On our journey through Holy Week, we are exploring some of the great hymns of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Tonight we come to one of the oldest and greatest of them all, The Royal Banners Forward Go, or in the majestic Latin of the original, Vexilla Regis Prodeunt.
I remember we sang it on my first Good Friday after ordination. I was arrested by those first few words, powerful, evocative, strong. They struck me so forcibly because they seemed to cut through the traditional sombreness of the day as suggested by the devout Victorian hymn, not much sung nowadays, “O come and mourn with me a while”. By contrast, the spirit of this hymn felt vigorous and bracing.
“The royal banners”: what on earth are they? A vexillum is a military standard or ensign that rallies the troops and sets off before them. Think of the “eagles” that led the Roman legions and the lengths to which they would go to safeguard the standard or recover it, as n Rosemary Sutcliffe’s great children’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth. On a commander’s tent, the red vexillum would be flown to muster the troops and prepare for battle. So the “banners of the king” are a sign of engagement in conflict. And afterwards, the standards would be raised in a victory celebrated by a triumph with a great procession into the city led by the banners, and the scattering of bounty as the people cried out kyrie eleison and begged to be thrown the spoils of war.
This hymn comes out of the era immediately following the fall of the Roman Empire. Venantius Fortunatus was born in the Veneto in around 530 AD, a few years before the death of another great Italian, St Benedict. It breathes the spirit of Latin antiquity at precisely the time it was transmuting into the early middle ages. The memory of Roman triumphs was recent enough to be given poignancy by the physical signs of a great civilisation falling into ruin all around him. Like Benedict, Fortunatus saw the church as a bastion against the chaos he saw taking control in lands that had once enjoyed the pax Romana with its civic institutions, legal system, market place, temples and academy whose noble buildings, now falling into decay, stirred proud memories in the hearts of those who loved Rome.
He had trained as a poet and orator. Even in translation, his hymns demonstrate his flair for words. However, his sight began to fail until one day he went into a church in Ravenna and washed his eyes with oil burning in a lamp at an altar of St Martin of Tours. He was healed at once, and in gratitude went on pilgrimage to St Martin’s shrine in France. He settled in Poitiers, the city where Hilary had been bishop centuries before. There he was ordained, becoming Bishop of in 599. He died the following year. Our hymn comes out of Poitiers. Fortunatus wrote it in 569 in honour of the relics of the Holy Cross that were brought in a magnificent procession to a royal monastery there, “with much singing and gleaming of tapers and fragrance of incense” says the report. The cross shines forth in mystic glow.
This hymn is rich in theology as well as piety. The opening stanza cuts to the theological chase: “Where he in flesh, our flesh who made, / Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.” In the Latin, the emphasis is not so much on any theory of the atonement, but on the mystery of who it is who is hanging on the cross. Literally, the words speak about the One who made us flesh and blood is himself fastened to a criminal’s stake as that self-same flesh and blood. Mysterium is a big word for this hymn writer, and the profound insight of the cross is the “glow of mystery” that proclaims the identity of this Saving Victim, none other than the Son and Word of the Eternal God himself.
What this means is explored in a later verse. Upon its arms, like balance true, / He weighed the price for sinners due, / The price which none but he could pay, / And spoiled the spoiler of his prey. This stanza is dense with symbolism. The key is the “price for sinners due”. Jesus is hanging on the tree because there is a great work for him to do there. It is to pay that price once and for all, the price of redeeming humanity. In the middle ages, the idea of the ransom to be paid became the dominant way of understanding the cross. Put briefly, the sin of Adam had handed the human race over into the power of Satan. Our freedom needed to be bought back by the payment of a ransom, the perfect victim who was not himself compromised by the fall. That offering put the scales back into equilibrium and made release possible. If you’ve read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe you’ll understand how the deep magic of an innocent victim has power over evil.
The image of the Incarnate Word on the cross, triumphing harrowing hell, releasing its captives and triumphing over the powers of death runs through many of these ancient Passiontide and Easter hymns. “Sing my tongue the glorious battle” is another of them by this same hymn writer, very close in spirit to “The Royal Banners”. On Easter Eve we shall sing “Ye choirs of new Jerusalem”, another medieval hymn from France that picks up where “The Royal Banners” left off. In their different ways, all the hymns we are exploring in these addresses owe a great deal to this one writer who teaches us what it means not only to commemorate but also to celebrate in Holy Week, and why we call the Friday of the crucifixion Good Friday.
The other stanzas of this great hymn adorn the “mystery” that shines out of the cross by weaving evocative poetry around the suffering of the man who hangs there. For one verse, Fortunatus lingers on the soldier’s spear and the precious flood of water mingled with the blood that flow out of the side of the crucified Christ as St John is careful to emphasise: precious because “the life is in the blood” as the Hebrew law says, and this life is given in the healing, life-giving sacraments that for all time will nourish the church as his new humanity.
But then the hymn writer launches into a passionate hymn of praise for the Holy Cross. O Tree of glory, Tree most fair, / Ordained those holy limbs to bear, / How bright in purple robe it stood, / The purple of a Saviour’s blood! By a brilliant figure of speech, gratitude for the ransom that has been won is transferred to the very object that is the source of the Saviour’s pain and agony. Far from being commemorated as an instrument of suffering, the cross has become an emblem of glory in its own right. This becomes even more extravagant in the poet’s other hymn “Sing my Tongue” in the stanza we know as Crux Fidelis: Faithful cross above all other, / One and only noble Tree, / None in foliage, none in blossom, / None in fruit thy peer may be; / Sweet the wood and sweet the iron, / And thy load, most sweet is he.
Devotion to the Holy Cross is a very ancient liturgical practice. In the liturgy of Good Friday we shall acclaim as the great Cross is brought into the Cathedral, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which the Saviour of the world is hung”. Soon afterwards, when it has been set up in full view of us all, we shall be invited to make our own personal devotion to it by touching it, embracing it, kissing it – in whatever way we want to pay our homage to the crucified Lord. I always find this intensely moving. So many emotions are gathered up for me at this symbolic Golgotha moment: sorrow, lament, repentance, pity, gratitude, rescue, and above all, love. How could the sacred cross not touch us and transform us for ever? How could it not draw out of us all the love we have to give in this most solemn Week?
You may wonder where the good bishop Venantius Fortunatus got his theology from. After all, this extravagant poem in praise of the Tree of glory, Tree most fair is a thousand miles away from the agony and darkness of St Matthew and Mark with their desolate cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
The answer is, he learned it from St John. We’ve already seen on Palm Sunday how “Ride on, ride on in majesty” culminates in a great acclamation of victory, “Then take, O God, thy power, and reign!” It’s in the same spirit as Fortunatus seeing into the heart of the passion and glimpsing How God the heathen’s king should be, for God is reigning from the Tree. In St John, Jesus often speaks about being “lifted up” and vindicated in “the “hour” that is coming, the hour of his death. He links the cross with exaltation and glory. “Now my soul is troubled” he says. “And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name!” And again, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself”. And at the end, when the agony is over, he cries out a single word in Greek, tetelestai: “it is accomplished”. The work is done. Redemption is achieved. On his throne of glory, the King is crowned.
This is why we pay homage, in this Week when we recognise once again who our King of glory is, and what he has made us: subjects, citizens who are a people of the cross and an Easter people, for whom Christ has died and ransomed us from the hells that threaten to devour us, for whom he has triumphed as the heavenly Victor who is forever our Champion and Advocate at the throne of grace. No wonder the hymn ends in a doxology of praise to God the Holy Trinity. For all that needed to be done has been finished. He has done all things well. There is nothing left for us to do but to worship the King all glorious above, and offer him all that we are as our act of wonder, love and praise.
Wakefield Cathedral, Tuesday in Holy Week 2017
Vexilla Regis Prodeunt
The royal banners forward go;
The cross shines forth in mystic glow
Where He in flesh, our flesh who made,
our sentence bore, our ransom paid;
Where deep for us the spear was dyed,
Life's torrent rushing from His side.
To wash us in that precious flood
Of water mingled with the blood.
Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old;
How God the heathens' king should be,
For God is reigning from the Tree.
O Tree of glory, Tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear,
How bright in purple robe it stood,
The purple of a Saviour's blood.
Upon its arms, like balance true,
He weighed the price for sinners due,
The price which none but he could pay,
And spoiled the spoiler of his prey.
O Cross, our one reliance, hail!
So may thy power with us avail
To give new virtue to the saint
And pardon to the penitent.
To Thee, eternal Three in One,
Let homage meet by all be done
Whom by the cross Thou dost restore,
Preserve, and govern evermore.
Venantius Fortunatus, c530-600
Translated by John Mason Neale