The case of the missing thalamus


For the last few years, the monthly Sunday Choral Evensong in my place of employ has made use of the historic Vespers hymns that are found in the Hymnal. Accordingly, we recently sang ‘Creator of the stars of night’ [Conditor alme siderum], the Advent Vespers hymn. A recent post by the estimable Clerk of Oxford (linking to an earlier one as well) featuring medieval English translations of the hymn led me to realize that a most important, rich, and resonant image had been left out of the Hymnal translation; a more recent post by the Clerk on ‘Veni redemptor gentium’, an Ambrosian hymn also used in Advent or on Christmas Eve, showed that the very same image was missing from its translation in the Hymnal, and a search revealed at least one more instance of the missing image, though there may be more.*

The stanzas containing this image are reproduced below, with translations:

55 Veni redemptor gentium

Procedat e thalamo suo,
pudoris aula regia,
geminae gigas substantiae
alacris ut currat viam.

Er gieng aus der kamer seyn,
dem könglichen saal so reyn.
Gott von art und mensch eyn hellt,
seyn weg er zu lauffen eyllt.

(this is from Luther’s translation, ‘Nu kom der Heyden heyland’, which is translated somewhat more faithfully at Hymn 54 than is St Ambrose’s original.)

Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.

60 Conditor alme siderum

vergente mundi vespere,
uti sponsus de thalamo,
egressus honestissima
Virginis matris clausula.

When earth was near its evening hour,
as bridegroom from his lady’s bower,
from Virgin-Mother’s spotless cell
thou cam’st as man with man to dwell.

103 Puer natus in Bethlehem

Tamquam sponsus de thalamo, alleluia,
processit Matris utero, alleluia, alleluia

Like a bridegroom from his chamber, alleluia,
he went forth from the womb of his Mother, alleluia, alleluia

All of these are references to Ps 19.5:

In the heavens [the Deep, the watery firmament] he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes forth like a bridegroom from his [nuptial ] chamber/canopy;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

Let us first, then, consider Christ as the Bridegroom. The marriage metaphor is one of the most vivid symbols found in Scripture, for what in our experience more strongly describes the love and intimacy which God desires to have with us, and which we deeply desire in return (however much we may obscure or deny the desire)?

The bridegroom metaphor is found in several places in Hebrew Scripture. In Jeremiah and above all in Hosea (whose whole life was an enacted parable or act of prophecy upon the subject) God is seen as the faithful husband of the unfaithful Israel. More hopefully, the Lord is cast as the Bridegroom to the renewed and restored Jerusalem in Is 61–62:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
     my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
     he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
     and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
     Is 61.10

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
     and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
     and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
     and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
     so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
     so shall your God rejoice over you.
     Is 62.4–5

This image is picked up by Our Lord in answer to the question about fasting:

The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and they will fast.
     Mt 9.15; Mk 2.19; Lk 5.34–35

This symbolism in fact imbues the entire Incarnational aspect of the Church’s year and life:

The Son comes forth like a bridegroom from his chamber to be incarnate as a man and ‘runs his course’ on earth before ascending to the Father.

At the other end of the story, at the Feast of Christ the King, the royal Bridegroom arrives in state for the wedding banquet...

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’
     Mt 25.1–13

(see also Hymn 61, ‘Sleepers, wake!’ [Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme], and Hymn 68, ‘Rejoice, rejoice, believers’, which are closely based upon this passage and too long to quote here)

...St John the Baptist is the best man...

He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’
     Jn 3.29

...and John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
the herald of Messiah’s name.
     Hymn 143, ‘The glory of these forty days’

...St Paul is the father of the bride...

I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.
     2Co 11.2

...the New Jerusalem is prepared as a bride adorned for her husband...

Let us rejoice and exult
     and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
     and his bride has made herself ready...
     Rv 19.7

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
     Rv 21.2

...from heaven he came and sought her
     to be his holy bride...
     Hymn 525, ‘The Church’s one foundation’

...the marriage is celebrated at the Epiphany...

Today the Church is joined to her heavenly Bridegroom...
the wise men with their offerings hasten to the royal marriage:
and the guests are regaled with water made wine.
     Antiphon to the Benedictus, Lauds of Epiphany

...and consummated at Candlemas...

Adorn your bridal chamber, O Zion,
and receive Christ, the King.
     Antiphon at the Candlemas procession

Let us now look more closely at this word translated ‘chamber’, from which Christ proceeds and to which He returns. The word found in the Latin texts translated above is thalamus (Greek thálamos). It means, most fundamentally, a chamber or inner room. It can indeed refer more specifically, as in the above, to a woman’s apartment in a house, and moreover to a nuptial chamber.

However, it has several other meanings that are equally significant to the life of faith; it can mean

ark (a chest or vessel)
hold (lowest part of a ship)
cell (e.g., of a honeycomb)
shrine, temple

The meaning, then, is of an inner, contained, intimate, and even sacred space.

We can connect it first to Our Lady and her womb as the receptacle of the Word of God, she is indeed the Ark of the New Covenant (she also ‘treasured these things in her heart’; that is, the mysteries of the shepherds’ account of the angels’ proclamation, and of Her Son’s teaching in the Temple as a boy), and we encounter Christ there, coming forth to earth. The word ‘cell’, which I used in the translation of the stanza of ‘Conditor alme siderum’ above, may make us think of the virginal queen bee found in old versions of the Easter Proclamation [Exultet], as well as a monastic enclosure or one’s ‘inner room’, not to mention its biological resonances to the modern ear. We may also think of the enclosure of the stable in which Our Lord was born, and the tomb in which He was laid to rest.

A church building is often called a ‘nave’ (navis, ship), from either its physical or its metaphorical characteristics, and of course is a temple and contains a shrine, just as the Church as the People of God, and the individual human heart, are temples (St Paul tells us that ‘the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are’ [1Co 3.16, 6.19], the word ‘temple’ translating naos, the shrine or innermost chamber of a temple, the Holy of Holies. We encounter Christ in the corporate life of the Church, in our own hearts, and in the sacraments; the baptismal font is often called both a womb (the watery place of our new birth) and a tomb (in which the ‘old Adam’ is buried with Christ in his death and burial in a real tomb and from which, with Him, we rise to new life), and the Blessed Sacrament is housed in a chest (tabernacle or aumbry).

Ultimately all these thalami where Christ is present, from which He proceeds and to which He returns, point to and indeed are gateways to, or outposts of, that perfect enclosure, Paradise – which means ‘a [royal] enclosed park or garden’), the place of intimate (comm)union with the divine. This is why the icon of Our Lady ‘of the sign’ is very often found above the altar in Orthodox churches – and it is why, although the bridegroom / marriage metaphor is not entirely missing from the texts of the Episcopal Church, the absence of the word thalamus and the reference to Psalm 19 is so puzzling and impoverishing.

*  The word is also found in

519 Urbs beata Jerusalem

Nova veniens e coelo,
nuptiali thalamo
praeparata, ut sponsata
copuletur Domino:
plateae et muri ejus
ex auro purissimo.

From celestial realms descending,
ready for the nuptial bed,
to his presence, decked with jewels,
by her Lord shall she be led:
all her streets, and all her bulwarks,
of pure gold are fashionèd.

though the image is not of Christ going forth from his chamber but the New Jerusalem being led into it. The word is also found in one of the ‘O Antiphons’:

     O mundi domina regio ex semine orta
ex tuo iam Christus processit alvo
tamquam sponsus de thalamo
hic iacet in praesepio qui et sidera regit

O Lady of the World, arisen from royal seed,
now hath Christ come forth from thy womb
as a bridegroom from his chamber:
Here lieth he in the crib who ruleth the stars.