This Advent we are looking at three of the great Advent hymns of the Church, as found in The Lutheran Hymnal. Tonight, we focus on St. Ambrose's hymn, "Savior of the Nations, Come."
"Savior of the Nations, Come"
Advent Vespers I
December 3 and 4, 2003
IN NOMINE JESU
A couple of years ago I was listening to a local talk-radio program. The topic being discussed was which Christmas song is the oldest. Some callers suggested some of the popular favorites, including "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," and a number of sacred and secular favorites. A couple of sacred songs mentioned were penned during the Reformation era and one during the Middle Ages. But I knew there had to be one older—much older. I searched the hymnals of our Synod, and I also remembered there was a hymn that one of my professors at the seminary required us to learn: "Savior of the Nations, Come." The author of this great hymn is St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, Italy. Ambrose wrote this hymn in the fourth century, a hymn that is more than 1600 years old!
Ambrose was born around the year 340 in the region of Gaul, which is largely modern-day France and Belgium. In 353 his father died, and his mother moved him and his siblings to Rome, where he studied law. Due to his proficiency in law, he was appointed to a post in Milan in 374. In Milan there was a dispute between the Christians and the followers of the heretic Arius. That year the bishop of Milan died. Ambrose was a layman and a catechumen; he had not yet become baptized! Yet he was the one who called for peace and order. It is believed that a child cried out, "Ambrose for bishop!", a mantra picked up by the people, and they elected Ambrose, an unbaptized layman, the new bishop of Milan, and he was consecrated into this office a week following his baptism. He was a valiant defender of the faith, battling the Arian heresy, championed by an emperor's widow. He denied a subsequent emperor entry into the church until he repented of ordering a massacre. Ambrose is credited with bringing St. Augustine, once a heretic, into the faith. Ambrose is also credited with introducing hymnody to the Western Church, hymns that encouraged congregational singing. Three of his hymns are part of our hymnody today: "O Splendor of God's Glory Bright" (#550); "O Trinity, Most Blessed Light" (#564); and "Savior of the Nations, Come" (#95). Exhausted from his labors for the faith, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, died on April 4, 397.
"Savior of the Nations, Come" speaks of the Incarnation of Christ, that is, of the Word becoming flesh. In the first stanza Ambrose takes us back to the months before the nativity of our Lord. This stanza is invitational in character, as we bid our Savior to come and make the earth His temporal home, and we marvel, as does all of heaven, that the Son of God chose to come into this world through the humblest of means. In the next stanza, Ambrose goes back to St. John's Gospel, the first chapter, where John writes that the Word became flesh, born not of human flesh and blood, nor by the will of man, but by the will of God, carried out as the Holy Spirit impregnated the highly favored Mary.
The third stanza of this hymn takes us back to St. John 1:11: "He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him." The Lord came to the people He sought to save, but His chosen people did not choose Him. They rejected Him. They refused to accept their long-promised Messiah. He was not what they expected. The Jews were (and still are) looking for a political messiah. They are still waiting for the Messiah's first coming, but it has passed them by. He was right there in front of them, in their very midst, but they have not accepted, and do not accept, Jesus as the Messiah. They have allowed their hearts to remain hard and, without conversion and repentance, face eternal condemnation.
This is the same condemnation we will face if we also reject the Messiah. Our methods do not need to be as vehement as the Jews' were. We show our rejection of the Messiah by what we neglect to do. We show our rejection by not keeping Christ as our Focus at Christmas...and during Advent. We want to bypass Advent and plunge headlong into Christmas. We fall for the pretty wrappings, but we do not want what is on the inside. To get to the heart of Christmas, we must get to the heart of Advent; we must truly understand and appreciate why the Savior of the nations came. He came because our hearts, like the Jews', are dark as night. Our hearts have been darkened by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Yes, we have blackened our own hearts, and we blacken them further by rejecting the Advent message proclaimed by John the Baptizer and by the Lord Himself: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand! The kingdom of God is near! The kingdom of God is already here! Repent!" This is not a message we like to hear. We do not like being told we need to repent. We despise looking at our own sinfulness. But Advent is a time of preparation, reflection, and repentance—to prepare to celebrate the Lord's coming into the world, to reflect upon why the Savior of the nations came into the world, and to repent of all our sins for which He came into the world to atone.
We have looked at the first three stanzas of Ambrose's hymn. The following stanza does not appear in our hymnal but does appear in Lutheran Worship, our 1982 hymnal: "Then stepped forth the Lord of all / From His pure and kingly hall; God of God, becoming man, His heroic course began" (LW 13:4). The Lord stepped off His heavenly throne and made His temple the virgin's womb, for the Lord made His presence there for nine months. Being born true Man, our Lord began His heroic course. The course is heroic because He came to save us from our sins. He did not come wearing a cape, but He as an infant wore swaddling cloths and lay in a feed trough. As His heroic course drew to a close, Roman soldiers put a purple robe and a crown of thorns on Him. His heroic course ended on the cross, where He announced, "It is finished!" He finished His course, set before Him by His Father in heaven. Even kryptonite cannot destroy Him, but He willingly was crucified to make full payment for our sins. There on the cross the Savior of the nations saved you, winning the forgiveness of all your sins.
The fourth stanza of this hymn we sang speaks of the humiliation and the exaltation of Christ. First was His humiliation: "From the Father forth He came"; then we sang of His exaltation. The risen Lord ascended into heaven: "And returneth to the same"; that is, He ascended and returned to His heavenly Father. Ambrose then went back to the Lord's descent into hell, where the Lord proclaimed His victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil, and in heaven the song of triumph swells. The fifth stanza sings of the resurrection of our Lord, that "the Father's only Son / Hast o'er sin the victory won." There is your victory. Jesus won the victory over sin, death, and the devil, over the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. He has defeated the sin that blackens our hearts. By His Easter resurrection our Lord has freed us from the slavery of sin. His victory is yours! At the close of this stanza we asked, "When shall we its glories see?" That is, when shall we see the full glory of the kingdom of heaven? We shall see it when the Savior of the nations comes again on the Last Day and gathers us to be with Him or when He calls us to our eternal rest from our labors. He continues to call us to repentance so that He would continue to forgive us.
In the sixth stanza, Ambrose takes us back to the first Christmas night and bids that sin not overcloud that holy night. The Star of Bethlehem shines brightly with the radiance of God's glory. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome, not the darkness of this world, nor of the devil, nor of our sinful flesh. The Lord outshines them all, and He sends His Holy Spirit, that, by His working within us, our faith would be as bright. In response to what our Triune God has done for us, we close this great hymn by praising each Person in the Holy Trinity.
"Savior of the Nations, Come" was attributed to Ambrose by his protégé, Augustine, in 372, two years before Ambrose became baptized as a Christian and consecrated as a bishop, and again by Pope Celestine in 430. We have sung this hymn tonight because it has stood the test of time, because its stanzas are as true now as they were over 1600 years ago. And we thank God for calling Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, to be not only a strong defender of the faith but also to introduce to the Church the basic form of hymnody we have today. By singing this great hymn, we continue the great tradition of the Church, as we also do this evening as we are praying the office of Vespers. Through the Church the song goes on, thanks be to God! In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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