A Christmas Hymn From Saint Ambrose
When we think of Christmas hymns, we usually call to mind the great hymns of the eighteenth century by Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels We have Heard on High,” “Joy to the World,” etc. Or perhaps we may think of medieval hymns like, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which emerged in the 9th century AD.
Eastern Orthodox Christians sing a hymn every Sunday during Advent, the Nativity Troparion of St. Romanos the Melodist, which was written in the 6th century AD. But the earliest Christmas hymns are even older than all of these.
Outside of the New Testament, the first major Christmas hymns we have are from the 4th century AD, and were written by Saint Ephrem the Syrian and Saint Ambrose of Milan. A number of years ago, I translated St. Ambrose’s Christmas Hymn Intende qui regis Israel into English from the original Latin, and I thought it a fitting time of year, as we move through Advent toward Christmas, to share it with you.
A few brief remarks are in order first:
We take for granted in the western world that hymns usually have four lines per stanza, three or four stressed syllables per line, and some variation of iambic meter in each line. But in the late 4th century AD, when Ambrose was writing, such a form was unheard of—he, in fact, invented it.
As you’ll see below, Ambrose wrote hymns of eight stanzas where each stanza consists four lines of iambic tetrameter (eight syllables, with the even syllables stressed). I’ve tried to follow Ambrose’s meter closely in my translation. Ambrose’s lines don’t rhyme; rhyme would become popular in the centuries after Ambrose wrote. But with the exception of rhyme, Ambrose’s hymns closely resemble in form the western hymn as it is written even today—“In Christ Alone” a popular hymn written in 2001, for instance, uses four iambic tetrameter lines per stanza.
Further, Ambrose’s repeated use of the imperative verb “Come” in this hymn served as a model for many later hymns, from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to “O Come all Ye Faithful”.
Finally, you’ll notice that in his first stanza, Ambrose rewrites the first few verses of Psalm 79, highlighting the verses’ messianic significance, before moving on to his own words, which are both worshipful and, at times, wild. . .
Intende, qui regis Israel
– St Ambrose of Milan, c. 386 AD; translated by Timothy E.G. Bartel
O Ruler guiding Israel
Who sits above the cherubim,
Appear to Ephrem, exercise
Your strength of potentates and come.
Redeemer of the Gentiles, come
Forth from your virgin mother’s womb,
Amaze the spirits of the age—
Such birth is fitting for a God.
Not from a father’s virile seed,
But from the Spirit’s mystic breath
The Word of God has been made flesh
And fructifies within the womb.
The belly of the virgin swells,
The bounds of purity remain,
And virtue’s banner boldly flaps;
God turns within his temple-womb.
Proceeding from that holy place,
The palace of his mother-queen,
The double-natured hero comes
Bestriding highways joyously.
He came forth from his Father, and
Returned back to his Father; He
Adventured through inferno’s depths,
Ascended back to heaven’s throne.
The ageless Father’s equal, clothed—
as with a trophy—with our flesh,
He makes our infirm bodies firm
With virtues of perpetual strength.
Now let Your fulgent manger shine,
And light the night, which breathes anew,
Let darkness never enter it,
Illumined with our lasting faith.