Thursday, 30 May 2019

Word Play on Ascension Day

An observation on the Breviary Hymn for Ascension Day.
From Fr Hunwicke's Mutual Enrichment

The chairman of the coetus charged in the 1960s with revising the Breviary Hymns, Dom Anselmo Lentini, was convinced that 'word-play' ["nimius lusus verborum", as he put it] was out of place in texts for modern use. So he disliked two superb lines in an Ascension Day fifth century Office Hymn

culpat caro, purgat Caro,
regnat Deus Dei Caro. 

First he deleted them; then he re-admitted them but bowdlerised them.

[literal crib: flesh sins, Flesh cleanses, God rules, the Flesh of God. The Anglican Fr John Mason Neale produced a fine rendering into English verse: that flesh hath purged what flesh had stained and God, the Flesh of God, hath reigned.]

Unbowdlerised, these seem to me two of the most sublime lines in Latin poetry, whether sacred or profane, during the last two and a half thousand years.

Visitors to the Cathedral at Cefalu in Sicily will have seen the same sort of word-play pressed into the service of the same shattering, profound truth. In this Norman church, built by King Roger II and adorned with a purely Hellenic mosaic Pantocrator of about 1141, a Latin elegiac couplet [hexameter + pentameter] goes round the arch of the apse and reads:

Factus Homo Factor hominis factique Redemptor
     iudico Corporeus corpora corda Deus.

[Made Man, I, the Maker of man and the Redeemer of what I have made, judge, as God Embodied,  bodies and hearts.]

Lentini was a learned and able and civilised man. It is telling, in my view, that even the very best of those who hacked away at the Liturgy during that most terrible decade could have been so blinded and limited by the fashions of their age. Proof, indeed, that Liturgy should only ever evolve organically and without ineluctable ideologies.

Praise to that redeeming and triumphant Flesh!


  1. Dear Mr Weismiller, Thank you for mentioning John Mason Neale. His wonderful translations of ancient hymns are unsurpassed and I'm sorry to see that even the very best translations in Catholic hymnals etc don't come near those of Anglican. It's all that's left, in fact, of Anglicanism.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I am a convert from Anglicanism, and I have known and loved Mr Neale's translations since long before I became a Catholic. The Breviary I use has then, instead of the bad translations of later Catholic translators.


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