Friday, April 23, 2010

The Lord's Most Holy Crown of Thorns

Feasts commemorating the Passion in Eastertide – an excellent idea!  Is not the Paschal Mystery of Christ's Cross and Resurrection the central mystery of salvation?

How pleased therefore I am to have just (by anticipation) prayed over to-morrow's Matins of the charming Dominican feast of the Sanctissima Corona Spineæ Domini, the Lord's Most Holy Crown of Thorns.

As the versicle at Matins has it,

Tuam Coronam adoramus, Domine, alleluia. – Tuum gloriosum recolimus triumphum, alleluia.

Thy Crown we adore, Lord, alleluia. – Thy glorious triumph we worship, alleluia.

(Of course, as Aquinas notes, who himself would have celebrated this feast, we pay to relics of the Passion a relative latria, worshipping not they themselves, which were foul idolatry, but Him Who shed His Blood upon them, suffering the Scourge, the Nails, the Thorns, the Cross, the Lance, all for our salvation.)

St Louis IX was gifted by Baldwin II (Latin Emperor of Constantinople) with the sacred relic of the Passion that is Our Lord's Crown of Thorns.  A kingly gift!  One refrains from enquiring too deeply into the sad events that led to the Latin Empire of Constantinople, and the redistribution of holy treasures from East to West...

Good king Louis commissioned the building of the Sainte-Chapelle, that marvel of stained glass, as a noble edifice itself one grand reliquary for the Crown of Thorns.  Later, after the outrages of the French Revolution, the relic was translated into the metropolitan church of Notre-Dame de Paris.  As two Friars Preachers had been deputed to bring the Crown to the king, St Louis gave several Spines therefrom as a gift to the Dominican Order; as the king ordered kept in his Holy Chapel the feast of the reception of the Crown of Thorns, so too the feast entered the calendar of the Dominican Order in the mid-thirteenth century.

(The above history I've cribbed from the third Lesson at Matins.)

The Dominican Office, in cleverly composed, archetypally mediæval responsories and antiphons, plays upon many themes: as at the Fall of Man it was told Adam, Thorns and thistles the land shall bring forth against you (Gen. iii, 18), "spines" or thorns may stand for Man's sin, and for his fallen state; while Christ, brought forth from a pure Virgin (sicut lilium inter spinas – Cant. ii, 2a), is as the Flower of a Lily among thorns, and by His death all are made alive: "the thorn [sting] of death is blunted by the Spines, when Life died, alleluia" – divine paradox! (Indeed, "O death, where is thy sting?")

Here is the whole masterful first Responsory, rendered as best I can:

R/. Spina carens Flos spina pungitur, per quam culpæ spina confringitur: * Spina mortis spinis retunditur, dum Vita moritur, alleluia.  V/.  Per hoc ludibrium hostis deluditur: mortis dominium per mortem tollitur.  * Spina mortis spinis retunditur, dum Vita moritur, alleluia.
R/.  Lacking the thorn [of any sin], the Flower is pricked with the thorn, by Which is broken the thorn of faults: * The thorn of death is blunted by the spines, when Life died, alleluia.  V/.  By this mockery the Enemy is duped: the dominion of death by death is taken away. * The thorn of death is blunted by the spines, when Life died, alleluia.

The Collect is as follows:

Præsta, quæsumus, omnipotens Deus: ut, qui in memoriam passionis Domini nostri Jesu Christi Coronam ejus spineam veneramur in terris, ab ipso gloria et honore coronari mereamur in cælis: Qui tecum vivit et regnat...
Grant, we beg, almighty God: that we, who in memory of the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ do revere His thorny Crown on earth, by Him may deserve "to be crowned with glory and honour" (cf. Ps 8:6) in heaven: Who with Thee liveth and reigneth...

Some fight for earthly crowns, but we Christians contend for an incorruptible crown (I Cor. ix, 25): "Be ye faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Apoc. ii, 10b);  "Blessed is the man that suffereth temptation, for when he hath been proved, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised unto them that love Him" (James i, 12); "And when the Prince of pastors shall appear, he shall receive an immarcescible crown of glory," one that fadeth not away (cf. I Peter v, 4).

As the Apostle wrote, "As for the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the Just Judge, will render me on that Day: and not just to me, but to them that love His Advent."  (II Tim. iv, 8a)  We are to be crowned with blessedness – if worthy – because first Christ scorned not to wear the Crown of thorns.

In the mysterious Providence of the Almighty, Who is so omnipotent as to draw good even out of evil, it was permitted that the Eternal Son of God should be crowned with glory and honour (Ps 8:6) by being crowned with a mockery of cruel thorns, prest down into His scalp, "piercing the brain" as St Alphonsus wrote, all carried away.  Yet this was in truth the Crown of the King of Kings: "Yes, I Am a King".  "Thou hast placed upon His head a crown of precious stones" (Ps 20:4) – thorns made rarer and more precious than all gems by their empurpling with His roseate Blood.

When He was mockingly brought forth in purple and wearing this gory Crown, Pilate declared more truly than he knew, Behold the Man (St John xix, 5): comes the Day when all shall see Him, and the wicked shall wail, knowing their fate, while the just shall rejoice at the Advent of the Lord in glory.  "And I saw: and behold a white cloud, and sitting upon the cloud One like unto the Son of Man, having on His head a golden crown."  (Apoc. xiv, 14)

In this Christ in His Passion was shewn forth as the true Priest, greater and more perfect than Aaron, who had worn some sort of crown or mitre in his priestly ministrations when offering the animal sacrifices that were the dumb figures and shadows of the Perfect Sacrifice of the God-Man.

As the first Lesson, quoting St Paul, tells us, "we see Jesus, on account of His suffering death, crowned with glory and honour, for that by the grace of God He tasted death in the place of all men."  (Heb. ii, 9)

As the antiphon of the Matins psalmody puts it more poetically,

Christum sub Serto spineo deridet plebs perfidiæ:
cujus cruore roseo Sertum confertur gloriæ, alleluia.

The perfidious crowd derided Christ 'neath Crown so thorny: 
by Whose roseate gore's conferred the Crown of glory, alleluia.

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