Alma Redemptoris Mater.
For many of you the Season of Advent begins this weekend, and with it a new liturgical year. Advent began for me yesterday afternoon when I opened the book seen in this photo, set it on my lap, and began to pray. Readers who regularly pray the Divine Office will probably also be familiar with the ritual I enacted before I set out to pray vespers, a ritual always repeated when switching volumes of the breviary: resetting the ribbons to make sure that they're all in the right place. Of course, some of you may not bother with ribbons any longer, if you've moved to one of the various electronic versions of the breviary; those who know me won't be surprised to learn that I still think there is something important about actually praying the office out of a book, and I suspect that an important facet of that experience would be lost if one didn't have to fuss with the ribbons once in a while, making sure that everythng is in the right place.
For your edification on the First Sunday of Advent, here is the Marian antiphon appointed for use at Compline from today until Candlemas, the Alma Redemptoris Mater. This is a very old hymn; it is attributed to an eleventh-century German scribe with the wonderful moniker of Hermannus Contractus ("Herman the Cripple"), who took his inspiration from older sources rooted deep in the tradition of the Church Fathers. Here is the Latin text, together with a nineteenth-century English translation by John Henry Newman:
Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeliReaders seeking a more literal modern translation can find one here. For my part, I still haven't reached the point where I can recite this hymn without remembering how I first learned of its existence, in a high school English class in which we read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The Alma Redemptoris Mater features prominently in "The Prioress's Tale," in which a young boy hears the hymn and is so captivated by the tune that he sets out to learn it and sings it each day on the way to school. I won't say anything more about "The Prioress's Tale," beyond noting that the tale does not end well and that it is not for the faint of heart.
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.
Kindly Mother of the Redeemer, who art ever of heaven
The open gate, and the star of the sea, aid a fallen people,
Which is trying to rise again; thou who didst give birth,
While Nature marvelled how, to thy Holy Creator,
Virgin both before and after, from Gabriel's mouth
Accepting the All hail, be merciful towards sinners.
Advent is a twofold time of preparation: it is first and most obviously a time of preparation for Christmas, but it is also a time of preparation for Christ's second coming - a coming which we cannot fully anticipate but which, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, "is nearer to us now than when we first believed" (Rom 13:11). Let us take the best possible advantage of this time of preparation - this "time for rousing," as Alfred Delp put it - and let us not hesitate to make our own the prayer expressed in the Alma Redemptoris Mater: "Kindly Mother of the Redeemer . . . aid a fallen people, which is trying to rise again . . . [and] be merciful towards sinners." AMDG.