Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.
During the Advent season, the Alma Redemptoris Mater is the Marian antiphon for Night Prayer (Compline). While he was still an Anglican, Blessed John Henry Newman translated the antiphon in his Tract 75 of the Tracts of the Times, analyzing the Hours of the Roman Breviary:
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 marveled how, to thy Holy Creator,
Virgin both before and after, from Gabriel's mouth
Accepting the All hail, be merciful towards sinners.
(Alma Redemptoris Mater quæ pervia cœli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo; to quæ genuisti,
Naturâ mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem,
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore,
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.)
This is one of the four Marian antiphons the Church uses throughout the liturgical year. The Alma Redemptoris Mater is sung at Compline after the First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent through the Feast of the Purification on Feb. 2. The Ave, Regina Caelorum/Hail, O Queen of Heaven is prayed from the Purification to the Wednesday of Holy Week. From Easter Sunday to Pentecost the Regina Caeli/Queen of Heaven with its repeated Alleluias also replaces the Angelus. The Salve, Regina/Hail, Holy Queen is the antiphon during Ordinary Time, from Pentecost to the beginning of Advent.
From Contractus to Chaucer to Caswall
The words of this antiphon are attributed to Hermannus Contractus (Blessed Herman "the Cripple"), an historian, monk, mathematician, and poet from southwestern Germany who was born in 1013 and died near Lake Constance in 1054. He is often credited with writing the Salve, Regina, too. His disability made it impossible for him to move without assistance and difficult for him to learn how to read and write but as a monk he developed his intellect and skill as a scholar and writer. Many of us have never heard of him—I hadn’t until I researched this antiphon—and yet his work has been part of the Church’s prayer for centuries. He was beatified in 1863 by Pope Pius IX—his feast is Sept. 25.
The Alma Redemptoris Mater is mentioned in one of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (the Prioress’s Tale):
This litel childe his litel book lerninge,
As he sat in the scole at his prymer,
He Alma redemptoris herde singe,
As children lerned hir antiphoner;
And, as he dorste, he drough hym ner and ner,
And herkned ay the wordes and the note,
Till he the firste vers coude al by rote.
Father Edward Caswall translated it for his Lyra Catholica: Containing All the Hymns of the Roman Breviary and Missal, with Others from Various Sources, first published in 1849:
Mother of Christ, hear thou thy people's cry
Star of the deep and Portal of the sky!
Mother of Him who thee made from nothing made.
Sinking we strive and call to thee for aid:
Oh, by what joy which Gabriel brought to thee,
Thou Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see.
When the prayer is recited, traditionally there are two responses and prayers, one for Advent and the other for the Christmas season:
V. The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
R. And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray. Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His passion and cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen. [prayers from the Angelus]
V. Thou gavest birth without loss of thy virginity:
R. Intercede for us, O holy Mother of God.
Let us pray. O God, Who by the fruitful virginity of blessed Mary hast offered unto the human race the rewards of eternal salvation, grant, we beseech thee, that we may know the effects of her intercession, through whom we have deserved to receive the author of life, our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son. Amen.
Praying this antiphon until the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2 extends the celebration of Christmas to 40 days, well into the new calendar year.
Chant and Polyphony
Since this prayer has been part of the public liturgy of the Church for centuries, we may expect that many composers have set the words of the antiphon to music. We would not be disappointed. There are settings in the Simple Tone and the Solemn Tone of Gregorian chant. In the 15th century, Guillaume Du Fay wrote a serene version in the Burgundian style, while Josquin de Prez, the Franco-Flemish composer of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, wrote an elaborate setting.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the great Italian Renaissance composer, also emphasized the serenity of the prayer. The Spanish Counter-Reformation composer Tomás Luis de Victoria wrote not just a motet for eight voices, but a Mass titled Alma Redemptoris Mater (here is the Gloria as a sample). The English Catholic Peter Philips, who was a contemporary of William Byrd, lived in exile so he could practice his faith. He composed an exuberant and joyful motet.
So why does the Church use different Marian antiphons for different seasons of the liturgical year? Just as we follow the life of Jesus through the cycle of the year, beginning with our New Year every Advent, we are remembering Our Lady’s role. In Advent, she receives the Annunciation of Our Lord, so this antiphon emphasizes Gabriel’s message and Mary’s virginity before and after the Incarnation. In the brief period of Ordinary Time after Christmas and throughout Lent, the Ave regina caelorum looks forward to the Resurrection while the Regina Caeli celebrates the Risen Lord and Mary’s great joy in her Son’s triumph over death and sin. During the long period of Ordinary Time, the Salve, Regina—which is more familiar because we usually pray it at the end of the Rosary— reminds us that we live in a valley of tears and ask for Mary’s intercession.
Through these seasonal Marian antiphons, the Church reminds us of Our Lady’s special place in Salvation History. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.