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Victimae Paschali Laudes
Traditional chant, c. 1000
Christians, to the paschal victim
offer your thankful praises --
a lamb the sheep redeemeth;
Christ, who only is sinless,
reconcileth sinners to the Father.
Death and life have contended
in that combat stupendous;
the prince of life, who died, reigns immortal.
Speak, Mary, declaring
what thou sawest, wayfaring.
"The tomb of Christ, who is living,
the glory of Jesus' resurrection;
bright angels attesting,
the shroud and napkin resting.
Christ my hope is arisen;
to Galilee he goes before you."
Christ indeed from death is risen,
our new life obtaining.
Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!
This week, we’re going to explore a poem which is part of the liturgy:  the Easter Sequence, “Christians, to the Paschal Victim.” Two of our Cathedral cantors will sing this medieval poem for us, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
The liturgy is full of poetry. We pray and sing poems from the book of Psalms, as well as the hymns and canticles which are scattered through both the Old and New Testaments. The liturgy also includes non-Scriptural poems, like the beautiful chant we just heard, “Christians to the Paschal Victim.” This poem was composed around the 11th century, probably by a German priest named Wipo who was chaplain to the Holy Roman Emperor. It has entered into the Easter liturgy, and is sung before the Alleluia at every Mass on Easter Sunday and during the Easter Octave. At one time, the liturgy includes many such poems (called “sequences”); today, we have just a few. That this one survives is a testament to the beauty and depth both of the language and of the traditional chant.
There is an inherent drama in the text, with its questioning of St. Mary Magdalene, and Mary’s response; indeed, in the Middle Ages, this sequence was sometimes performed dramatically, and even incorporated into mystery plays about the Resurrection of Jesus.
There is so much we could say about this fascinating poem, but I want to highlight two of the themes that stand out.
In the first section of the poem, we get some truly dramatic imagery: “Death and life have contended / In that combat stupendous. / The Prince of Life, who died, reigns immortal.” The poem is alluding to the harrowing of hell. This ancient doctrine, which is held in many but not all parts of the Christian family, says that on Holy Saturday, while his body rested in the tomb, Jesus was anything but passive! He descended to the dead, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, to save the just who had died before his coming, including the patriarchs and prophets. In traditional icons of this scene, we see Jesus, holding Adam and Eve by the hand, leading them out of the realm of the dead. There are broken chains and shackles at his feet. The harrowing of hell is, in a sense, a jailbreak! Jesus has come to the realm of the dead, where he has overcome the power of death, and led the just into freedom. The poem emphasizes the strength and power of Jesus, the “victor King” who has won the “combat stupendous.”
The second section turns to a new subject, Mary Magdalene, and a new melody. “Speak, Mary,” the poem says, and tell us what you saw on the way. And Mary replies: “The tomb of Christ, who is living, / the glory of Jesus' resurrection; / bright angels attesting, / the shroud and napkin resting.” Mary testifies to what she has seen—the empty tomb, the burial cloths lying there, the angels; but that is not all. Mary also declares her faith, and passes along the message Jesus entrusted to her: “Christ my hope is arisen; / to Galilee he goes before you.” Mary is called the “Apostle to the Apostles” not because she was the first to see the risen Christ, but because she was sent to the apostles with a message, a message which got them moving to Galilee. In a sense, Mary’s mission is the same as Jesus’ mission. Jesus broke open the gates of hell, and shattered the chains of death, and he sends Mary to open the locked upper room where the apostles are sheltering in fear, and call them forth to a whole new life—a new world.
The Easter Sequence wonderfully expresses the joy and freedom that Jesus’ Resurrection brings, and it ends by drawing us into the story: “Christ indeed from death is risen, / our new life obtaining. / Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!” Jesus continues to share his victory over death and fear—with all of us.  Happy Easter!



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Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303