The text and tune come from the plainchant tradition of the Middle Ages. As such, of course, there is no recognized author or composer. Church music was not the domain of a human creator, it was believed, but was the creation of God, and a gift to the Church. The Latin text finds itself fairly faithfully translated into English here by the English hymnwriter John Mason Neale (1818-1866):
Creator of the stars of night, Thy people’s everlasting Light: O Christ, Redeemer, save us all and hear Thy servants when they call.
Adventide is about preparing for the “Light of the World,” or the “Sun of Righteousness” to quote Charles Wesley. Just as the light continues to diminish until the winter solstice only to increase, we echo Simeon’s song that Jesus is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” This stanza also focuses us not only on Christ, but upon His role as “Redeemer.”
Thou, grieving that the ancient curse should doom to death a universe, hast found the healing, full of grace, to cure and save our ruined race.
Here the children were asked the constitution of this “ancient curse.” Surprisingly, they knew exactly that this referred to sin–specifically Adam and Eve’s sin, without which we would need no salvation. Romans 5: 12, 13 states, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned—for before the law was given, sin was in the world.”
Thou cam’st the Bridegroom of the bride, as drew the world to eventide, the spotless Victim all divine proceeding from a virgin shrine.
In the last few weeks of the church year, as well as during the weeks of Advent, we consider the metaphor of Christ as the groom and the Church as the bride. Ephesians 5: 25 exhorts husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy.” In this stanza we ponder the Incarnation—“carne” translated loosely as “flesh”—that He became human from the Virgin Mary. “Spotless Victim” of course is a metaphor for Christ whose humanity was untainted by sin.
At whose dread name, majestic now, all knees must bend, all hearts must bow; all things celestial Thee shall own, and things terrestrial, Lord alone.
Here we do see a vision of Christ which is particularly medieval and not modern. Here Christ is Pantokrator—judge of all humankind on the last day. It will not be a pleasant day for those who did not believe in Him. We moderns are used to thinking of Christ as a “friend,” as in “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and that He most certainly is. He is our Saviour and Shepherd. But concurrent with these roles He will also serve as the final judge.
O Thou, whose coming is with dread to judge the living and the dead, preserve us from the ancient foe while still we dwell on earth below.
It is easy during Advent to become consumed with preparation for the baby in the manger. This romantic Victorian notion, which is certainly not untrue, must be tempered with words from John 5, “Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. . . I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” Advent is also about preparing for the final judgment. Yet, that time is not yet come, and we pray for God’s strength to overcome Satan.
To God the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit, Three in One, Praise, honor, might, and glory be from age to age eternally.
It was common for early Latin hymns to conclude with a doxology. The heresy of Arianism, which essentially denied Christ’s divinity, had run rampant in the third and fourth centuries (consider the Nicene Creed from this time—the Second Article is the most extensive) and hymnody for many centuries thereafter concluded with a Trinitarian doxology in order to reinforce the divinity of Christ.
Advent, then, prepares us not only for the birth of the child in the manger, but for the return of Christ. Christ’s birth, although important to our consumerist culture, was not celebrated until late in the Church’s history, and was always seen as secondary to His death and resurrection. The importance of His incarnation is not found in cute stories of Bethlehem—although there is nothing wrong with that per se—but in His death and resurrection which allows us to stand justified on the last day.