Ambrose: An Allegory for Advent

This post (a long one, I have to warn you) is about one of the oldest hymns in the Christian tradition, Ambrose’s “Come Thou, Redeemer of the Earth.”  This hymn was composed by Ambrose of Milan (337-397) as Veni redemptor gentium in Latin, and translated into English by J. M. Neale in 1862. You might have sung it in church the way you skate over a lake in winter. The surface is strong enough to bear you up, but there are unguessed depths beneath your feet.

What depths are there to this ancient hymn? Let me give you a few short hints, then present the hymn itself below, and finally conclude with a more detailed commentary. First, the hints.

Hint #1: Ambrose of Milan was a bishop and man of letters who opposed both Arianism and Gnosticism. The Arians were a nominally Christian sect that claimed that Christ was a great spirit being, but was not God. The Gnostics were a sect who believed that Christ was (a) God, but was not human. Ambrose argued against them both.

Hint #2: Ambrose was gifted at allegory. In fact, Augustine tells us that Ambrose’s allegorical preaching was responsible in part for his own conversion back to Christianity. Like other Roman intellectuals, Augustine balked at passages in the Old Testament that seemed unintelligible or outright embarrassing. But Ambrose’s allegorizations could make the offending Old Testament material seem sophisticated and profound. We know in particular of Ambrose’s masterful use of the Hebrew wedding text Song of Songs, which Ambrose interpreted figuratively to shed light on the relationship between God and the soul, kindling a desire to return to God.

With these hints in hand, have a look at Ambrose’s Advent hymn itself.

*       *       *       *       *

Veni redemptor gentium

Come, Thou Redeemer of the earth,
And manifest Thy virgin birth:
Let every age adoring fall;
Such birth befits the God of all.

Begotten of no human will,
But of the Spirit, Thou art still
The Word of God in flesh arrayed,
The promised Fruit to man displayed.

The virgin womb that burden gained
With virgin honor all unstained;
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in His temple dwells below.

Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.

From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds;
His course He runs to death and hell,
Returning on God’s throne to dwell.

O equal to the Father, Thou!
Gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud to God the Father be,
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To God the Holy Paraclete.

*       *       *       *       *

So what are the depths beneath this hymn?

Let’s start with the anti-Arianism. You probably noticed the line O equal to the Father, Thou! It’s as anti-Arian as you can possibly get. Only God can be equal to God. Ambrose of course ranks the Son with the Father again in the doxology in the concluding verse. And in fact, he opens the hymn with Christ’s divinity as well. The line Such birth befits the God of all is a simultaneous rejection of both Arianism and Gnosticism. If Christ is the God of all (well, just God in Latin, but one whom every age is supposed to adore), he’s not some spirit who was created to be second-to-God, however much he may have been a god-like human.

Which brings us to Gnosticism. Ambrose also rejects the view that Christ wasn’t genuinely human. Christ is the “Word of God in flesh arrayed” and a “giant in twofold substance one” (the two substances being that of God and of man). Ambrose has no truck here with the view that Christ was a divine spirit only pretending to be human.

This brings us to the allegory. You may not have noticed it, but stanzas 3 through 5 constitute an extended figurative use of Psalm 19 as an allegory for the incarnation of Christ. Ambrose starts with the text of Ps. 19:4-5: “In them [the heavens] hast thou set a tabernacle for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoices as a strong man to run a race.” But Ambrose uses the “tabernacle” as a reference to the womb of the Virgin Mary (God in his Temple dwells below), and it is from that temple/tabernacle/chamber that He goes forth in stanza 4. Just as the Psalmist describes the sun as a “strong man” (in the Vulgate, literally a “giant,” gigas) going out of his chamber, Ambrose applies the metaphor to Christ. Christ is a “giant” going forth out of the tabernacle of the Virgin’s womb, to run a race from heaven to earth and back again.  But Ambrose goes a step further to explain why Christ should be called a “giant”: Christ combines in himself two different substances (“twin substances,” geminae substantiae), thereby manifesting Himself as altogether greater than men who have only one substance.

The allegory continues through stanza 5. Psalm 19:6 describes the sun running a course across the heavens: “his going forth is from the end of heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it.” The implication is that the sun runs a circular race, ending up where it begins. So Ambrose similarly describes the “race-course” of the Son. Christ proceeds from the Father, descends down to death and hell, and speeds back to the Father in a grand exitus-reditus trajectory.

(The exitus-reditus is a common literary structure in medieval texts. It literally means “going out and coming back,” and it depicts a hero who must depart from his home in order to later return to it, usually in a transformative fashion.)

So you can see how effective Ambrose is at allegorizing material in the Old Testament. He begins with a seemingly non-christological psalm, and before you know it, he’s using it to express both anti-Arian and anti-Gnostic doctrines about the Incarnation. And he does it in the medium of poetry.

Which brings me to my final reflection on this hymn. Whatever you may think of allegorizing as a method of doing theology, it’s incredibly useful when writing poetry. Ambrose’s interpretations of Scripture may not have survived the Middle Ages, but his poetry hits the nail on the head. There is something giant-like about Christ’s two natures. When Ambrose puts it like that, we find ourselves feeling for a moment the enormity of the twin substances. There is something Temple-like about the womb of the Virgin. It mysteriously contained God. When Ambrose makes the connection explicit, even the most literal Protestant feels the awe.

So “Come Thou, Redeemer of the Earth” still succeeds where it was meant to succeed. It’s a compact expression of Christology, but it affects us not only intellectually. Its power is imaginative and affective as well; and both are achieved through Ambrose’s use of allegory.


About middlingpoet

From the Gawain poet to Rainer Maria Rilke: I love traditional poetry.
This entry was posted in Advent & Christmas, Church Year, Hymns, Psalms and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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