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Hymn for Christmas-Day

Many people are at least passingly familiar with the late fourth century/early fifth century Christian Latin poet Prudentius because of John Mason Neale and Henry Baker’s translation of nine verses from Cathemerinon 9, the Hymnus omnis horae (“Hymn for Every Hour”), titled “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” (Kevin DeYoung recently wrote about it here.)

The Cathemerinon (“Daily Round”) is a collection of hymns for various times and activities of the day, but not only for that: there are also poems for the burial of the dead, Christmas, and Epiphany.

The Latin title of the Christmas hymn (Cathemerinon 11) is Hymnus VIII Kal. Ianuarias (“Hymn for the Twenty-Fifth of December”), the Western date for the Nativity, widely accepted by Prudentius’ time. The opening connects the date with the winter solstice, after which the days begin to lengthen: at the darkest time of year, the Light of Heaven comes into the darkness and illuminates it. Here is the hymn in the translation of R. Martin Pope:

XI. HYMN FOR CHRISTMAS-DAY

Why doth the sun re-orient take

A wider range, his limits break?

Lo! Christ is born, and o’er earth’s night

Shineth from more to more the light!

Too swiftly did the radiant day

Her brief course run and pass away:

She scarce her kindly torch had fired

Ere slowly fading it expired.

Now let the sky more brightly beam,

The earth take up the joyous theme:

The orb a broadening pathway gains

And with its erstwhile splendour reigns.

Sweet babe, of chastity the flower,

A virgin’s blest mysterious dower!

Rise in Thy twofold nature’s might:

Rise, God and man to reunite!

Though by the Father’s will above

Thou wert begot, the Son of Love,

Yet in His bosom Thou didst dwell,

Of Wisdom the eternal Well;

Wisdom, whereby the heavens were made

And light’s foundations first were laid:

Creative Word! all flows from Thee!

The Word is God eternally.

For though with process of the suns

The ordered whole harmonious runs,

Still the Artificer Divine

Leaves not the Father’s inmost shrine.

The rolling wheels of Time had passed

O’er their millennial journey vast,

Before in judgment clad He came

Unto the world long steeped in shame.

The purblind souls of mortals crass

Had trusted gods of stone and brass,

To things of nought their worship paid

And senseless blocks of wood obeyed.

And thus employed, they fell below

The sway of man’s perfidious foe:

Plunged in the smoky sheer abyss

They sank bereft of their true bliss.

But that sore plight of ruined man

Christ’s pity could not lightly scan:

Nor let God’s building nobly wrought

Ingloriously be brought to nought.

He wrapped Him in our fleshly guise,

That from the tomb He might arise,

And man released from death’s grim snare

Home to His Father’s bosom bear.

This is the day of Thy dear birth,

The bridal of the heaven and earth,

When the Creator breathed on Thee

The breath of pure humanity.

Ah! glorious Maid, dost thou not guess

What guerdon thy chaste soul shall bless,

How by thy ripening pangs is bought

An honour greater than all thought?

O what a load of joy untold

Thy womb inviolate doth hold!

Of thee a golden age is born,

The brightness of the earth’s new morn!

Hearken! doth not the infant’s wail

The universal springtide hail?

For now the world re-born lays by

Its gloomy, frost-bound apathy.

Methinks in all her rustic bowers

The earth is spread with clustering flowers:

Odours of nard and nectar sweet

E’en o’er the sands of Syrtes fleet.

All places rough and deserts wild

Have felt from far Thy coming, Child:

Rocks to Thy gentle empire bow

And verdure clothes the mountain brow.

Sweet honey from the boulder leaps:

The sere and leafless oak-bough weeps

A strange rich attar: tamarisks too

Of balsam pure distil the dew.

Blessèd for ever, cradle dear,

The lowly stall, the cavern drear!

Men to this shrine, Eternal King,

With dumb brutes adoration bring.

The ox and ass in homage low

Obedient to their Maker bow:

Bows too the unlearn’d heartless crowd

Whose minds the sensual feast doth cloud.

Though, by the faithful Spirit impelled,

Shepherds and brutes, unreasoning held,

Yea, folk that did in darkness dwell

Discern their God in His poor cell:

Yet children of the sacred race

Blindly abhor the Incarnate grace:

By philtres you might deem them lulled

Or by some bacchic phrenzy dulled.

Why headlong thus to ruin stride?

If aught of soundness in you bide,

Behold in Him the Lord divine

Of all your patriarchal line.

Mark you the dim-lit cave, the Maid,

The humble nurse, the cradle laid,

The helpless infancy forlorn:

Yet thus the Gentiles’ King was born!

Ah sinner, thou shalt one day see

This Child in dreadful majesty,

See Him in glorious clouds descend,

While thou thy guilty heart shalt rend.

Vain all thy tears, when loud shall sound

The trump, when flames shall scorch the ground,

When from its hinge the cloven world

Is loosed, in horrid tumult hurled.

Then throned on high, the Judge of all

Shall mortals to their reckoning call:

To these shall grant the prize of light,

To those Gehenna’s gloomy night.

Then, Israel, shalt thou learn at length

The Cross hath, as the lightning, strength:

Doomed by thy wrath, He now is Lord,

Whom Death once grasped but soon restored.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.