We here continue our series on Incarnation Hymnody. Today: the ancient “Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth” and the not-quite-as-ancient-but-still-very-old “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”. Incorporating hymnody such as these two pieces from years past helps, I think, to emphasize our connection to the church’s past, and can perhaps fulfill C. S. Lewis’s sage advice on reading old texts.
One of the earliest Latin hymns of Advent is “Veni, Redemptor Gentium,” titled in its best-known English translation as “Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth.” The author of the hymn was Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 – 397), one of the fathers of Latin hymnody. The translator of the most widely-sung English rendering, “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth,” is the notable John Mason Neale1. First published in English translation in the mid-1800’s, the hymn was popularized in the widely-circulated English Hymnal, the musical editor of which was Ralph Vaughn Williams.2 Here is the text:
Come, Thou Redeemer of the earth,
And manifest Thy virgin birth:
Let every age adoring fall;
Such birth befits the God of all.
Begotten of no human will,
But of the Spirit, Thou art still
The Word of God in flesh arrayed,
The promised Fruit to man displayed.
The virgin womb that burden gained
With virgin honor all unstained;
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in His temple dwells below.
Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.
From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds;
His course He runs to death and hell,
Returning on God’s throne to dwell.
O equal to the 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 to God the Father be,
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To God the Holy Paraclete.3
My wife and I have sung this hymn in our church, and I sang it as a solo in our church yesterday. To abbreviate it somewhat, we eliminate the third and fourth stanzas, and this seems not to disturb the flow of thought in the hymn overmuch. I noted to our congregation that hearing or singing this hymn gives us a window of understanding into how the early church viewed the incarnation.
Several things stand out to me in this hymn: (1) It is unapologetically doctrinal and theological in character. (2) You cannot help but notice in this hymn, can you, the unmistakable emphasis on the virgin birth: “Manifest thy virgin birth” (v. 1); “Begotten of no human will, but of the Spirit” (v. 2); “The virgin womb that burden gained with virgin honor all unstained” (v. 3); “Forth from his chamber goeth he, that royal home of purity” (v. 4). (3) I love the striking metaphor used in this hymn which compares Jesus’ earthly sojourn to running a race, a picture not unknown in Scripture (Heb 12:1-3). He “runs his course” (vv. 4 and 5) from heaven to earth and back, accomplishing the Father’s work in his time on earth.
Take a listen here.
“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is a good bit more familiar to modern ears. As the most popular translation (one of many) of the German “Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen,” this is an a capella Christmas choral favorite, set to ES IS EIN’ ROS’ as harmonized by Michael Praetorius in 1609. Here is the text, including the third verse which is not usually included in hymnals or choral arrangements:
Lo, how a rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.
This flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.
O Savior, child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!
Interestingly, the German original, first published in a Roman Catholic hymnal4 compares Mary to the “rose,” not Jesus: “Das Röslein, das ich meine, davon Jesaia sagt: ist Maria die Reine” // “The rose that I mean, of which Isaiah speaks, is Mary the pure.” Protestants have adjusted the text to focus on Christ: “Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the rose I have in mind; With Mary we behold it . . .” To this day, Catholics and Protestants sing the song somewhat differently.
The question which we must ask, however, is “Where does Isaiah foretell ‘this rose I have mind'”? The only KJV reference in Isaiah to a “rose” is Isa. 35:1, which doesn’t fit the hymn. The answer is found by examining the first verse: “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, From tender stem hath sprung. Of Jesse’s lineage coming, As men of old have sung.” Note the chronological connection—the backward look—between “men of old” in v. 1 and “foretold” in v. 2. Referencing the ideas of v. 1 with Isaiah, we naturally will go to Isa. 11:1: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (KJV), which is clearly a messianic prophesy.
Then whence the “rose”?
After researching the matter, I suggest that several factors intersected to bring about this use of “rose” in the hymn as we have it today. (1) In medieval iconography, the rose was symbolic for Mary.5 (2) In addition, the Latin Vulgate of Isaiah 11:1 reads “ ascendet” — “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.”6 (3) Ergo, we have “Isaiah foretelling” that a flower will come forth from Jesse, which in the original German hymn was understood as Mary, to whom was born Christ, the “floweret” (Blümlein). (4) Protestants no doubt objected to Mary as the subject of Isaiah 11:1, and shifted the hymntext to make Jesus the subject.7
- Neale himself is a fascinating study. See the article in Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology or his biography. [↩]
- Neale’s original translation of “Veni, Redemptor Gentium” appears to have been altered somewhat in the English Hymnal, where the translator is given as “J. M. Neale and others.” Even given Neale’s considerable gifts as a translator of hymnody, I prefer the altered version, which is the more commonly sung today. [↩]
- “Paraclete” is fairly unusual in a hymn, and you might consider an alternate rendering: “O Jesus, Virgin-born, to thee / Eternal praise and glory be, / Whom with the Father we adore / And Holy Spirit, evermore.” [↩]
- Geistliche Kirchengesang, published at the turn of the 16th century. [↩]
- This is the origin of the English word rosary, as well as the English name “Rosemary.” See Anne Winston-Allen, Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University, 1997), 88-89. [↩]
- http://vulgate.org/ot/isaiah_11.htm [↩]
- And while the rose was most commonly associated with Mary in medieval iconography, it was also associated with Christ, especially his passion. [↩]