Crux fidelis

Holy Week 2016

The third great hymn – perhaps the greatest – of Fortunatus (‘Salve festa dies’ and ‘Vexilla regis prodeunt’ having already been covered in this space) is ‘Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis’, found at 165/166 in the Hymnal as ‘Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle’. The hymn is traditionally appointed to be sung at Matins and Lauds (five stanzas, plus final doxology, at each) in Passiontide and on feasts of the Holy Cross, and is also sung following the [Reproaches and] Antiphon[s] during the Adoration of the Cross at the Good Friday liturgy.*

Britt’s literal translation:

Sing, O my tongue, the victory
in that glorious combat,
and, of the trophy of the Cross,
sing a noble song of triumph,
recounting how the Redeemer of the world,
when immolated, conquered.

Deeply grieved by the infidelity
of the first-created man,
when by the eating of the fatal fruit
he rushed headlong to death,
the Creator Himself then chose the tree
that would undo the harm wrought by the former tree.

[There is an ancient legend that the wood from which was made the Cross of Christ – along with the Ark of the Testimony, Moses’s staff, and perhaps other things – grew from a sapling of the Tree of Life planted at Golgotha upon Adam’s tomb.]

This work the plan of our salvation demanded,
that art might outwit the art
of the multiform deceiver,
and thence bring the remedy whence the foe
wrought the injury.

[cf. the Roman Preface of the Cross: ...who established the salvation of the human race in the wood of the cross, that whence death had arisen, thence life should spring forth again, and he who conquered by a tree should likewise be vanquished by a tree.]

When, therefore, the fulness of the sacred time was come,
the Son, the Creator
[Conditor] of the world,
was sent forth from His Father’s home,
and, clothed in flesh,
He came forth from a virginal womb.

As an Infant, He cries,
[conditus] in a narrow manger:
the Virgin-Mother swathes His limbs
wrapped up in swaddling-clothes,
and a tight band binds the hands and feet of God.

[Note the interplay between Conditor and conditus.]

When He had lived thirty years,
completing the period of His earthly sojourning,
the Redeemer, of His own free will,
gave Himself up to His Passion,
and as a Lamb to be slaughtered,
He was lifted up on the tree of the Cross.

He partakes of gall; lo, He swoons:
thorns, nails, and a lance pierce His tender body:
water flows forth, and blood;
by which flood, the earth, the sea, the stars,
and the whole world is purified.

O faithful Cross!
the one noble Tree among all trees:
no forest yields thy like
in foliage, flower, and fruit:
sweet iron, sweet wood,
that bear so sweet a burden.

Bend thy limbs, O lofty Tree,
relax thy tense fibers,
and let that hardness
which thy nature gave thee, unbend;
and stretch on thy softened trunk
the members of the heavenly King.

Thou alone wast deemed worthy
to bear the Victim of the world;
and as an Ark, to provide a haven
for a shipwrecked world;
[ark] the sacred blood poured forth
from the body of the Lamb hath anointed.

Close translations (after Neale’s) of the first, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and eleventh stanzas appear in the Hymnal. Though this selection focuses the hymn specifically upon the scene of the Passion, it is something of a pity to miss out on the poetic telling of the ‘back-story’: the reference to the ‘fullness of time’ [Ga 4.4; Ep 1.10; Eucharistic Prayers B, C, and D]; the resonance of the ‘binding’ of the infant Christ with the binding of Isaac, Christ’s burial-shroud, and the ‘[prison-] bands of death’; the language echoed in the hymn ‘Conditor alme siderum’. One also misses the image of the Cross as an ark saving the ‘shipwrecked world’, and thus some resonance with other arks and havens: the Church (whose place of worship is traditionally called a navis, nave, ‘ship’), the Blessed Virgin (or her womb specifically), the homes whose doorposts were daubed with blood at the Passover.

Nevertheless, the Hymnal selection does retain the most striking part of the hymn: the extended apostrophe to the cross itself. Though it is common enough in the Scriptures and their derivative hymns and canticles to call upon trees, rivers, rocks, hills, mountains – indeed, all of creation – to praise God, it is much less usual to find such an address to a man-made object. To call the cross ‘faithful’, to invite its tender care for Our Lord – indeed, by using language similar to that often applied to the Blessed Virgin, to conjure a picture rather like the later Pietà – is a very powerfully moving thing to do.

It is all the more powerful given the purpose of a cross: this hymn should not blind us to, but should by the tenderness of the language point out even more starkly, the hideousness of the torture and execution carried out by the Roman authorities and by empires and armies, occupiers and rebels, governments and corporations, mercenaries and marauders, throughout history and in our own day. The image of the cross, unfortunately in some ways, has been domesticated, as the instrument is no longer in its original use: perhaps we should write hymns about gallows and guns, lynchings and lethal injections, to get at the power of the original. We should certainly be mindful of both victims and perpetrators of violence, of the transforming power of divine love for each and all, and of our duty to provide tender care and safe haven for the storm-tossed of this world.

On the other hand, the faithful may give thanks that precisely this implement of death has been transformed by Our Lord’s own actions into an instrument of life, a cause of rejoicing and source of comfort and emblem of an odd sort of triumph that looks for all the world like defeat. As the antiphon says,

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection.
For by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world.

*  The Reproaches or Improperia, a long series of antiphons and responses set to very beautiful chants, were the subject of some controversy in the development of bcp1979: included in the Draft Proposed Book, they were eliminated on the grounds of their being felt to be antisemitic, because, though in context clearly addressed to the Church, they lay blame for the crucifixion at the feet of those Christ addresses as ‘O my people’ while recounting events in the salvation history of Israel. The rubric ‘Appropriate [note, not authorized, as at the Daily Office] devotions may follow...’ [bcp 281], however, would seem to allow for their use, and they are so used in some places, sometimes in versions revised in an attempt to address the concern just noted.

On Good Friday ‘Pange lingua’ is not sung in a straightforward strophic form, but with the first four and last two lines of the first stanza sung as alternating refrains after the subsequent stanzas. This form is found in the Hymnal Appendix at S 352, in the rhythmic reading as edited by the Schola Antiqua (the music for the verses being identical to that at Hymn 165).