It is well known that the Latin term saeculum, whence our “secular,” etc., has a variety of meanings. Roughly the Latin equivalent of the Greek term αἰών, it sometimes means this passing “age,” in contrast to the age to come; sometimes “age” in a generic sense; sometimes “world.” There is nothing in the word’s origin inherently antonymic to the word “sacred,” though it often had the resonance of something provisional as opposed to permanent. In later and Christian Latin, however, it *can* have negative connotations: “worldliness” or “heathenism” (see Lewis & Short).
In the early medieval Advent hymn translated below, we see a couple of different senses of the word, the threefold use of which in a way serves as a thread through the hymn. One thing is clear from the author’s point of view: the sphere of the saeculum is not neutral space. As a result of the Fall and the introduction of death to the world, the saeculum became a place of corruption (its first use in the hymn). Christ thus came in mercy for its redemption: grieving that the saeculum was perishing, he came to save (salvasti) the listless world (mundum languidum). The adjective languidum describes a world that is weak, feeble, powerless, one that can do nothing for itself.
Christ is the Lord of the totality of this saeculum, this mundus (the term Latin speakers generally used for the Greek κόσμος), he came to save, and this is what the author treats in the fourth and fifth stanzas. In a manner reminiscent of the Psalmists, the singer proclaims that the natural world–sun, moon, stars–gives proof of the subjection of all things to Christ, this one who was born from the womb of a virgin as a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber: Christ is the Lord of Psalm 19.
But as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed asserts, the Son who was born a baby from the virgin’s womb “shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead.” Christ’s Second Coming will be for the purpose of judging the saeculum (the hymn’s second use). The time for salvation, therefore, is now. For that reason, the singers of the hymn ask God to save them (conserva nos; cf. salvasti mundum above) in tempore (“in time”) before the tempus and saeculum come to an end.
After the Judgment follows the age to come; therefore the speaker ascribes to the Triune God praise and glory unto eternal ages (in sempiterna saecula) (the hymn’s third use).
The meter is once again Ambrosian iambic dimeters, as was the hymn of Buchanan I posted about recently.
Here is a recording of the text in Gregorian chant setting (with lyrics, though the text is different in some places, e.g. in the doxology).
Conditor alme siderum
aeterna lux credentium,
Christe redemptor omnium,
exaudi preces supplicum;
qui, condolens interitu
mortis perire saeculum,
salvasti mundum languidum,
donans reis remedium,
vergente mundi vespere 1,
uti sponsus de thalamo,
virginis matris clausula.
cuius forti potentiae
genu curvantur omnia
nutu fatentur subdita,
occasum sol custodiens 2,
luna pallorem retinens,
candor in astris relucens
certos observans limites.
te deprecamur, hagie 3,
venture iudex saeculi,
conserva nos in tempore
hostis a telo perfidi.
laus, honor, virtus, gloria
Deo Patri cum Filio
sancto simul Paraclito
in sempiterna saecula 4.
Nourishing framer of the stars 5,
eternal life of those who believe,
Christ, the redeemer of all,
hear the prayers of your suppliants;
you who, grieving that by the ruin
of death the world was perishing,
saved the powerless world,
giving to the guilty a remedy,
at the declining evening of the world,
as a bridegroom from his chamber,
went forth from the most honorable
womb of the virgin mother,
to whose strong power
all things bend the knee,
in heaven and on earth,
to whose nod all thing profess themselves in subjection,
the sun preserving its setting,
the moon maintaining its pallor,
the brightness shining in the stars
keeping sure limits.
We beseech you, holy one,
coming Judge of the world,
preserve us in time
from the weapon of the treacherous enemy.
Praise, honor, power, glory
to God the Father together with the Son
and the Holy Comforter
unto eternal ages.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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