In the style of my earlier “Psalm of Saint Valentine“, I present the kind reader my latest crown of sonnets. This format lends itself quite well to the fourteen Stations of the Cross, so I went for it. To mirror the progression of the stations, I decided to pull some thematic or textual elements from the texts (both Ordinary and Propers) of the Missa pro defunctis according to the Traditional Roman Rite– hence the poem’s subtitle, “Requiem for the Christ”.
Since the old Requiem Mass only has twelve texts usually set to music (we omit the Gloria or Credo in Missae defunctorum; the Pie Jesu movement is actually part of the Dies irae), I had to find two extra texts to parallel the fourteen Stations of the Cross. While contemplating which texts to choose, I thought of the first funeral Mass to which I actually paid attention– the funeral of John Paul II. I especially recalled two dramatic moments set to music. First, between the supplication of the Eastern Catholic Churches and the prayer of final committal, a short text adapted from the book of Job was put to a wonderful setting. I decided to use this as a communion motet to follow the Proper communion antiphon, Lux aeterna:
Credo quod redemptor meus vivit et in novissimo die de terra surrecturus sum et in carne mea videbo Deum salvatorem meum
For the second text, my inspiration came from the end of John Paul II’s funeral. As the coffin was brought out of the piazza and into the Basilica at the conclusion of Mass, the gigantic crowd (the largest in history) rendered their final ovation to this Marian Pope par excellence; all the while, a rousing, soaring version of the Magnificat resounded throughout the Vatican. Given the Virgin’s presence at the foot of the Cross and at the sepulcher, I decided to end my “requiem for the Christ” in a like manner.
Before reading the poem, I encourage the reader to first become familiar with the texts of the Requiem Mass (click here). Happy reading, may you all continue to have a blessed Lent.
Via Crucis (or, “Requiem for the Christ”)
a crown of sonnets
(Introitus: Requiem aeternam)
Might he entreat you for some favor small?
As he comes near the procurator’s throne,
perhaps, from a machine, smash the fourth wall,
then guard him as a mother guards her own,
or give him rest! Upon him shine a light
that vanquishes the Empire’s downward thumb;
embrace him now, assuage his trembling fright
as all his friends lie blind and deaf and dumb.
From Zion’s peak the Council’s voice ascends,
Jerusalem’s priests swear a solemn vow:
upon your servant judgment now descends;
and yet, the tainted verdict you allow.
Hear bated breath appeal for drink and rest–
you certainly would grant a brief request!
You certainly would grant a brief request
according to your mercy, love, and care;
yet you lift not one finger to contest
those men who pluck his beard and pull his hair.
No sin has he committed in this world
for on your straight and narrow path he trod,
advancing still to snake-like whips unfurled,
his guiltless face disfigured by your rod.
Instead of threefold mercy, here he finds
a triple agony: abandonment,
the pillar, and that tool of cruelest minds,
the cross, which tears the strongest spirits rent.
Beneath its burden, ev’ry man is small;
see how he cowers, waiting for your call.
(Graduale: In memoria aeterna)
See how he cowers, waiting for your call:
when scandal strikes his blood-soaked, dust-caked feet,
weak arms and shoulders shrink from heavy haul,
anointed with the grime of pure defeat.
Upon his belly, prostrate on the ground,
beneath the pow’r of crushing human heel,
the wild profanities rush to surround–
when shall eternal memory repeal
a condemnation so degrading and unjust?
When armed and armored men are so enthralled
by violence, awakened with blood lust,
rage pauses not for him whom Death has called.
Will you descend to save your dear oppressed,
to ransom and to bring him with the blest?
(Tractus: Absolve, Domine)
To ransom and to bring him with the blest–
some lesser men might make this aching plea
when witnessing the pain of final test
that brings the cup to him on bended knee.
Absolve your chosen from the chains of sin,
for other men deserve them more than he;
remove the splint’ry burden from his skin
scraped open by the rough, abrasive tree!
Yet when his mother meets his blood-stained gaze
with silent gestures, strengthening her son,
he stumbles on, recalling her old phrase:
“I am a humble servant; be it done.”
Against the spirit, human powers wane–
exceeding are his miseries and pain.
(Sequentia: Dies irae)
Exceeding are his miseries and pain
on this accursed, irascibly dark day;
his weakened heart reduced to ashy grain,
his broken flesh glows red with sin’s decay.
Behold! Among the goats, another sheep,
a foreigner, one easy to compel,
arrested near the road where it turns steep–
on him now thrust a momentary hell!
Behold! Your servant meekly leaves the town,
a beast of burden carrying his weight;
mere days before, he gazed on David’s crown
as, on a colt, he entered through the gate.
Hosannas ring then quickly fade away;
relief escapes from this appointed day.
(Offertorium: Domine Jesu Christe)
Relief escapes from this appointed day.
De tribu Juda Leo vicit? No,
the foes pitch tents, rejoicing as they play,
exclaiming, Ave, Rex! with ev’ry blow.
Against their fearsome visage stands a dame
who braves the gauntlet lined with spear and sword;
some dignity her tattered rags reclaim–
some semblance of humanity restored.
From swollen eyes she clears the soil and sweat;
deep, gaping wounds in vain she tries to close;
he leaves her but a shred on which is set
love’s true depiction, drawn with bloody woes.
Unleashed like frenzied beasts none can contain,
infernal powers dance on earth’s domain.
(Praefatio: pro fidelibus defunctis)
Infernal powers dance on earth’s domain,
and nothing can console the smitten one
who knows the certainty of death; disdain
for him increases, rendering undone
all hope. Can this exhausting fate be changed
or taken from him while he still can breathe?
Or was this tribulation prearranged,
a sword its master never dares to sheathe?
Its brandished blade with fury now descends
upon the beaten back of the condemned;
as written, into flight go all his friends–
again he falls, with no one to attend.
The willing flesh to club and whip gives way;
unholy terrors strike without delay.
Unholy terrors strike without delay:
not even women who have come to weep
for him can furnish aid; their sad display
of sentimental piety so cheap
and empty– a sharp rebuke they receive.
“Mourn not for me but for your children’s sake,
for times approach when people shall believe
that blest are they whose wombs will never break!”
By pity, not compassion, are they moved,
embracing not the man they once adored;
restrained by fear, a lack of faith they proved:
“Does he still come in the name of the Lord,
consigned like this to some unfathomed will,
meek, low, and humble, inching up the hill?”
Meek, low, and humble, inching up the hill,
each limping pace expends his failing might,
as drop by precious drop pours out, until
he too drops ‘neath the monumental plight
upon the rocky altar built for him
before all ages. Streaks of scarlet stain
the intersecting beams. Midday turns dim,
black as the night when Egypt’s sandy plain
lay shadowed by Death’s hand. And unto dust,
that quintessential stuff of flesh and bone,
he falls once more, returning where all must
return, deprived of living breath, alone.
With muted lips, on high he points his eyes,
faced by a torrent of insulting cries.
(Communio: Lux aeterna)
Faced by a torrent of insulting cries
from ev’ry foaming mouth, sharp tongues assail
his ears as soldiers eye with greed that prize
which shields his final shame– the seamless veil.
Profane hands lay upon its fragile weave
and snatch it from his flesh, peeled and exposed.
“Preserve it whole, apply no blade to cleave
its spread!” –and as the sentence is imposed,
just one man wins the relic, left untorn.
Enrolled into the cohort of your blest,
like holy Joseph, Saul, and David, shorn,
the victim weeps– alea iacta est!
Encircled by the sinister, vile thrill,
in silence he submits to murd’rous skill.
(Motectus ad Communio: Credo quod redemptor meus vivit
In silence he submits to murd’rous skill.
How can one look on lacerated men
and shredded flesh and rampant gory spill,
and find your saving countenance? How, then,
shall the redeemer guard the wolf-bound flock
if he is dead? Yes, he is lifted high,
but on the scaffold of disgrace. The rock
he chose rolls away, leaving him to die
in utter shame among the petty thieves.
Lashed tightly to the beams, thistle-crowned, nailed,
a mocking sign surmounting he receives
–its sarcasm a threat to Herod veiled.
Proclaiming an unlikely paradise,
derided by the crowd, he slowly dies.
Derided by the crowd, he slowly dies,
while on the grandstand, fierce protest ensues:
“The title o’er him tells blaspheming lies;
he merely said ‘I am king of the Jews'”;
quod scripsit, scriptum est— the final word
is said as hyssop brings a bitter wine
to soothe him, but his cry is barely heard
as he implores the ear of the divine.
The universe convulses: mountains quake
and heavens tremble, lifting in their sway
the broken, useless veil. Stone-cold hearts shake,
shouting, vere filius erat dei!
Aloft, your servant finishes the plan
exhaling one last breath as mortal man.
Exhaling one last breath as mortal man,
the spear-tip followed; not one bone was crushed.
Fresh blood and living water swiftly ran
from gaping wounds; torrentially they gushed
like new floodgates unleashing purest rain.
The man of justice falls like morning dew
unto the earth; now, opened be the plain,
that he might flourish from the depths anew,
with that poor leper Abraham once called
to join the angels, high above the proud;
and let his ruins now be kindly palled,
lain softly in a swaddling linen shroud.
Released in haste for fear of Sabbath ban
into her arms, he ends whence he began.
Into her arms, he ends whence he began;
the grief-pierced woman finds some costly myrrh
and spices saved from his youth, and the span
of thirty-three years seems a tragic blur
when tyrant men remain upon their thrones
and meek sons are dispatched with disregard,
drawn, hanged, and pierced, then sent beneath the stones
to rot under the watch of armored guard.
And yet, indignant words she dares not say,
but in her heart, she ponders silently;
the words heard by Elizabeth replay–
“The Mighty One has done great things for me…”
To ev’ry hard request, her son gave all;
might he entreat you for some favor small?
Might he entreat you for some favor small? You certainly would grant a brief request; See how he cowers, waiting for your call To ransom and to bring him with the blest. Exceeding are his miseries and pain; Relief escapes from this appointed day; Infernal powers march on earth’s domain; Unholy terrors strike without delay. Meek, low, and humble, inching up the hill, Faced by a torrent of insulting cries, In silence he submits to murd’rous skill; Derided by the crowd, he slowly dies. Exhaling one last breath as mortal man Into her arms, he ends whence he began.