Lo, the full, final sacrifice

by
09 June 2017

Andrew Davison celebrates Corpus Christi, this coming Thursday, with an exploration of the text of Finzi’s well-loved anthem

Anatoly Sapronenkov/SuperStock

“Soft, self-wounding Pelican”: late-18th-century oil on canvas by an unknown artist

“Soft, self-wounding Pelican”: late-18th-century oil on canvas by an unknown artist

AMONG English anthems of the 20th century, Gerald Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice stands out. It celeb­­rates the eucharist, and the feast of Corpus Christi, which we mark on Thursday. The anthem may sound supremely English, but some sleuth­ing reveals a history that is as much Italian as English, taking in Orvieto and Loreto, as well as Cambridge and Northampton.

Gerald Raphael Finzi (1901-56) composed the anthem to mark the 53rd anniversary, in 1946, of the consecration of St Matthew’s, Northampton. The Vicar, Walter Hussey, had form, having commis­sioned Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb three years earlier.

Finzi was an unusual choice, known not particularly for church music, but for his masterful song cycles and works for small orchestra in the English pastoral style. Few British composers surpass him in setting words to music, and a more densely theological set of words we could hardly find than Lo, the full, final sacrifice: the creed sounds prosaic in comparison.

The text is Finzi’s own patch­work, drawn from two poems by Richard Crashaw (c.1612-49), an English metaphysical poet with Continental Baroque leanings. Crashaw based the poems on hymns by St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74): “Lauda, Sion” and “Adoro te devote”. This is what takes us to Orvieto, where Pope Urban IV had commis­sioned Aquinas to compose the liturgy for the new feast of Corpus Christi. The words of the anthem come to us by a roundabout route: Finzi’s reassembly of Crashaw’s fantasias on hymns by Aquinas.

 

THE Finzi-Crashaw-Aquinas text starts with the sacrifice of Christ, which it explores through typology by reading Old Testament charac­ters and stories as prefigurements (or “figures”) of Christ:

 

Lo, the full, final sacrifice
On which all figures fix’d their eyes,
The ransom’d Isaac, and his ram;
The Manna, and the Paschal lamb.

 

These examples — Isaac, the ram, the manna, and the lamb — come from Aquinas, but the outlandish claim that they each “fix’d their eyes” on Christ and his offering is all Crashaw’s own. It seems that Christ’s sacrifice so animates the story of redemption that even the non-human animals — even that bread — gain personhood in the process, and are able to look to Christ. And so do we, our gaze drawn in by that first, attention-grabbing word, “Lo”.

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Eucharistic theology is contested territory among Christians, but Crashaw’s poetry builds bridges, a testament to a life that crossed tra­ditions. He was born the son of a Puritan anti-Catholic polemicist, but found his poetic voice as an undergraduate under High Church Laudian influence.

Later a Cambridge Fellow, Anglican priest, and Vicar of Little St Mary’s, Crashaw ended his life in the Roman Catholic Church, as a priest at the shrine of the Holy House of Loreto, having fled to Italy when Cromwell seized power in England.

Perhaps shaped by the Book of Common Prayer, Crashaw’s re­­working of Aquinas shows that the sacrificial aspect of the eucharist is not in conflict with the “one oblation of himself once offered” of Calvary. The eucharist brings that one sacrifice before us: already made, but for ever pleaded.

THE text, as we might expect, goes on to circle around bread and wine, and body and blood. Given the em­­phasis on sacrifice, blood is associ­ated with purification. In Aquinas’s hymn, a single drop of Christ’s blood could free the whole world from its sin. Crashaw turned that idea inward, applying it to himself: those drops “sovereign be To wash my worlds of sins from me”.

Blood also stands for nourish­ment here, almost as if Crashaw knew about blood transfusions a few centuries early. We might be used to the symbolism of hearts that spurt blood, but, again, Crashaw turns things around: his bleeding heart “gasps for blood”.

Then there is the image of the pelican, again Crashaw’s own — the “soft self-wounding Pelican” — thought by medievals to feed its young with its own blood. Anglican hymn-books tend to omit the verse about the pelican from Aquinas’s “Adoro te devote”, which is a shame. The image of the pelican cheerfully survived the Reformation — for instance, in the arms granted to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as late as 1570. And Elizabeth I is seen wearing a brooch depicting a pelican feeding her young, in a portrait of about 1575.

In the third invocation of blood, Crashaw asks that those who drink from the chalice may be “Convictors of thine own full cup, Coheirs of Saints”: Christ’s followers share with him not only in the eucharistic cup, but also in the “cup” of his suffer­ings. It is all impeccably biblical (1 Corinthians 10.16; Mark 10.37-40; 1 Peter 4.12-19).

Returning to bread, and an echo of the just-concluded Easter season, the anthem’s text reminds us that the eucharist is life-giving because this is “living bread”: it is a parti­cipation in his body, not dead but risen. St Ignatius of Antioch, who died c.108, called it “the medicine
of immortality”. Crashaw salutes it in similar terms:

 

O dear Memorial of that Death
Which lives still, and allows us breath!
Rich, Royal food! Bountiful Bread!
Whose use denies us to the dead.

 

There will come a time, all the same, “when sacraments will cease” (as W. H. Turton’s hymn has it). For now, we have those means of grace; then we will see face to face. Earthly travellers are sustained with bread (and wine), and they receive Christ in the same way: we live by eating.

Those whose journey is complete are sustained by the sight of God. With characteristic daring, in a collision of ideas, Crashaw calls Christ both our shepherd and our pasture, and suggests that, in the life of the world to come, we will “feed of Thee in thine own Face”.

In the eucharistic processions of Corpus Christi, the bread — given to be eaten, for sure — is held up for all to see. In the life to come, seeing itself will be our eating.

 

CRASHAW ends by looking for­ward to the time “When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase And for thy veil give me thy Face”. But, be­­fore that conclusion, Crashaw offers one final, magical transposition.

Aquinas wrote only of a desire to see Christ’s face; Crashaw asks both to see Christ, and also to be seen by him: not just to see Jesus, but to see his eyes. There is a parallel in the way in which Jesus switches from “again a little while, and you will see me”, in John 16, to “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice”.

 

Come, love! Come, Lord! and that long day
For which I languish, come away.
When this dry soul those eyes shall see,
And drink the unseal’d source of thee.

 

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, and the author of Why Sacraments? (SPCK, 2013).

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