Each night at the end of Compline we sing an Antiphon to our Lady. From the first Sunday of Advent to the Baptism of the Lord the designated Antiphon is the Alma Redemptoris. This is one of four officially adopted by the Church for her daily devotion to Mary according to the seasons of the year. Some commentators consider these Antiphons as among the most beautiful products of the Latin Middle Ages. Who wrote them? No one can say for sure. But a likely composer of both the Salve Regina and the Alma Redemptoris, possibly in both words and music, was the German Benedictine monk Hermanus contractus, or Herman the lame, who died in 1054. Whether or not he composed both texts, or either, it is certain that they are very closely aligned in thought and feeling.
The Alma Redemptoris is a poem of six lines set in the hexameters of classical Latin verse. Its music though looks forwards rather than backwards. The standard Gregorian modes are left behind, and already here we recognise the modern major key. The many large intervals also represent a break from the traditions of Gregorian Chant. To speak only of the direct leaps: seven times we are asked to jump a 5th; twice a 6th, and once a whole octave. Of course I speak of the Solemn tone, which most likely anyway is as old as the text. The simple tone is truly modern. It was composed by a monk of Solesmes, Dom Fonteine, in the late 19th c.
In the solemn tone, let us say by Hermanus, the first word, Alma, is given very notable prominence. You need to take a deep breath before intoning it. It rises all the way up the scale, in a long and soaring phrase, 17 notes, starting on Do, then Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do; dropping then back down again, to rest finally on Mi. Why all those notes? Because they capture something of the author’s fervent, lyrical, confident, heart-felt devotion to Mary, so beautifully expressed in this one word. Here at the very beginning, in the first word, Hermanus has poured out what he kept to the end of the Salve: “O clemens, O pia, O dulcis”. “Alma” has the meaning of dear, gentle, indulgent, kindly, consoling. More radically it means “nourishing”, and is especially applied to the nurse of an infant. Our Blessed Lady cherished the baby Jesus with her milk. And we who sing to her do so from a similar relationship. We sing to our Mother, in whom we find refuge, consolation, support, comfort, sweetness, and even life itself.
Alma Redemptoris Mater. Today’s Feast is of Mary, Mother of God. The divine Motherhood is of course Mary’s supreme title and honour and dignity and glory. But the poet’s thought here focuses not so much on who Jesus is, as on what he does for us. He is our redeemer. He came to set us free from the slavery of sin and death; to restore us to a right relationship with God; to give us the grace of salvation, justification, sanctification, glorification; to share with us his own divine Sonship; to give us eternal life. Jesus is the one who makes all the difference: to our life, to our world, to everything. And Mary is his Mother. Mary is the one through whom the Redeemer entered human history. And she is the one through whom he enters our own lives too: “quae pervia caeli porta manes - she who abides always as the gateway that leads to heaven.”
[On March 25th 1987 Pope St. John Paul II published an Encyclical Letter on our Lady, explicitly citing this phrase from our Antiphon in its Title: Redemptoris Mater. The phrase also deliberately evokes his first Encyclical on Christ as the redeemer of mankind, Redemptor hominis. As Cardinal Karol Wojtylwa John Paul had written the famous lines of Vatican II: “Only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of mankind become clear (GS 22).” Now he writes of Our Lady: “Only in the mystery of Christ does the mystery of Mary become clear (RM4).” In a sustained and sober theological reflection this Pope shows once again that the Church’s devotion to Mary is a necessary consequence of her Christian faith. We turn to Mary in the first place because impelled to do so by holy Scripture itself. We invoke Mary also as nourished by tradition, which has developed over the centuries. This tradition is not only legitimate, but necessary. Guided by the Holy Spirit, its authenticity is demonstrated by the wonderful fruit it has borne in the Church as a whole, and in the lives of countless believers.]
Mother of the Redeemer, Gateway of Heaven, Star of the Sea. It seems that St. Jerome in the 4th century was the first to call Mary “Star of the Sea”. The title became very popular in the middle ages. A witness to that is our Hymn Ave Maris Stella, composed some time in the 8th century. Another witness is St. Bernard, who wrote a most wonderful meditation on this title. We needn’t be much concerned if the supposed etymological connection between Maria and Stella Maris is merely fanciful. A Star at Sea is a life-saving reference point for sailors in imminent danger at night. This tiny point of light can make the difference between a safe voyage home and shipwreck. Our Lady is such a star for us amid the darkness of this world, with its perils and temptations and trials. Not just passively, of course, but actively also. So we call out to her: “Succere cadenti surgere qui curat populo! - Come to the help of your people who are falling, but who want to rise up!” We fall in sin; also in affliction and in sickness; ultimately in death. We want to rise up in grace, and ultimately to life in heaven, with you, our Mother Mary!
“Tu quae genuisti natura mirante tuum sanctum genitorem - You who gave birth to your own begetter, to the astonishment of nature.” The wonderment of nature here evokes St. Paul’s words about the expectation and the groaning of creation in Romans Chapter 8. Nature wonders at the miracle of the Incarnation, which occurs quite outside her laws, though without in any way contradicting those laws. Nature wonders too because in Christ she is to be redeemed, renewed, re-created. She wonders at the miracle, but even more she wonders at the astonishing gift, at the divine love, the divine mercy, the divine humility, according to which God himself, for our sake, became a part of what he had made.
“Virgo prius ac posterius - Virgin both before and after”. Our Antiphon here simply affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary. This doctrine is not explicitly stated in Scripture, but it’s wholly appropriate, and concordant, and strongly defended by the Fathers of the Church. “Gabrielis ab ore, sumens illud Ave - you who received that greeting from Gabriel - that Ave, so loaded with significance!” Here, in the penultimate place, Hermanus situates the equivalent of his opening word in the Salve. “Hail Mary!” we cry, with the Angel and with all subsequent Christians. But then, finally, the point, the punch line. “Peccatorum miserere - have mercy, take pity on us sinners.”
We who are in darkness call to you who are in the light. We who are below cry to you who are above. We who are separated from God invoke you who are in perfect union with Him. We dare to say miserere, the last word, because you are Alma, the first word - you are our Mother, so far above us, yet also so lovingly close. Bring us, then, Mary, to Jesus; lead us to God; carry us to rest; bring us safely home. Amen.
[Paragraph in square brackets omitted when delivered at Mass]