Death on a Friday afternoon

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Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor

Grant that I Thy Passion view / With repentant grieving / Nor Thee crucify anew / By unholy living.

The words struck me cold: as sobering and bracing as a rush of cold water on the face.

How could I refuse to shun / Every sinful pleasure / Since for me God’s only Son / Suffered without measure?

To these words, which make the fourth verse of August Crull’s translation of Sigismund von Birken’s hymn, “Jesus, I Will Ponder Now,” I know of only one response: How indeed? How could I have driven home that night, having drunk as much wine as I did? How could I have spoken ill yet again, and so pettily, of someone I call my friend? How could I be putting so little care into a major academic project, when I am called now to be a student?

How could I do all these things, believing – as I claim to do – that for me God’s only son suffered without measure?

Hans Burgkmair,  Crucifix with Mary, Mary Magdalen and St. John the Evangelist, 1519
Hans Burgkmair, Crucifix with Mary, Mary Magdalen and St. John the Evangelist, 1519

It was at Cistercian Abbey, during the March First Friday Mass, that I heard von Birken’s beautiful hymn for the first time. The heart-rending words were sung – I should say, prayed – with skill and greatest reverence by Marilyn Walker’s Collegium Cantorum, that treasure so perversely banished from campus last year by the bureaucratic machinery of higher education accreditation.

From the very first verse, Sigismund von Birken’s hymn, unlike so much of contemporary church music, has us fixed upon the Cross:

Jesus, I will ponder now / On Thy holy Passion; / With Thy Spirit me endow / For such meditation. / Grant that I in love and faith / May the image cherish / Of Thy suffering, pain, and death, / That I may not perish.

Grant that I may cherish the image of Christ-crucified, because without that suffering and death, there is no salvation (the truth that makes this coming Friday ‘Good’).

Yes, grant that I may cherish the Cross, and see it clearly:

Make me see Thy great distress, / Anguish, and affliction, / Bonds and stripes and wretchedness / And Thy crucifixion; / Make me see how scourge and rod, / Spear and nails, did wound Thee, / How for man Thou diedst, O God, / Who with thorns had crowned Thee.

Make me see not a sanitized death of my Lord, but scourge and rod, spear and nails; and make me see my part in it:

Yet, O Lord, not thus alone / Make me see Thy Passion, / But its cause to me make known / And its termination. / Ah! I also and my sin / Wrought Thy deep affliction; / This indeed the cause hath been / Of Thy crucifixion.

Sigismund von Birken is no John Bell or Marty Haugen. His message is not, “Take, O take me as I am,” but quite nearly the opposite: I am a sinner who renews by my unholy living the crucifixion of our Lord: a sinner, in fact, who wrought that crucifixion 2,000 years ago. Pondering this hymn, we are invited to lift not even so much as our eyes toward Heaven, smite our breasts, and say, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Only once we have asked how we could possibly refuse to shun every sinful pleasure will von Birken let us take comfort in the hopeful message of Christ’s death on a cross:

If my sins give me alarm / And my conscience grieve me, / Let Thy cross my fear disarm, / Peace of conscience give me. / Grant that I may trust in Thee / And Thy holy Passion. / If His Son so loveth me, / God must have compassion.

God does have compassion; and as Christ took up his Cross, so we must take up our own, shunning sinful pleasure, yet finding, between pain and loss, the peace that only He can give:

Grant that I may willingly / Bear with Thee my crosses, / Learning humbleness of Thee, / Peace mid pain and losses. / May I give Thee love for love! / Hear me, O my Savior, / That I may in Heaven above / Sing Thy praise forever.

 

Amen.

 

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