by Sister Fidelis
We celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross last week and the hymn for Vespers that day is Vexilla regis, an ancient and very well-known piece. Written by Fortunatus, it is documented that it was first sung as part of a procession from Tours to Poitiers, France, in November 569 when a relic of the True Cross was sent from the East by Byzantine Emperor Justin II at the request of St. Radegunda.
The hymn is regularly used now for I Vespers the Saturday before Passion Sunday as well as on several Feast days through the year. The text is full of imagery and story and the tune has a flowing march-like feel. A mode I with a fairly narrow range it moves steadily from the top-most tau down to do mainly in stepwise motion or small leaps – this giving a steady movement forward. The few porecti and quilismae add a feeling of flourish. Reading the poetry reminds us again of the love that lies at the basis of our faith:
The royal banners go forth, the mystery of the cross shines,
Where, in the flesh, the creator of flesh hung on the gibbet;
Where he was also wounded by the cruel point of the spear:
That he might wash us from sin, water flowed with blood.
Fulfilled are those things which David prophesied in faithful song,
Saying to the nations: “God has reigned from a tree.”
O beautiful and shining tree, clothed in royal purple,
Chosen to handle on its worthy trunk such holy limbs!
O blessed tree, on whose arms hung the ransom of the world;
It became a balance for his body, and snatched back the spoils of hell.
Hail of Cross, only hope! In this time of the passion,
Increase grace to the faithful, and remove sin from all things.
You, fountain of salvation, O Trinity, let all living things praise together;
Cherish throughout the ages all those whom you save by the mystery of the cross. Amen.