Loving Creator of the Stars (Conditor Alme Siderum)
an Advent Hymn
As a preparation for Advent, I am reflecting tonight
on the themes in Vespers hymn, Conditor alme siderum. This Ambrosium hymn of the 7th
Century can boast of 32 translations, the text being greatly altered in a 17th
Century revision. Let’s look at each of
the strophes in turn.
Conditor alme siderum : Loving Creator
of the stars. Salvation comes down to us
from above. Immediately, we begin with
the transcendent Christ, the Son through whom all things were created, He who is
from above. The stars are the work of
His hands; all the remote, mysterious parts of creation find their existence in
Him. Yet He is “almus” for all that,
loving and kind. And so we have an
indication straight away that He is not remote from human concerns, like the
Aeterna Lux credentium : eternal light
of those who believe. He has given
material light to His creation, for stars give out light of a kind. But to men, especially to believers, He has
given an unfailing, immaterial light.
The light of the stars may grow dim.
Not so this light, wholly interior, illuminans oculos, enlightening the
eyes of the heart and growing steadily brighter as we approach the end.
Christe redemptor omnium : Christ,
redeemer of all men or all things. The
light of Christ not only illumines the mind; it effects something. It is living and active, redemptive. Thus, in 3 lines, we have passed from the
idea of Christ as Creator of the universe to Christ as the One who enters human
history to heal and to save. He is
redeemer of all things, omnium, for all things are in need of redemption. The deep flaw of original sin runs right
through creation and He excludes nothing from His redemptive love. Thus it is that we can pray the last line. Exaudi
preces supplicum. Hear the prayers
of your suppliants. Since God in Christ,
through the Holy Spirit, is Creator, ordering Wisdom and merciful Saviour, we
may call upon Him confidently.
Qui condolens interitu mortis perire sæculum, salvasti mundum languidum
donans reis remedium. Full of
compassion at the sight of the universe going to its perdition in death, You
saved this sick world by granting healing to the guilty. Condolens
-literally, suffering with. Is God
impassible? Peter Kreeft answers this
question by distinguishing an active and a passive ingredient in earthly
love. If a child does something harmful
to itself, the parent may have one of 2 main reactions. 1) How could you do
this to yourself? or 2) How could you do this to me? The first is active caring, the second is
vulnerability and passivity. God, Kreeft
argues, loves us with the first love.
How could you do this to yourself?
Condolens; a certain pain. And He
has found a way of suffering with us in the flesh by coming among us as
man. He made us and He will not stand
by, aloof and detached, while we are hellbent on self-destruction. Nor is He put off by incomprehension or
practises His healing art on individuals, it is true, but also upon the sick
world, mundum languidum, as a
whole. Man has damaged his covenant with
the earth, or rather, since he has broken the covenant with God, the earth
languishes as a result. We read in
Is,33:7-9: The angels of peace weep
bitterly, the highways are desolate, wayfaring has ceased. One has broken the covenant, despised the
guardians, paid no regard to humanity.
Mourning and sick is the earth, Lebanon is disgraced and decayed. Words to gratify any modern ecologist and
containing the truth that man, disaffected from God, has played his royal
stewardship of the earth false. He has
exploited and destroyed what he should have built up and conserved. Yet there is a promise of healing for the
land as well. On that day, I will make a covenant for them with the animals of the
wild, with the birds of the sky and what creeps on the ground. I will break bow, sword and war on the earth
and I will let them rest in safety. I
will make thee my own forever. (Hos 2:18)
is to open out the whole notion of salvation to all creation. Christ’s healing is for all that is sick. There is
no indication in the Gospels of His ever telling any sick persons who presented
themselves for healing that they should go away and be courageous. They suffer; He does not want them to suffer;
and He heals them. This raises a wide
question, not possible to treat here full. How does this positive attitude to
health as a bonum tally with self-renunciation, vicarious suffering, the death
of the grain of wheat? The kernel of the
answer lies in Our Lord’s own life. He chose to suffer. Master of His own destiny, His supreme remedy
for spiritual sickness is His own redemptive suffering and death. As we read in Isaiah, He was bruised for our iniquities and by His stripes we are healed. There is a voluntariness here. He willed it thus and our own sufferings
freely borne, may, if we wish, belong to this order. We may share in His power to redeem, to save,
to make others well.
Vergente mundi vespere The
world was inclining towards its end, or the evening of the world was drawing
near. Perhaps the sense is that the
world has grown old in sin. It was worn
out, practised in evil, sad and listless.
In contrast, uti sponsus de
thalamo egressus honestissima Virginis Matris clausula. As a bridegroom leaves His bridal chamber,
You came forth from the most pure womb of the Virgin Mother. When the covenantal relationship between God
and humanity is represented in Scripture as a marriage, God is always the
Bridegroom, humanity the Bride. The
image is a preparation, suggests Ignace de la Potterie, for the “archetypal and
final couple of Christ and the Church”.
In this verse of the hymn, the Saviour’s youth, joy and confidence are
displayed in the image; and above all, His love. The Bridegroom is in love with humanity, His
Bride, although she has done her best to mar her own beauty. He is not repelled. St. John of the Cross loved this theme. This is the Son speaking to the Father in one
of the poems on the Incarnation; “I will go now and seek my Bride / and take
upon my shoulders strong / the cares, the weariness and labours / which she has
suffered for so long. / And that she may win new life, I myself for her will
die / Rescue her from the burning lake and bear her back to you on high.” Beautiful words, sound theology. And there is happy ending: “Each one living
in the other / Samely loved, clothed, fed and shod / She absorbed in Him
forever / She will live the life of God.”
Egressus honestissima Virginis Matris clausula. We note the insistence on the Virginal
Motherhood. It has been remarked that
“because He is not of this world but from on high, Mary is the Virgin.” This needs a little elucidation. Nothing on earth could have brought about the
Incarnation of God. This is no process
of evolution; there is no disposing cause or antecedent, though there was a
long preparation. It is totally other,
wholly grace. It came about by God’s
decree alone, by His gratuitous intervention in the life of mankind. The Virgin Birth has then, one might argue,
an intrinsic necessity about it. It
alone harmonises with the divine logic of the God who desired to become man.
Cujus forti potentiæ genu curvantur omnia. Before your strength and power every
creature bends the knee. Since this
power is from above, nothing from below can resist it. It is not force as we know it. It is
superiority, though that again is a misleading word, because it is not of the
same order as this world. It is not on a
higher scale but of a higher order, a different order, an infinite order and it
is usually experienced, not as might, but as simplicity, as something almost so
casual that one could easily miss it.
But there is no doubt about its power.
Our response is adoration, the bent knee and the submissive heart.
Cælestia, terrestria nutu fatentur
omnia. In heaven and on earth all
confess their submission to your will, nutu,
to your least will or nod. Every created
being acknowledges the superior will of Jesus Christ, not because crushed into
subjection but because drawn by Him.
Origen has a passage which illustrates this point well. (Num 20,3) “The only begotten Son Himself,
the very Son of God is here… Nor is it enough for Him to be with us; but He even uses a kind of force in order to
draw us to salvation; for He says elsewhere: When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to Myself. You see that He not only invites the willing
but also draws all… Thus it is that we are not only invited by God, but also
drawn and forced to salvation.” This
drawing power is, of course, love. We
are only free when we choose to be subjected to the love that draws us. In doing so, we lose nothing of our own
identity. Indeed, becoming part of the
whole Christ, we gain not only the self but everything along with it.
Te sancte fide quæsumus, venture judex sæculi, conserva nos in tempore
hostis a telo perfidi. Confidently
we beseech you, holy One who comes to judge the world, preserve us here below
from the dart of the treacherous enemy.
We have progressed, in the course of the hymn, from the Creation through
the Incarnation and victory of Christ to the Second coming, that other theme of
the Advent Liturgy. This verse contains
the petition of the hymn and, in view of what has preceded, it is presented
with urgency yet with confidence. We
have learnt of His omnipotence and His loving purpose to save and heal us. We know that something extremely powerful is
needed to keep us from wrong-doing and back-sliding, so with a certain naivety
we ask our own Judge to be our helper.
However, we are not trying to pervert the course of justice. This Judge, the holy One who is to come, is
also, as we have seen in the hymn, Physician, Bridegroom and Child. Therefore we ask in confidence for aid in our
struggle with the Devil and his temptations.
Then at last we shall be able to stand before the mild and penetrating
gaze of the Son of Man. This gaze will
purify us of any remaining love of self; we shall be like Him and so we shall be able to give Him fitting glory, as we
pray in the final strophe:
Glory be to You, Christ most loving King,
and glory be to You, Father, with the Spirit, the Comforter, world without
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