Friday, September 13, 2013

Dulce lignum, dulces clavos: The Alleluia for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14)

This is one of the relatively few chant propers for the mass that doesn't come from Scripture; its source is Fortunatus' 6th-Century poem Pange lingua, gloriosi, and more specifically the Crux fideles section of that poem.

This is an mp3 recording of this beautiful chant, from the Benedictines of Brazil.   The text:
Dulce lignum, dulces clavos
Dulcia ferens pondera
Quae sola fuistis digna sustinere
Regem coelorum et Dominum

O sweet wood, O sweet nails
That bore his sweet burden
Which alone were worthy to support
The King of Heaven and Lord

And the chant score:

You can get all the words here to the entire Pange lingua, gloriosi of Fortunatus; below I've extracted only the Crux fideles section:
Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis,
nulla talem silva profert flore, fronde, germine,
dulce lignum dulce clavo dulce pondus sustinens.

Flecte ramos, arbor alta, tensa laxa viscera,
et rigor lentescat ille quem dedit nativitas,
ut superni membra regis mite tendas stipite.

Sola digna tu fuisti ferre pretium saeculi
atque portum praeparare nauta mundo naufrago,
quem sacer cruor perunxit fusus agni corpore.

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!

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.

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.

Holy Cross Day is a "Feast of Our Lord," according to the Calendar of the Episcopal Church, ranking alongside Holy Name, Presentation, Annunciation, Visitation, St. John the Baptist, and Transfiguration.  It's a big one, in other words.

Justus has a page about the feast and about the cross in Christian life; here's an excerpt:

During the reign of Constantine, first Roman Emperor to profess the Christian faith, his mother Helena went to Israel and there undertook to find the places especially significant to Christians. (She was helped in this by the fact that in their destructions around 135, the Romans had built pagan shrines over many of these sites.) Having located, close together, what she believed to be the sites of the Crucifixion and of the Burial (at locations that modern archaeologists think may be correct), she then had built over them the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was dedicated on 14 September 335. It has become a day for recognizing the Cross (in a festal atmosphere that would be inappropriate on Good Friday) as a symbol of triumph, as a sign of Christ's victory over death, and a reminder of His promise, "And when I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto me." (John 12:32)

Tertullian, in his De Corona (3:2), written around AD 211, says that Christians seldom do anything significant without making the sign of the cross. Certainly by his time the practice was well established. Justin Martyr, in chapters 55 and 60 of his First Apology (Defence of the Christian Faith, addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and therefore written between 148 and 155 Ad), refers to the cross as a standard Christian symbol, but not explicitly to tracing the sign of the cross as a devotional gesture. In the ruins of Pompeii (destroyed 79 Ad), there is a room with an altar-like structure against one wall, and over the altar the appearance of the plaster shows that a cross-shaped object had been nailed to the wall, and forcibly pulled loose, apparently shortly before the volcano buried the city. It is suggested that this house may have belonged to a Christian family, and that they took the cross and other objects of value to them when they fled the city. This is not the only possible explanation, but I do not know of a likelier one.
Much more at the link.

The Collect for this day is beautiful:
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.

The readings, too, are among the most beautiful in Scripture; they include the lovely hymn from Philippians 2:5-11 -  to my way of thinking one of the most glorious passages to be found anywhere in the Bible (and from which comes the beautiful gradual for today and for Palm Sunday, Christus factus est.):
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death--
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Here are links to the other readings for today; the Collect comes directly from the Gospel reading from John:
Isaiah 45:21-25
Psalm 98 or 98:1-4
Philippians 2:5-11
or Galatians 6:14-18
John 12:31-36a 

Here's a really lovely piece, based in this chant with perhaps an polyphony alternatim; I can't quite tell what's going on here.  As you can see, this is "Sacred Music from 12th-Century Paris," apparently composed by Magister Leoninus.  The first "Alleluia" clearly comes from this chant proper - but I can't quite follow the rest so far.  Beautiful, though!

And here's a nice version of Crux fideles; there is something at the page about "Crux fidelis - R. Kühnel & Gregoriano."  I think that's a reference to the composer - this, perhaps - and the fact that there's some chant in the middle verse; I'm not sure what that is yet, though.  The YouTube page says it's a "Live recording: ex parish choir "S.Stefano" of Mozzanica (BG) Italy, 14 september 2008."  Interesting, anyway:

Fr. Jay Smith, of New York's Church of St. Mary the Virgin, has written a beautiful meditation on this day, using the San Damiano Cross as a lens through which to see the day.  Here's an extract from that meditation; I encourage you, though, to click over to the website and read the whole thing.
The story of Francis of Assisi’s conversion is well known to many Christians. Of course, there is the confrontation with Francis’s seriously displeased father; but there is also Francis’s experience in the run-down Church of San Damiano, just outside of Assisi. Francis is walking by the church and goes in to pray. He gazes upon a large crucifix, painted in the Byzantine style; and he hears Christ saying to him, “Go, repair my Church, which as you see is falling completely in ruin.” These are loaded, prophetic, words. Francis starts fixing the church and in doing so, he too is “repaired.” The Lord comes up close and Francis is converted. He is turned toward Christ in a new way. Eventually, Francis gathers brothers and sisters around him. He founds his famous order and the rest is history.

The San Damiano Crucifix is a familiar image to many people, especially to those interested in Franciscan history and spirituality. It is large, nearly seven feet tall and over four feet wide. It was probably created around 1100 by an Umbrian artist working in what is known as the Syro-Byzantine style. There are some truly wonderful things about this crucifix. It comes as no surprise that it moved Francis so. First, like much Christian art, in particular much Western Christian art, it is an image that is meant to teach. It has been pointed out that, taken together, the many figures on the cross tell the story of Our Lord’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. (Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M., does a detailed and fascinating interpretation of the Cross in his book, The Franciscan Vision and the Gospel of John: The San Damiano Cross, St. Bonaventure, NY, 2006. His book got me thinking about the cross for this article.) Second, the cross is an icon and like all icons “written” in the Eastern Christian tradition, it invites the viewer to meditate and pray, to enter into an encounter with the reality depicted in the image.

Father Guinan reminds us that the San Damiano Crucifix, that most Franciscan of images, is in some ways, not typically Franciscan (Franciscan Vision, 2). For one thing, it was created before Francis was born. More important, the cross does not accentuate Jesus’ suffering on the cross, and therefore it does not stress Jesus’ humanity, which was an important focus in later Franciscan theology, spirituality, and art. Jesus’ humanity is not denied. This is a human body, nailed to a cross. Blood flows both from Jesus’ hands and from his feet. But Jesus does not wear the crown of thorns and the iconographer makes no attempt to depict the suffering of a crucified criminal with any sort of realistic, historical, or physiological accuracy.

In this image, the artist carefully balances humanity with divinity. The inscription above Jesus’ head tells us that he is a king. The clean white garment, edged in gold, may tell us that he is a priest. The attitude of his body, the expression on his face, and the brilliant halo around his head tell us that the Crucified One is also the Risen Lord. As Father Guinan points out, the blood from Jesus’ hands and feet flows forth and down upon the other figures in the image. (If one didn’t know better, the very idea would be gory and distasteful; but for those with “eyes to see,” it is a richly symbolic, deeply scriptural and sacramental idea.) Moreover, angels attend Jesus on the cross and, at the top of the image, angels greet Jesus as he “returns” to the heavenly places, to be seated at the Father’s right hand. As in the Gospel of John, so also here, the Cross is not so much the locus of abandonment and desolation, it is the place where the glory of God is already being revealed: “Jesus said, ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:32).

If icons are meant to be an encounter with the Holy One, what do we encounter when we look at this image? That will be different for each one of us. Perhaps the encounter will be different every time we look at it. (If God is working to “repair,” transform, and convert us, are we ever exactly the same today as we were yesterday?) This is what I see as we arrive at Holy Cross Day: the cross was invented by human beings, acting on their cruelest impulses, to torture, shame, deter, terrorize, and kill. Jesus Christ, “though he was in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6), becomes fully human, “being born in human likeness” (2:7). He does not recoil from the worst and most painful elements of the human condition: sin, death, and terrible cruelty. He does not flee from us in horror or distaste. He comes up close. He sees what we sometimes forget: we were created in the very image of God. Jesus Christ “descends” deeply into the human condition in order to heal us and set us free; and by doing that he shows us who God is. He shows us that God is more powerful than sin and death. He shows us God’s tenacious, unyielding love. He shows us, in his deep humility, the very Glory of God.

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