The oldest Christmas Carol historians have knowledge of is a 4th century motet or Epiphany: ‘Jesus Refulsit Omnium’ – Jesus, Light of All the Nations – exactly translating Jesus, the brilliance of all. It depicts the sudden realization that enlightened the Magi, the Wise Men, when they finally arrived to the stable where infant Jesus had been born and it was created by St. Hilary of Poitiers between 310 – 367 (most probably without any instrumental backing).
Listen to this touching rendition of Jesus Refulsit Omnium as performed by the Chamber Choir of George Watson’s College at the annual Festival of 9 Lessons and Carols at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, on 16th December 2015:
You can find the choir, a capella sheet music here. The lyrics in Latin are below:
Jesus refulsit omnium
Pius redemptor gentium
Totum genus fidelium
Laudes celebret dramatum
Quem stella natum fulgida
Monstrat micans per authera
Magosque duxit praevia
Ipsius ad cunabula
Illi cadentes parvulum
Pannis adorant obsitum
Verum fatentur ut Deum
Munus ferendo mysticum.
This is the English translation by Kevin Hawthorne, PhD :
‘Jesus, devoted redeemer of all nations, has shone forth,
Let the whole family of the faithful celebrate the stories
The shining star, gleaming in the heavens, makes him known at his birth and, going before, has led the Magi to his cradle
Falling down, they adore the tiny baby hidden in rags,
as they bear witness to the true God by bringing a mystical gift.’
Saint Hillary of Poitiers, whose first name comes from the Latin word for happy or cheerful, hilari, was a Bishop of Poitiers who later received the title of Doctor of the Church. It is worth mentioning that in Latin doctor means ‘teacher’ – thus Doctor of the Church recognized a significant contribution brought to theology through research, study, or writing. Three hymns are attributed to St. Hillary of Poitiers thus making him the first Latin Christian hymn writer.
What exactly is a motet?
A motet is a short, sacred vocal composition. I love the etymology of the word motet. Originating in the Latin movere, ‘to move’, it depicts the movement (against each other) that the various voices produce during the song. Yet considering motet as a diminutive deriving from the French mot, ‘word’, it depicts a ‘little word’ – thus a short song.
The medieval motet most probably became the sacred Renaissance madrigals.
I am Christian Orthodox, but I love the peace that washes over me when I listen to Catholic vocal compositions, late-medieval to present. My native language, Romanian, resonates closely to its Latin roots and the one year of Latin study I did in school has added an aura of mystery and enchantment to this now dead language.
I hope you enjoyed listening to what is believed to be the oldest Christmas carol, Jesus Refulsit Omnium.
Song lyrics and movie clip are property and copyright of their owners and are provided for educational purposes and personal use only.
The #MusicMonday meme was created by Drew @ The Tattooed Book Geek. You can pick a song that you really like and share it on Monday. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog feature on Mischenko’s lovely blog, ReadRantRockandroll .
Which one is your favorite Christmas song?
You might also enjoy reading A Journey through the Medieval City of Sighisoara, Romania.