and reigning at the Father’s right hand! But how can you squeeze all of that into an Advent hymn? Well, just below you can read the text and see.

Full vision – For now, ponder the theological point that hymns like this make: no act of God can be reduced merely to the act in itself. Everything God does is part of His sweeping master plan to restore all things in Christ, to take back what the devil stole from us. Too often we see the events of our redemption in a disconnected sort of way. But it is all really one thing and the best theology connects the dots. It is not wrong for us to focus on one thing or another, but we must not forget that it is all one thing in the end.

Without this reminder, we can easily develop a kind of myopia that overemphasizes one aspect of redemption at the expense of others. In the 1970s and 1980s it was “all resurrection all the time,” but no passion or death.

Christmas, too, has its hazards. We get rather sentimental about the “baby Jesus” but miss other important aspects of his incarnation. The passion and death are present in His birth into homeless poverty, the swaddling clothes, the flight into Egypt, and so forth. The Eucharist is evident in His birth at Bethlehem (House of Bread) and His being laid in a manger (a feed box for animals). His glory as God and His ultimate triumph are manifested in the star overhead and the angels’ declaration of glory! You see, it is all tied together, and the best theology connects the dots.

With that in mind, I present this wonderful Advent hymn, so seldom sung in our Catholic parishes. It can be sung to any Long Meter (LM) tune but is usually sung to its own melody (“Puer Natus”). You can find this melody in the index of most hymnals. I provide below only the English translation, but both the Latin and the English are available in this document: Veni Redemptor Gentium. I think the poetic translation reprinted below is a minor masterpiece of English literature and hope that you’ll agree. Enjoy this sweeping theological vision of the mystery of Advent caught up into the grand and fuller vision of redemption.

Among the theological truths treated in this brief hymn are these: His title as Redeemer, His birth to a virgin, His inclusion of the Gentiles, His sinlessness, His two natures in one person, His incarnation at conception, His passion, His death, His descent into Hell, His ascension, His seat at the Father’s right hand, His divinity and equality with the Father, His healing and sanctification of our humanity so wounded by sin, His granting us freedom and eternal life, His renewing of our minds through the light of faith, and His opening of Heaven to us.

Not bad for a mere seven verses! St. Ambrose, pray for us!

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come manifest thy virgin birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The Virgin’s womb that glory gained,
Its virgin honor is still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

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 breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud, eternal Son, to thee
Whose advent sets thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.

This video below gives you an idea of what the tune for Veni Redemptor Gentium sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different from what is shown above, but the tune is perfect. Just try not to dance as it is sung!

15 Replies to “Best Advent Hymn! I Wonder If You’ve Ever Heard of It”

  1. Thanks so much for this Msgr Charles.
    Do I know this? I should say so!! It is truly a superb hymn – sung it many times! And I am particularly fond of this Andrew Lumsden arrangement, which he wrote and published in 1999. I get to see him fairly regularly as he is, and has been, Director of Music at Winchester Cathedral (just half an hour’s drive from where I live!) since 2002 and I am lucky enough to perform fairly regularly in that magnificent edifice!
    The video is also wonderful for me, as I know, and have worked as a musician in, St Alban’s Abbey a few times over the years as well as with Barry Rose, who was directing this particular performance. So – altogether a great Advent gift for me – thank you again!
    As indeed, thanks, for your splendid explanation of the words of the great St Ambrose – this hymn truly encompasses the whole story of redemption! Forgive me for being picky, but didn’t Ambrose say that this should be used only in the week before Christmas? But I don’t mind, if you don’t!!
    And – have you heard this particular version? If not, I’m pretty certain you’ll love it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lY5EztLcSVo
    Praise God for Music . . . !! As Shakespeare wrote, “The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, … Let no such man be trusted!”
    God bless all

  2. I pray The Liturgy of the Hours regularly with a small group of people. We have elected to restrict our prayer and our hymn selections to the official texts of the LOTH including the traditional Office Hymns. We sing the psalms to simple psalm tones and we sing the hymns using texts and melodies from the Mundelein Psalter, Fr. Weber’s Hymnal for the Office and Hymnarium (a Dominican hymnal for the Office).

    It’s not that we are opposed to contemporary hymns (well, maybe sometimes a little bit) but rather that we have found such wealth in the treasury of traditional hymnody. Contemporary hymns already get their fair shake in most settings: we are content to let others use them. We love the ancient hymns and want to make them better known, so that is what we choose to use.

    Rumor has it that the new translation of the LOTH, expected out sometime around 2020, will include translations of the traditional/official office hymns. That will be a good thing. Let’s hope and pray it’s true.

  3. Msgr. Pope, I really admire your ongoing efforts to give us a historical perspective on the spiritual treasury bequeathed to modern Christians. It’s as if we are living in this comfortable house, while untold treasures reside in the attic or the basement.

    Thank you for kicking these boxes open, so that we may fully appreciate the labors of our brothers and sisters who now rest in Christ.

  4. In my opinion, though, the Puer Natus melody in the video lacks the dignity and solemnity that the text calls for. Far better is the 8.7.8.7 minor key Nun Komi’ der Heiden Heiland, probably based on a chant and set by Bach and countless others.

  5. Yes indeed I know this hymn very well. I have had a recording of it for over 40 years now. Mine was sung by the famed King’s College Choir as part of an Anglican service of Nine Lessons and Carols which they recorded. The whole record (on Vinyl) is a beutiful example of the kind of Service which the Anglicans used to put together with such elegance and ease in the days when they had not got round to having women “priests” and the like. I think that the fine rendering into English of the Latin is also the work of that denomination.

  6. Very well known in the English translation “Saviour of the nations, come”. It’s in the Episcopal Hymnal, in the Advent section (along with the original Veni Redemptor chant). Whatever their shortcomings, the Piskies have excellent musical sense.
    It arrived there by way of the Lutheran “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland”. Luther’s translation is not bad.
    And of course Bach made a choral prelude out of it.

  7. And it just happens to be the first song on “Advent at Ephesus” by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles (available on iTunes!)

  8. Yes Monsignor! As a Catholic convert from Anglicanism, we were blessed to sing this every Advent. I must say, I love being Catholic but I miss the music and hymns from the Anglican tradition the most.

    1. You should try the ordinariate – a group of former Anglicans in the Catholic Church and their beautiful Masses. Go to downtown DC St. Luke at Holy Redeemer, near the Convention Center…

    2. You can attend Mass in a form that corresponds very much to what you used to get in the Anglican Church. Got to St. Luke’s Ordinariate at Immaculate Conception Church oin downtown DC and attend their beautiful liturgies. I (as a foeign visitor) have done that quite a few times. You will not be disappointed!

  9. Love those traditional Hymns. Mother Church needs to hunker down and reach in its magnificent repertoire of musical treasures to get the Faithful tuned back in !!! Hard to take songs that suggest we dance to the feast or sit at the table of friendship. We guys, you know, aren’t into this Kumbaya hippie stuff, but true Christ, well, there’s a man’s man for you! He should be worshipped appropriately and His mother venerated respectfully as well. Keep promoting the treasure trove of tradition. Real men pray the rosary and don’t dance to the table of life!

  10. A great prayer to hasten Jesus’ Second Coming!

    “Christians pray, above all in the Eucharist, to hasten Christ’s return by saying to him: Maranatha! ‘Our Lord, come!'”
    – Catechism of the Catholic Church 670

    “Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought (you) to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.”
    – 2 Peter 3:11-12

    “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
    – 1 Corinthians 11:26

  11. I would agree with the author on the text and Fr Cekada’s suggestion for the tune. A few more people know this hymn as “Savior of the Nations Come” which fits the 16th century tune. It’s a mainstay in Catholic hymnals and annuals, but not nearly as well known as it could be.

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