13 Dec 2013

Advent Hymns (as opposed to Christmas carols!)

In the midst of the panic around preparations for Christmas; it seems each year that the shops and radio stations begin playing the Christmas music weeks and months in advance. While some radio programmes voluntarily hold off until after 8th December, it seems to be a race to see who can play "Fairytale of New York" first.

There is a rich hymn tradition for Advent in both the Roman Catholic and also Anglican traditions which draws on the readings of the season from Isaiah in particular. Of course for many people Handel's masterpiece "Messiah" is a seasonal favourite and for many signals that the season is truely upon us. For others the ancient hymn Veni Veni Emmanuel (O Come O Come Emmanuel) is another Advent favourite.

We went browsing online to see what was out there and while in an Irish context especially outside the formal choirs of St Patricks cathedral, Christchurch cathedral or the Palestrina choir at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin, some of these Advent hymns might be new to the ear, they provide some reflection in their lyrics as we journey to the City of David and the birth of the God-Child.

Creator Of The Stars Of Night "Alme Siderum" (Traditional Advent Hymn)
Advent Hymn from Ambrosian, 6th or 7th Century

1. Conditor alme siderum,
aeterna lux credentium,
Christe, redemptor omnium,
exaudi preces supplicum.
2. Qui condolens interitu
mortis perire saeculum,
salvasti mundum languidum,
donans reis remedium.
3. Vergente mundi vespere,
uti sponsus de thalamo,
egressus honestissima
Virginis matris clausula.
4. Cuius forti potentiae
genu curvantur omnia;
caelestia, terrestria
nutu fatentur subdita.
5. Te, Sancte, fide quaesumus,
venture iudex saeculi,
conserva nos in tempore
hostis a telo perfidi.
6. Sit, Christe, rex piissime,
tibi Patrique gloria
cum Spiritu Paraclito,
in sempiterna saecula. Amen.

1. Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people’s everlasting Light;
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all,
And hear thy servants when they call.
2. Thou, grieving that the ancient curse
Should doom to death an universe,
Hast found the med’cine, full of grace,
To save and heal a ruin’d race.
3. 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.
4. At whose dread Name, majestic now,
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow
And things celestial thee shall own,
And things terrestrial, Lord alone.
5. O thou, whose coming is with dread
To judge and doom the quick and dead,
Preserve us, while we dwell below,
From ev’ry insult of the foe.
6. To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Laud, honour, might, and glory be
From age to age eternally. Amen.

For many traditional Catholics, Advent would not be Advent if introducted by any other hymn. It is well nigh impossible for even the best of poets to find a formula that really corresponds to the first line of the Latin text. The Latin “sidus” (“siderium”) means more than just a “star.” It includes the stars in the heavens, and of course, also the sun, moon, planets and all the heavenly constellations and comets and meteors. These are the cosmic elements that appear in later stanzas of the hymn. For the ancients, these mysterious heavenly bodies that moved about and that had their seasonal cycles of waxing and wanning and that in some unfathomable way could affect he course of human destiny. Indeed; in a manner of speaking within the celestial plane, these heavenly bodies were perhaps living beings.

The opening line of this Advent hymn should make us think of the great array of all the powerful cosmic bodies that figure in those Eschatological texts of scripture where the whole of the created universe responds to the presence of God. The point of reference is not some lovely nightfall scene studied with gentle glimmering stars, but rather that “Great Day” when (“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give her light, the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken”) (Matthew 24:29). Indeed, this Advent hymn, if we really look at it, is something of a “Dies irae” in a less strident mode.

In stanza three, the world’s evening draws to a close. If we recognize in the last three lines of this stanza the allusion to verse six of Psalm 19, the verse that occurs so frequently in the Christmastide cycle: (“And He; as a bridegroom coming forth from the bridal chamber, rejoices as a giant to run his course”) So just when the world seems doomed to certain extinction, the Sun comes forth in a blaze of light and begins its paschal journey across the whole of human life and experience.
This imagery is especially appropriate towards the beginning of the First Sunday of Advent and into the beginning of December, when nights are growing progressively longer and longer, until upon the arrival of the Winter Solstice just before the Solemnity of Christmas, then the inexorable onslaught of darkness is reversed with the Birth of Christ, the Sun of Justice, who now begins to run His course over the whole of our existence.

(Advent Reflection by the late Father Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO, Cistercian monk of Gethsemani Abbey, in Trappist, Kentucky U.S.A).


The Advent hymn Veni Veni Emanuel is based on the O'Antiphons which we will be blogging about next week. However you can look at our previous years posts on the O'Antiphons HERE. We found a couple of alternative versions of this piece online.


Irish people can be a bit possessive about Handel's "Messiah" and have sort of adopted it as one of our own as it was premiered in Dublin. It also signals the beginning of the Christmas season especially in Dublin where Our Lady' Choral Society performs it annually at the National Concert Hall. Messiah is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music

While the most famous part is probably the Hallelujah chorus, it is often sung in the Advent season due to the fact that the first part of the oratorio is based on the prophecies of Isaiah which are some of the main scripture readings from the Old Testament during Advent.

Cindy Rollands has some suggestions for Using Handel's Messiah during Advent. You can listen to all the Advent related pieces HERE.

The choir of Lichfield Cathedral sing the lovely advent hymn "Lo ! He comes with clouds descending" . Words by Charles Wesley rewritten from the original text by John Cennick .

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favoured sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, amen; let all adore thee,
High on thine eternal throne;
Saviour, take the power and glory;
Claim the kingdoms for thine own:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
'All hail', said he, "thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favoured lady, Gloria!

'For known a blessed Mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honour thee,
Thy son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,
Most highly favoured lady, Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
'To me be as it pleaseth God', she said,
'My soul shall laud and magnify His holy name,
Most highly favoured lady, Gloria!

Of her, Emmanuel the Christ, was born,
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
And everyone throughout the world will ever say:
Most highly favoured lady, Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!

Alma Redemptoris Mater or, in English, "Loving Mother of our Savior," is one of four liturgical Marian antiphons (the other three being: Ave Regina caelorum, Regina coeli and Salve Regina), and sung at the end of the office of Compline. Hermannus Contractus (Herman the Cripple) (1013 - 1054) is said to have authored the hymn based on the writings of Ss. Fulgentius, Epiphanius, and Irenaeus of Lyon. It is mentioned in "The Prioress's Tale", one of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Formerly it was recited at compline only from the first Sunday in Advent until the Feast of the Purification (February 2),

Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.

Loving Mother of our Savior, hear thou thy people's cry
Star of the deep and Portal of the sky!
Mother of Him who thee made from nothing made.
Sinking we strive and call to thee for aid:
Oh, by what joy which Gabriel brought to thee,
Thou Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see


For some more modern hymns for the Advent season, the following caught our eye:

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