The Christus Factus Est is one of the most beautiful chants of the entire liturgical year. This Gradual can be heard on Palm Sunday and Good Friday in the Ordinary Form; on both occasions just before the Passion is read . In the Extraordinary Form it is sung on Holy Thursday before the Gospel of the Washing of the Apostles Feet. It is sung at Tenebrae, (Matins and Lauds of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, On Holy Thursday, it is said at all of the Hours, including Tenebrae, as far as, “usque ad mortem”; on Good Friday the words “mortem autem Crucis” are added, and on Holy Saturday the rest (“propter quod et Deus…)
I even found a piece on the New Liturgical Movement detailing where it is sung at an old rite on Holy Thursday for the Washing of the Altar.
Quite simply, it is everywhere during Holy Week.
It begins with the Respond :-
Christ became obedient for us unto death, even death on a cross.
from Phillippians 2:8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient on the cross.
The literal translation is:
Christus Factus Est pro nobis- Christ is made for us. Is created for us.
obediens usque ad mortem – obedient all the way to death
mortem autem crucis – death even on the cross
The first thing that struck me when studying this chant, is its unusual place in the Mass. In the Ordinary Form, why have the Tract and the Gradual been swopped around? Stan Metheny writes in his article on the Gradual for the Westminster Cathedral magazine ‘Oremus,’ “Like the Alleluia and the Tract’ the Gradual is a response chant, sung as a response to, or a prolongation of, or a meditation on, the scripture reading that is has just proclaimed.’ It can be no coincidence that in both the Palm Sunday and Good Friday liturgies we sing this chant just before the Passion is read. It is an incredibly important meditation on the events to come.
Look closely not just at the text but at the clues found in the neumes as the chant alternates between B flat and B natural and you will discover that this Gradual encapsulates the entire meaning and the emotions associated with Holy Week. Here we have the pain and the sorrow of Jesus’ Crucifixion as he emptied himself, being obedient to the point of death. Then we experience the joy of the Resurrection as God exalted him and bestowed upon him, the name above all names.
On Palm Sunday. when we first hear the Christus Factus Est, we have moved from the triumphant proclamations of ‘Hosannah’ of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and are about to embark on the sombre reading of the Passion.
A further study of the neumes of ‘Christus Factus Est’ make it even more compelling. The three notes of the ‘Christ’ of Christus and then repeated on the “fact” of ‘factus’ symbolise the Holy Trinity. According to Robert Fowells in ‘Chant Made Simple’ the three heavily percussive notes followed by a long Clivis on the ‘Cru’ of ‘Crucis’ “are a reminder of the nails being driven into the cross.” He continues by saying ‘The melismas that follow relate to the crucifixion. The pattern f-e-g-a is a reminder of the death and resurrection and the pattern f-a-g-a represents the joy of the resurrection.
I remember last year on Palm Sunday singing the plainsong Christus Factus Est and being struck with how the tone of the Mass had suddenly shifted from the great joy of the Hosannah into the sadness of Holy Week. Even last week I was lamenting the loss of the Christus Factus Est from the Mass of Holy Thursday. Now, I think I am starting to understand why it is important that we sing these words of St Paul on Palm Sunday and why we do not wait until Holy Thursday to utter them. This text is the backbone of Holy Week. Understand these few sentences and the foundations of our faith are laid.
To paraphrase Dom Prosper Gueranger, upon saying these words how can we not adore this great God. How can we not adore the ‘infinite goodness of this Jesus, who made Himself a Victim, that He might save us sinners. ‘
We are singing the Anerio setting for Palm Sunday and the chant setting for Good Friday.