Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Conquering Kings their titles take

A year ago I promised that I would one day write a bit about "Conquering Kings their Titles Take" which is one of the two hymns for the circumcision/naming of Jesus that is missing from the New English Hymnal. Today seems a suitable day to do so (since I did the other one last year).

Here's how it goes in the Latin (Anonymous Latin of the eighteenth century, from the Paris Breviary of 1736, now easily found in the Penguin Book of Latin Verse, ed. Frederick Brittain, page 345) and, in parallel, the English translation by John Chandler which is number 37 in the English Hymnal:

Victis sibi cognomina
Sumant tyranni gentibus;
Tu, Christe, quanto dignius
Ab his capis quos liberas.
Conquering kings their titles take,
From the lands they captive make;
Jesu, thine was given thee
For a world thou madest free.
Non alterum mortalibus
Aegris quod invocent datum
Resurgerent quo mortui,
Perenne per quod viverent.
Not another name is given
Power possessing under heaven,
Strong to call dead souls to rise
And exalt them to the skies.
Tanti quod illi constitit,
Toto quod emptum sanguine,
Nostrone rursum crimine
Insana gens delebimus?
That which Christ so hardly wrought,
That which he so dearly bought,
That salvation, mortals say,
Will ye madly cast away?
Sacro pati pro nomine
Summi sit instar muneris:
Amara non mors amplius,
Fit mors per hoc amabilis.
Rather gladly for that Name
Bear the Cross, endure the shame;
Joyfully for Him to die
Is not death but victory.
Tu, qui vocari sustines,
Jesu, salus mortalium,
Audi vocantes nos, tuo
Qui gloriamur nomine.
Jesu, if thou condescend
To be called the sinner's Friend,
Ours the joy and glory be
Thus to make our boast of thee.
Qui natus es de Virgine,
Jesu, tibi sit gloria,
Cum Patre, cumque Spiritu,
In sempiterna saecula.
Glory to the Father be,
Glory, Virgin-born, to thee,
Glory to the Holy Ghost,
Ever from the heavenly host.

I don't want to say much about it since it stands very well on its own. But I would like to observe that there seems to be a great deal of sound theology there. The motif of being given a name, because of the power that one holds, is a good one. The idea that mortal kings try to exercise their power by enslaving others is nicely contrasted with Jesus who exercises his power by setting the enslaved people free, and earning his title for that act.
This is then developed in the idea that in fact there is only one name that carries any power so the supposedly powerful names given to earthly kings are in fact not powerful names at all. There is no other name that possesses power. But we invoke the power of Jesus's name and it does indeed have an effect. This is so powerful that it can effect the resurrection of the dead.

Why have the editors of the New English Hymnal chosen to cut this splendid hymn, and its lovely tune "Innocents", out of the Hymn book? Well one can look for evidence of ideological censorship. In this case, I suppose it may be one of those cases where the hymn is condemned because it appears to indicate that we go happily to death for Christ's sake. You'll see that, in verse 4, we say "Joyfully for him to die is not death but victory". Now you might think that it was clear that this was not a death wish, but rather a denial that death is death, an affirmation that it is a way to life. But still, the thought is vaguely reminiscent of the one in Children of the Heavenly King, where we used to say "Lord obediently we go, gladly leaving all below". And, as we noticed with that hymn, it seems that such sentiments were eliminated by the twentieth century thought police, who wanted to clean up the Church of England of any hint of other-worldliness or enthusiasm for death.

So I fear that this wonderful Latin hymn and its gorgeous English counterpart (did you notice how neatly the English translation tracks the Latin sentiments?) has been eliminated not just because the editors didn't recognise its merits, but perhaps because they were afraid of its sentiments. They couldn't stomach it, perhaps?

PS I should add here the comment relating to this hymn supplied this time last year by Tiger. He reported this: Apparently the only spoonerism that Spooner himself admitted was to announce this hymn in New College Chapel as "Kinquering kongs their tikles tate".
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