Wednesday, 24 June 2015

'Swa swa se dægsteorra gæð beforan ðære sunnan'

The Birth of John the Baptist (BL Additional 49598, f.92v)

Þænne wuldres þegn
ymb þreotyne, þeodnes dyrling,
Iohannes in geardagan wearð acenned,
tyn nihtum eac; we þa tiid healdað
on midne sumor mycles on æþelum.

Then after thirteen and ten nights [i.e. on 24th June]
the thegn of glory, the Prince's darling,
John, was born in days of old;
we keep that feast at Midsummer, with much honour.

- The Old English Menologium

On this Midsummer feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, here's an extract from Ælfric's homily for the day. It can be read in full here.

Ðreora manna gebyrdtide freolsað seo halige gelaðung: ðæs Hælendes, seðe is God and mann, and Iohannes his bydeles, and ðære eadigan Marian his moder. Oðra gecorenra manna, ðe ðurh martyrdom, oððe þurh oðre halige geearnunga, Godes rice geferdon, heora endenextan dæg, seðe hi æfter gefyllednysse ealra earfoðnyssa sigefæste to ðam ecan life acende, we wurðiað him to gebyrdtide; and ðone dæg, ðe hi to ðisum andweardan life acennede wæron, we lætað to gymeleaste, forðan ðe hi comon hider to earfoðnyssum, and costnungum, and mislicum fræcednyssum. Se dæg bið gemyndig Godes ðeowum ðe ða halgan, æfter gewunnenum sige, asende to ecere myrhðe fram eallum gedreccednyssum, and se is heora soðe acennednys; na woplic, swa swa seo ærre, ac blissigendlic to ðam ecum life.

Ac us is to wurðigenne mid micelre gecnyrdnysse Cristes gebyrdtide, ðurh ða us com alysednys. Iohannes is geendung ðære ealdan æ and anginn ðære niwan, swa swa se Hælend be him cwæð, "Seo ealde æ and witegan wæron oð Iohannes to-cyme." Siððan ongann godspel-bodung. Nu for his micclan halignysse is gewurðod his acennednys, swa swa se heah-engel behet his fæder mid ðisum wordum, "Manega blissiað on his gebyrdtide." Maria, Godes cynnestre, nis nanum oðrum gelic, forðan ðe heo is mæden and modor, and ðone abær ðe hi and ealle gesceafta gesceop: is heo forði wel wyrðe þæt hire acennednys arwurðlice gefreolsod sy...

He wæs asend toforan Drihtne, swa swa se dægsteorra gæð beforan ðære sunnan, swa swa bydel ætforan deman, swa swa seo Ealde Gecyðnys ætforan ðære Niwan; forðan ðe seo ealde æ wæs swilce sceadu, and seo Niwe Gecyðnys is soðfæstnys ðurh ðæs Hælendes gife.

Anes geares cild hi wæron, Crist and Iohannes. On ðisum dæge acende seo unwæstmbære moder ðone mæran witegan Iohannem, se is geherod mid þisum wordum, ðurh Cristes muð, "Betwux wifa bearnum ne aras nan mærra man ðonne is Iohannes se Fulluhtere." On middes wintres mæssedæge acende þæt halige mæden Maria þone Heofenlican Æðeling, se nis geteald to wifa bearnum, forðon ðe he is Godes Sunu on ðære Godcundnysse, and Godes and mædenes Bearn ðurh menniscnysse...

Nis butan getacnunge þæt ðæs bydeles acennednys on ðære tide wæs gefremod ðe se woruldlica dæg wanigende bið, and on Drihtnes gebyrdtide weaxende bið. Þas getacnunge onwreah se ylca Iohannes mid ðisum wordum, "Criste gedafenað þæt he weaxe, and me þæt ic wanigende beo." Iohannes wæs hraðor mannum cuð þurh his mærlican drohtnunga, þonne Crist wære, forðan ðe he ne æteowde his godcundan mihte, ærðam ðe he wæs ðritig geara on ðære menniscnysse. Þa wæs he geðuht ðam folce þæt he witega wære, and Iohannes Crist. Hwæt ða Crist geswutelode hine sylfne ðurh miccle tacna, and his hlisa weox geond ealne middangeard, þæt he soð God wæs, seðe wæs ærðan witega geðuht. Iohannes soðlice wæs wanigende on his hlisan, forðan ðe he wearð oncnawen witega, and bydel ðæs Heofonlican Æðelinges, seðe wæs lytle ær Crist geteald mid ungewissum wenan. Þas wanunge getacnað se wanigenda dæg his gebyrd-tide, and se ðeonda dæg ðæs Hælendes acennednysse gebícnað his ðeondan mihte æfter ðære menniscnysse.
'The holy church celebrates the birth-tide of three people: of the Saviour, who is God and man, and of John his herald, and of the blessed Mary his mother. Of other chosen people, who have gone to God's kingdom through martyrdom or other holy merits, we celebrate as their birth-tide their last day, which, after the fulfilment of all their labours, bore them victorious to eternal life; and the day on which they were born to this present life we let pass unheeded, because they came here to hardships and temptations and various dangers. The day is worthy of memory for God's servants which sends his saints, after victory won, from all afflictions to eternal joy, and that is their true birth - not tearful, as the first, but rejoicing in eternal life.

But the birth-tide of Christ is to be celebrated with great care, through which came our redemption. John is the ending of the old law and the beginning of the new; as the Saviour said of him, "The old law and the prophets were till the coming of John." Afterwards began the preaching of the gospel. Now, because of his great holiness, his birth is honoured, as the archangel promised his father with these words, "Many shall rejoice in his birth-tide." Mary, parent of God, is like to none other, for she is maiden and mother, and bore him who created her and all creation: therefore she is most worthy that her birth should be honourably celebrated...

He was sent before the Lord, as the day-star goes before the sun, as the beadle goes before the judge, as the Old Testament before the New; because the old law was like a shadow, and the New Testament is the truth itself, through the grace of the Saviour.

They were the children of one year, Christ and John. On this day the barren mother gave birth to the great prophet John, who is praised in these words from the mouth of Christ: 'Among the children of women there arose none greater than John the Baptist.' On midwinter's day the holy maiden Mary gave birth to the heavenly prince, who is not counted among the children of women, because he is God's Son in his divinity, and God and the Virgin's Son in his humanity...

It is not without meaning that the herald's birth at this season came to pass when the earthly day is waning, and the Lord's birth when it is waxing. This meaning John himself revealed with these words: "It is fitting for Christ that he should increase, and for me that I should decrease." John became known to people, through his famous actions, earlier than Christ was, because he did not reveal his divine power before he had lived thirty years in human nature. So it seemed to the people that he was a prophet, and that John was Christ. But then Christ made himself known through great signs, and his fame waxed throughout all the world, that he was true God, who had previously seemed a prophet. Truly John's fame was waning, because he was recognised as a prophet, and herald of the heavenly Prince, who a little while before was believed to be Christ by uncertain guesses. This waning is betokened by the waning day at the season of his birth, and the increasing day at the Saviour's birth signifies his increasing power according to his human nature.'


This follows the traditional understanding of the relationship between the date of the solstices and the births of Christ and his herald: as Bede (for instance) explains, just as Christ was conceived at the spring equinox and born at the winter solstice, so John was conceived at the autumn equinox and born at the summer solstice. They were, as Ælfric says, anes geares cild, 'the children of one year'. After Midsummer se woruldlica dæg wanigende bið, the earthly day is waning, and it goes on waning until the winter solstice brings Earendel and the birth of the sun.


The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, produced a little earlier in the tenth century than Ælfric's sermon, depicts the birth and naming of John the Baptist (BL Additional 49598, f.92v): above, Elizabeth with the baby; below, Zechariah writes 'His name is John'.

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