“In Order Flesh by Flesh to Free”: A Fifth-Century Hymn (1)

For Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, I think I’m going to change things up slightly for “Melanchthon Monday.” For the next several weeks, I want to turn our attention to one of the two surviving hymns from the hand of the fifth century biblical epic poet Sedulius.

Sedulius’s second hymn, “A solis ortus cardine,” was immensely popular throughout the Middle Ages and Reformation. Martin Luther, for example, wrote two hymns based on parts of it (one for Christmas, one for Epiphany), and many modern hymnals still include translations of parts of Sedulius’s hymn, several verses of which were translated into English by John Mason Neale.

The Latin hymn consists of 23 four-line stanzas in iambic dimeters, the meter St. Ambrose made standard for Christian hymnody for several centuries.

It is, moreover, an “abecedarian” hymn, meaning that the stanzas begin with the successive letters of the alphabet. In my English version, I am using both the same meter and the same form. Eventually, this is going to cause a problem, as the English alphabet has three more letters than the Latin one. I am open to suggestions as to how to deal with this conundrum. Add three stanzas? Break a couple up into two? Just use the Latin alphabet? I’m not keen on any of these; the last is most preferable, but would result, I fear, in something formally incoherent in English.

But that problem is for later. For today, here are the first three stanzas, “A” through “C.”

A solis ortus cardine

ad usque terrae limitem

Christum canamus principem

natum Maria virgine.

Beatus auctor saeculi

servile corpus induit,

ut carne carnem liberans

non perderet quod condidit.

Clausae puellae viscera

caelestis intrat gratia;

venter puellae baiulat

secreta quae non noverat.

Afar from rising of the sun

Unto the limit of the earth,

The Christ, our prince, now let us sing–

His holy Mary-virgined birth.

Behold: the author of the world,

Though blessed, is clothed in slave’s attire,

In order flesh by flesh to free

And save his creatures from the mire.

Concealed within the maiden’s womb,

The grace of heaven enters in;

Her belly does not know it bears

The secret saving us from sin.


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