As it is now almost Christmas, it is sobering to remind that the date this feast was only fixed somewhere at the end of the 4th century. The Bible tells us nothing about the date and the Gospel of Marc - the oldest gospel – has nothing to say at all about the birth of Jesus. Under popular pressure and theological reflections, such as the rise of the prominence of Mary, a date was fixed, which conveniently was around the same date as some heathen feasts like the Saturnalia. This is of course more than coincidence: though it would be nonsense to claim that it was under the direct influence of Mithraism, the connection between Christ and light was easily made and had its foundation in the Gospel of John. Indeed, there are pictures of Christ resembling the sun-god Apollo; an iconographical resemblance, not a theological.
Possibly Ambrose of Milan (340 – 397) introduced the date of the birth of Jesus in his diocese – Rome had already preceded. It is tempting to think that the following hymn was written for that occasion, but as with the exact historical circumstances of fixing the date of Christmas, this too would overstretch our sources.
Ambrosius, Intende, qui regis Israel. (By far not all biblical parallels have been noted.)
1 Intende, qui regis Israel,
super Cherubim qui sedes, qui sedes super
appare Ephraem coram, excita one of the tribes of Israel
potentiam tuam et veni! For the first stanza cf. Psalm 79/80
intendo intendi intentum: to give attention
appareo apparui: to appear
coram: before, in front of
excito (-are): bring out, rouse
2 Veni, redemptor gentium, note the repeating veni
ostende partum virginis,
miretur omne saeculum, saeculum: both world and age
talis decet partus deo. (that) such (a low) birth
decet here with dative
ostendo ostendi ostentum: to show
partus –us (m.): birth, delivery
3 Non ex virili semine,
sed mystico spiramine spiramen = Holy Ghost
verbum dei factum est caro cf. John 1.14
fructusque ventris floruit.
4 Alvus tumescit virginis,
claustrum pudoris permanet, the barrier of chastity remains (closed)
vexilla virtutum micant,
versatur in templo deus. in templo: i.e. the belly of Mary
alvus (m./f.) : belly
tumesco tumui: to (begin to) swell
vexillum: banner, flag, standard
mico (-are): to vibrate, shine
versor versatus: to dwell
5 Procedat e thalamo suo,
pudoris aula regia, the royal court of chastity (ablative!) = Mary
geminae gigas substantiae, i.e. His divine and human nature
alacris occurrat viam. may he enter the road (of salvation)
procedo processi (-ere): to come/go forth
gigas gigantis (m.): giant
alacris = alacer: quick, eager, happy
6 Egressus eius a patre, note the use of e (out) and re (return)
regressus eius ad patrem,
excursus usque ad inferos, to those below, i.e. hell
recursus ad sedem dei.
7 Aequalis aeterno patri, vocative: you who are equal etc.
carnis tropaeo accingere, accingere: inf. pro imp.
infirma nostri corporis infirma firmans: making strong the weak things etc.
virtute firmans perpeti.
perpetuus: eternal (perpeti = perpetii)
8 Praesepe iam fulget tuum
lumenque nox spirat novum,
quod nulla nox interpolet
fideque iugi luceat.
praesepe –is (n.): stable
fulgeo fulsi (-ere): to flash, glitter
interpolo (-are): to alter
iugis –e: continual, perpetual
Picture from de Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.
Performance by Capella Antiqua München, conductor Konrad Ruhland.
Translation by Peter G. Walsh with Christopher Husch (One Hundred Latin Hymns, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 18, 2012)
Give ear, O king of Israel,
seated above the Cherubim,
appear before Ephraim’s face,
stir up thy mightiness, and come.
Redeemer of the Gentiles, come;
show forth the birth from virgin’s womb;
let every age show wonderment;
such birth is fitting for our God.
Not issuing from husband’s seed,
but from the Spirit’s mystic breath,
God’s Word was fashioned into flesh,
and thrived as fruit of Mary’s womb.
The virgin’s womb begins to swell;
her maidenhead remains intact:
the banner of her virtues gleam;
God in his temple lives and stirs.
From his chamber let him come forth,
the royal court of chastity,
as giant of his twin natures
eager to hasten on his way.
First from the Father he set forth,
then to his Father he returns;
he sallies to the realms below,
then journeys back to God’s abode.
You are the eternal Father’s peer;
gird on your trophy of the flesh,
and strengthen with your constant power
the frailties of our bodies’ frame.
Your manger now is all aglow,
the night breathes forth a light unknown;
a light that never night may shroud,
and that shall gleam with constant faith.