The second part of the hymn Pange Lingua, Lustra sex qui jam perácta, is used as the hymn for Passion Sunday. I was reading Neale’s translation, and noted that some lines seemed a bit opaque. “From the smitten Lamb that roll’d” is an awkward line, and it took me a moment to connect the referent of “that roll’d.”

I mentioned this to my husband, and he pointed me to Chamber’s translation of this hymn (in his Psalter, p. 86), but that translation also seemed to lack a certain flow. Then my eyes landed on the Latin that Chambers provides, and down the rabbit hole I fell.

The textual history of this hymn, and the translations made of it, are explained in a fantastic document by Corpus Christi Watershed. I’m not going to repeat everything said in that document, just discuss certain points.

First, about the textual history. Urban VIII’s changes to the hymns is it’s own thing. But in this hymn in particular I am very puzzled by the change in stanza 10 of nauta to arca. The line ends with náufrago, which means “shipwreck” or “castaway.” Perhaps the idea of the change was that the Ark is the ship coming into the port made by the cross, but you’re still left with the words “shipwrecked world” to deal with. Most translators simply skip over these words, though Neale keeps it as the indirect object of  præparáre (and though he calls the changes “revived Paganism” he keeps the change to arca). It’s clear (to me) that the original text is making an important image with the word nauta, there is a sailor who is a castaway on the world, and by the cross that sailor has a port to come home to. One could point out that the original text doesn’t have a way for the sailor to come to port, hence the introduction in the revision of the ark. But this totally misses the point. First of all, we’re working on the level of analogy, not literal Hollywood-movie plot points, so we don’t need to invent a plot point to get the actor from A to B. And, more importantly, the hymn itself suggests the method by which the sailor gets to port, quem sacer cruor perúnxit. In Latin poetry there’s not much given to determine the syntax of the sentence, but perúnxit is the finite verb, and quem agrees with nauta, who seems to be the subject of this clause. The sailor is being anointed with the sacred blood – that’s how he changes from being shipwrecked to being brought to port.

This idea of the cross being made into a port for us castaway sailors builds upon the previous language being used for the cross, and one that many of the translators seem to miss, or just not express clearly. Namely, the cross only participates in the salvation wrought by Christ because it itself went through it’s own act of salvation. It’s called a noble tree, yes, but stanza 9 expresses how it achieved that status. It had to change, it had to give up the nature it had from birth, it had to be willing to relax it’s rigidity, it’s “original sin” so to speak. Only after that transformation could it accept Christ upon itself. This is a model of redemption.

Another image that I think most translators miss is the flúmine at the end of stanza 7. Many translators seem to make it redundant with unda, and collapse the two together. I think that’s linguistically problematic, but most importantly it obscures the theological analogies of this stanza. The river that flows out from Jerusalem, from the temple, to redeem the world, is an image used often in the Old Testament. Specifically, this stanza seems to draw heavily on Psalm 65. Verses 5-9 in the KJV read:

By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us, O God of our salvation; who art the confidence of all the ends of the earth, and of them that are afar off upon the sea:

Which by his strength setteth fast the mountains; being girded with power:

Which stilleth the noise of the seas, the noise of their waves, and the tumult of the people.

They also that dwell in the uttermost parts are afraid at thy tokens: thou makest the outgoings of the morning and evening to rejoice.

Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it: thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water: thou preparest them corn, when thou hast so provided for it.

In the Vulgate this is Psalm 64:

6 Mirabile in aequitate exaudi nos Deus salutaris noster spes omnium finium terrae et in mari longe 6 wonderful in justice. Hear us, O God our saviour, who art the hope of all the ends of the earth, and in the sea afar off.
7 Praeparans montes in virtute tua accinctus potentia 7 Thou who preparest the mountains by thy strength, being girded with power:
8 Qui conturbas profundum maris sonum fluctuum eius turbabuntur gentes 8 who troublest the depth of the sea, the noise of its waves. The Gentiles shall be troubled,
9 Et timebunt qui inhabitant terminos a signis tuis exitus matutini et vespere delectabis 9 and they that dwell in the uttermost borders shall be afraid at thy signs: thou shalt make the outgoings of the morning and of the evening to be joyful.
10 Visitasti terram et inebriasti eam multiplicasti locupletare eam flumen Dei repletum est aquis parasti cibum illorum quoniam ita est praeparatio eius 10 Thou hast visited the earth, and hast plentifully watered it; thou hast many ways enriched it. The river of God is filled with water, thou hast prepared their food: for so is its preparation.

In these verses aspects of nature are also enumerated, waiting in tremulous expectation, until finally they are visited and the flumen Dei becomes repletum est aquis. The result of this? They can come to dine – parasti cibum illorum. (One can also note here how the eucharistic imagery is obscured in the KJV rendering). The psalm goes on to express the renewal of all of creation. Since when this hymn was written it was common for monks (and others) to memorize the whole psalter, it is reasonable to conjecture that the language used in stanza 7 was intended to bring this psalm to mind.

Being unhappy with the existing English translations, I set about to make my own. I began with a largely literal translation, but recognizing that a literal translation of Latin verse produces some incomprehension in English, I then squished some things around dynamically. I am not a poet, and did not bother to format the language into a particular meter, my only concern being that it would flow nicely enough to be placed on a chant tone. To rephrase the old saying “Theology comes first, my dear, and then the rhyming.”

Some notes on my translation choices – I render stípite as “beams” in both instances. I realize the word is grammatically ablative singular, but I see the hymn making the point that both the horizontal and vertical beams of the cross were made from the same trunk (stanzas 8 and 9), and there’s also the play on fuísti in stanza 10. The trunk was split into two beams, which were then fused back together to form the cross. To capture this aspect of the Tree’s story, I went with “beams.” I translate sanguis and cruor as “blood” in all instances, but I feel that’s not quite right. In stanza 10 I understand cruor with perúnxit talking about something similar to the blood of the sacrifice being used for purity and protection (cf. temple rituals and Passover), and I’m not sure how to express that in English.

My translation of Lustra sex qui jam perácta:

THIRTY years have been finished : The time in flesh being fulfilled,

dedicated to this His passion : he willed to be born.

The Lamb upon the cross is raised high : to be sacrificed upon the beams.


Behold the vinegar and gall, the reed and spit! The spear and nails

his meek body have pierced : blood in a wave flows forth

upon the earth and sea, stars and world : where the stream has cleansed.


Cross of faith ! One and only noble Tree ;

No forest yields one like thee : in leaf, flower, or bud.

Sweet wood, sweet nails : sweet weight upholding.


Haughty Tree, bend thy branches : ease thy rigid sinews,

may that rigor relax : which birth has given thee.

And the limbs of the Celestial King : may be stretched meekly on thy beams.


Thou alone was worthily joined : to bear the surety of the world.

And to make ready the port for the sailor : of the shipwrecked world

whom the sacred Blood anointed : poured out from the body of the Lamb.


Glory and honor to God : everlasting in the highest,

One Father and Son : and illustrious Paraclete ;

To whom is all praise and power : Through the ages of ages, Amen.