Latin Worship

My preparation for my Latin test last week required me to spend a lot of time in the “Further Readings” at the end of Collins’ A Primer on Ecclesiastical Latin. There were selections from the Vulgate, Aquinas, and the contemporary Roman Catholic church, but the larger majority were medieval or patristic hymns and poems. Because most of my exposure to patristic and medieval church writings has been in the realm of theology, it was fascinating to be immersed in these writings and encounter the worship of the early church. I found, first of all, the readings to be very inspiring and beautiful. Some “hymns only” advocates criticize contemporary praise songs for being historically short-sighted. But depending on what hymns we sing, this can also be historically short-sighted. Worship pre-dates the 1970’s, but it also pre-dates the Second Great Awakening. God has not gone without witness in any generation of the church. I wish David Crowder would make some of these medieval poems into worship songs. Seriously.

Second, I was struck by the prominent position of Mary in these writings, and in particular the doctrine of the Virgin birth. While I’m familiar with Roman Catholic Mariology, I was surprised at how interwoven Mary is with the worship and devotion and piety of the early and medieval church. I don’t believe in the veneration of Mary, but I certainly believe in the Virgin birth as a stimulus for worship, and spending time in these readings made people like Brunner look quite foolhardy for their attempt to maintain orthodoxy while denying the Virgin birth. When you discard a doctrine like the Virgin birth, you are not simply butting against the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, and the early creeds. You are butting against the weight of Christian worship and devotion over the centuries. You are not merely moving the train tracks; you are derailing the train that runs on those tracks. Look out.

Third, as I also experienced in my foray into the church fathers earlier this spring, I caught a vision of “mere Christianity” from these readings. This is not at all to downplay the importance of Reformation doctrine. I am Protestant, and the Reformed tradition in particular is a part of my heritage. Nevertheless, I am increasingly convinced that it is possible to be distinctly Protestant and, at the same time, have a solid appreciation for the steady progression of the Christian church throughout the centuries. The church did not disappear for a millennium as sola fide became obscured and church structure became complicated. Christianity did not sink into the mud during the era of castles and feudalism, only to re-emerge with Luther. No, there is a solid, steady chunk, that is called Christianity, that subsists through the middle ages. The 16th century Reformation of the church should not be re-named the Recreation of the church. For anyone who doubts this, all I can say is, read medieval worship!

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

1) From the Exsultet, an Easter proclamation of praise by Ambrose:

Nihil enim nobis nasci profuit, nisi redimi profuisset. O mira circa nos tuae pietatis dignatio! O inaestimabilis delectio caritatis: ut servum redimeres, Filium tradidisti!

For our birth would have benefited us nothing, if we had not been redeemed. O amazing condescension of your goodness concerning us! O immeasurable delight of love: in order to ransom you servant, you surrendered your Son!

2) From Stabat Mater, a 13th century hymn to Mary by Jacopone da Todi, reflecting on seeing Mary standing at the cross:

Quis est homo, qui non fleret, matrem Christi si videret in tanto supplicio?

Who is the man, who does not weep, if he sees the mother of Christ in such great agony?

3) From Vexilla Regis, by Venantius Fortunatus, 6th century:

Vexilla Regis prodeunt: fulget Crucis mysterium, qua vita mortem pertulit, et morte vitam protulit.

The flags of the King go forth: the mystery of the cross shines, by which life took away death, and gave back life by death.

4) From Pange Lingua, by the same author, celebrating the incarnation of God in the womb of Mary:

Et Dei manus pedesque stricta cingit fascia.

And the hands and feet of God are surrounded with a tight wrapping.

5) From Aquinas’ Verbum Supernum:

Se nascens dedit socium, convescens in edulium se, moriens in pretium, se regnans dat in praemium.

Being born, he gave himself as our companion; eating, he gave himself in food; dying, he gave himself in ransom; ruling, he gives himself in reward.

6) And from A Solis Ortus, by Sedulius, 5th century

Beatus auctor saeculi servile corpum induit: ut carne carnem liberans, ne perderet quos condidit.

The blessed Creator of the world took on a servant’s body so that, liberating flesh by his flesh, he would not lose those whom he had made.

Palamque fit pastoribus pastor, creator omnium.

And to the shepherds became plain the Shepherd, the Creator of all.

7) From Veni, Creator Spiritus by Rabanus Maurus, 9th century:

Accende lumen sensibus, infunde amorem cordibus, infirma nostri corporis, virtute firmans perpeti.

Let light kindle our senses, pour out love on our hearts, strengthening the weaknesses of our body with perpetual strength.

Deo Patri sit gloria, et Filio, qui a mortuis surrexit, ac Paraclito, in saeculorum saecula. Amen.

To God the Father be glory, and to the Son, who rose from the dead, and to the Helper, unto the ages of the ages. Amen.

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  1. Great post, Gav. As you could probably guess, I have a soft spot for the worship of the Latin Church of late antiquity and the middle ages.

    Are you familiar with John Mason Neale? Most traditional hymn-singing Protestants, whether they know it or not, sing and love many of these pre-Reformation Latin-based hymns on a regular basis thanks to him. He was a nineteenth century Anglican priest, scholar and hymn writer who took scores of these Latin hymns (and Greek too, I might add) and translated them into English.

    ‘All Glory, Laud, and Honor’? John Mason Neale. ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’? John Mason Neale. ‘The Royal Banners Forward Go’? John Mason Neale. ‘Christ is Made the Sure Foundation’? Also John Mason Neale.

    If you get the opportunity, pick up a hymnal, search for his name in the index, and read some of the texts of his hymns. Chance are, most, if not all, are based on pre-Reformation texts.

  2. How interesting, Drew! I did know of Neale. I’ve noticed on a few occasions in church when we have sung an ancient hymn, but I did not notice the translator. I bet it was Neale. What a service to the church.