Parts of this hymn are familiar in English as “Savior of the Nations, Come,” which my family has recently been learning along with some (other) medieval hymns.1 “Savior of the Nations, Come” is not a direct translation of the Latin, but is rather William Reynolds’ translation from the German of Martin Luther, which was in turn translated from Latin–but beginning from the second stanza (Veni, redemptor gentium) rather than the first. The hymn is referred to in this way already a couple of times in antiquity, which perhaps shows an early desuetude for the first stanza.
A.S. Walpole, in Early Latin Hymns, quotes a number of ancient testimonia to demonstrate that the hymn is authentically Ambrosian. In this post we’ll look at a few of these.
Augustine is the earliest witness to the hymn. For instance, in Tractates on the Gospel of John 59.3, on John 13.16-20, he uses the phrase geminae gigans substantiae (“a giant of double substance”) to describe the incarnate Christ, a phrase found (with that word-order) in line 19 of our hymn. The possibility that this striking locution comes from elsewhere, or that he happened upon it in the same word-order, is exceedingly small (gigans comes from the Latin version of Psalm 19.5, which is what Augustine is alluding to there). Indeed, that particular phrase is found in other testimonia to the hymn as well (e.g., Faustus of Riez, Facundus, and Cassiodorus).
Again, in one of the sermons attributed to Augustine on the Incarnation, Serm. 372.3.3 (the reference is wrong in Walpole), he refers to the same Psalm, again interpreted as referring to the Incarnation, and then says:
Hunc nostri gigantis excursum brevissime ac pulcherrime cecinit beatus Ambrosius in hymno, quem paulo ante cantastis. Loquens enim de Domino Christo, sic ait: Egressus eius a Patre, regressus eius ad Patrem: excursus usque ad inferos, recursus ad sedem Dei.
Blessed Ambrose has sung of this departure of our giant most briefly and beautifully in the hymn which you sang a little earlier. For speaking about the Lord Christ, he speaks as follows: “His departure from the Father, his return to the Father; his journey down to hell, his journey back to the seat of God.”2
The last part is a quotation of lines 21-4 of the hymn, and incidentally shows that it was in liturgical use already at the time the sermon was written. On the other hand, it is likely that Augustine is not the author of the sermon–but regardless of author, the sermon does provide witness to the hymn’s authorship.
Quis enim non expavescat, cum audit Deum natum? audis nascentem, vide in ipso ortu miracula facientem: alvus tumescit virginis, claustrum pudoris permanet.
For who would not be terrified, when he hears that God has been born? You hear of him being born–see, working miracles in his very coming! “The womb of the virgin swells, the gate of chastity remains closed.”
Again, the last part is a quotation of the hymn (lines 13-14) and testifies to its early usage and spread.
Bishop Celestine of Rome (422-32) also quotes the hymn at the Council of Rome (430) against the Nestorians:
Recordor beatae memoriae Ambrosium in die natalis Domini nostri Iesu Christi omnem populum fecisse una voce canere: veni Redemptor gentium, ostende partum virginis, miretur omne saeculum, talis decet partus Deum. numquid dixit, talis decet partus hominem? Ergo sensus fratris nostri Cyrilli in hoc, quod dicit θεοτόκον Mariam, valde concordat: talis decet partus Deum. Deum partu suo virgo effudit.
I recall that Ambrose of blessed memory, on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, made all the people to sing with one voice: “Come, redeemer of the nations, show the virgin’s birth, let the whole world wonder; such a birth befits God.” He didn’t say, “Such a birth befits man,” did he? Therefore the meaning of our brother Cyril is in agreement, in his saying that Mary is theotokos (“God-bearer”): “such a birth befits God.” The virgin brought forth God in her own act of giving birth.
Here Celestine quotes lines 5-8 of the hymn and uses them to illuminate the Cyrillian position on the Incarnation–obviously a vexed question at this historical moment, as we recall that the Council of Ephesus was shortly to occur to make pronouncement on the teachings of Nestorius.
So much by way of introduction. In the next post, we’ll look at the hymn’s first stanza.