Posts Tagged 'Aelfric'

For Feb. 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

The Reading                                                 Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

In the year 400 BC, hard times have come upon Judah: locusts have ravaged the crops. The prophet Joel sees this calamity as a sign that the Day of the Lord’s judgment is right now. Joel calls for repentance—not just by individuals, but by the people gathered together, that the Lord may bless all the people.

The Response                                              Psalm 103:8-14

Joel pointed out the Lord’s judgment against the Lord’s people and called them into solemn assembly to repent. Psalm 103 follows up on Joel’s promise of the Lord’s mercy and readiness to remove our sins from us.

The Epistle                                                   2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Like Joel in today’s first reading, the apostle Paul is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

The Gospel                                                   Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Joel advised the people to tear not their clothes but their hearts: torn clothing without repentance is no better than a costume. Jesus makes a related point: public piety and almsgiving run the risk of being theater rather than theology, if the praying and giving fail to flow from and lead back to love of God and of God’s children.

 

Further thoughts

Using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Old Testament. The tradition of Ash Wednesday for all seems to originate in the seventh century. In a homily composed more than a millennium ago in what the scholars call “rhythmic prose”—prose that has some of the steady beat and alliteration of Old English poetry—the great English cleric Ælfric of Eynsham explains:

On þone wodnes dæg wide geond eorðan
sacerdas bletsiað swa swa hit geset ís
clæne axan on cyrcan and þa siððan lecgað
uppa manna hæfda þæt hi habban on gemynde
þæt hi of eorðan comon and eft to duste gewendað
swa swa se ælmihtiga god to adame cwæð
siððan he agylt hæfde ongean godes bebod:
“On geswincum þu leofast and on swate þu etst
þinne hlaf on eorðan oðþæt þu eft gewende
to þære ylcan eorðan þe þu of come
forðan þe þu eart dust and to duste gewendst.”
Nis þis na gesæd be manna sawlum
ac be manna lichaman þe for-molsniað to duste
and eft sceolan on domes dæg ðurh ures drihtnes mihte
ealle of eorðan arísan þe æfre cuce wæron
swa swa ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan
þe ær þurh wyntres cyle wurdon adydde.

Here is a translation that conveys, a little, both the sense of Ælfric’s words and the rhythm.

On that Wednesday, widely around Earth,
clergy bless, just as is commanded,
clean ashes in church and those then lay
on the heads of mankind, that they may have in mind
that from earth they come and after to dust they go,
just as Almighty God to Adam said
after he had gone against God’s bidding:
‘In struggle you live and by sweat you eat
your bread on earth until you after go
to the selfsame earth that you came out of,
because you are dust and to dust you go.’
Nor is this said of people’s souls
but of people’s bodies that decay unto dust
and after shall at Doomsday through the might of our Lord
all arise out of earth that ever were living.

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For Feb. 1, 2015: Presentation in the Temple

The Reading                                                           Malachi 3:1-4

After the time of the kings, priests (“descendants of Levi”) guide the people, not always well. God’s messenger will purge the impurities spawned by bad guidance—verse 5 names sorcery, adultery, false witness, keeping wages low, and oppressing widows, orphans, and aliens—so the priests’ offerings will once again please God.

The Response                                                        Psalm 24:7-10

Psalm 24 praises God the Creator and victor over the forces of chaos. Verses 7-10 use a call-and-response format to depict the King of glory asserting his right to enter the sanctuary.

The Epistle                                                             Hebrews 2:14-18

Malachi depicts the messenger of the Lord as coming to scour the Temple with fire and fierce cleansing. The epistle to the Hebrews continues the focus on Judaism but paints a different picture: Jesus takes on our flesh and blood so that he can liberate us from the fear that keeps us from God.

The Gospel                                                             Luke 2:22-40

Exodus 13:1-2, 11-13 requires that a firstborn son must be redeemed; Leviticus 12:2-8 dictates the timing and the sacrifice required for his mother’s purification. When Mary and Joseph take 40-day-old Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, they meet Simeon and Anna and hear astonishing prophecies about their little boy’s future.

Further thoughts

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple commemorates the day on which, in observance of the Law, the infant Jesus was presented at the Temple at Jerusalem and his parents made sacrifice for the post-birth purification of his mother after his birth. Leviticus 12:2-8 specifies a lamb or, in case of poverty, a pair of small birds.

The eastern Church was celebrating this as the Hypapante tou kyriou ‘meeting of the Lord’ at least by 385 AD, when the nun Egeria, making pilgrimage from southern Gaul through the Holy Land, wrote of a Presentation procession in Jerusalem that sounds very like modern ones; it was on February 14, since in those days Christ’s birth was celebrated on January 6. Light was always prominent in the commemoration.[1] The feast was a minor one. In early 542 AD, however, as plague ravaged Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I ordered prayers and fasting, and on the feast of the Presentation, the plague abated.

The Church in Rome took up the practice of lights and procession, though not before the middle of the 7th century; the focus shifted decisively from the meeting with Simeon and Anna to the purification of Mary.[2]. It is not clear when candles were first blessed before the Mass of the Presentation, though the blessing of the Paschal candle itself goes back to the 4th century. Bede writes of a procession and blessing rather like today’s in his De Ratione Temporibus (730). The festum candelarum or festum cereorum ‘feast of candles’ was known on the Continent—evidently churches were spectacularly lit up for the occasion—while a Danish source trace Kyndelmes ‘Candlemas’ to the Latin phrase benedictio candelarum et missa ‘blessing of candles and Mass’. Certainly Candlemas was well enough known by 1014 AD to be used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to date the death of Sweyn Forkbeard. As the blog A Clerk of Oxford notes,[3] the Christmas season lasted through Candlemas, and Candlemas inspired a number of charming medieval carols.

The practice of Candlemas candle-blessing and procession continued in the early years of the Church of England, but by 1547, under Henry VIII’s successor Edward VI, images (which were felt to be excessively papist) were to be destroyed and only two candles might be allowed on the altar. Candlemas went underground until the Oxford Movement began to encourage a return of higher-church practice. The ceremony of Candlemas remains uncommon among Anglicans but is compelling. We can agree with the conclusion to Aelfric’s homily on the purification of the Virgin:

Wite gehwa eac þæt geset is on cyrclicum þeawum, þæt we sceolon on ðisum dæge beran ure leoht to cyrcan, and lætan hí ðær bletsian: and we sceolon gán siððan mid þam leohte betwux Godes husum, and singan ðone lofsang ðe þærto geset is. Þeah ðe sume men singan ne cunnon, hi beron þeah-hwæðere þæt leoht on heora handum; forðy on ðissum dæge wæs þæt soðe Leoht Crist geboren to þam temple, seðe us alysde fram þystrum, and us gebrincð to þam ecan leohte, seðe leofað and rixað á butan ende. Amen.[4]

In English:

Let it be known to everyone that it is set in churchly practice that we shall on this day bear our lights to church and let them there be blessed; and we shall go then with the lights among God’s houses and song the praise-song that is set. Although some men cannot sing, they can nevertheless carry the lights in their hands: for on this day was the true Light Christ borne to the temple, he who freed us from darkness and brings us to the true light, who lives and reigns forever without end. Amen.

[1] Connell, Martin, Eternity Today, Vol. 1: On the Liturgical Year: On God and Time, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas (New York: Continuum, 2006), 207. Previewed at https://books.google.com/books?id=m9yoAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA205&lpg=PA205&dq=candlemas+origin&source=bl&ots=SmUWBshabO&sig=4cMpqMURNjluvvUGPRcEiy8tbyo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=KaHIVKqpFoanggSalYSICA&ved=0CE0Q6AEwCDgU#v=onepage&q=candlemas%20origin&f=false

[2] Connell, 218-219.

[3] “Tidings, tidings that be true: Sorrow is past and joy doth renew,” A Clerk of Oxford, http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/tidings-tidings-that-be-true-sorrow-is.html. Web. Consulted 30 January 2015.

[4] Wikisource contributors, “The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church/IX,” Wikisource , http://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=The_Homilies_of_the_Anglo-Saxon_Church/IX&oldid=3548508 (accessed January 30, 2015).