Evangelicals and Tradition: Theological Hymnody

Orans, Roman Catacombs

Forgive my slowness in posting these Cyprus discussions. After the cautions about saints and such accretions in tradition, I called my evangelical brothers and sisters of Cyprus to read the theological hymnody of the ancients. The singing of theology is one of the gems of ancient Christianity.

The practice of theological hymnody goes back to Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul is likely quoting a song from church. Our earliest non-biblical hymn is the ‘Phos Hilaron’, of the second century:

O Light gladsome of the holy glory of the Immortal Father,
the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, O Jesus Christ,
having come upon the setting of the sun, having seen the light of the evening,
we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God.
Worthy it is at all times to praise Thee in joyful voices,
O Son of God, Giver of Life, for which the world glorifies Thee. (trans. from Wikipedia)

I gave the example of Ambrose — inevitably! As readers of this blog know, I am fond of his hymnody. It was a way to help the Milanese worship God as well as to catechise them in the truths of the Nicene faith in an age of ‘Semi-Arianism’. I presented them with my translation of ‘Splendour of the Father’s Glory‘, but I also heartily recommend ‘Intende, Qui Regis Israel‘.

I have no desire right now to enter worship wars when I recommend an increased helping of theological hymns in our adoration diet. I was at the Vineyard church in Glasgow a few weeks ago, and I appreciated the emotional impact that sort of music can have in helping stir our hearts to worship God — I am no Neo-Platonist. Emotions exist to serve and worship the Lord.

However, if modern choruses of superficial content are all that you are employing to worship our Great King, I recommend adding sung poetic theology that goes deeper. Not necessarily Ambrose — although if you have to hand the OLD blue Anglican Church of Canada hymn book, you can find several under his name. But think perhaps of adding the Wesleys. Or hymns like ‘Man of Sorrows’ or newer songs, even, such as ‘How Deep the Father’s Love for Us’, or ‘In Christ Alone’ or things by Graham Kendrick that are not ‘Shine, Jesus Shine’ (I beg you!).

Imagine worship that stretches every part of our being — our emotions and our minds. Even our bodies. Worship that causes us to actually be filled with awe of our Creator.  This is the trajectory of ancient worship — people who sang theology and stood facing east to pray, palms and eyes upward as they addressed the incomprehensible Triune God. It is no surprise that over time genuflections and prostrations and incense and pictures and stained glass and organs and polyphony developed. The people in charge wanted to bring to God their whole selves, their very best.

I am glad to live in a post-Reformational world where we, the people, are active in worship. Let us become active with our whole selves — theological hymnody is one way to get our minds into the act of adoration of our mighty God.

Christmas Day 11: ‘Intende, qui regis Israel’ by St Ambrose

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.

For more on Ambrose the hymn-writer, see my posts here and here.