Singing the Mystery of the Cross

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My doctoral dissertation — it seems so long ago — focused on the Proper Chants of the Paschal Triduum in the Graduale Romanum. The chants of the Church are, in effect, nothing less than sung theology. Among the chants of the Triduum is the Pange Lingua of Venantius Fortunatus (different from the Pange Lingua composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas); it is sung at the Solemn Celebration of the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday, but also sung at the Divine Office beginning with the Fifth Sunday of Lent. I thought I might share with the readers of Vultus Christi, something of what I learned in singing, praying, and pondering this monument of Catholic hymnody.

The Pange Lingua of Passiontide

The hymn Pange lingua gloriosi, like the Holy Week Vespers hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt, is the work of Saint Venantius Fortunatus (530-600). Friend and secretary of the Queen Saint Radegonde (518-587), Fortunatus composed the hymns at her request to celebrate the arrival of a relic of the True Cross at the monastery she had founded at Poitiers. A gift of Emperor Justin II, the relic was solemnly received by Saint Radegonde on November 19, 569.

In the Divine Office

In the Divine Office of the 5th Week of Lent and Holy Week (Passiontide), the Pange lingua is divided into equal sections, the first being sung at Matins (The Office of Readings) and the second at Lauds.

On Good Friday

At the Solemn Celebration of the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday, the hymn is sung with the refrain Crux fidelis, which appears for the first time in the seventh century. In the Romano-Germanic Pontifical of the Tenth Century Crux fidelis and Pange lingua are the last chants sung during the adoratio Crucis. In the reformed liturgy they occupy the same place. Like Gloria laus on Palm Sunday and Ubi caritas est vera on Maundy Thursday, Pange lingua has a refrain between each strophe.

Struggle and Triumph

1. Sing, my tongue,
the Savior's glory;
tell His triumph far and wide;
tell aloud the famous story
of His body crucified;
how upon the cross a victim,
vanquishing in death, He died.

In the first strophe Venantius Fortunatus introduces his theme: a combat to the death, a great struggle in which Christ will triumph over death by death. In like manner, the sequence Victimae paschali laudes will trumpet on Easter Day:

Then, Life and Death together fought,
Each to a strange extreme were brought
Life died but soon revived again,
And even death by it was slain.

Death by Death Slain

The Cross is a splendid trophy displayed to the eyes of the world. Triumph, not defeat, is the tone of the text. The use of redemptor is significant recalling 1 Peter 1:18: “You know that you were ransomed (Vg. redempti estis) from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as gold and silver, but with the precious Blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot.” Resonances of this text recur throughout the hymn.

In Praise of the Cross

R. Faithful Cross!
above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!

The refrain sung between each strophe on Good Friday afternoon is an acclamation of praise. The Cross is the faithful and noble tree around which God plants a new paradise (cf. Gn 2:8). Unlike the unfaithful and treacherous tree of the first paradise, the Cross bears the sweet weight of a life-giving fruit, the Body of Christ.

The Tree

2. Eating of the tree forbidden,
man had sunk in Satan's snare,
when our pitying Creator did
this second tree prepare;
destined, many ages later,
that first evil to repair.

The second to the sixth strophes are a lyrical account of salvation history beginning with the creation. In the second strophe, the Creator is portrayed as grieving (condolens) over the harm done to the work first fashioned (protoplasti) by his hands. Genesis 3:1-6 is the biblical source of the text. The tree of the Cross will undo the harm brought about by the tree of the garden. The two trees reappear in the Preface for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: “You established the tree of the Cross as the salvation of the human race, so that where death first appeared, there life might spring up, and so that he who had conquered by a tree might likewise by a tree be conquered.”

The Remedy

3. Such the order God appointed
when for sin He would atone;
to the serpent thus opposing
schemes yet deeper than his own;
thence the remedy procuring,
whence the fatal wound had come.

The third strophe recounts God’s “plan for the fulness of time” (Eph 1:10). The work of salvation will restore unity to all things, things in heaven and things on earth (cf. Eph 1:10). The text also echoes 1 Corinthians 2:7: “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification.” The words salutis and medelam bespeak healing, a theme closely associated to the tree of the Cross. “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).


4. So when now at length the fullness
of the sacred time drew nigh,
then the Son, the world's Creator,
left his Father's throne on high;
from a virgin's womb appearing,
clothed in our mortality.

The fourth strophe declares that in the Incarnation of the Son the opus salutis is realized. “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4). Missus est ab arce Patris echoes the dynamic theology of the Fourth Gospel in which Jesus repeatedly speaks of the Father who sent him and of his return to the Father.

Manger and Tomb

5. All within a lowly manger,
lo, a tender babe He lies!
see his gentle Virgin Mother
lull to sleep his infant cries!
while the limbs of God incarnate
round with swathing bands she ties.

The fourth and fifth strophes are subtly linked by the words Conditor and conditus, both applied to Christ; although he is the Creator of all, in the manger he is confined and hidden. Here emerges the kenotic theology of Philippians 2:6-7. The manger presages the Cross. The last four verses of the fifth strophe are inspired by Luke’s infancy narrative: “And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger” (Lk 2:7). The swaddling cloths, binding both hand and feet, and the manger evoke the immobility of crucifixion, the burial cloths and the tomb. “This man . . . asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped in a linen shroud, and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid” (Luke 23:52-53).

The Lamb and the Altar

6. Thus did Christ to perfect manhood
in our mortal flesh attain:
then of His free choice He goeth
to a death of bitter pain;
and as a lamb, upon the altar of the cross,
for us is slain.

The sixth and seventh strophes tell of the Passion and Cross. In the third and fourth verses, the poet expresses the filial freedom with which Jesus goes to his death: “I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10:17-18). The words, natus ad hoc, are dense with theological content. The entire life of Christ, from the instant of his conception, is ordered to his sacrifice. The meaning of the Incarnation is disclosed in the death and Resurrection of Christ; the Incarnation being in no way separate from the Paschal Mystery.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.” Then I said, “Behold, I have come to do thy will, O God, as it is written of me in the roll of the book.” . . . And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Heb 10:5-7. 10).

The Incarnation is the first step in Christ’s descent into the tomb by death on the Cross; by the same token, it is the first step of his Resurrection and Ascension to the right hand of the Father, of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and of his return in glory. Natus ad hoc opens the curtain on the entire Mysterium.

The last two lines of the sixth strophe link it to the seventh. Levatur and immolandus pertain to the biblical and theological vocabulary of sacrifice and of glory. The immolated Lamb lifted up on the Cross, “the true Lamb whose blood hallows the doorposts of the faithful,” is an image at once paschal and eschatological. We read in Saint John, “For these things took place that the scripture might fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken’” (Jn 19:36), and in the Apocalypse, “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Rev 5:6).

The Opened Side

7. Lo, with gall His thirst He quenches!
see the thorns upon His brow!
nails His tender flesh are rending!
see His side is opened now!
whence, to cleanse the whole creation,
streams of blood and water flow.

The seventh strophe reintroduces images from the reading of the Passion and from the Improperia: the vinegar, gall, reed, spittle, nails, and lance. A doxological vision of the Passion and Cross does not obliterate the memory of Christ’s cruel sufferings; his glorified, risen body bears forever the marks of his wounds (cf. Jn 20:20. 27). In an ancient homily read at Matins (The Office of Readings) on Holy Saturday, Christ, visiting the underworld, says to Adam:

Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows of my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image. See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon my back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one. I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

The liturgical contemplation of the sufferings of Christ takes place within the wider theological context of the whole Mystery with its effects upon the whole created order. Thus, the last two lines of the seventh strophe depict the blood and water flowing from Christ’s pierced side as an immense wave cleansing the earth, the seas, the stars and the world. The imagery evokes the great flood in the days of Noah and rightly so, for the Passion of Christ is the cause of a cosmic renewal, a new creation.

The Royal Nuptial Bed

8. Lofty tree, bend down thy branches,
to embrace thy sacred load;
oh, relax the native tension
of that all too rigid wood;
gently, gently bear the members
of thy dying King and God.

The last two strophes of the hymn are addressed directly to the Cross. In the eighth strophe the Cross is bidden to transform itself into a bed for the King of heaven. The image of the Cross as the nuptial bed of Christ and the Church derives principally from the convergence of Genesis 2:21-23 and John 19:34. At Matins (The Office of Readings) on Good Friday, Saint John Chrysostom says: “It was from his side then, that Christ formed the Church, as from the side of Adam he formed Eve. . . . Have you seen how Christ has united his bride to himself?” The bride of the Song of Songs, a figure of the Church, lies in the open air with her beloved and says, “Our couch is green; the beams of our house are cedar” (Ct 1:16). The Church desires union with her Bridegroom on the Cross; her desire will be fulfilled in the communion that follows the adoratio Crucis, and joyfully solemnized in the Eucharist of the great and holy night of Pascha.

The Sacred Blood

9. Tree, which solely wast found worthy
the world's Victim to sustain.
harbor from the raging tempest!
ark, that saved the world again!
Tree, with sacred blood anointed
of the Lamb for sinners slain.

The ninth verse praises the Cross, anointed with the blood of the Lamb, as the world’s safe haven from the shipwreck of sin. The hymn closes with a Trinitarian doxology; the Cross reveals the Trinity. In the context of the adoratio Crucis, Pange lingua sings “all that is christological and soteriological by rooting it in the mystery of the Trinity.”

10. Blessing, honor, everlasting,
to the immortal Deity;
to the Father, Son, and Spirit,
equal praises ever be;
glory through the earth and heaven
to Trinity in Unity. Amen.

Gift of the Holy Spirit

Only so does the believer match up to the great interpretations of the Cross in Paul and John: the Sons’s Cross is the revelation of the Father’s love (Rm 8:32; Jn 3:16), and the bloody outpouring of that love comes to its inner fulfillment in the shedding abroad of their common Spirit into the hearts of men (Rm 5:5).


I attended the funeral of a dear friend this week and was given the grace to meditate upon the thought of wood. During the funeral Mass my eyes, heart, and mind were drawn to the sight of my friend in his casket and to the stained glass window (just above the casket on the far wall of the church) of Our Lord in His manger and then to Our Lord on the cross. How that meditation has lingered with me in my daily activities and prayers during this week (and in my own grief in Lent) and in my prayers for him and his family. Quite frankly it is a very 'deep' meditation. So, when I visited your entry today it pulled my meditation together. The Holy Spirit is so ever present even in our moments of grief and sadness. I knew this...but I didn't know that it had come to rest in my heart and mind and I know that I have not finished in this meditation, for the depths of it (I am sure) are unfathomable. It is a real grace and blessing to read this entry. Thank you. GOD IS SO very good even in our times of grief and sadness. Thank YOU FATHER-GOD for all my blessings.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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