It is hard not to get swept into Christmas excitement when Christmas songs and Christmas decorations appear earlier every year, when they fill not only department stores but supermarkets as well. But amidst all the tinsel and too early cheer of the secular world, are you preparing your heart for the Lord? The season of Advent is one of waiting and preparation for His coming. Even as we prepare for the joy of His Nativity, we cannot forget that He came to die for us, for our sins. This realization lends sobriety to our preparation amidst all the hustle and bustle that surrounds us. One way to prepare our hearts is to contemplate Blessed John Henry Newman’s lovely poem written for Advent Vespers.
Between the years of 1836-1838, just seven years before he entered the Roman Catholic Church, Newman, inspired by the ancient Latin hymns found in the Roman Breviary, translated and rewrote many of these hymns. Although Newman’s hymns are loosely based on the originals, he changed the words enough so that these can be considered his own poetry.
One such composition of Newman is based on the 7th C Latin hymn, “Conditor alme siderum” traditionally sung during the Advent season. The hymn was first rewritten by Pope Urban VIII in 1632 and used in the Divine Office at Vespers. In 1852, an English translation by J.M. Neale is the well-known Advent hymn “Creator of the Stars of Night” based on Pope Urban’s hymn.
.Newman’s rewriting of this venerable chant has been beautifully and carefully rendered by him into Common Meter, one of his favored meters for hymn composition. Since there are many hymn tunes which have been composed for this hymn meter, this makes Newman’s version highly accessible for congregational singing. The words are straightforward and easily understood, which is typical of Newman’s hymnody. He intended these compositions to be both lovely and instructive. This hymn matches the tune “Winchester Old,” which is used for the familiar carol, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.”
Creator alme siderum.
CREATOR of the starry pole,
Saviour of all who live,
And light of every faithful soul,
Jesu, these prayers receive.
Who sooner than our foe malign
Should triumph, from above
Didst come, to be the medicine
Of a sick world, in love;
And the deep wounds to cleanse and cure
Of a whole race, didst go,
Pure Victim, from a Virgin pure,
The bitter Cross unto.
Who hast a Name, and hast a Power,
The height and depth to sway,
And Angels bow, and devils cower,
In transport or dismay;
Thou too shalt be our Judge at length;
Lord, in Thy grace bestow
Thy weapons of celestial strength,
And snatch us from the foe.
Honour and glory, power and praise,
To Father, and to Son,
And Holy Ghost, be paid always,
The Eternal Three in One.
Newman’s words powerfully remind us of the purpose for Christ’s birth. Some lines in particular are striking in their imagery; for example, in the second stanza, Newman has Christ coming to be the “medicine” of a “sick world,” which Christ did for love. Newman continues the medicinal imagery when he declares that Christ will “cleanse and cure” the “deep wounds” of the whole human race.
These words are followed by the reminder that Jesus “didst go” “unto The Bitter Cross” a “Pure Victim.” He became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, who was conceived immaculately to be the “Virgin pure.”
Let us pray, then, with Newman who beseeches Christ in the first stanza to receive our Advent Prayers, so that we too may be “snatched from the foe.” For this great gift of His son, we can also join in giving “Honour and glory, power and praise” to “the Eternal Three in One.”
Have you paused to remember that this happy birth will lead to the sorrow of His death, His death, for us? Let us watch and pray, preparing our hearts, even as we prepare our physical homes for the excitement and joy of Christmas.
“Creator of the Stars of Night” J.M. Neale 1852
Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people’s everlasting light,
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all,
And hear Thy servants when they call.
Thou, grieving that the ancient curse
Should doom to death a universe,
Hast found the medicine, full of grace,
To save and heal a ruined race.
Thou cam’st, the Bridegroom of the bride,
As drew the world to evening-tide;
Proceeding from a virgin shrine,
The spotless victim all divine.
At whose dread name, majestic now,
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
And things celestial Thee shall own,
And things terrestrial, Lord alone.
O Thou whose coming is with dread
To judge and doom the quick and dead,
Preserve us, while we dwell below,
From every insult of the foe.
To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Laud, honor, might, and glory be
From age to age eternally.