Savior of the Nations, Come

Mary and Joseph kneel at the crib of the infant Christ in this detail of an icon from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. 

Savior of the nations, come,
virgin’s Son, make here Thy home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.

Not by human flesh and blood,
but the Spirit of our God,
was the Word of God made flesh–
woman’s Offspring, pure and fresh.

Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
Of the Virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
still to be in heav’n enthroned.

From the Father forth He came
and returneth to the same,
captive leading death and hell–
high the song of triumph swell!

 Thou the Father’s only Son,
hast o’er sin the vict’ry won.
Boundless shall Thy kingdom be;
when shall we its glories see?

Brightly doth Thy manger shine,
glorious is its light divine.
Let not sin o’ercloud this light;
ever be our faith thus bright.

Praise to God the Father sing,
Praise to God the Son, our King,
Praise to God the Spirit be
Ever and eternally.

This ancient hymn is appointed to be sung each year on this first Sunday of Advent. Composed by Ambrose of Milan (who baptized St Augustine) before 397 AD, the hymn was so important in the medieval church that Martin Luther translated it to German in 1524.  Even the tune is a modification of a medieval chant melody, VENI REDEMPTOR GENTIUM.  Ambrose is careful to maintain an explicit Trinitarian theology throughout the hymn.  The second stanza expounds on Christ’s divinity, “Not by human flesh and blood, By the Spirit of our God, Was the Word of God made flesh—Woman’s Offspring pure and fresh.”  So, although he was born a human like us, he was without sin;  ie., “pure and fresh.”  This stanza seems to allude to John 1 in which Jesus is described as the “Word.”  Further, the fourth stanza emphasizes further Christ’s estrangement of the world as we sing, “From the Father forth He came and returneth to the same, Captive leading death and hell—High the song of triumph swell!”  This stanza captures the eternality of Christ;  existed before His earthly birth and He existed after his death and resurrection.  The final stanza is a doxology, affirming the unity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  All hymns from this time contain a final doxological stanza as a means to counter Arianism, a heresy which maintained that Christ was not truly divine and was merely another created being.

With its didacticism, this hymn is a good example of what constitutes the Lutheran chorale, that unique body of hymnody that developed during the Lutheran reformation. Chorales were sung in the vernacular (ie., German in this case), were sung by the congregation (as opposed to the clergy or choir) and were highly doctrinal. After all, the late medieval times were characterized by great superstitions but very little doctrinal understanding (are twenty-first century people much different?) The chorale texts, whether composed new or reconstructions from the chant repertoire, as this hymn is, were often narrative, and conveyed doctrine almost as a story. One can see that in the narrative account of this hymn—the first stanza prays for the “savior of the nations” to come, the second begins recounting that “not by human flesh and blood. . . was the Word of God made flesh,” the third mentions the “maid found with child,” whose birth begins “His heroic course.” Continuing, the fifth stanza alludes to Christ’s death, for “into hell His road went down, back then to His throne and crown,” which action redeems humanity from our sin, as exemplified in the next stanza which is now directed as a prayer to the Son, “By Your mighty pow’r make whole all our ills of flesh and soul.” We return then to the “manger” which shines in “glory through the night.”

It is always good to give thanks for Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, and the great hymnody they left for us.