O Jesus, Light of Bethlehem,
True Son of God, Incarnate Word;
Thou offspring of a Virgin's womb,
Be present at our frugal board;
Accept our fast, our sacrifice,
And smile upon us, gracious Lord.
For by this holiest mystery
The inward parts are cleansed from stain,
And, taming all the unbridled lusts,
Our sinful flesh we thus restrain,
Lest gluttony and drunkenness
Should choke the soul and cloud the brain.
Hence appetite and luxury
Are forced their empire to resign;
The wanton sport, the jest obscene,
The ignoble sway of sleep and wine,
And all the plagues of languid sense
Feel the strict bonds of discipline.
For if, full fed with meat and drink,
The flesh thou ne'er dost mortify,
The mind, that spark of sacred flame,
By pleasure dulled, must fail and die,
And pent in its gross prison-house
The soul in shameful torpor lie.
So be thy carnal lusts controlled,
So be thy judgment clear and bright;
Then shall thy spirit, swift and free,
Be gifted with a keener sight,
And breathing in an ampler air
To the All-Father pray aright.
Elias by such abstinence,
Seer of the desert, grew in grace,
Who left the madding haunts of men
And found a peaceful resting-place,
Where, far from sinful crowds, he trod
The pure and silent wilderness.
Till by those fiery coursers drawn
The swift car bore him through the air,
Lest earth's defiling touch should mar
The holiness it might not share,
Or some polluting breath disturb
The peace attained by fast and prayer.
Moses, through whom from His dread throne
The will of God to man was told,
No food might touch till through the sky
The sun full forty times had rolled,
Ere God before him stood revealed,
Lord of the heavens sevenfold.
Tears were his meat, while bent in prayer
Through the long night he bowed his head
E'en to the thirsty dust, that drank
The drops in bitter weeping shed;
Till, at God's call, he saw the flame
No eye may bear, and was afraid.
The Baptist, too, was strong in fast--
Forerunner in a later day
Of God's Eternal Son--who made
The byepaths plain, the crooked way
A road direct, wherein His feet
Might travel on without delay.
This was the messenger's great task
Who for God's advent zealously
Prepared the way, the rough made smooth,
The mountain levelled to the sea;
That, when Truth came from heaven to earth,
All fair and straight His path should be.
He was not born in common wise,
For dry and wrinkled was the breast
Of her that bare him late in years,
Nor found she from her labour rest,
Till she had hailed with lips inspired
The Maid with unborn Godhead blest.
For him the hairy skins of beasts
Furnished a raiment rude and wild,
As forth into the lonely waste
He fared, an unbefriended child,
Who dwelt apart, lest he should be
By evil city-life defiled.
There, vowed to abstinence, he grew
To manhood, and with stern disdain
He turned from meat and drink, until
He saw night's shadow fall again;
And locusts and the wild bees' store
Sufficed his vigour to sustain.
The first was he to testify
Of that new life which man might win;
In Jordan's consecrating stream
He purged the stains of ancient sin,
And, as he made the body clean,
The radiant Spirit entered in.
Forth from the holy tide they came
Reborn, from guilt's pollution free,
As bright from out the cleansing fire
Flows the rough gold, or as we see
The glittering silver, purged of dross,
Flash into polished purity.
Now let us tell, from Holy Writ,
Of olden fasts the fairest crown;
How God in pity stayed His hand,
And spared a doomed and guilty town,
In clemency the flames withheld
And laid His vengeful lightnings down.
A mighty race of ancient time
Waxed arrogant in boastful pride;
Debauched were they, and borne along
On foul corruption's loathsome tide,
Till in their stiff-necked self-conceit
They e'en the God of Heaven denied.
At last Eternal Mercy turns
To righteous judgment, swift and dire;
He shakes the clouds; the mighty sword
Flames in His hand, and in His ire
He wields the roaring hurricane
'Mid murky gloom and flashing fire.
Yet in His clemency He grants
To penitence a brief delay,
That they might burst the bonds of lust
And put their vanities away;
His sentence given, He waits awhile
And stays the hand upraised to slay.
To warn them of the wrath to come
The Avenger in His mercy sent
Jonah the seer; but,--though he knew
The threatening Judge would fain relent
Nor wished to strike,--towards Tarshish town
The prophet's furtive course was bent.
As up the galley's side he climbed,
They loosed the dripping rope, and passed
The harbour bar: then on them burst
The sudden fury of the blast;
And when their peril's cause they sought,
The lot was on the recreant cast.
The man whose guilt the urn declares
Alone must die, the rest to save;
Hurled headlong from the deck, he falls
And sinks beneath the engulfing wave,
Then, seized by monstrous jaws, is plunged
Into a vast and living grave.
* * *
At last the monster hurls him forth,
As the third night had rolled away;
Before its roar the billows break
And lash the cliffs with briny spray;
Unhurt the wondering prophet stands
And hails the unexpected day.
Thus turned again to duty's path
To Nineveh he swiftly came,
Their lusts rebuked and boldly preached
God's judgment on their sin and shame;
"Believe!" he cried, "the Judge draws nigh
Whose wrath shall wrap your streets in flame."
Thence to the lofty mount withdrew,
Where he might watch the smoke-cloud lower
O'er blasted homes and ruined halls,
And rest beneath the shady bower
Upspringing in swift luxury
Of twining tendril, leaf and flower.
But when the guilty burghers heard
The impending doom, a dull despair
Possessed their souls; proud senators,
Poor craftsmen, throng the highways fair;
Pale youth with tottering age unites,
And women's wailing rends the air.
A public fast they now decree,
If they may thus Christ's anger stay:
No food they touch: each haughty dame
Puts silken robes and gems away,
In sable garbed, and ashes casts
Upon her tresses' disarray.
In dark and squalid vesture clad
The Fathers go: the mourning crowd
Dons rough attire: in shaggy skins
Enwrapped, fair maids their faces shroud
With dusky veils, and boyish heads
E'en to the very dust are bowed.
The King tears off his jewelled brooch
And rends the robe of Coan hue;
Bright emeralds and lustrous pearls
Are flung aside, and ashes strew
The royal head, discrowned and bent,
As low he kneels God's grace to sue.
None thought to drink, none thought to eat;
All from the table turned aside,
And in their cradles wet with tears
Starved babes in bitter anguish cried,
For e'en the foster-mother stern
To little lips the breast denied.
The very flocks are closely penned
By careful hands, lest they should gain
Sweet water from the babbling stream
Or wandering crop the dewy plain;
And bleating sheep and lowing kine
Within their barren stalls complain.
Moved by such penitence, full soon
God's grace repealed the stern decree
And curbed His righteous wrath; for aye,
When man repents, His clemency
Is swift to pardon and to hear
His children weeping bitterly.
Yet wherefore of that bygone race
Should we anew the story tell?
For Christ's pure soul by fasting long
The clogging bonds of flesh did quell;
He Whom the prophet's voice foretold
As GOD WITH US, Emmanuel.
Man's body--frail by nature's law
And bound by pleasure's easy chain--
He freed by virtue's strong restraint,
And gave it liberty again:
He broke the bonds of flesh, and Lust
Was driven from his old domain.
Deep in the inhospitable wild
For forty days He dwelt alone
Nor tasted food, till, thus prepared,
All human weakness overthrown
By fasting's power, His mortal frame
Rejoiced the spirit's sway to own.
The Adversary, marvelling
To see this creature of a day
Endure such toil, spent all his guile
To learn if God in human clay
Had come indeed; but soon rebuked
Behind His back fled shamed away.
Therefore let each with all his might
Follow the way the Master taught,
The law of consecrated life
Which Christ unto His servants brought;
Till, with the lusts of flesh subdued,
The spirit reigns o'er act and thought.
'Tis this our jealous foe abhors,
'Tis this the Lord of earth and sky
Approves; by this the soul is made
Thy holy altar, God Most High:
Faith stirs within the slumbering heart
And sin's corroding power must fly.
Swifter than water quenches fire,
Swifter than sunshine melts the snow,
Crushed out by soul-restoring fast
Vanish the sins that rankly grow,
If hand in hand with Abstinence
Sweet Charity doth ever go.
This too is Virtue's noble task,
To clothe the naked, and to feed
The destitute, with kindly care
To visit sufferers in their need;
For king and beggar each must bear
The lot by changeless Fate decreed.
Happy the man whose good right hand
Seeks but God's praise, and flings his gold
Broadcast, nor lets his left hand know
The gracious deed; for wealth untold
Shall crown him through eternal years
With usury an hundredfold.
Hymns of Prudentius, 1905