Metrical hymnody was slow in coming in the early Christian liturgy, probably because of a preference for biblical songs (psalms and canticles, like the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc dimittis) and for prose songs of like character (Gloria in excelsis and the Phos hilaron, the evening lamplighting hymn). But in spite of the prohibitions of several local councils and the censure of several of the early Church Fathers against metrical hymnody, hymnography soon found renewed vitality in the later fourth century in the compositions of St Ambrose of Milan and St Ephrem the Syrian.
St Ambrose is thought to have been responsible for the introduction of metrical (and isosyllabic) hymnody to the Western Church. He himself composed several hymns which passed into use in the daily office of the early Middle Ages, including the hymn Veni redemptor gentium (Come, redeemer of the nations), which became the office hymn for the first vespers of Christmas Day (that is, vespers – or evening prayer – celebrated on Christmas Eve) in the Sarum Use, the variant of the Roman (Latin) Rite that was used in much of England from the 11th century up to the Reformation.
Redeemer of the nations, come;
reveal yourself in virgin birth,
the birth which ages all adore,
a wondrous birth, befitting God.
From human will you do not spring,
but from the Spirit of our God;
O Word of God, come; take our flesh
and grow as child in Mary’s womb.
You came forth from the eternal God,
and you returned to that same source.
You suffered death and harrowed hell,
and reigned once more from God’s high throne.
With God the Father you are one,
and one with us in human flesh.
Oh, fill our weak and dying frame
with godly strength which never fails.
You cradle shines with glory’s light;
its splendor pierces all our gloom.
Our faith reflects those radiant beams;
no night shall overcome it now.
All praise, O unbegotten God,
all praise to you, eternal Word,
all praise life-giving Spirit, praise,
all glory to our God Triune.
attributed to St Ambrose of Milan (340-397); trans. Charles P. Price (b. 1920), in The Hymnal 1982
Martin Luther translated the hymn from Latin into German as Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Savior of the heathen), and the plainsong tune to which the Latin text was sung was simplified into a chorale for congregational singing (in the daily office, the hymns were sung by the clergy or religious – monks or nuns – who were singing the office, not by the people in attendance). When in the 19th century many German Lutheran chorales were translated into English, the hymn passed into Anglican hymnody as the Advent hymn, “Savior of the nations, come”.
Savior of the nations, come!
Virgin’s Son, make here your home,
Marvel now, both heaven and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.
Wondrous birth! Oh, wondrous child
of the Virgin undefiled!
Mighty God and Mary’s son,
eager now his race to run!
Thus on earth the Word appears,
gracing his created spheres;
hence to death and hell descends,
then the heavenly throne ascends.
Come, O Father’s saving Son,
who o’er sin the victory won.
Boundless shall your kingdom be;
grant that we its glories see.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) after Ambrose of Milan; trans. William F. Reynolds (1812-1876) and James Waring McCrady (b. 1938), in The Hymnal 1982
Either setting of this hymn (the translation of St Ambrose’s original Latin text or of Luther’s German translation) could be sung at Evening Prayer during Advent in the place of the Phos hilaron, before the appointed psalms (cf. pages 64 and 117 in the 1979 Prayer Book). The hymn is especially suitable for Evening Prayer on Christmas Eve.
A magnificent performance of the chorale from Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61), Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting.
The chorale as sung by a parish choir, with organ accompaniment (their translation of the text is a different one).