“Alma Redemptoris Mater” is the Marian antiphon traditionally sung during Advent and the Christmas season.
Alma Redemptoris Mater, quæ pervia cæli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quæ genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.
This antiphon is quite ancient; scholars agree that the words were written in the 11th century in Swabia, which is now in Germany. It may be the most famous of the Marian antiphons. “Alma Redemptoris Mater” was so well-known internationally by the fifteenth century that it played an important part in one of the stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was published in 1475 in England.
“Alma Redemptoris Mater,” like all the seasonal Marian antiphons, was sung at the end of Compline, which is the final prayer in the Divine Office each day, and it is sometimes sung after Masses. This antiphon for Advent and Christmas was assigned to be sung every day between the first Vespers, which is the Evening Prayer on the night before the first Sunday in Advent, and Compline (Night Prayer) on the 2nd of February.
The 2nd of February is the feast of the Purification of Our Lady in the traditional calendar. In the 1969 revised calendar, it is the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. (See February 2: A Feast of Manifestation, Purification, and Candles if you would like to see more information about all the events in the life of Christ and the layers of meaning that have been traditionally celebrated on this important feast.)
Eminent liturgical scholar Dom Prosper Gueranger wrote with his customary eloquence about the role of the “Alma Redemptoris” antiphon in the Christmas season. “We apply the name of Christmas to the 40 days which begin with the Nativity of Our Lord, December 25, and end with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, February 2.
“But what is the characteristic of Christmas in the Latin Liturgy? It is twofold: it is joy, which the whole Church feels at the coming of the divine Word in the Flesh; and it is admiration of that glorious Virgin, Who was made the True Mother of God. There is scarcely a prayer, or a rite, in the Liturgy of this glad Season, which does not imply these two grand Mysteries: an Infant-God, and a Virgin-Mother. For example, the magnificent Anthem, Alma Redemptoris, composed by the Monk Herman Contractus, continues up to the very day of the Purification to be the termination of the Divine Office. It is by such manifestations of Her love and veneration that the Church, honoring the Son in the Mother, testifies Her holy joy during this season of the Liturgical Year, which we call Christmas.”
As you can see in the Gueranger quote, February 2 was observed as the end of the forty days of the Christmas season for millennia. Its forty days parallels the forty days of Lent. Under the revised 1969 calendar, the end of the Christmas season was moved to the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which falls either on the first Sunday after January 6, or on the following Monday. As a result, the total number of days of the Christmas season will vary, and the season is also going to be much shorter. For example, according to the new calendar, the Christmas season for 2015/2016 will end on January 10, seventeen days after Christmas instead of forty. Every year, the number of days in the Christmas season will change.
See “The New Math of Christmas: What Happened to the Twelve Days of Christmas? And the Forty Days of the Christmas Season?” if you would like more details about these changes.
Blessed Hermann, the Wonder of His Age, Wrote The Words
Hermanus Contractus (Herman the Contracted One) was an 11th century monk also known as Hermann of Reichenau, who is said to have authored the verses of “Alma Redemptoris Mater” based on the writings of Saints Fulgentius, Epiphanius, and Irenaeus of Lyon.
He is a Blessed of the Roman Catholic Church, whose memorial is September 25. When the Latin version of his name is translated, his first name, Herman, is usually followed with Contractus being translated as “the Cripple” or “the Lame,” but the literal translation of Contractus, which is “contracted,” gives a more vivid picture of the extent to which Hermanus was deformed. He had a cleft palate, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spine is left open and the person is often paralyzed. He could barely move without help, but he became a monk and a highly learned writer and teacher, fluent in Latin, Greek, and Arabic, mathematics, astronomy, history and theology*. His “intellectual achievements were such that he was known as the wonder of his age**” He is also credited as the author of “Salve Regina” and several sequences used during the liturgical year.
The Chaucer Connection
The famous “Prioress’s Tale” shows how widely known “Alma Redemptoris Mater” was by the time Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales in the 15th century. In this story, which follows in the tradition of miracle stories about the Virgin Mary and, unfortunately, blood libel against Jews, a young boy is resolved to memorize the antiphon to honor the Virgin at Christmastime. When he sings it while walking through a Jewish quarter, Satan sets the hearts of some residents to take offense, and they have him murdered by having his throat slit. Our Lady appears to the boy and places a grain of wheat on his tongue. When the grain of wheat is removed after the boy’s body is found by his mother, he is able to tell everyone what happened. He sings the hymn again, then he dies, remembering Our Lady’s promise that she will bring him to heaven.
This watercolor by pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones depicts the main events of the story.
What does Alma Mean?
When this antiphon is translated, “alma” is usually translated as “sweet” or “loving.” In the following translation, “alma” is translated as “holy.”
Holy mother of our Redeemer, thou gate leading to heaven and star of the sea; help the falling people who seek to rise, thou who, all nature wondering, didst give birth to thy holy Creator. Virgin always, hearing the greeting from Gabriel’s lips, take pity on sinners.” — Reverend Adrian Fortescue, 1913
It seems odd to me that the adjective “alma” is translated as sweet, loving, or holy, or not even translated at all in some English versions of the antiphon. The word doesn’t mean sweet or holy in any language as far as I can tell. It means “good/all good” in Celtic. In Portuguese, it means soul. It does mean loving in Swedish.
The word “alma” is most often said to be derived from the Latin verb alere, which means to nourish: feed, rear, nurse, suckle; cherish; support, maintain, develop, foster. This entire list of associations is intertwined with the ideal love of a mother who nurses, cherishes, and protects her child with abundant love. The Oxford English dictionary defines the term “alma mater” as meaning “bounteous mother.” An alma mater then would more likely to be a nourishing mother than a sweet or holy one.
Alma Mater, Nourishing Mother
Some claim the word “alma” was used with “mater” ancient Rome as a title for a mother goddess, but while the word alma was “used as a common epithet for Ceres, Cybele, Venus, and other mother goddesses, it was not frequently used in conjunction with mater in classical Latin.” Lucretius used “alma mater” to describe the earth.
In 1600, John Legate, printer of the University of Cambridge, England, created a title-plate for university press books that literally illustrated the idea of the university as a nourishing mother, which seems to be the the first time this idea appears.
The title-plate shows a naked woman collecting light from the sun and moisture from the clouds, whose breasts seem to be overflowing with milk. Her torso from her head to her hips appears on a pedestal with the inscription, ALMA MATER CANTABRIDGIA. (NOURISHING MOTHER CAMBRIDGE). The motto around the image reads HINC LUCEM TE POCULA SACRA (HERE [ARE] LIGHT AND SACRED DRINK).
You can listen here to the Gregorian chant for “Alma Redemptoris Mater” in the simple tone:
And here it is sung with the solemn tone version of the chant.
This is the second post of a series about the Marian antiphons. See Marian Antiphons: An Introduction for some background , and see also: Regina Coeli , Salve Regina, Ave Regina Caelorum, and Sub Tuum Praesidium, the Earliest Prayer To Her Whose Offspring is God.
* Thursday, September 25, 2014 Saint of the Day: Blessed Hermann of Reichenau. Retrieved from “Da Mihi Animas” on 11/13/2015.
** Blessed Herman the Cripple by Gregory DiPippo. Retrieved from New Liturgical Movement on 11/13/2015.