Anthony Esolen recently wrote a piece about the beauty of the older poetic and metrical hymns as compared to many modern asymmetrical and syncopated songs. I wrote a post about the beautiful hymn “Rorate Caeli Desuper” yesterday.
The hymn writers of old knew that in order to get a large congregation to sing together, a steady beat or meter was needed. Most modern church songs have complex, uneven rhythms. It is no wonder that many Catholics just stand there while cantors and choirs sing for them. For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? (1 Cor 14:8) The lyrics of most modern church songs are also far from noble or memorable; some of them are even theologically questionable.
In his article, Esolen provides excerpts of several beautiful older hymns, some well-known, others less so, but all magnificent.
For my money, the best hymn ever composed from the standpoint of textual and theological value 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.” Although is from the Advent season, its sweep is the full soteriological drama of Christ’s work. Jesus is not just coming; He’s redeeming, dying, rising, ascending, and reigning at the Father’s right hand. How can you all of that be squeezed into an Advent hymn? Read the lyrics below and see.
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 an extensive theological vision and delve into its more hidden mysteries. 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, my candidate for the best hymn ever written. 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. 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.
The video below gives you an idea of what the melody for Veni Redemptor Gentium sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different from what is shown above, but the tune is perfect.