Reflecting back on this week of poems of the Passion

19 04 2014
Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)

Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)

This week of mediaeval (plus Ambrose) poetry began with Theodulf of Orleans’ triumphal eighth-century hymn in J M Neale’s wonderful Victorian rendering, ‘All Glory, Laud and Honour.’

But the earthly triumph of Palm Sunday so quickly turns to Good Friday, to ignominy and death.

In Holy Saturday, Christ’s body rests in the tomb, cold and dead.

The scattered disciples are probably in hiding.

We, however, have a different perspective because of tomorrow, when all the promises of God are fulfilled in Our Lord’s Resurrection. Western Christian hymnody and devotional poetry demonstrate this perspective, that the cross — a historical action filled with shame and defeat — is, in fact, the true triumph of God in his upside-down kingdom.

And so, in the light of this knowledge, St Ambrose, in the fourth century, composed a hymn to be sung at the Third Hour of prayer — and not just on Good Friday:

This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.

Christ trampled down death by death on the Cross. He destroyed the power of sin and the devil. God entered into the fullness of human experience in Christ. It is victorious, as Fortunatus demonstrated to us on Tuesday, where the juxtaposition of the ‘standards of the King’ and the ‘mystery of the cross’ remind us of this victory over the forces of evil wrought for us on the tree.

Wednesday brought us the Ruthwell Cross with its inscription, yet another hymn bringing the royal aspect of Christ’s death to the fore of our thoughts.

And then on Thursday, I diverged from the passion hymns. I gave us a Eucharistic hymn by St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and liturgist of the feast of Corpus Christi. Whether we believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation enshrined by Innocent III in 1226 or not, I believe that faithful Christians can stand behind Aquinas in ‘Pange, Lingua’ — Christ is present to us in the Eucharist; ‘This is my body’. And so, we turn from his body broken, bleeding, sorrowing, sighing, dying, on the Cross to his body present to us in the bread and the wine:

Fac me cruce inebriari. Et cruore Filii. -Innocent III

Make me drunk with the cross and the blood of the Son.

And then, Good Friday, when at the Third Hour the King of Glory ascended his throne, his sole earthly crown an instrument of torture, came the poem that inspired me to put together this assembly, the Middle English devotional poem, ‘Man and woman, look on me.’ This poem is a graphic reminder that Christ’s blood washes away our sins.

And as we meditated on Christ in our hearts, I provided art to look upon literally. All save the Giotto on Palm Sunday were photos I took in the churches and museums of continental Europe. The devotional life of mediaeval Europe was powerfully, mightily crucicentric. Maybe, sometimes, too much.

Yet on that Cross, the saviour died. God bled out.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

And so we have the ivory carvings, Gothic retables, stone crosses, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations of European devotion. So our physical eyes can behold what our spirits feast upon — the efficacious sacrifice of the Saviour.

If we enter into the blood and the gore and the sorrow and the pain of Good Friday, into the crown of thorns, the nail-pierced limbs, the spear in the side, how much more may we enter into the joy of glorious Easter and the empty tomb, the resurrected Saviour and the conquest of death.





Good Friday: Man and woman, look on me!

18 04 2014
IMG_6474

Flemish Gothic Retable, Musée nationale du Moyen Age, Paris

Man and woman, look on me!
How much I suffered for you, see!
Look on my back, laid bare with whips:
Look on my side, from which blood drips.
My feet and hands are nailed upon the Rood;
From pricking thorns my temples run with blood.
From side to side, from head to foot,
Turn and turn by body about,
You there shall find, all over, blood.
Five wounds I suffered for you: see!
So turn your heart, your heart, to me.

-14th century, trans. Brian Stone, Medieval English Verse, p. 38





Maundy Thursday: ‘Pange, Lingua’ by St Thomas Aquinas

17 04 2014

Tell, my tongue, the sacrament
of glorious body and precious blood
poured out by the king of nations,
by the fruit of a noble womb;
by which means he paid the ransom
to redeem the world from sin.

To us given, for us begotten
from the virgin Mary’s womb,
and in the world’s confines abiding,
having scattered the world’s seed,
he his term of dwelling with us
closed with wondrous ordering.

On the night of the last supper,
with his brothers he reclined,
and observed the law in fullness
with foods by the law ordained;
as food he to his band twelvefold
gave himself with his own hands.

Word-made-flesh transforms the true bread
by the word into his flesh;
wine is changed into the Christ’s blood;
and, if sense fails to discern,
faith alone is found sufficient
to strengthen devoted hearts.

We this sacrament of greatness
will revere on bended knee,
and the observance of the ancients
yield to a new form of rite.
Let faith make its own addition
to our senses’ failing powers.

To the Father and Son likewise
praise and exultation,
faith, honor, and power also
be, and benediction.
To the one from both proceeding
equal be laudation.

-St Thomas Aquinas (1264), trans. P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns #98

Fresco of the Last Supper, Chiesa San Lorenzo, Milan (16th c., my photo)

Fresco of the Last Supper, Chiesa San Lorenzo, Milan (16th c., my photo)





Wednesday of Holy Week: The Ruthwell Cross

16 04 2014
South side of the Ruthwell Cross

South side of the Ruthwell Cross

Ruthwell Cross Inscription (8th c)

Girded him then
God Almighty
When he would
Step on the gallows,
Fore all mankind
Mindfast, fearless,
Bow me durst I not.

Rood was I reared now
Rich king heaving,
The lord of light-realms;
Lean me I durst not.
Us both they basely mocked and handled,
Was I there with blood bedabbled,
Gushing grievous from his dear side
When his ghost he had uprendered.

Christ was on rood-tree,
But fast from afar
His friends hurried
To aid their atheling (prince).
Everything I saw.
Sorely was I with sorrows harrowed,
Yet humbly I inclined
To the hands of his servants
Striving with might to aid him,
With streals (shafts) was I all wounded.
Down they laid him limb-weary,
O’er his lifeless head then stood they,
Heavily gazing and heaven’s chieftain.

-Trans. Professor Stephens

For more on the Ruthwell Cross, see my posts The Ruthwell Cross and The Ruthwell Cross and Caution When Analysing Historical Christianity.





Tuesday of Holy Week: Venantius Fortunatus, ‘Vexilla Regis’

15 04 2014
A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)

A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)

The standards of the king advance,
the mystery of the cross shines forth,
whereby the founder of our flesh
in flesh upon a gibbet hung.

Here, his body pierced by nails,
and stretching forth his hands, his feet,
for the redemption of the world
as victim was he sacrificed.

Upon this gibbet, wounded sore,
pierced by the grim point of the lance,
that he might cleanse us of our sins
he dripped with water and with blood.

Thus were the prophecies fulfilled
that David sang in truthful strain,
proclaiming to the world at large
that God did reign from on the tree.

O beautiful and shining tree,
adorned with purple of the king,
selected, as its trunk deserved,
to touch so close such sacred limbs!

O blessed tree, upon whose arms
were hung the ransom of the world!
It weighed his body in its scales,
and bore away the prey of hell.

From your bark fragrance you diffuse;
sweeter than nectar is your taste;
rejoicing in your fecund fruit,
that splendid triumph you applaud.

All hail, O alter; victim, hail,
for sake of his passion’s great fame,
by which our Life endured his death,
and by his death restored our life.

-Venantius Fortunatus (d. ca 600), trans. P G Walsh with Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns, 101-103





Monday of Holy Week: A Hymn of St Ambrose

14 04 2014

Iam surgit hora tertia

Now dawns the third hour of the day,
the hour when Christ mounted the cros;
let our minds harbor no proud thought,
but foster eagerness for prayer.

He who takes Christ into his heart
controls his thoughts all free of blame;
by constant prayers deserves to win
the Holy Spirit’s presence there.

This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.

From that time on our blessed days
began, through merit of Christ’s grace;
through all the world the truth of faith
has filled the churches everywhere.

He on high from his triumph’s peak
addressed his mother with these words:
“O mother, here behold your son”;
to John: “Behold your mother here,”

Thus teaching that her bridal pact
concealed this mystery profound:
the virgin’s sacred birth would not
impair the mother’s chastity.

Jesus, by heavenly miracles,
provided proof that this was so.
The impious mob withheld belief;
he who belived will sure be saved.

We do believe the birth of God,
sprung from the sacred virgin’s womb;
he bore the sins of all the world,
and now sits at his Father’s right.

-St Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), trans. P G Walsh with Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns, pp. 9-11

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

Mid-14th c. French ivory diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)





Palm Sunday: All Glory, Laud, and Honour

13 04 2014

Refrain

All glory, laud and honour,
To Thee, Redeemer, King,
To Whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.

Thou art the King of Israel,
Thou David’s royal Son,
Who in the Lord’s Name comest,
The King and Blessèd One.

Refrain

The company of angels
Are praising Thee on High,
And mortal men and all things
Created make reply.

Refrain

The people of the Hebrews
With palms before Thee went;
Our prayer and praise and anthems
Before Thee we present.

Refrain

To Thee, before Thy passion,
They sang their hymns of praise;
To Thee, now high exalted,
Our melody we raise.

Refrain

Thou didst accept their praises;
Accept the prayers we bring,
Who in all good delightest,
Thou good and gracious King.

Refrain

-Theodulph of Orléans (c. 820), trans. John Mason Neale

The Triumphal Entry by Giotto (d. 1337)








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 590 other followers