Christmas, Day 9: Begotten ere the worlds began

LOOK: The Word Made Flesh by Julius Shumpert

Shumpert, Julius_The Word Made Flesh
Julius Shumpert (American, 1997–), The Word Made Flesh, 2017. Digital artwork.

This digital artwork by Julius Shumpert shows a silhouette of Christ Pantocrator that’s filled in with stars and planets, emphasizing his eternal preexistence. This is the cosmic Christ. With his left hand he holds a Gospel-book, and with his right he gestures blessing. His halo bears the roman letters A and O for “Alpha” and “Omega” (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), as well as the Greek letter X, chi, which is the first letter in ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) and thus ancient shorthand for Jesus the Messiah.

Shumpert writes,

This icon means a lot to me. During Christmas 2016, I dove into the true meaning of Christmas. Past all of the traditional “baby Jesus” storytelling to the bare symbolism of what happened. God, who created everything, and is bigger than infinity, the expanding universe, and all that there is to be, saw us struggling along and squeezed down into the form of precious ordinary baby just to be with us. . . . This icon presents who Jesus is: simply the Word made flesh.

Follow the artist on Instagram @saintjuliusart.

LISTEN: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” | Original Latin words by Aurelius C. Prudentius, late 4th century; trans. John M. Neale, 1851, and Henry W. Baker, 1861 | Plainchant melody, 13th century | Arranged and performed by Sam P. Bush and Kathryn Caine on A Very Love and Mercy Christmas by Christ Episcopal Church, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2014

I’ve provided the full nine stanzas from the 1861 English version of the hymn by Henry Baker. Christ Episcopal Church sings his stanzas 1, 2, 5, and 9 (in boldface)—wise to omit 7 and 8, as these translations are icky (Roby Furley Davis’s are better), but I quite like the others!

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega;
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd,
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed his sacred face,
Evermore and evermore!

At His word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heav’n and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion,
Death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children,
Doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below,
Evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven, adore Him,
Angel hosts, His praises sing,
Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him,
And extol our God and King;
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Ev’ry voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore!

This is He whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!

Righteous Judge of souls departed,
Righteous King of them that live,
On the Father’s throne exalted
None in might with Thee may strive,
Who at last in vengeance coming
Sinners from Thy face shalt drive,
Evermore and evermore!

Thee let old men, Thee let young men,
Thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens,
With glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unwearied praises be:
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore!

“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (Lat. Corde natus ex parentis) is one of the oldest Christmas hymns, and it has gone through many translations, additions, revisions, fusions, arrangements, and abridgements to reach the form that’s in our hymnals today.

Its source is a thirty-eight-stanza Latin poem by Prudentius titled “Hymnus Omnis Horae” (Hymn for All Hours), published around 405 CE in his Liber Cathemerinon (Book of Daily Hymns) but written earlier. The poem traces Christ’s ministry from birth to death to resurrection and ascension, with a heavy focus on his miracles. It’s a remarkable poem, and worthy of study, especially as an example of early Christian theology. You can read the original Latin, presented beside a fine English translation by Roby Furley Davis from 1905, here.

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (ca. 348–ca. 413) was a Roman Christian poet born in what is today northern Spain. After spending decades in law and government, he retired from public life to dedicate himself fully to God’s service, mainly through writing. He was the most significant hymn-writer of the early church.

Prudentius continued to be highly read throughout the Middle Ages, and “Hymnus Omnis Horae” circulated throughout Europe in multiple manuscripts. An eleventh-century manuscript added the refrain “saeculorum saeculi” (evermore and evermore) and a doxology, the Trinitarian final stanza.

The abbreviated form of the hymn (“Corde natus ex parentis,” etc.) entered English hymnody through the six-stanza translation by John Mason Neale, first published in the 1851 edition of Hymnal Noted; Neale renders the first line “Of the Father sole begotten.” Music editor Thomas Helmore presented Neale’s text with the thirteenth-century plainchant melody DIVINUM MYSTERIUM, which he sourced from the 1582 Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones. The pairing has since proven inseparable. Here’s Helmore’s arrangement from the 1852 edition of Hymnal Noted:

An extensive revision of Neale’s translation by Henry W. Baker, which includes three additional, newly translated stanzas, was published in the best-selling Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861 under the title “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” This is the version reproduced above, and that has had the most staying power.

The hymn is a praise-filled meditation on how Christ, the second person of the Godhead, who is before all things, entered human time in the person of Jesus. It’s a fairly difficult hymn to sing congregationally—the meter is a bear—but here’s a modern arrangement that I think works well: https://gracemusic.us/sheet_music/of-the-fathers-love-begotten/.

For more about the history, content, meter, transmission, and significance of “Hymnus Omnis Horae,” see the scholarly article by Chris Fenner from the Hymnology Archive: https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/hymnus-omnis-horae.

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