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

December 17, 2017 21 Comments

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!

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Comments (21)

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  1. Kelly says:

    So beautiful! Do you know where I can a copy of it sung like this? Most others I found are much slower.

    Blessings!

  2. John R says:

    I know this hymn (carol) very well because I grew up in England. This was often sung by that impeccable choir “King’s College, Cambridge”

  3. Vijaya says:

    Yes, I’ve heard this and love it. Our organist knows so much about liturgy and history and he always picks the most beautiful hymns that fit the readings of the day. Truly, the singing enhances worship. A most joyful last week of Advent to you!

  4. teo says:

    Thank you for this Monsignor. I’ve always thought that the music leader at holy mass should have us start with the last stanza and then sing them in reverse because most of the time we never get to those last stanzas. They often have very good theology that goes unnoticed and I’m sure the lyricist worked just as hard on the last ones as he/she did on the first!

    • Martha Kremer says:

      teo is so right about the last stanza, which so often carries the main theological point.

    • Andy says:

      Hi Teo! As an organist and choir director here in Europe I find your suggestion to be intriguing.As an entire hymn (such as ‘Veni Redemptor Gentium’) would not normally be sung during Mass here, one would normally select two or three strophe from the entire work; most likely the first, second and last. This often results, unfortunately, in disturbing the flow and meaning of the poetry. It is thus a challenge for Church Musicians to ensure that those works whose poetry would be made incoherent when strophe are cut out are played/sung in order and in their entirety. As an aside, I am not acquainted with the term ‘music leader’, at least in reference to the liturgy at Mass. Could you or one of the other readers please define this for me.

      • teo says:

        Andy, I should have written ‘music director/choir director/cantor/etc.’ and not music leader. I was being lazy. As another aside, this idea of starting back to catch some unfamiliar theology in longer pieces came to me because of something I noticed in college. It became evident to me early on that most college courses miss the last couple of chapters because the professor runs out of time. I have always said that the solutions to most problems have been solved its just that the info is left unlearned in the last chapters of every college textbook!!!

  5. Fr. Leonard Klein says:

    And as a former Lutheran I know it well as “Savior of the Nations, Come.” It’s in most Lutheran hymnals and in the Book of Sacred Liturgy now in use in my parishes.

  6. James in Perth says:

    Beautiful!! I am very familiar with the hymn tune but I don’t know that I have heard these lyrics before.

  7. Sung here to the great tune “Puer nobis.”

  8. Paul Kosowan says:

    About a year ago I came across this version of Saviour of the Nations, Come
    by Christian singer Joe Tritz:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbcOOeqNP-0&t=0s

    Paul K.

  9. Paul Kosowan says:

    I came across this version of “Saviour of the Nations, Come”
    by Christian singer Joe Tritz:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbcOOeqNP-0&t=0s

    Enjoy,
    Paul K.

  10. Mark Langley says:

    As long as our friends at OCP maintain their monopolistic throttle hold on the liturgical music at most parishes, you may be assured that this hymn will never become mainstream.

    • Ann says:

      Amen to that. So sad that most parishes use OCP missalettes, books. Time to go back to buying a good daily/Sunday missal. One local parish has chosen a different music songbook. Not familiar with it but the parish sings with gusto whenever I attend Mass there. The Vatican II Hymnal published by Corpus Christi Watershed contains readings and propers for all Sundays and Feasts plus many beautiful traditional hymns. They are not inexpensive but worth it if your parish is interested in an alternative to OCP.

  11. Micha Elyi says:

    “…His birth into homeless poverty…”

    False. Joseph and Mary had a home, just not one in Bethlehem. They were travelling.

    This Jesus was homeless myth must end.

  12. Believe it or not, we sing all seven verses after High Mass.

    The text is slightly different — seven syllables instead of eight per line.

    The tune is Nun Komm’ der Heiden Heiland, a modal melody probably adapted from chant and put into meter by Luther. (Yes, the devil does get all the good tunes!) The harmonization is by Bach.

    Unlike the more joyous and peppy tune in the video above, our Nun Komm’ is solemn and sober — but both highlight different aspects of the Advent spirit.

    I couldn’t find a link to the harmonized chorale, but here a honey of a chorale prelude old J.S. wrote on it:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhpnkqsfmTs

  13. alle says:

    Beautiful Msgr. Pope!

    EWTN should strongly consider adding a 24/7 Sacred Music link/app.
    Restore beauty to the airwaves:)

  14. Wendy Behe says:

    We too sang it in the Anglican Church. I believe it is a Lutheran hymn. (Probably shouldn’t mention it, but might have got away with it.) 😀 😀 😀
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLAzsIdjgAU

  15. Christine says:

    As another former Lutheran I long to hear this beautiful hymn at my parish. The music director at my parish rarely plays the organ, lots of piano accompaniment and we use the OCP missalette. I look and find few peoples singing, and unfortunately am starting to find myself inthe same boat. It also seems to me the parishes that have designated some Masses as “traditional” and some “contemporary” have contributed to a consumer mentality divisiveness that is not helpful.

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