Home History of Hymns: “Savior of the Nations, Come”

History of Hymns: “Savior of the Nations, Come”

"Savior of the Nations, Come"
Martin Luther
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 214

Martin Luther

Savior of the nations, come;
Virgin’s Song, here make thy home!
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.

This 16th-century hymn by Martin Luther (1483-1546) was one of 37 hymns composed by the reformer. The English translation that we sing is actually a third-hand version from the German “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” in 1523 which was, in turn, a translation of the Latin “Veni, Redemptor gentium” ascribed to Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397).

The music of this Advent chorale is an adaptation of a plainsong melody. Some sources cite as many as six Reformation melodies derived from plainsong sources. Plainsong is a body of melodies that developed in the Roman Catholic Church throughout and beyond the medieval period.

Therefore Luther’s composition is less an original hymn than a reworking of an existing Latin text and plainsong tune. While Luther did compose original hymns, he also borrowed hymns from his Roman Catholic heritage, translating them into the vernacular German and making them accessible for congregational use.

Luther’s translation was included in two volumes in 1524: Enchiridion Oder handbüchlein and Johann Walther’s Geistliches Gesangbuchlein (“Spiritual Songbook”). The harmonization by J. S. Bach (1685-1750), more than 150 years after Luther’s version, has become the standard version of the hymn in many hymnals.

This hymn establishes that the Savior of the world came not only to Jews, but to “Heiden”—literally to the heathen. However, “Heiden” does not carry a negative connotation; it is simply a reference to the Gentiles. Stanza one begins as a petition for the “Savior of the nations…[to] come” now! in the original German. The language of petition soon gives way to amazement that God would be born of a woman on earth.

The original German hymn consists of eight stanzas of which stanzas 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7 appear in The UM Hymnal. The hymn is essentially a reaffirmation of the article related to the Incarnation from the Nicene Creed:

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.”

A literal rendering of stanzas two and three (not for singing) translated from the original German by Christopher Anderson, Associate Professor of Sacred Music at Perkins School of Theology, reads as follows:

Not from man’s blood or from flesh,
only from the Holy Ghost
is God’s Word become a man
and fruit blossoms from a woman.

The Virgin’s body became pregnant,
but chastity remained pure.
A virtue experienced light,
God was there on his throne.

Stanza four states that God runs his course through the Incarnation, even “down to hell descends.” Reminiscent of an early version of the Apostles’ Creed which states, “He descended into hell.”

Stanza five draws heavily upon the image of light—“Light from Light” as stated in the Nicene Creed. This light illumines the manger and “hallows night with newborn light.” We are reminded of Christ as the Light of the world—to Jews and Gentiles alike—as the hymn draws to a close:

Let no light this light subdue,
let our faith shine ever new.

There is no room for night in the Incarnation. Our lives reflect the true Light.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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