This Sunday 8/15 is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast celebrates the end of Mary’s earthly life and the beginning of her residence in Heaven. As befits the Mother of God (the Theotokos), her transition to Heaven and position therein, like her earthly career, are marked by singular honors. On days like this day, her prophecy comes true again and again, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
To lend our part to this blessing, we at Sing the Hours have joined our voices, in a new English translation, with Peter Damian, a saint, cardinal, and great teacher (formally, Doctor of the Church) who wrote the hymn Gaudium mundi, which you will hear in Vespers:
Gaudium mundi, nova stella caeli, procreans solem, pariens parentem, da manum lapsis, fer opem caducis, virgo Maria. The joy of the world, the new star of heaven, Begetting the sun, bearer of the parent: A hand give fall[e]n ones, bear aid to waverers, O Virgin Mary. Te Deo factam liquet esse scalam qua tenens summa petit Altus ima; nos ad excelsi remeare caeli culmina dona. Made by God you are, be it clear, the ladder: Holding the summit, the High seeks the lowest; For us to return up to lofty heaven, O grant the high peaks. Te beatorum chorus angelorum, te prophetarum, et apostolorum ordo praelatam sibi cernit unam post Deitatem. You, seen by the choir of the blessed angels, You, by prophets’ and apostles’ company, To themselves preferred, are set apart alone Beside the Godhead. Laus sit excelsae Triadi perennis, quae tibi, Virgo, tribuit coronam, atque reginam statuitque nostram provida matrem. Amen. Praise to the lofty Three perennially, Who to you, Virgin, bestows a garland crown, Places you as queen, and provident to us, Makes you our mother. Amen.
This hymn, though about a thousand years old, is itself the fruit of ten centuries of continuous meditation on the works of God through Jesus Christ. The work started by Mary, of “treasuring up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), continued to the day of St. Peter Damian and even to the present. These centuries of pondering have turned, not only to the work and nature of the God-Man Jesus, but also to the role of Mary herself, seeing her, like her son, as a fulfillment and embodiment of prophecies and visions: another (better) Eve, another Ark of the Covenant, the pre-eminent daughter of Jerusalem, the Queen Mother to the Son of David, and more.
As with other translations, I put the English for Gaudium mundi into a metrical form parallel to the original, so that it can be sung to the same tune as the Latin. In this way, Paul can sing a unified mix of English and Latin. The English grammar, which is very different from Latin grammar, tries to capture as much of the flow of thoughts in the original, while staying just within the rules of English. The words chosen aim for simple transparency of of each phrase, without worrying too much whether it sounds like “real poetry” to English-speaking ears, or even whether the poetry is easy or hard. (Some of it is very hard; I hope I got those parts not too wrong.) But in fact, I hope it feels like real Latin poetry, if such a thing were at all possible to our ears. Some have commented that it might sound like something from Tolkien–which would be perfectly all right by me. We hope you enjoy both the lovely Latin verse and the simple English setting that tries to do it justice.
In proclaiming that Mary was taken up directly, even bodily, into heaven, the Catholic Church uses its teaching authority to interpret the witness of Scripture concerning this singular human being, such as St. John’s description of the “Woman of the Apocalypse”:
And a great sign appeared in heaven:
a woman clothed with the sun,
with the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars. (Revelation 12)
As Our Lord might say, “if you are willing to accept it” (Matthew 11:14), the woman in this vision is in fact Mary the Mother of God, the rightful Queen Mother of Heaven as well as the Mother of the Church.Scripture mentions a very few people who have either paid visits to Heaven, and even those who (like Elijah) went straight there bodily. By identifying the Woman of the Apocalypse as Mary, the Church puts her in that very select company. Notice that during the Transfiguration (Matthew 17), Jesus was visited by Moses and that same Elijah; it seems that bodily assumption into Heaven is a sort of VIP treatment. How fitting, then, that something like that should have happened to Our Lady.
There is ample material for making hymns even in that one passage from Revelation, as you can see in St. Peter Damian’s hymn above. For lauds we are singing another Latin hymn, Solis o Virgo, by the 20th-century Jesuit Vittorio Genovesi, which is presented below. These hymns, like many of their kind, celebrate:
- Mary singled out for acclamation and honor, by both heaven and earth (“the choir of the blessed angels”, “earth and sky’s end”, literally “the pole”)
- Mary’s kindly care for the Church, and for sinners and waverers of all sorts (“give a hand to the fallen”)
- Mary’s position of adoptive mother to all Christians (“…makes you our mother”)
- Mary as a clear sign of hope for all Christians (“hope to all through the sharps of life”)
- Mary as the finest and most splendid of all of God’s creations (“set apart alone besides Divinity”)
- Mary paradoxically the mother of her Creator. (“bearer of the parent”)
- Mary’s humility, as a model for all who are humble (“the High seeks the lowest”)
- Mary clothed in the Sun, the Moon her footstool, and twelve stars her crown (see also the icon of the Lady of Guadalupe)
Blessed Virgin Mary, pray for us sinners and for the Church on earth, and after this our exile, show to us your blessed son.
Here is the text of the second hymn. Though written less than a century ago, it also was composed in Latin, and so it too has been translated in the same manner as the first hymn.
Solis, o Virgo, radiis amicta, bis caput senis redimita stellis, luna cui praebet pedibus scabellum, inclita fulges. O Virgin, the sun having clothed by its rays, Twice six round your head a chain of circled stars, Whom the moon offers for your feet a footstool, How acclaimed you shine! Mortis, inferni domitrixque culpae, assides Christo studiosa nostri, teque reginam celebrat potentem terra polusque. O tamer of death, of hellfire and of sin, You are near to Christ, zealous with care for us, And you as queen sit, mighty and thronged about By earth and sky’s end. Asseclas diae fidei tuere; dissitos adduc ad ovile sacrum; quas diu gentes tegit umbra mortis undique coge. Servants of godly faith, may you watch with care; The scattered draw in to the sacred sheepfold; Where shadow of death covers people’s long days, Gather all in one. Sontibus mitis veniam precare, adiuva flentes, inopes et aegros, spes mica cunctis per acuta vitae certa salutis. For criminals, may you mildly ask pardon, Assist the weeping, the helpless and sickly, Shine as hope to all through the sharp things of life, Certainty of health. Laus sit excelsae Triadi perennis, quae tibi, Virgo, tribuit coronam, atque reginam statuitque nostram provida matrem. Praise to the lofty Three perennially, Who to you, Virgin, bestows a garland crown, Places you as queen, and provident to us, Makes you our mother. Amen.
translations copyright ©2021 John R. Rose under CC BY-SA 4.0
Acknowledgements: Holly Coty, Paul Rose, Sing the Hours