Grace Abounds
A media ministry of Grace Episcopal Church
Oh for a Thousand Tongues

Oh for a Thousand Tongues: This month’s column about the Church calendar refers to hymn no. 166, Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle, used at the stripping of the altar at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service.

First to the music, a Sarum setting of the Pange lingua (which means, literally, “sing, tongue”). “Sarum” is the Latin reference to the liturgical rite as practiced in the cathedral at Salisbury, England. In Medieval times there was not just one way to offer worship in the western Church. There was the liturgy as practiced in Rome (the Leonine Rite, in reference to St. Leo the Great), in Milan (the Ambrosian Rite, in reference to St. Ambrose), the Mozarabic Rite (as found in Spain, and named for the Christian communities living under Muslim rule), and various “Gallican” rites found in France. 

The Sarum Rite (or Use) was the liturgy underlying the first Book of Common Prayer (1549). The Pange lingua melody is itself an example of plainsong (i.e., “Gregorian chant”), and may be as old as the late sixth century.

The hymn is “proper” to the Good Friday liturgy (BCP 282). And is used at the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday because it is then that Good Friday really begins. The Church follows the Jewish practice that a day begins at sundown, which itself finds its origin in the first creation account in Genesis (Gen. 1), for each time God completes a particular stage in creation the scripture informs us, “And there was evening and there was morning, a [ordinal number] day”.

The words to the hymn are from the 6th century Latin poet, Venantius Fortunatus, as translated by that prince of translations, Bl. John Mason Neale (d. 1866, feast 7 August). The Hymnal gives us six stanzas of an original eleven. The hymn is entitled by Fortunatus “in honore sanctae crucis” (in/to the honor of the sacred cross), and one story about the hymn is that it was composed in 569 for the 19 November procession held that year to honor an arrival of a fragment of the True Cross, sent by the emperor from Constantinople. (The Empress Dowager Helena had excavated what is thought to be the true cross in 331. Modern archaeologists think she got it right, and a fragment of this cross is found in a reliquary in this parish!)

The use of the hymn for a procession is supported by its unusual metre (“trochaic metre”) which was used by Roman legions for marching, and is still used in the British Army for funeral marches. The hymn, in fact, became a marching song for Christian legions during the Crusades.

In this hymn the price paid on the Cross is enacted, and your rector can rarely complete this hymn without losing my voice in tears. I have had to sing this hymn as a sole cantor, and have then prayed to God to get me through vv. 4 and 5, in which we sing:

Faithful cross! Above all other, one and only noble tree!

None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be:

sweetest wood and sweetest iron! Sweetest weight is hung on thee!

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory! Thy relaxing sinews bend;

for awhile the ancient rigor that thy birth bestowed suspend;

and the King of heavenly beauty gently on thine arms extend.

A final note from a charming legend hinted at in the (original) second stanza, which is not found in our hymnal: According to this legend, the wood of the Cross upon which Christ was crucified was taken from that tree which was the source of the fruit of the fall in the Garden of Eden. When Adam died, the legend states, Seth obtained from the cherubim guarding the Garden a branch of the tree from which Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Seth planted this branch at Golgotha (the place of the skull), which is so named because Adam was buried there. As time went on, the Ark of the Covenant, the pole upon which the bronze serpent was lifted, and other items were made from this tree. Certainly, in the eastern Church the identification of the burial of Adam with Golgotha has been a constant. The skull found beneath the cross on an eastern icon of the crucifixion is Adam’s. The words in the original hymn are: [I]pse lignum tunc notavit, damna ligni ut solveret (“the tree was marked, the wood was broken”) because of the “fall into death of the biter of an apple”. If you believe this legend, then give especial thanks to God that the human choice to disobey Him in finding the tree “to be desired” (Gen. 3.6), became the instrument of salvation.