Friday, March 4, 2011

Sing the Triumph of the Cross, Reflections on Two Latin Hymns

It's hard to believe that Ash Wednesday is next week. As we approach Lent, I have found great comfort and hope in the Latin hymns of old. In particular, I happened recently across two beautiful Latin hymns by the master Venantius Fortunatus (530-600 or 609) , which I wanted to share with readers.

The Hymn of the Cross

The banners of the King go forth, the mystery of the cross shines, by which our Life bore death and by death gave us life.

To wash us from the stain of sin, he was pierced by the sharp point of the lance and shed water and blood.

What David in his true hymn told to the nations is now fulfilled: God reigns from the tree.

Fair and radiant tree, with royal purple adorned, chosen to touch so sacred limbs with thy boughs.

Blessed cross, on whose arms the redemption of the world is borne; thou, from whom his body hangs, dost snatch from hell its pray.

O cross hail, our only hope! At this passion-tide increase grace to the good and take sin from the wicked.

Thee, holy Trinity fount of salvation, let every spirit praise. To whom thou givest the victory of the cross, to them give also its prize.

Hymn at Matins in Passion-tide

Sing, my tongue, the victory of the glorious battle, sing the triumph of the cross; how the Redeemer of the world being sacrificed yet conquered.

The Creator, pitying Adam's race, when it fell by the taste of the forbidden fruit, then noted the tree; that by a tree the loss from a tree should be repaired.

So was the work of our salvation ordered, that art should destroy the art of the deceiver, that healing should come from a tree, as had come the wound.

Therefore in the fullness of the sacred time the Creator of the world, sent from the Father's home, was born and came forth clothed in flesh from the Virgin's womb.

A child he lay in the narrow cradle and the virgin mother bound his limbs in swaddling clothes; such hands held the hands and feet of God.

Eternal glory be to the blessed Trinity, to the Father and Son; the same honour to the Paraclete. Let all the world praise the name of the one and three.

Isn't it amazing to reflect on these hymns, written a millennium before the Reformation? Their messages and imagery are so much more profound and real than most of what serves as liturgical music today. That said, the beauty of the language itself, its very artistic character, does not shine any less for the doctrine it so eloquently conveys. I could point out that the fifth stanza of the second hymn is an excellent example of "communication of idioms", but the reader simply recognizes it as Truth and Beauty shining forth from the page. I only wish I could hear more music along these lines--and a little less from ol' Oregon Catholic Press.

Special thanks to John Carroll Collier for the photo of his painting, The Annunciation. This present day re-imagining of the Annunciation is one of my favorite modern paintings. If you step close to the original, you will see that Gabriel is bursting forth with every color of the artist's palette, truly a heavenly creation. The simplicity and obedience of the young Mary, the new Eve, makes her "yes" to God even more awe-inspiring.

I'm very thankful to call this fine Catholic artist and sculptor my father-in-law. (I am told that prints of this painting may be available in the near future.)

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