Here is a hymn that Venantius Fortunatus wrote during the death of a civilization. Fortunatus was born in Italy a few years after the imperial murder of one of the last Roman intellectuals, Anicius Manlius Boethius; and though Venantius was raised with a classical Roman education, he spent most of his later life in the barbarian courts of the Franks. He lived during the atrocities committed by Chlothar and the endless internecine splintering and quarreling of the Frankish kingdoms. In short, he lived during the painful transition of the Western world from Roman civilization into what scholars used to call simply “the Dark Ages.”
What does Venantius say, while the world is darkening and the old Roman order lies in ruins? “The royal banners forward go.” Not the banners of Rome, or of the Franks, or of the Goths; but the banners of Christ.
Note the reference to Christ as the king of the heathen — the king hanging on the tree. Ancient Germanic myths speak of a chief god who hung on a tree and sacrificed himself. Perhaps Venantius has a shadow of the old myths in mind. The true God who reigns from the tree has come to the heathen. His name is Christ, and He fulfills prophecies which they did not even know were a shadow of Him.
On this day of tumult and triumphal entry in the twenty-first century, it is good to remember: The royal banners forward go.
* * * * *
The royal banners forward go,
The Cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where He in flesh, our flesh Who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.
There, whilst He hung, His sacred side
By soldier’s spear was opened wide,
To cleanse us in the precious flood
Of water mingled with His blood.
Fulfilled is now what David told
In true prophetic song of old:
That Christ the heathen’s king should be,
For God is reigning from the tree.
O tree of glory, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear,
How bright in purple robe it stood,
The purple of a Saviour’s blood!
Upon its arms, like balance true,
He weighed the price for sinners due,
The price which none but He could pay,
And spoiled the spoiler of his prey.
To Thee, Eternal Three in One,
Let homage meet by all be done:
As by the cross Thou dost restore,
So rule and guide us evermore.
~ Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530-600); trans. J. M. Neale