For many Christmas is the most Christian of Christian feast, however In the Early Church there is hardly anything to find about it and it was not till well into the fourth century that its date was set at December 25. I was reminded of this because I recently bought a collection of Latin poetry from the early Church (Lateinische Altkirchliche Poesie (Auswahl), ed H. Lietzmann, 1910). Looking for an appropriate hymn for this time of the year, I found nothing. Actually, we know hardly anything about the birth of Jesus (and his childhood): Mark has nothing to say, John is philosophical and Matthew and Luke have their narratives based upon what the Septuagint says about the coming of the Messiah - or rather what they thought it says. The only thing we know for sure is that Jesus was born – hardly any historian will deny this – but in all likelihood in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. The focus of the Early Church was on the miracle of the resurrection and the glorification of the risen and heavenly Christ. No wonder Byzantine emperors were more ready to identify themselves with Christ as παντοκρατωρ (ruler of the universe) than with the earthly Jesus.
There was however one hymn in the collection which with some good will can be connected with Christmas, namely hymn 7 from the hymns by Ambrose bishop of Milan (340-497). It is a morning hymn in which Christ is compared to the rising sun. The idea the deified sun occurs in the Sol Invictus cult (cult of the Unconquered Sun), a cult which was made official by Aurelian in 274. Constantine too favoured this cult before he converted to Christianity and it could well be that this explains why some features of this cult were taken over by Christianity. One of these was the comparison of Christ with the sun and the other the date of his birth: December 25 was in the cult of Sol Invictus the birth of the sun. Though it has been argued that this date is a coincidence, I think the arguments in favour are strong.
With some adaptations in the text, this hymn is used at some dates of the liturgical year. It has been translated into English about 25 times.
Ambrosius, Hymnus VII.
Splendor Paternae gloriae,
de luce lucem proferens ,
primordiis lucis novae
diem dies illuminans.
profero: to bring forward; primordius: original, primordial
Verusque sol illabere,
micans nitore perpeti,
iubarque sancti Spiritus
infunde nostris sensibus.
Illabor illapsus sum: to flow into; mico: to shine, beam
nitor nitoris (m.): brightness, splendour; perpes, perpetis = perpetuus
iubar iubaris (m.): radiance; infundo: pour in
Votis vocemus et Patrem,
patrem perennis gloriae,
patrem potentis gratiae,
culpam releget lubricam.
culpam etc: may he drive away the slippery occasions for sin.
Informet actus strenuos,
dentes retundat invidi,
casus secundet asperos,
donet gerendi gratiam.
May He guide our feeble actions,
may He beat back the teeth of the Devil,
may He bring to good end perilous situations,
may He give grace to the acting (rightly).
Mentem gubernet et regat,
casto, fideli corpore,
fides calore ferveat,
fraudis venena nesciat.
gubernet regat: subject Pater
ferveo: to glow
fraudis venena: the venoms of deceit
Christusque nobis sit cibus,
potusque noster sit fides,
laeti bibamus sobriam
cibus, -us (m.): food; potus, us (m.): drink
laeti..Spiritus: Let us gladly drink the sober drunkenness of the (holy) Spirit
Laetus dies hic transeat,
pudor sit ut diluculum,
fides velut meridies,
crepusculum mens nesciat.
We should from daybreak be guided by shame and faith in our actions so that at the end of the day we have not sinned.
diluculum: dawn: crepusculum; evening twilight, darkness (of sin)
Aurora cursus provehit,
Aurora totus prodeat
in Patre totus Filius
et totus in Verbo Pater.
In the fierce and sometimes violent discussion at that time about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son, Ambrose is taking the orthodox position of complete identity (hence trice totus) of Father and Son. Like the morning is setting out its course, so the Son is like the morning going forwards to the Father. That his flock, singing this hymn, may know it!