Vexilla Regis was written by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609) and is one of the most beautiful of the Latin chants of the liturgy for Passion Week and Holy Week.
It is an ancient hymn which, sadly, is so rarely heard these days in the Novus Ordo. You will always hear it in the sung traditional rite. Historically, it had a very deep place in the hearts of the Faithful of the Latin rite. In former times, most Latin rite Catholics knew it and could sing it. Pilgrims sang it, not least in the Holy Land and Crusaders even went to battle singing it.
Fortunatus wrote it in honour of the arrival of a large relic of the True Cross which had been sent to Queen Radegunda by the Emperor Justin II and Empress Sophia.
Queen Radegunda had retired to a convent she had built near Poitiers in France and wanted relics for the church there. To help celebrate the arrival of the relic, the Queen asked Fortunatus to write a hymn for the procession of the relic to the church.
It is thus highly appropriate for Passion Week and Holy Week when the Holy Cross is firmly before our minds.
It is thus fittingly sung at Vespers from Passion Sunday to Holy Thursday and on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.
The hymn is also sung (at least in the traditional rite) on Good Friday when the Blessed Sacrament is taken from the altar of repose back to the High Altar (verses 2, 4, and 7 are usually omitted when the hymn is used liturgically).
It is a wonderful medition for us as we recall the drama of the Passion of our Saviour. And what a marvellous image: Regnavit a ligno Deus - "God has ruled us from a tree".
There it is again: that image of a king suffering for his people, like a father suffering for his family or a priest accepting persecution to save his people.
This is the image of Christian leadership and an imitation of the self-sacrificing love of the Father and the Son, intimately bound up together in their plan of self-giving to save their sinful creature, mankind. A most marvellous image: the suffering servant-king. Again - who but God could have conceived of such an idea!
Rembrandt. Christ on the Cross (detail). 1631.
Regnavit a ligno Deus - "The King who rules us from a tree".
He takes our sins upon Him, for tho' He is our King, our Lord and our Creator, He nonetheless teaches us: "Greater love than this no man hath, that he lay down his life for his friends".
Vexilla Regis prodeunt: Fulget Crucis mysterium,
Qua vita mortem pertulit, Et morte vitam protulit.
Quae vulnerata lanceae Mucrone diro, criminum
Ut nos lavaret sordibus, Manavit und(a) et sanguine.
Impleta sunt quae concinit David fideli carmine,
Dicendo nationibus: Regnavit a ligno Deus.
Arbor decora et fulgida, Ornata Regis purpura,
Electa digno stipite Tam sancta membra tangere.
Beata, cuius brachiis Pret(i)um pependit saeculi:
Statera facta corporis, Tulitque praedam tartari.
O CRUX AVE, SPES UNICA, Hoc Passionis tempore
Piis adauge gratiam, Reisque dele crimina.
Te, fons salutis Trinitas, Collaudet omnis spiritus:
Quibus Crucis victoriam, Largiris, adde praemium. Amen.
1. Abroad the Regal Banners fly,
Now shines the Cross's mystery;
Upon it Life did death endure,
And yet by death did life procure.
2. Who, wounded with a direful spear,
Did, purposely to wash us clear
From stain of sin, pour out a flood
Of precious Water mixed with Blood.
3. That which the Prophet-King of old
Hath in mysterious verse foretold,
Is now accomplished, whilst we see
God ruling nations from a Tree.
4. O lovely and reflugent Tree,
Adorned with purpled majesty;
Culled from a worthy stock, to bear
Those Limbs which sanctified were.
5. Blest Tree, whose happy branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore;
The beam that did that Body weigh
Which raised up hell's expected prey.
6. Hail, Cross, of hopes the most sublime!
Now in this mournful Passion time,
Improve religious souls in grace,
The sins of criminals efface.
7. Blest Trinity, salvation's spring,
May every soul Thy praises sing;
To those Thou grantest conquest by
The holy Cross, rewards apply. Amen.
See the Coronation of Christ by men with a Crown of Thorns, a Sceptre of reed and the mockery of men in place of the Royal Acclamations. For thus must Christian kings look for their inspiration so that they are ready to suffer for their people in imitation of their Master, the great King of all Kings. That is true Christian Monarchy and modern Secular Republicanism is assuredly a poor thing by comparison.
So, too, do Christian fathers and mothers look to the suffering Kingship of Christ for their model and sacrifice themselves for their children, Christian priests and religious sacrifice themselves for their spiritual children, and all imitate Christ the King who gave Himself for His subjects.