Hymn Reflection: Of the Father’s Love Begotten

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:1–4 (ESV)

“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a beloved Christmas hymn that poignantly expresses the eternality of the Son of God and his divinity and coequality with the Father and the Spirit. It serves as a reminder that Jesus is the promised and long-awaited for Messiah who brings redemption to the world. With clarity and beauty, this hymn expresses both the deity and humanity of Christ. It also gives the modern church a direct connection to the doxology of the ancient church, being originally written in the 4th Century.

Marcus Aurelius Prudentius Clemens penned “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” as a part of a larger collection of poetry known as Liber Cathemerinon. He is known more commonly as Prudentius and he lived from approximately 348–413 in Saragossa, Spain, a very important city in the Roman Empire. The original intention of his poetry from Liber Cathemerinon was to be read, not sung, and to be used outside of corporate worship. This collection served as a set of elaborate literary odes based on stories from Scripture to be read and contemplated.

However, Prudentius was a popular author throughout the Middle Ages. Due to his wide reception, at a later point lines from his substantial work were extracted to create liturgical hymns for use in worship. Within his larger work was “Hymnus omnis Horae (A Hymn for Every Hour).” Abstractions from this text give us the hymn that serves as the object of our current study. The original liturgical hymn had nine stanzas plus a refrain, which is usually translated in modern hymnals as “Evermore and evermore.” There was an additional doxological stanza that was added in later usage and was probably taken from the closing words of the complete poem.

This hymn was not translated into English until the mid-nineteenth century. The first translation was given by John Mason Neale (1818–66) and was included in Hymnal Noted of 1851. The second and separate translation was done by Henry W. Baker (1821–77) and was inserted in the original 1861 edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern.

A look at the English translation and a reminder of the historical context shows the importance of the hymn. Although we don’t know exactly the time that this particular text was written, it is known that it was sometime in the 4th century. We also know from history that the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople took place in 325 and 381, respectively. These councils were addressing crucial heresies in the church that questioned the nature of God, specifically the natures of the Son and the Spirit. Not the least of these was the Arian Controversy, which questioned the full deity of Christ. There is little doubt that part of the aim of Prudentius’s work was to give poetic “wings” to an important turning point in the history of the church.

Analysis

Four stanzas plus the doxology stanza of the John Mason Neale English translation are most commonly used in contemporary practice. These are the stanzas that will be analyzed below. Every stanza ends with the refrain mentioned above, “Evermore and evermore.”

Of the Father’s love begotten
 Ere the world began to be
He is Alpha and Omega.
 He the source, the ending he
Of [all] the things that are, that have been,
 And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.

In the first stanza the author begins with a clear indication of Christ’s eternality. He draws the singers’ attention to the Son of God as the eternally begotten One. There is never a point where he was not. Prudentius draws our attention to the Son’s deity. He reminds us that Christ is the beginning and end and that “all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” What is of equal importance to note in this verse is the focus on the Father as the initiator and begetting One. In this first line the Son is the object, but the Father is the Subject.

Oh, the birth forever blessed
 When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
 Bore the Saviour of our race;
And that Babe, the world’s Redeemer
 First revealed his sacred face
Evermore and evermore.

The second stanza points to the miracle of the virgin birth. The audience is reminded that the Holy Spirit was the agent by which the virgin conceived Christ. This stanza has importance in the Trinitarian structure of the hymn in representing the deity of the Holy Spirit even though the focus is still primarily on the Son. Of no lesser importance in this stanza is the revelation of the full humanity of Christ. It is at the incarnation that the Son’s role as Savior and Redeemer is initially revealed.

Sing, ye heights of heaven, his praises;
 Angels and archangels sing!
Wheresoe’er ye be, ye faithful,
 Let your joyous anthems ring,
Every tongue his name confessing,
 Countless voices answering
Evermore and evermore.

This stanza is a Call to Worship of sorts. After being introduced to the full Trinitarian activity of the incarnation every created being is called on to sing praises to the eternally begotten One who has now taken on humanity. Praises are called forth from the “heights of heaven” and the faithful. Then, finally, every tongue is called to confess his name.

This is he whom seer and sibyl
 Sang in ages long gone by;
This is he of old revealed
 In the pages of prophecy;
Lo! He comes, the promised Saviour;
 Let the world his praises cry!
Evermore and evermore.

In this fourth stanza Prudentius enables the singer to confess that Christ is the One who was prophesied about from the pages of history. He is the promised Messiah who has now come as Savior of the world and he will accomplish the will of the Father. Once again, all creation is called on to sing praises to him.

Christ, to you, with God the Father,
 And the Spirit ceaselessly
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
 And unending praises be,
Honor, glory, and dominion
 And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore.

The final stanza is the doxology, which now gives voice to the singers’ praise to God the Trinity. Each member of the Trinity is addressed, beginning with Christ, who has been the focus of the hymn. The praise of Christ is connected to the Father and the Spirit with the important preposition “with,” which once again serves to remind that the Son is equal to and deserving of all the praise to the Father and the Spirit.

Evaluation

The beauty of this hymn lies in its ability to capture our imaginations with the wonder of the Father’s love in sending his Son, through the power of the Spirit, to Redeem his people. The hymn tune that is usually paired with the text, DIVINUM MYSTERIUM, aids in painting this picture. It is based on a plainsong chant from the 13th century and it is profound in its simplicity. It is filled with stepwise motion that naturally moves up and down the tessitura of the voice and helps to capture the sense of the biblical mystery of the incarnation. As we move through each stanza it is unmistakable that the Son is one with the Father and the Spirit and that they were all intricately involved in the incarnation.

It is difficult to find any fault in a hymn of this magnitude that has such far-reaching impact. However, if one area could be strengthened it would be a greater emphasis on the Spirit’s role. There is little doubt that a congregant could sing this hymn and walk away with a sense that the Son is any less important than the Father. Yet the role of the of the Spirit, while in no way minimized, is given less attention and less frequent mention than the Son. While the Father is also not mentioned as often as the Son, his role in sending and initiating is applied from the beginning and sets the tone for the entire text. Fewer implications exist in this text regarding the Spirit’s role.

Setting aside this critique, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a hymn for posterity that should be included in every church’s repertoire for at least the Advent and Christmas seasons.

*Much of the information for the background of this hymn was taken from: Vincent A. Lenti, ‘“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”: a hymn by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius’, The Hymn 60/3 (Summer 2009), pp. 7–15.