Saturday, 24 December 2011

Ælfric's Sermon on the Birth of Christ

For Christmas Eve, and following on from Ælfric's Advent sermon which I posted a few weeks ago, here are some extracts from his sermon on the Nativity. I don't know what kind of homily you will hear in your church this Christmas, but this is what you might have heard if you wandered into an Anglo-Saxon church somewhere in Wessex, around the year 990.

Such as this one, perhaps

We wyllað to trymminge eowres geleafan eow gereccan þæs Hælendes acennednysse be ðære godspellican endebyrdnysse: hu he on ðysum dægðerlicum dæge on soðre menniscnysse acenned wæs on godcundnysse. Lucas se Godspellere awrat on Cristes bec, þæt on ðam timan se Romanisca casere Octauianus sette gebann, þæt wære on gewritum asett eall ymbhwyrft. Þeos towritennys wearð aræred fram ðam ealdormen Cyrino, of Sirian lande, þæt ælc man ofer-heafod sceolde cennan his gebyrde, and his are on ðære byrig þe he to gehyrde. Þa ferde Ioseph, Cristes foster-fæder, fram Galileiscum earde, of ðære byrig Nazareð, to Iudeiscre byrig, seo wæs Dauides, and wæs geciged Bethleem, forðan ðe he wæs of Dauides mægðe, and wolde andettan mid Marian hire gebyrde, þe wæs þa gyt bearn-eaca. Đa gelamp hit, þaða hi on þære byrig Bethleem wicodon, þæt hire tima wæs gefylled þæt heo cennan sceolde, and acende ða hyre frumcennedan sunu, and mid cild-claðum bewand, and alede þæt cild on heora assena binne, forþan þe ðær næs nan rymet on þam gesthuse.

You might be able to recognise bits of that even if you've never seen Old English before - it's a paraphrase of perhaps the most familiar piece of prose in the English language. "forðan ðe he wæs of Dauides mægðe" 'because he was of the lineage of David'... "hire tima wæs gefylled þæt heo cennan sceolde" 'the days were accomplished that she should be delivered'... "and mid cild-claðum bewand, and alede þæt cild on heora assena binne" 'and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger'... "forþan þe ðær næs nan rymet on þam gesthuse" 'because there was no room for them in the inn'. Yes, the Old English word is 'guesthouse'!

The Saxon church of St Laurence's, Bradford-on-Avon, largely unchanged since the eleventh century; 
the first two pictures are of the interior

Ælfric begins by saying he writes "to trymminge eowres geleafan", 'for the trimming of your (pl.) faith' - which, alas, has nothing to do with turkey and all the trimmings or indeed with trimming a tree. It means 'strengthening, upholding'. And in that spirit let's switch to Modern English (through the wonders of the internet, the sermon can be read online, with a facing page translation, here, but this is my translation):

For the strengthening of your faith, we wish to speak to you about the birth of the Saviour according to the Gospel narrative: how on this very day he was born into a true human incarnation, in his divinity. Luke the Gospel-writer wrote in the book of Christ that at that time the Roman Caesar Octavian put out a decree that the whole world should be set down in writing. This census was done by the governor Cyrenus of the land of Syria, and every man should declare his lineage and possessions in the city to which he belonged. Then Joseph, the foster-father of Christ, went from the region of Galilee, the town of Nazareth, to the Jewish city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David. He wanted to be taxed with Mary, who was pregnant. It happened that when they were lodging in the town of Bethlehem the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling-clothes and laid the child in the asses’ manger, because there was no room in the inn...

Fritton church, Norfolk, and its thatched Saxon chancel

My dearest brothers, our Saviour, the Son of God, co-eternal and equal to his Father, who has always been with him without beginning, deemed it right that on this day for the salvation of the world he should be born into a human body of the maiden Mary. He is Lord and Creator of all goodness and peace, and at his birth he sent a unique peace before him; there never was such peace since the beginning of the world as there was at the time of his birth, since the whole world was subject to the empire of one man and all mankind paid him tribute as the only king. Assuredly, into such a situation of great peace Christ was born, who is our peace, because he joins angels and men into one company through his incarnation...

Fritton from the inside

Mary gave birth to her first-born son on this day and wrapped him in swaddling-clothes, and because of lack of room she laid him in a manger. That child was not called her first-born because she afterwards had other children, but because Christ is the first-born of many spiritual brethern. All Christians are his spiritual brethern and he is the first-born in grace and in divinity, born of the Almighty Father. He was wrapped in poor swaddling-clothes so that he could give us the immortal garment which we lost at the beginning of the world through man’s transgression.

The Son of Almighty God, whom the heavens could not encompass, was laid in a narrow manger so that he could save us from the narrow confines of hell. Mary was a stranger there, as the Gospel tells us, and the crowd of people meant the inn was very full (the Old English word is genyrwed, 'narrowed, made crowded'). The Son of God was crowded in his inn, so that he could give us spacious room in the heavenly kingdom, if we obey his will.


Angels often appeared to men under the old dispensation, but it is not written that they came with light; this honour was chosen for the glory of this day, that they revealed themselves with heavenly light when that true light, the merciful and just Lord, appeared in darkness to the righteous. The angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; behold, I bring you great joy which has come to all people, because today for you the Saviour Christ is born in the city of David.” Truly he brought them news of great joy which will never end, because the birth of Christ gladdened those in heaven, earth and hell. The angel said, "Today for you the Saviour Christ is born in the city of David". He was right to say "today" and not "this night", because Christ is the true day, who by his coming drives away all the dark ignorance of the old night and enlightens the whole world by his grace. We should always keep in our memories the sign which the angel revealed to the shepherds, and thank our Saviour that he humbled himself to become a sharer in our mortality, taking on human flesh, and being wrapped in poor swaddling-clothes.

Here are these extracts in the Old English:

Mine gebroðra þa leofostan, ure Hælend, Godes Sunu, euen-ece and gelic his Fæder, se ðe mid him wæs æfre buton anginne, gemedemode hine sylfne þæt he wolde on ðisum dægðerlicum dæge for middangeardes alysednysse beon lichamlice acenned of þam mædene Marian. He is Ealdor and Scyppend ealra godnyssa and sibbe, and he foresende his acennednysse ungewunelice sibbe, forðan ðe næfre næs swilc sibb ær þam fyrste on middangearde, swilc swa wæs on his gebyrdetide, swa þæt eall middangeard wæs anes mannes rice underðeod, and eal mennisc him anum cynelic gafol ageaf. Witodlice on swa micelre sibbe wæs Crist acenned, se ðe is ure sib, forþan ðe he geþeodde englas and men to anum hirede, þurh his menniscnysse.


Maria acende ða hire frumcennedan sunu on ðisum andweardan dæge, and hine mid cild-claðum bewand, and for rymetleaste on anre binne gelede. Næs þæt cild forði gecweden hire frumcennede cild swilce heo oðer siððan acende, ac forði þe Crist is frumcenned of manegum gastlicum gebroðrum. Ealle cristene men sind his gastlican gebroðra, and he is se frumcenneda, on gife and on godcundnysse ancenned of ðam Ælmihtigan Fæder. He wæs mid wacum cild-claðum bewæfed, þæt he us forgeafe ða undeadlican tunecan, þe we forluron on ðæs frumsceapenan mannes forgægednysse.

Se Ælmihtiga Godes Sunu, ðe heofenas befon ne mihton, wæs geled on nearuwre binne, to ði þæt he us fram hellicum nyrwette alysde. Maria wæs ða cuma ðær, swa swa þæt godspel us segð; and for ðæs folces geðryle wæs þæt gesthus ðearle genyrwed. Se Godes Sunu wæs on his gesthuse genyrwed, þæt he us rume wununge on heofonan rice forgife, gif we his willan gehyrsumiað.


Gelome wurdon englas mannum æteowode on ðære ealdan æ, ac hit nis awriten þæt hi mid leohte comon, ac se wurðmynt wæs þises dæges mærðe gehealden, þæt hi mid heofenlicum leohte hi geswutelodon, ða ða þæt soðe leoht asprang on ðeostrum riht geþancodum, se mildheorta and se rihtwisa Drihten. Se engel cwæð to þam hyrdum, “Ne beo ge afyrhte; efne ic bodige eow micelne gefean, ðe eallum folce becymð, forðan þe nu todæg is acenned Hælend Crist on Dauides ceastre.” Soðlice he bodade micelne gefean, se ðe næfre ne geendað; forðan þe Cristes acenndenys gegladode heofenwara, and eorðwara, and helwara. Se engel cwæð, “Nu todæg is eow acenned Hælend Crist on Dauides ceastre.” Rihtlice he cwæð ‘on dæge’, and na ‘on nihte’, forðan ðe Crist is se soða dæg, se ðe todræfde mid his tocyme ealle nytennysse þære ealdan nihte, and ealne middangeard mid his gife onlihte. Þæt tacen þe se engel ðam hyrdum sæde we sceolon symle on urum gemynde healdan, and þancian ðam Hælende þæt he gemedemode hine sylfne to ðan þæt he dælnimend wære ure deadlicnysse, mid menniscum flæsce befangen, and mid wacum cild-claðum bewunden.

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