This translation originally appeared on E.J. hutchinson’s Ad Fontes blog in installments between December 2021 and February 2022. Unlike in the blog posts, the two translations are here presented side by side, as they appeared in the Winter 2022 print edition.
Sedulius was an epic biblical hymn writer from the fifth century, with only two of his works surviving. “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. This eventually runs into a problem, since the English alphabet has three more letters than the Latin. The first missing letter is “J,” and so I started the second line of the “I” stanza with a “J” to sneak it in. Later, the span of T, V, and X in Latin includes T, U, V, W, and X in English. Between that and having to start a line with the letter “x”–well, I don’t know if my effort was successful. But it was a stimulating challenge in any case.
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.
Domus pudici pectoris
templum repente fit Dei;
intacta nesciens virum
verbo creavit filium.
Enixa est puerpera,
quem Gabrihel praedixerat,
quem matris alvo gestiens
clausus Iohannes senserat.
Faeno iacere pertulit,
praesepe non abhorruit,
parvoque lacte pastus est,
per quem nec ales esurit.
Gaudet chorus caelestium
et angeli canunt Deum,
palamque fit pastoribus
pastor, creator omnium.
Hostis Herodis impie,
Christum venire quid times?
non eripit mortalia,
qui regna dat caelestia.
Ibant magi qua venerant
stellam sequentes praeviam;
lumen requirunt lumine,
Deum fatentur munere.
Katerva matrum personat
conlisa deflens pignora
quorum tyrannus milia
Christo sacravit victimam.
Lavacra puri gurgitis
caelestis agnus attigit;
peccata qui mundi tulit
nos abluendo sustulit.
Miraculis dedit fidem
habere se Deum patrem,
infirma sanans corpora
et suscitans cadavera.
Novum genus potentiae!
aquae rubescunt hydriae,
vinumque iussa fundere
mutavit unda originem.
Orat salutem servulo
nixus genu centurio;
credentis ardor plurimus
exstinxit ignes febrium.
Petrus per undas ambulat
Christi levatus dextera;
natura quam negaverat,
fides paravit semitam.
Quarta die iam fetidus
vitam recepit Lazarus,
mortisque liber vinculis
factus superstes est sibi.
Rivos cruoris torridi
contacta vestis obstruit;
fletu rigante supplicis
arent fluenta sanguinis.
Solutus omni corpore,
iussus repente surgere,
suis vicissim gressibus
aeger vehebat lectulum.
Tunc ille Iudas carnifex
ausus magistrum tradere
pacem ferebat osculo,
quam non habebat pectore.
Verax datur fallacibus,
pium flagellat impius,
crucique fixus innocens
coniunctus est latronibus.
Xeromyrram post sabbatum
quaedam ferebant compares,
quas adlocutus angelus
vivum sepulchro non tegi.
Ymnis venite dulcibus,
omnes canamus subditum
Christi triumpho tartarum,
qui nos redemit venditus.
Zelum draconis invidi
et os leonis pessimi
calcavit unicus Dei,
seseque caelis reddidit.
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.
Domained in Mary’s modesty,
God makes a temple of her breast.
How strange! Untouched, the girl brought forth
Her Son, the Word-created guest.
Ere long her labor bore the King
Whom Gabriel had once foretold,
Whom John’s prenatal preaching had
Before proclaimed with leaping bold.
For, sleeping, he did not despise
To take the prickling straw as bed;
A mother’s milk sustained the babe
By whom the birds of heav’n are fed.
“Good tidings!” chant celestial choirs
Of angels as God’s praises ring.
To shepherds now is manifest
The Shepherd who made everything.
How, Herod, can your hostile mind
Greet his arrival with dismay?
He gives eternal realms and does
Not grasp at kingdoms of a day.
Incensed conversely Magi came,
Judea’s star their mystic guide.
By light they seek the light; their gift
Declares that God with man abides.
Knave tyrant, do you hear the sound
Of mothers weeping for their dead,
The battered brood of baby boys
Whose sacrificial blood you shed?
Let down into the Jordan’s flood,
The Lamb of heaven made it pure–
The Lamb who took away our sins
With Worded water as the cure.
Miraculous deeds fathered faith
His Father was not man but God,
As sickly bodies found their strength
And corpses rose up at his nod.
New kind of power! Water jars
Suddenly blush and change their hue.
At Christ’s command, metamorphosed,
Unwatered wine the servants drew.
On bended knee, the captain begged
The Lord to grant health to his slave;
The ardent burning of belief
Snuffed out the fire the fever craved.
Pretending water was like rock
Stout Peter walked upon the sea;
Upheld by Christ’s right hand, his faith
Made paths denied naturally.
Quartered four days now, Lazarus,
A rotting corpse, recovered life,
And, freed from fetters moribund,
Survived his death and graveyard strife.
Red rivulets of ceaseless blood
Mere contact with Christ’s clothing dammed,
The sanguine flow made desiccate
By tearful faith’s extended hand.
Sold out by slack recusant limbs,
Commanded suddenly to rise,
The paralytic stood and walked,
His dormant bed borne off as prize.
Then hangman Judas, by design,
Unfeeling, with a kiss betrayed
His master, simulating peace–
“Disciple” just a part he played.
Veracity Itself by lies
Was given to ungodly men
And fastened, guiltless, to a cross
With scoundrels from a robbers’ den.
Xenian in their pious care,
The women brought myrrh to his tomb.
The angel told them he was gone;
He’d burst forth living from death’s womb.
Ye faithful, come, and let us sing
With sweetest hymns Christ’s victory,
Who, sold for silver, sacking hell,
Bought us back from sin’s penalty.
Zealous for blood, the serpent’s head
and lion’s mouth, devouring, God’s
Only-Begotten under foot
Has crushed and back to heaven trod.