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.

Easter, Day 5

LOOK: Ballet Skirt or Electric Light by Georgia O’Keeffe

O'Keeffe, Georgia_Ballet Skirt or Electric Light
Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887–1986), Ballet Skirt or Electric Light, 1927. Oil on canvas, 36 × 30 in. (91.4 × 76.2 cm). Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago, which owns this painting, offers the following description:

In the 1920s Georgia O’Keeffe began creating the paintings of enlarged flowers for which she is most famous, including a series of works devoted to the white rose; this painting is her most abstracted depiction of the subject. O’Keeffe simplified the energy of the blooming rose to its essence, so that it resembles a brilliant light radiating out of flat Cubist planes. She exhibited this painting as White Rose—Abstraction at Alfred Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery in 1928 and retitled it Ballet Skirt or Electric Light (from the White Rose Motif) when she lent it to the Art Institute of Chicago’s 1943 retrospective of her work.

I was introduced to this painting in Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, volume 3, where it appears in the Easter section. So credit goes to that book’s editors (Susan A. Blain, et al.) for linking the image with Christ’s resurrection. Now I can’t see it any other way! Bright and explosive, the painting has as its focal point an orb of light near the bottom edge, which could be read as the figure of Christ standing in the open mouth of the tomb.

By the way, all three Imaging the Word volumes, which I chanced upon at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet some years ago, are excellent. Structured around the Revised Common Lectionary, years A through C, the books integrate scripture, visual art, poetry, sheet music, liturgies, fiction excerpts, quotes from Bible commentaries and spiritual nonfiction, and more. They are published by United Church Press.

LISTEN: “Aurora lucis rutilat” (Light’s Glittering Morn Bedecks the Sky) | Words attributed to Ambrose, 4th century; translated into English by John Mason Neale, 1851 | Music by Orlande de Lassus, ca. 1592, published posthumously in 1604 | Performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, dir. Graham Ross, 2015

1. Aurora lucis rutilat, 
caelum laudibus intonat,
mundus exultans iubilat,
gemens infernus ululat,

2. Cum rex ille fortissimus,
mortis confractis viribus,
pede conculcans tartara
solvit catena miseros!

3. Ille, qui clausus lapide
custoditur sub milite,
triumphans pompa nobile
victor surgit de funere.

4. Solutis iam gemitibus
et inferni doloribus,
“Quia surrexit Dominus!”
resplendens clamat angelus.

5. Tristes erant apostoli
de nece sui Domini,
quem poena mortis crudeli
servi damnarant impii.

6. Sermone blando angelus
praedixit mulieribus,
“In Galilaea Dominus
videndus est quantocius”

7. Illae dum pergunt concite
apostolis hoc dicere,
videntes eum vivere
osculant pedes Domini.

8. Quo agnito discipuli
in Galilaeam propere
 pergunt videre faciem
desideratam Domini.

9. Claro paschali gaudio
sol mundo nitet radio,
cum Christum iam apostoli
visu cernunt corporeo.

10. Ostensa sibi vulnera
in Christi carne fulgida,
 resurrexisse Dominum
voce fatentur publica.

11. Rex Christe clementissime,
tu corda nostra posside,
ut tibi laudes debitas
reddamus omni tempore!

12. Deo patri sit gloria
eiusque soli filio
cum spiritu paraclito
et nunc et in perpetuum.
Light’s glitt’ring morn bedecks the sky,
heav’n thunders forth its victor cry,
the glad earth shouts its triumph high,
and groaning hell makes wild reply.

While he, the King of glorious might,
treads down death’s strength in death’s despite,
and trampling hell by victor’s right, 
brings forth his sleeping saints to light.

Fast barred beneath the stone of late 
in watch and ward where soldiers wait,
now shining in triumphant state, 
he rises Victor from death’s gate.

Hell’s pains are loosed and tears are fled;
captivity is captive led;
the angel, crowned with light, hath said, 
“The Lord is risen from the dead.”

The apostles’ hearts were full of pain
for their dear Lord so lately slain:
that Lord his servants’ wicked train 
with bitter scorn had dared arraign.

With gentle voice the angel gave
the women tidings at the grave;
“Forthwith your Master shall ye see:
he goes before to Galilee.”

And while with fear and joy they pressed
to tell these tidings to the rest,
their Lord, their living Lord, they meet,
and see his form, and kiss his feet.

The Eleven, when they hear, with speed
to Galilee forthwith proceed:
that there they may behold once more
the Lord’s dear face, as oft before.

In this our bright and Paschal day,
the sun shines out with purer ray,
when Christ, to earthly sight made plain,
the glad apostles see again.

The wounds, the riven wounds he shows
in that his flesh with light that glows,
in loud accord both far and nigh
the Lord’s arising testify.

O Christ, the King who lov’st to bless,
do thou our hearts and souls possess:
to thee our praise, that we may pay
to whom our laud is due for aye.

Orlande de Lassus’s setting of “Aurora lucis rutilat” is a motet for ten voices. Graham Ross describes the piece in the BBC Music Magazine article “The best choral music for Easter”:

A setting of an anonymous 4th century text – the Hymn for Lauds on Easter Sunday – Lassus’s motet begins by tenderly depicting the dawn of Easter morning, but soon leads to a double-choir celebration of the triumph of the resurrection, full of word-painting, jubilation and a brief triple-time passage proclaiming the joy of Easter day (‘in hoc pascali gaudio’). Written late in Lassus’s life, the work is a unique example in the Franco-Flemish composer’s output of Venetian polychoral technique, with harmonic completeness in each choir.

The hymn exists in several different English translations and variations and has been set to music by multiple composers or paired with preexisting hymn tunes. For example, I’ve heard it sung to LASST UNS ERFREUEN, a tune from seventeenth-century Germany that today is most associated with the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.” In this case, “alleluias” and other short acclamations are added to the verses.

If you want to use this hymn for congregational singing, I would recommend the following version (with LASST UNS ERFREUEN), which I cobbled together from a few different sources (including the Jubilate Hymns version and the Liturgy Fellowship Facebook group) but which draws heavily on Neale’s translation:

Light’s glittering morning fills the sky,
heav’n thunders forth its victor cry:
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
The glad earth shouts its triumph high
and groaning hell makes wild reply.
Christ is risen! O praise him!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

For Christ the Lord, the mighty King,
despoils death and draws its sting.
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
He tramples down the pow’rs of night,
brings forth his ransomed saints to light.
Christ is risen! O praise him!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

His rocky tomb the threefold guard
of watch and stone and seal had barred.
Alleluia, alleluia!
But shining now in glorious state,
he rises Victor from death’s gate.
Christ is risen! O praise him!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Hell’s pains are loosed and tears are fled;
captivity is captive led.
Alleluia, alleluia!
“Weep not!” an angel voice has said.
“The Lord is risen from the dead!”
O praise him, O praise him!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

All praise be thine, O risen Lord,
from death to endless life restored;
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
To Father, Son, and Spirit be
all pow’r and praise eternally!
Christ is risen! O praise him!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!