Reflecting back on this week of poems of the Passion

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.

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St. Anselm at Prayer

St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) is most famous for his delineation of the ‘penal’ or ‘Latin’ view of atonement in Cur Deus Homo as well as his ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of God. He was also a man of great faith and love of God, standing towards the beginning of a long tradition of English devotional poetry that includes Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, George Herbert, and others.

Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, made this devotional material available to the English-reading public in a 1973 Penguin, The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm. Here we get a more intimate, personal view of St. Anselm. Here we see the simple world of faith and longing, of wishing to love God and Christ as one ought.

For example:

Most merciful Lord,
turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love of you.
Most gentle Lord,
my prayer tends towards this —
that by remembering and meditating
on the good things you have done
I may be enkindled with your love.
Your goodness, Lord, created me;
Your mercy cleansed what you had created
from original sin;
your patience has hitherto borne with me,
fed me, waited for me,
when after I had lost the grace of my baptism
I wallowed in many sordid sins.
You wait, good Lord, for my amendment;
My soul waits for the inbreathing of your grace
in order to be sufficiently penitent
to lead a better life. (‘Prayer to Christ’, p. 94)

And:

What shall I say? What shall I do? Whither shall I go?
Where shall I seek him? Where and when shall I find him?
Whom shall I ask? Who will tell me of my beloved?
‘for I am sick from love’.
‘The joy of my heart fails me’;
‘my heart and my flesh fail me’;
‘but God is the strength of my heart, my portion for ever.’
‘My soul refuses comfort,’ unless from you, my dear.
‘Whom have I in heaven but you,
and what do I desire upon earth beside you?’
I want you, I hope for you, I seek you;
‘to you my heart has said, seek my face’;
‘your face, Lord, have I sought;
turn not your face from me.’ (‘Prayer to Christ’, pp. 97-98)

St. Anselm is not a man who looks for a distant, angry God that seeks naught but judgement. While this is not quite the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of poetry we find in St. John of the Cross (d. 1591), this is still the prayer of a man who quite truly loves his God and is quite aware of the sorrow sin brings.

St. Anselm is searching for God, seeking to find his beloved. Without God, he has no strength. Without grace, he cannot lead a holy life.

Are we searching for God today? If not, why not? This Advent, let us keep these thoughts of St. Anselms near the front of our minds — as we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s first coming, may we find Him here and now in our current lives and situations.

The Cult of the Cross & Christ the King Sunday

Tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday.  Rick Dugan has a good meditation on the topic over at St. George the Dragonslayer.  The image of Christ as the King he is was one easily taken up by the Anglo-Saxon world, reflected in many pieces of literature, such as Andreas where Christ is portrayed as a King and the Apostles his thegns.

One piece of devotional poetry that comes from the earliest days of English writing and is preserved for us in the tenth-century Vercelli Book, a manuscript containing various pieces of Old English literature.  It describes a dream the narrator had wherein he beheld the Rood (ie. Cross), and the Rood spoke to him, relating in dramatic verse and forceful power the scene of Christ’s crucifixion.  There is a translation of the whole poem here.  Read it; it’s worth the time, trust me.

For our purposes, I’ll quote the following from that translation:

The young hero stripped himself–he, God Almighty–
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,
King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.

And this, later on:

Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
by his great might, a help unto men.
He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
on Doomsday, the Lord himself,
Almighty God, and with him his angels,
when he will deem–he holds power of doom–
everyone here as he will have earned
for himself earlier in this brief life.

This is a clear, unequivocal statement of the Kingship of Jesus.  Jesus is King.  He truly reigns on high, perfectly indivisible from the Father as true God.  Each age and culture tries to cast him into its own image of the ideal leader — we smile at the Dream of the Rood and Christ’s thegns and grimace at Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) when he says that God can do whatever He pleases since He is a Lord — and what we have to realise is that Christ is unlike any earthly ruler.

Christ is the King who laid down His life for His subjects.

His crown is of thorns.

His throne is the seat of his own execution.

He calls us to obedience and to follow his own example of self-giving love and endless charity.  We are to give of ourselves for others, give our lives for life.  We are to be humble.  We are to turn the other cheek.  We are not to consider our own esteem as something to be grasped.  If we live walking in His path, then we shall see Him when He comes to “deem . . . everyone here”.  He is King and, unlike any modern monarch, demands complete and utter obedience — an obedience, a service, that is perfect freedom.

So, “worship the King, all glorious above.”  He is seated on a sapphire throne today; let us remember the glory of the Cross of yesterday.