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Singing through Advent, in praise of the Mother of the Redeemer

As the Fourth Sunday of Advent has a distinctly Marian dimension to it, here are four hymns that can help us draw nearer to the Mother of God as we prepare for Christmas.

Detail from "Virgin Mary Annunciate" (1431-33) by Fra Angelico [WikiArt.org]

The liturgy for the Fourth Sunday of Advent has a distinctly Marian dimension to it – and rightly so. May she intercede for us, that we may live the remainder of Advent 2021 as fully as she did the very first Advent.

Alma Redemptoris Mater

Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.

Kindly Mother of the Redeemer, who art ever of Heaven
The open gate, and the star of the sea, aid a falling people,
Which is trying to rise again; thou who didst give birth,
While Nature marvelled how, to thy Holy Creator,
Virgin both before and after, from Gabriel’s mouth,
Accepting All hail, be merciful towards sinners.

This hymn goes all the way back to Herman the Cripple in the eleventh century and is based on the theological writings of Irenaeus, Fulgentius and Epiphanius. It is cited in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (The Prioress’ Tale). The hymn concludes Compline or Night Prayer from the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Lord’s Presentation (February 2). Most translations are paraphrases, largely due to the fact that the original Latin is very tightly written; the translation we use here is that of Cardinal Newman – and even that is not an exact rendering.

In addition to the chant version, numerous polyphonic compositions exist, perhaps most notably that of Palestrina. I am unaware of any good English sung versions.

• Our Lady is saluted at the outset as “Kindly Mother of the Redeemer.” We are all familiar speaking of the academic institution from which we graduated as our “alma mater”; if a school is a “kindly” or “loving” mother, how much more the Mother bequeathed to us by the dying Christ? Redemptoris Mater is also the title of the 1987 Marian encyclical of St. John Paul II, one of the finest Mariological treatises in the history of the Church.

• Mary is lauded here as the “caeli Porta” (elsewhere as “Janua Caeli”) – Gate of Heaven. In Cardinal Newman’s meditation on the titles of Our Lady in the Litany of Loreto for May 13, he teaches us:

Mary is called the Gate of Heaven, because it was through her that Our Lord passed from Heaven to earth. The Prophet Ezechiel, prophesying of Mary, says, “the gate shall be closed, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, since the Lord God of Israel has entered through it – and it shall be closed for the Prince, the Prince Himself shall sit in it.”

• Next, Mary is called “Stella Maris” (Star of the Sea). If you live in a coastal area, you probably know of a mariners’ chapel called “Star of the Sea” or even identified by the original Latin title. Paschasius Radbertus in the ninth century offered an allegorical explanation of the name: Mary is the “Star of the Sea” to be followed on the way to Christ, “lest we capsize amid the storm-tossed waves of the sea.” Newman truly waxes exceedingly poetic and elegant as he uses this Marian title in direct address to Our Lady:

Truly art thou a star, O Mary! Our Lord indeed Himself, Jesus Christ, He is the truest and chiefest Star, the bright and morning Star, as St. John calls Him; that Star which was foretold from the beginning as destined to rise out of Israel, and which was displayed in figure by the star which appeared to the wise men in the East. But if the wise and learned and they who teach men in justice shall shine as stars for ever and ever; if the angels of the Churches are called stars in the Hand of Christ; if He honoured the apostles even in the days of their flesh by a title, calling them lights of the world; if even those angels who fell from Heaven are called by the Beloved Disciple stars; if lastly all the saints in bliss are called stars, in that they are like stars differing from stars in glory; therefore most assuredly, without any derogation from the honour of Our Lord, is Mary His Mother called the Star of the Sea, and the more so because even on her head she wears a crown of twelve stars. Jesus is the Light of the World, illuminating every man who cometh into it, opening our eyes with the gift of faith, making souls luminous by His Almighty grace; and Mary is the Star, shining with the light of Jesus, fair as the moon, and special as the sun, the star of the heavens, which it is good to look upon, the star of the sea, which is welcome to the tempest-tossed, at whose smile the evil spirit flies, the passions are hushed, and peace is poured upon the soul.

Hail then, Star of the Sea, we joy in the recollection of thee. Pray for us ever at the throne of Grace; plead our cause, pray with us, present our prayers to thy Son and Lord – now and in the hour of death, Mary, be thou our help.

• The hymnist clearly delights in serving up for us the paradox (but not contradiction) that Mary gave birth to her Creator: She is truly the Mother of God (the sticking point for the heretic Nestorius, who could only agree to her being the Mother of Christ). The Council of Ephesus settled this issue by declaring that Mary was indeed the Theotokos, Mother of God, thus safeguarding Christ’s divinity.

• The birth of the God-Man from a virgin causes Nature herself to marvel. Beyond that, Mary remains a virgin, both before and after the miraculous birth of her Child. From time immemorial, Our Lady’s perpetual virginity has been held firmly by all Christians. It is important to note that even the three principal Protestant Reformers – Luther, Calvin and Zwingli – all believed and taught this doctrine.

• We are reminded that the Virgin of Nazareth willingly and lovingly accepted the greeting and message of the Angel Gabriel, which is to say that she accepted the greeting and message of God Himself. Our medieval ancestors in the Faith reveled in word-plays. And so, they took Gabriel’s Ave (Hail) and observed that the inverse of that is Eva (Eve), concluding that Mary was God’s answer to Eve – a point first made by Irenaeus in the second century in his Adversus Haereses:

And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.

• Finally, we seek Our Lady’s mediation by pitying us poor sinners, making one think of yet another role she plays in the economy of salvation as “Refuge of Sinners.” Once more, Newman connects the dots for us as he concludes his Litany of the Immaculate Heart of Mary thus:

O most merciful God, who for the salvation of sinners and the refuge of the wretched, hast made the Immaculate Heart of Mary most like in tenderness and pity to the Heart of Jesus, grant that we, who now commemorate her most sweet and loving heart, may by her merits and intercession, ever live in the fellowship of the Hearts of both Mother and Son, through the same Christ our Lord.

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

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 flower 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.

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.

This Christmas carol is of German origin: “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” meaning “a rose has sprung up,” the work of the Lutheran Michael Praetorius (1571-1621).

While the rose often symbolizes Our Lady in Christian iconography, in this instance, Christ is obviously intended here. Of course, if we consider Mary a rose, it should come as no surprise that Jesus would be so considered, for like produces like.

The hymn alludes to the prophecies of Isaiah, foretelling the Incarnation of Christ, and to the Tree of Jesse, a traditional symbol of the lineage of Jesus.

The translation here is that of Theodore Baker (1851-1934), who was born in New York but died in Germany.

• The “men of old,” who sang of these saving events, are, of course, the prophets. A biblical prophet was more a “forth-teller” than a “fore-teller,” although the futuristic aspects are not to be excluded. As was the case for most ancient literature, so too the prophets “sang” their sacred texts.

• St. Matthew’s genealogy informs us that Jesse was the father of King David, while Isaiah 11:1 asserts that: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” As a descendant of David, Jesus is the branch God promised would grow from Jesse’s family tree. An Advent staple, the Jesse Tree is populated by symbols representing stories from within this family tree, marking progress toward the birth of the Messiah.

• The hymn takes for granted that Our Jesus was born in the winter and at midnight (“when half-spent was the night”). The latter thought arises from a passage from the Book of Wisdom, undoubtedly the inspiration for the Christmas Midnight Mass: “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half-gone, Thy all-powerful word leaped from Heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior” (18:14-15).

• The second verse (by the Lutheran hymnist) is a paean to the Blessed Virgin, into whose company we are invited to enter, the better to behold her Child, who is our very Savior.

• The final verse reminds us of essential truths of Christian faith: Christ is the Light, who has shattered the darkness (see Jn 1); Jesus is true God and true Man (Nicene Creed, which we recite every Sunday); He is our Savior (see Mt 1:21); He bears our burdens (see Mt 11:29-30).

The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came

The angel Gabriel from Heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
“All hail,” said he to meek and lowly Mary,
“most highly favored maiden.” Gloria!

“I come from Heav’n to tell the Lord’s decree:
a blessed virgin mother you shall be.
Your Son shall be Immanuel, by seers foretold,
most highly favored maiden.” Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head;
“To me be as it pleases God,” she said.
“My soul shall laud and magnify His holy name.”
Most highly favored maiden, Gloria!

Of her, Immanuel, the Christ, was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say,
“Most highly favored maiden.” Gloria!

Here we have a Basque carol, translated by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), detailing the Annunciation.

• Our Lady is greeted as “most highly favored maiden,” presumably a translation of the Latin “gratia plena,” which in turn is a translation of the Greek “kecharitomene” (the noun is charis for “grace”). A little bit of a lesson in Greek grammar: The form we have here is the perfect passive participle, which denotes an action performed in the past, with effects into the present. Thus, a very literal and awkward way to say this in English would be “graced over” or “thoroughly graced.” Hence, Jerome’s “gratia plena” and the traditional English “full of grace” fill the bill quite nicely, while this hymn’s “most highly favored” is rather weak tea (a number of English Bibles fail in the same way). Simply put: Being “highly favored” is not the same as being “full of grace.”

It should not be missed that when Gabriel salutes Our Lady, he does not call her by her name at first; rather, he addresses her by the title of “Full of Grace” because it is precisely due to her being “full of grace” that she can merit to bear the One who is Grace Incarnate.

• Each verse ends with “Gloria!” – first sung by the angels on Christmas night: Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Those lines of the angelic chorus are picked up by the Church and embellished into her hymn of joy and sung on solemnities and feasts at Holy Mass. Indeed, the praise of God sung in Heaven must always be “picked up” by the Church on earth.

• The grace-filled Virgin humbly consents to the divine plan, uttering her fiat. Mother Teresa of Calcutta would remind us that we must “give God permission” to act in our lives. Our Blessed Mother offers the primordial example; good children listen to their Mother. Her obedience “magnifies the Lord.” How so? As humans, we can do nothing to add to the intrinsic glory of God; as one of the prefaces of the Mass recalls, God has “no need of our praise” for “our praises add nothing to [His] greatness.” However, our dutiful words and deeds do add to God’s extrinsic glory, that is, our obedience “magnifies the Lord” in the sight of others, thereby inviting them to join in worship of the God of the universe.

• Mary’s fiat allows the God-Man to be born – to be “Immanuel” (God-with-us) – in Bethlehem (House of Bread), foreshadowing how that Child will be able to be God-with-us forever in the Bread of the Eucharist.

• Finally, the hymn’s translator – an Anglican clergyman – may be taking some delight in “tweaking” some of his co-religionists who are less inclined to Marian devotion with the line: “and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say, ‘Most highly favored maiden.’” He thus urges them to fulfill the inspired prophecy of the Virgin of Nazareth in her Magnificat: “Henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” True “Christian folk” consider it an honor to stand in that long procession of believers throughout the ages who have “called her blessed.”

Rorate cæli desuper

Rorate cæli desuper, et nubes pluant Justum;
aperiatur terra, et germinet Salvatorem.

Drop down dew from above, you heavens,
and let the clouds rain down the Just One;
let the earth be opened and bring forth a Savior.

This ancient chant, in its fuller form, is coupled with verses begging God’s mercy upon a sinful people – a pastiche of passages from Isaiah 63-64. In its present form (coming from Isaiah 45:8), it serves as the Introit or Entrance Antiphon for Marian Masses during Advent or can be sung as a stand-alone text.1 Its plaintive and haunting melody evokes the burning desire of the People of God for a Savior. Equally evocative and stirring polyphonic versions have been composed by Palestrina, Byrd, and Schütz.

• “Dew” is mentioned nearly forty times in the Scriptures. In the oppressive heat and with the lack of rain for months in the Holy Land, dew provided relief for human beings and plant life alike. It was regarded as a source of blessing, reminiscent of the manna and quail from Heaven during the wandering in the desert of the Chosen People. Interestingly, it is nearly imperceptible and thus generally unnoticed, like that still, small voice of God that eluded Elijah (see 1 Kings 19:12). As used in this chant, the falling of the dew foreshadows the birth of the Savior in its hiddenness. Truly, God’s ways are not our ways (see Is 55:8): Surely, we would have planned and executed a far grander arrival for our son!

• In the epiclesis of the Second Eucharistic Prayer, we pray: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall.” Accompanying that prayer, the priest extends his hands over the gifts in a gesture harking back to the Spirit of God hovering over the abyss at the dawn of time and the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit. In the first, the Spirit transforms chaos into creation; in the second, the Spirit makes a virgin a mother; in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Spirit changes the humble bread and wine into the very Body and Blood of the Savior.

The change in the elements of bread and wine is, like the birth of the Lord, hidden. How appropriate this is since the Holy Eucharist is, in fact, a prolongation in time of the Incarnation – God-with-us.

• If God deigns to pitch His tent among us (see Jn 1:14), He deserves (and demands) a worthy welcome. From the first moment of assuming the papacy, John Paul II – with laser-like focus – set our sights on the centrality of Christ and the close-at-hand Great Jubilee of 2000. In his inaugural homily (22 October 1978), he challenged us and pleaded:

. . . do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept His power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To His saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows “what is in man.” He alone knows it.

In his first encyclical (4 March 1979), Redemptor Hominis, he spelled this out with conviction and verve:

The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history. To him go my thoughts and my heart in this solemn moment of the world that the Church and the whole family of present-day humanity are now living. . . . [as] Saint John expressed at the beginning of his Gospel: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and elsewhere: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

We also are in a certain way in a season of a new Advent, a season of expectation: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…,” by the Son, his Word, who became man and was born of the Virgin Mary. This act of redemption marked the high point of the history of man within God’s loving plan. God entered the history of humanity and, as a man, became an actor in that history, one of the thousands of millions of human beings but at the same time Unique! Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension that he intended man to have from his first beginning; he has granted that dimension definitively – in the way that is peculiar to him alone, in keeping with his eternal love and mercy, with the full freedom of God-and he has granted it also with the bounty that enables us, in considering the original sin and the whole history of the sins of humanity, and in considering the errors of the human intellect, will and heart, to repeat with amazement the words of the Sacred Liturgy: “O happy fault. . . which gained us so great a Redeemer!”

How John Paul’s words and life and witness could move our hearts and minds.

As we enter into the home stretch of this holy season, I would urge all to adopt the prayer of that most Marian of Popes, John Paul II, which he addressed to the quintessential Woman of Advent, none other than Our Blessed Lady:

May the Virgin Mary help us to open the doors of our hearts to Christ, Redeemer of man and of history; may she teach us to be humble, because God looks upon the lowly; may she enable us to grow in understanding the value of prayer, of inner silence, of listening to God’s Word; may she spur us to seek God’s will deeply and sincerely, even when this upsets our plans; may she encourage us while we wait for the Lord, sharing our time and energies with those in need.

Mother of God, Virgin of expectation, grant that the God-who-comes will find us ready to receive the abundance of his mercy.

May Mary Most Holy, “Woman of the Eucharist” and Virgin of Advent, prepare us all to joyfully welcome Christ’s coming and to celebrate worthily his sacramental presence in the mystery of the Eucharist.2

Appendix

Our final “Advent challenge” for Catholic school teachers and priests comes as a double gift.

First, “Corde natus ex parentis ante mundi exordium” – literally, “Born from the parent’s heart before the beginning of worlds (time)” – comes from the heart of Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348-413), a Spanish poet and judge. The lyricism is married to a most engaging tune, making for a most fitting and joyful meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation.3

Hint: Try to find the echoes of New Testament texts in every line!

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Of the Father’s love begotten
’ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see
evermore and evermore.

Oh, that birth forever blessed
when the Virgin, full of grace,
by the Holy Ghost conceiving,
bore the Savior of our race,
and the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
first revealed His sacred face
evermore and evermore.

This is He whom seers and sages
sang of old with one accord,
whom the voices of the prophets
promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines, the long-expected;
let creation praise its Lord
evermore and evermore.

Let the heights of Heav’n adore Him,
angel hosts His praises sing,
pow’rs, dominions bow before Him
and extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
ev’ry voice in concert ring
evermore and evermore.

Christ, to Thee, with God the Father,
and, O Holy Ghost, to Thee
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
and unending praises be,
honor, glory, and dominion
and eternal victory
evermore and evermore.

And last but not least, we have this carol penned by the French priest, Simon-Joseph Pellégrin (1663-1745), whose collections of carols were published in 1708 and 1711. This lovely hymn, with its lilting melody, is sure to delight youngsters (and oldsters).

O Come, Divine Messiah!

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

Refrain:
Dear Savior, haste! Come, come to earth.
Dispel the night and show Thy face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.
O come, Divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

O come, Desired of nations,
Whom priest and prophet long foretold.
Come break the captive’s fetters,
Redeem the long-lost fold. [Refrain]
O come in peace and meekness,
For lowly will Thy cradle be:
Though clothed in human weakness
We shall your Godhead see. [Refrain]

Endotes:

1“Rorate Masses” are offered in honor of the Woman of Advent in the pre-dawn period in total darkness, except for the candles on the altar. Ideally, the liturgy concludes as the sun is rising. This traditional practice has witnessed an impressive revival in recent years.

2Angelus Addresses of 28 November 1999 and 28 November 2004, respectively.

3The English translator is John Mason Neale (1818-1866), a prime mover in the Oxford Movement.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 224 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

3 Comments

  1. And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary.

    And it was indeed the untying of a knot.

    Eve was miraculously and immaculately brought forth from the immaculate body of the virgin Adam. Christ, the new Adam, was miraculously and immaculately brought forth from the virgin body of Immaculate Mary, the New Eve.

    The first Adam was immaculate even though he was brought forth from soil. The new Eve was immaculately conceived even though she was brought forth from the soil of the fallen nature of her parents.

    Understanding that to untie a knot requires doing the opposite of what was done before makes clear the necessity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

    Eve’s disobedience resulted in man returning to the dust from which he was made. The new Eve’s obedience made possible the resurrection of man from that dust to joyous eternal life. This explains why

    “… the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.”
    — Revelation 12:17

    A knot was indeed untied by our glorious and Blessed Mother Mary. And we are indeed at war with the dragon, for God has

    “put enmities between thee [the dragon] and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
    — Genesis 3:15

    Mary, use us as your heel. And now would be a good time to crush the serpent’s head, for the dragon has increased his ferocity in our times like never before.

  2. “I cannot tell WHY HE whom angels worship
    should set His love upon the sons of men.
    Or why as Shepherd
    He should seek the wanderers
    to bring them back they know not how and when.

    But this I know that He was born of Mary
    when Bethl’hem’s manger was His only home
    and that He lived at Nazareth, and laboured,
    and so the Saviour,
    Saviour of the world is come.

    I cannot tell how He will win the nations
    how He will claim His earthly heritage
    and satisfy the needs and aspirations
    of east and west of sinner and of sage.

    But this I know, all flesh will see His Glory
    and He shall reap the harvest He has sown.
    And some glad day His sun shall shine in Splendor
    when He the Saviour,
    Saviour of the world is known.

    “Songs of Praise (3)”, The 3 Priests.

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