In the Christian household (to which I belong), it is Holy Week. As happens most years, I enter this week with the desire to experience, as fully as I can, the story of the last days of the life of Jesus. I seek worship opportunities that engage all of my senses–I want to get as close as I can to ‘being there’ . . . with Jesus. What were the sights, the sounds, the smells . . . what if I had been one of the women with him? What if I had talked with him? Walked with him? Been healed by him? What if . . .
I also make it a practice to listen to music that expresses the intensity of this week, this story: waiting, preparation, sadness, grief, loss, anticipation, expectation, joy. For me, music transcends words. There is a passion, an expression, a communication that connects believers not only across language and age barriers, but also across time barriers. Nothing I have ever heard has moved me as deeply as a setting, by Knut Nystedt, of the poem, “O Crux”, by Venantius Fortunatus, 6th century poet, priest and Bishop of Poitiers.
Here is the text:
O Crux Translation
O crux splendidior cunctis astris O Cross, more radiant than the stars,
Mundo celebris hominibus. Celebrated throughout the earth,
Multum amabilis sanctior universis. Beloved of the people. Holier than all things,
Quae sola fuisti Which alone was found worthy
Digna portare talentum mundi; To bear the light of the world;
Dulce lignum, Blessed Tree,
Dulces clavos, Blessed Nails,
Dulcia ferens pondera; Blest the weight you bore;
Salva praesentem catervam, Save the flock
In tuis hodie, which today
Laudibus congregatam. Is gathered to praise you.
The piece opens with intense and stark dissonance that is both unsettling and inviting. What could this cross be about? Before the words give answer, there is a section of sudden crying out: “Ah!!!” that weaves between all voice parts, transmitting to one another this anticipation of utter desolation and understanding. The piece continues with a sense of ponderous procession until the music builds to a re-expression of the opening line that foretells the power of the Resurrection.
All of a sudden, beautiful harmony emerges; a change of mood and style, which lifts us to an appreciation of the role of this cross and the weight it bore. “Blessed tree, blessed nails, blest the weight you bore.”
Before we know it, however, the piece ends. And it ends with the women, as if an angelic choir, singing again the words “O Crux” three times. The men respond in deep and resonant harmony, answering with the words “splendidior.”
I have sung this before. I have listened to it countless times. And I am always speechless when it is over. In it, I find myself in the mystery beyond all mysteries . . . and can only be there . . . in awe.