The Annunciation

of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Quem terra, pontus, sidera/aethera
colunt, adorant, praedicant
trinam regentem machinam,
claustrum Mariae bajulat.

The chamber of Mary carries the Ruler
of the triple kingdom,
Him, whom earth, and sea, and sky
honor, adore, and praise

Cui luna, sol, et omnia
deserviunt per tempora
perfusa coeli gratia,
gestant puellae viscera.

The flesh of a girl,
filled with the grace of heaven,
bears him to whom the moon and sun and all things
are, at all times, subject.

Beata Mater munere,
cujus supernus artifex
mundum pugillo continens,
ventris sub arca clausus est.

Blessed with a gift is that Mother,
in the ark of whose womb has been enclosed 
the heavenly Creator,
who holds the universe in the hollow of His hand.

Beata coeli nuntio,
foecunda sancto spiritu,
desideratus gentibus,
cujus per alvum fusus est.

Blessed by the message of heaven,
made fruitful by the Holy Spirit,
out of whose womb came forth
the Desired of nations.

Jesu tibi sit gloria,
qui natus es de virgine,
cum patre, et almo spiritu
in sempiterna saecula.

O Lord, the Virgin-born, to thee
eternal praise and glory be,
whom with the Father we adore
and Holy Ghost for evermore.

     Venantius Fortunatus
     translation in part from
     the Rev’d Matthew Britt’s
     The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal

This hymn is the first half of a poem attributed to Venantius Fortunatus; the two halves (the second beginning ‘O gloriosa domina / femina’) were assigned as the Office Hymns for Matins and Lauds of feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The former has been translated a number of times. Hymns Ancient and Modern took John Mason Neale’s version as the basis for its text but made some changes; three of these stanzas were published in Hymns III (part of the Episcopal Church’s series of trial-use publications leading up to the Hymnal 1982), and a new stanza, a summary of the Annunciation, was written for the Hymnal 1982 by Anne LeCroy, translator of several Latin hymns. Copyright is claimed for the whole text, so I cannot reproduce it here.

Suffice it to say, however, that the cumulative effect has been to move the hymn from a meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation to a simpler, more narrowly narrative text: not that retelling the story is bad, but there are many Annunciation carols that already do so. Also notable is the considerable flattening of vocabulary for Mary’s womb and the whole situation of pregnancy and birth: we have only ‘Mary’s body’ and ‘human birth’, whereas in the original we have the following words –

claustrum [a bolt; thus, room, chamber, enclosure, cloister...]
viscera [flesh, internal organs, inmost part/heart]
arca [chest, box, treasure-chest/money-box, coffin, cell]
alvus [belly, womb, stomach; hold of a ship; beehive]
venter [belly, stomach, womb]

– as well as fecunda, for which ‘work’ is a rather circumlocutionary translation. On the one hand we lose the, well, visceral impact of words denoting or connoting ‘flesh, belly, organs, guts’; and on the other, the richness of association with concepts like ‘chamber, enclosure, inner room, treasure-box, shrine, cell, tomb, etc.’. ‘Chest’* is the English word most obviously comprising both sets of meanings, yet it is conspicuously absent, and even ‘heart’ might do well to appear, though its religious or symbolic meaning has largely and dualistically been divorced from its physical one.

It is that very heart, that center and engine of our life, into which the faithful ask the Lord to pour His grace just as He did into that of Our Lady, that Christ may be enfleshed in us – the priceless treasure deposited in our chest – and, with Him as our leader and her as the sign of the promise fulfilled, we too may come to the joys of abundant and eternal life:

We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts, that we who have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
     Collect for the Annunciation, bcp1979
    (the ancient Roman collect)

*  Old English cest ‘box, coffer, casket’, from Proto-Germanic *kista, borrowed from Latin cista ‘chest, box’, itself from Greek kiste ‘box, basket’. The meaning was extended to ‘thorax’ in the early 1500s, replacing breast.