Monday, April 6, 2020

Vexilla Regis

The hymn Vexilla Regis is the standard of Passiontide, especially this week. Written by Saint Fortunatus not long before the papacy of Saint Gregory the Great, this Vesperal hymn would have been sung around midday during Passiontide for a millennium, making it a central point to the last few weeks before Pascha.

The hymn itself is constituted of the verses of Fortunatus, three of which are always skipped during its prescribed liturgical uses, and two medieval accretions (O Crux ave and the Trinitarian doxology). As with many other hymns it was revised during the years of Urban VIII to fit pagan meters and vocabulary. It escaped the drastic evolution of some other hymns (cf. Te Christe splendor Patris). Although I cannot recommend haphazard and compulsive reforms there is an elegance to the verse:
Vexilla Regis prodeunt:
Fulget Crucis mysterium,
Qua vita mortem pertulit,
Et morte vitam protulit.
Vexilla Regis places the wood of the Cross at the heart of the salvation story. As mankind fell from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil so the Son of Man will "rule the nations from the wood [of a tree]". Arbor decora et fulgida, it is where mankind returns to its principal mistake, that of disobedience which Christ will expunge and restore by His love and obedience to the Father.

Antiphonal chant at Vespers de tempore follows the standard antiphons per annum, whereas the Lauds antiphones accentuate this fundamentally personal drama about to unfold:
Frámea, suscitáre advérsus eos, qui dispérgunt gregem meum.
Appendérunt mercédem meam trigínta argénteis: quibus appretiátus sum ab eis.
Lábia insurgéntium, et cogitatiónes eórum vide, Dómine.
Clarífica me, Pater, apud temetípsum claritáte, quam hábui priúsquam mundus fiéret. 
Vespers and the rest of the Office return to an archaic, primitive form after Compline of Spy Wednesday. There are only the psalms, the responsories, and, is applicable, the due canticle with its antiphons followed by the suffrage. Vexilla Regis does re-appear on Good Friday at the Blessed Sacrament procession announcing Christ as King on the day He accepted a crown of mockery from the Gentiles and turned His back toward Jerusalem.

John XXIII ignored many of Pius XII's changes to Holy Week, not least among them were the prohibition of ordinations during the Triduum and the revised manner of adoring the Cross. Another restoration of Pope John's was to continue to use Vexilla Regis in its former place and manner in the city of Rome.

This magnificent hymn only appears one other time of the year, during the first and second Vespers of the Feast of the Holy Cross on September 14. Then the words hoc passionis tempore victoriously change to in hac triumphi gloria. It is a hymn worthy of the Psalmist and one every Catholic should attempt to commit to memory along with the Te Deum and Marian anthems.

A blessed Holy Week to all.


  1. There is usually a third occasion outside Passiontide and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, namely the feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross, May 3rd.

  2. It was written, of course, for the adventus of the relic of the Holy Cross at S Radegund's monastery at Poitiers. Both community and relic survived the French revolution, and are still there, though not on the original site.