Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Early Irish Eucharistic Hymn

Detail from the Ardagh Chalice c. 800
The seventh century manuscript known as the Antiphonary of Bangor contains many hymns from the early Irish church. One of the earliest hymns it contains is the Sancti Venite (“Come ye saints”), which was probably written as early as the sixth century, making it one of the earliest Irish hymns known (Curran, Antiphonary, 47). This hymn was composed in Latin and was sung during the celebration of the Eucharist.

Come, ye saints, receive the body of Christ,
Drinking the holy Blood by which you were redeemed.

You who were saved by the body and blood of Christ,
Let us praise God, by whom we are made anew.

By this sacrament of the body and the blood,
All have escaped from the jaws of hell.

Giver of salvation, Christ the Son of God,
Has saved the world by his cross and blood.

The Lord has been sacrificed for all,
Himself both priest and victim,

The law commanded the sacrifice of victims,
Foreshadowing the mysteries divine.

Bestowed of light and Saviour of all,
He granted most noble grace to his holy people.

Let all draw near with pure and faithful minds,
Let all receive the protection of eternal salvation.

Guardian of the saints, you are leader, O Lord,
And dispenser of life eternal to those who believe.

He gave heavenly bread to the hungry,
And to the thirsty water from the living spring.

Christ the Lord himself comes, who is Alpha and Ω,
He shall come again to judge us all.

The hymn's imagery of Christ as the fountain and bread of life is largely drawn from John's gospel. The great pilgrim Columbanus (d.615) who himself studied at Bangor (where this hymn was sung) draws on similar imagery in one of his sermons. Perhaps the hymn's melodious chant was echoing in his mind as he delivered this his last recorded sermon.

"my brethren, let us follow this calling, with which we are called to the fountain of life by the Life Who is the Fountain, not only the Fountain of living water, but also of eternal life, the Fountain of light, yes, and the Fount of glory; for from Him come all these things, wisdom and life and light eternal. The Author of life is the Fountain of life, the Creator of light, the Fount of glory; and thus, spurning the things that are seen, making a passage through the world, in the loftier regions of the heavenlies let us seek the Fount of glory, the Fountain of life, the Fountain of living water, like intelligent and most wise fish, that there we may drink the [living] water which springs up to eternal life [John 4:14].... O Lord, you are yourself that Fountain ever and again to be desired, though ever and again to be drunk. Ever give [us], Lord [Christ,] this water,’’ [John 4:15] that it may be in us too a Fountain of water that lives and springs up to eternal life.’’ [John 4:14] I ask great gifts indeed, who knows it not? But you, the King of glory, know how to give greatly, and you have promised great things; nothing is greater than yourself and you have given yourself to us, you gave yourself for us! Therefore we ask you that we may know the thing we love, since we pray for nothing other than yourself to be given to us; for you are our all, our life, our light, our salvation, our food, our drink, our God. Inspire our hearts, I beg you, O our Jesus, with that breath of your Spirit, and wound our souls with your love, that the soul of each one of us may be able to say in truth, Show me Him Whom my soul has loved,’’ (Song of Songs 1:6).
(Columbanus, Sermon 13.3).