Amongst the many delights of Christmas gifts this year, such as the 6-DVD box set for Avengers Assemble and a toy pirate and Hobbitus Ille, I received two volumes of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library from my uncle — Miracle Tales from Byzantium, ed. and trans. Alice-Mary Talbot and Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (including ‘Miracles of Saint Thekla’, ‘Anonymous Miracles of the Pege’, and ‘Miracles of Gregory Palamas’) and One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas, ed. and trans. Peter G. Walsh with Christopher Husch.
The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library is an exciting venture, like unto the Loeb Classical Library, original language with an English facing-page translation. Its scope is medieval literature, Latin, Greek, vernacular. I already own the series’ Rule of St Benedict, and if I knew Old English, I would go for The Beowulf Manuscript — including not only Beowulf but the other texts therein.
And so, here on the penultimate day of Christmas, I present to you One Hundred Latin Hymns, Hymn 5, ‘Intende, qui regis Israel’. Although not cited as being by Ambrose when quoted by Augustine, fifth-century sources tell us that this hymn is by the Bishop of Milan. Walsh affirms the likelihood of Ambrose establishing 25 December the feast of the Nativity in Milan, a practice already occurring in Rome at the time:
Give ear, O king of Israel,
seated above the Cherubim,
appear before Ephraim’s face,
stir up thy mightiness, and come.
Redeemer of the Gentiles, come;
show forth the birth from virgin’s womb;
let every age show wonderment;
such birth is fitting for our God.
Not issuing from husband’s seed,
but from the Spirit’s mystic breath,
God’s Word was fashioned into flesh,
and thrived as fruit of Mary’s womb.
The virgin’s womb begins to swell;
her maidenhead remains intact:
the banner of her virtues gleam;
God in his temple lives and stirs.
From his chamber let him come forth,
the royal court of chastity,
as giant of his twin natures
eager to hasten on his way.
First from the Father he set forth,
then to his Father he returns;
he sallies to the realms below,
then journeys back to God’s abode.
You are the eternal Father’s peer;
gird on your trophy of the flesh,
and strengthen with your constant power
the frailties of our bodies’ frame.
Your manger now is all aglow,
the night breathes forth a light unknown;
a light that never night may shroud,
and that shall gleam with constant faith.