1 December 2013

A Psalm for Advent and Christmass

Depending on which version of the Office you use, Advent began last night, at the First Evensong of Advent I, with the Hymn Conditor alme siderum ... or Creator alme siderum. Which are, of course two versions of the same ninth century hymn: Conditor being the original text, now restored to the Liturgia Horarum; Creator being the classicising revision sponsored by the Renaissance Latinist, a great admirer of Horace, Pope Urban VIII. But, whichever version you read, the third stanza is intended to remind you of Psalm 18 (Psalm 19 in Protestant Bibles). This psalm is central to the thinking of both East and West about Advent and the Incarnation.

In the Pius XII Psalter which was masterminded by Cardinal Augustin Bea (bad ... bad ... see earlier post), we read (verse 5) "He has made a tabernacle for the sun". An accurate translation, it may be, of the Hebrew. But this is not what we find in both the Latin Vulgate and the Greek Septuagint (abbreviated to LXX): the two versions by which Christians of both East and West have always worshipped. Here is a literal rendering of what these versions give us:
5.In the sun he has placed his tabernacle: and he himself like a bridegroom going forth from his chamber has rejoiced (LXX: will rejoice) like a giant to run his course.
6. From highest (LXX: furthest) heaven {is} his going forth: and his meeting is even unto its highest (LXX: furthest); neither is there one who might hide himself from his heat.

Our Catholic and Orthodox forebears took the Sun to be our Lady (S Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634: "For in thee, O Virgin, as in a most pure and sparkling Heaven, God has placed his tabernacle"). They understood the bridegroom to be Christ. The bridal-chamber is the womb of the Blessed Virgin. In that Womb he united Godhead with manhood as bridegroom is united to bride, so that he is a giant with two Natures in one Person. His going forth is his eternal generation, as the Divine and Only-begotten Son, from the Father. His meeting is the Son's equality with the Father.

Let's get back to Advent Office Hymn I began with, Conditor alme siderum. We will take the clever and accurate translation of stanza 3 by the Anglican John Mason 'Patrimony' Neale which appears as Number 1 in the English Hymnal:
Thou cam'st, the bridegroom of the bride,
As drew the world to evening-tide;
Proceeding from a virgin shrine,
The spotless Victim all divine.


And a hymn by the great S Ambrose himself, Veni Redemptor gentium (in the Liturgy of the Hours, the hymn at the Office of Readings after December 16):
Forth from his chamber goeth he,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The Liturgy of the hours unfortunately misses out ('ad brevitatem') the next stanza, also based on our psalm, which Neale (English Hymnal 14) renders
From God the Father he proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds;
His course he runs to death and hell,
Returning on God's throne to dwell.


The Pre-Conciliar Breviary and the English Hymnal do not provide another ancient hymn, Fit porta Christi pervia, which the Liturgy of the Hours dug up and ordered to be said at Morning Prayer on January 1. Here is a literal version of the second stanza; it shows its indebtedness to Psalm 18:
The Son of the highest Father has gone forth from the palace of the Virgin, bridegroom, Redeemer, Creator, the Giant of his Church.

I believe that it is a shame to lose all this rich typology, both in Greek and Latin, by a pedantic insistence on a literal translation of the late, rabbinic, Masoretic text of the Hebrew. "The Bible" means what the Bible has been to the great Tradition of East and West for two millennia. Incidentally ... I'm sure you've noticed the relevance of all this to the importance of celebrating Mass versus Orientem, towards the Lord who comes to us at the dawning of the day, walking to meet us from the womb of his Mother, the Woman clothed with Sun, the Tabernacle of Divinity.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Pope Clement, alas, was also the pontiff responsible for the first of the post-Pian chopping of Matins. And so for Advent I we go from 1.1-15 to 1.1-9; a few verses chopped, too, from the ferial lessons. And the Fathers, too, get the snip.

The end result of this...I'd say Bad...conservation of tradition is 1960, where you get the anomaly of a breviary that poses many patristic questions, only never to see the answers because the presumably Latinless snippers didn't realize they were snipping away the responses.

- Dr. Lee Fratantuono