Tuesday 31 January 2012

Ælfric on Candlemas: A Twofold Burgeoning of Awe and Love

The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, BL Add. 49598, f.34v

2 February is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; and since we heard from the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric on the subject of Advent and of Christmas, we can look today at his sermon for this feast. Ælfric doesn't call it Candlemas (although that was the Old English name for the day) but he does refer to the blessing of candles, as well as exploring the significance of the feast. The whole sermon is available here. In the extract I've chosen, Ælfric discusses the meaning of the birds which Mary brought to the temple as an offering.

Seo eadige Maria ða geoffrode hire lac Gode mid þam cilde, swa hit on Godes æ geset wæs. Hit wæs swa geset on þære ealdan æ þurh Godes hæse, þæt ða þe mihton ðurhteon sceoldon bringan anes geares lamb mid heora cylde, Gode to lace, and ane culfran, oþþe ane turtlan. Gif þonne hywlc wif to ðam unspedig wære þæt heo ðas ðing begytan ne mihte, þonne sceolde heo bringan twegen culfran-briddas, oððe twa turtlan.

Þas læssan lac, þæt sind þa fugelas, þe wæron wannspedigra manna lac, wæron for Criste geoffrode. Se Ælmihtiga Godes Sunu wæs swiðe gemyndig ure neoda on eallum ðingum; na þæt an þæt he wolde mann beon for us, ðaða he God wæs, ac eac swylce he wolde beon þearfa for us, ðaða he rice wæs: to ðy þæt he us forgeafe dæl on his rice, and mænsumunge on his godcundnysse. Lamb getacnað unscæððinysse and þa maran godnysse; gif we þonne swa earme beoð þæt we ne magon þa maran godnysse Gode offrian, þonne sceole we him bringan twa turtlan, oþþe twegen culfran-briddas, þæt is twyfealdlic onbryrdnes eges and lufe. On twa wisan bið se man onbryrd: ærest he him ondræt helle wite, and bewepð his synna; syððan he nimð eft lufe to Gode, þonne onginð he to murcnienne, and ðincð him to lang hwænne he beo genumen of ðyses lifes earfoðnyssum, and gebroht to ecere reste.

'The blessed Mary offered her sacrifice to God with the child, as it was appointed in God's law. It was so appointed in the old law, by God's command, that those who could afford it should bring a lamb of one year old with their child, as an offering to God, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove. But if any woman were so poor that she could not obtain those things, then she should bring two young pigeons or two turtle-doves.

This smaller offering was offered for Christ, that is, the birds, which were the offerings of the poor. The Almighty Son of God was very mindful of our needs in all things; not only did he choose to become man for us, though he was God, but he also chose to become needy for us, though he was mighty, so that he might give us a portion in his kingdom and communion with his divinity. A lamb betokens innocence and the greater kind of goodness; but if we are so wretched that we cannot offer to God that greater goodness, then we should bring him two turtle-doves or two young pigeons; that is, a twofold burgeoning of awe and love. A person experiences this burgeoning in two ways: first, he dreads the torments of hell, and mourns for his sins; then afterwards he feels love to God, and he begins to murmur, and it seems to him too long a time until he shall be taken from the afflictions of this life, and brought to eternal rest.'

There's a nice bit of wordplay here: the Old English word I've translated as 'burgeoning' is onbryrdnes, which sounds a little like OE bryd, i.e. 'bird'. I tried to keep the near-pun, but a more literal translation would be 'kindling' or 'inspiration' - he's talking about the feeling which sparks a conversion of the heart towards God. That stirring of love is the smallest and least of offerings, which anyone can give, even if they are not yet capable of greater acts of virtue.

Lytel wæs an lamb, oððe twa turtlan, Gode to bringenne; ac he ne sceawað na þæs mannes lac swa swiðe swa he sceawað his heortan. Nis Gode nan neod ure æhta; ealle ðing sindon his, ægðer ge heofen, ge eorðe, and sæ, and ealle ða ðing ðe on him wuniað: ac he forgeaf eorðlice ðing mannum to brice, and bebead him þæt hi sceoldon mid þam eorðlicum ðingum hine oncnawan þe hi ær forgeaf, na for his neode, ac for mancynnes neode. Gif ðu oncnæwst ðinne Drihten mid ðinum æhtum, be ðinre mæðe, hit fremeð þe sylfum to ðam ecan life: gif ðu hine forgitst, hit hearmað þe sylfum and na Gode, and þu ðolast ðære ecan mede.

God gyrnð þa godnysse ðines modes, and na ðinra æhta. Gif ðu hwæt dest Gode to lofe, mid cystigum mode, þonne geswutelast ðu þa godnysse þines modes mid þære dæede; gif þu ðonne nan god don nelt, Gode to wurðmynte, ðonne geswutelast ðu mid þære uncyste ðine yfelnysse, and seo yfelnys þe fordeð wið God.
'A little thing was a lamb, or two turtle-doves, to bring to God; but God does not consider a man's offering so much as he considers his heart. God has no need of our possessions; all things are his, in heaven, and earth, and sea, and all the things which dwell in them, but he gave earthly things to mankind to enjoy, and commanded them that with those earthly things they should acknowledge him who first gave them, not for his need, but for their need. If you acknowledge your Lord with your possessions, according to your ability, it will help you towards eternal life; if you forget him, it harms you, not God, and you will lose your eternal reward.

God desires the goodness of your mind, not of the things you own. If you do anything for the praise of God with a generous spirit, then you show forth the goodness of your mind by that deed; but if you will do no good to honour God, then by that stinginess you show forth your wickedness, and that wickedness will destroy you with God.'

The Presentation (early 13th century, BL Royal 1 D X, f. 2v)
On ðære ealdan æ is gehwær gesett, þæt God het gelomlice þas fugelas offrian on his lace, for ðære getacnunge þe hi getacniað. Nis nu nanum men alyfed þæt he healde þa ealdan æ lichomlice, ac gehealde gehwa hi gastlice. Culfran sind swiðe unscæððige fugelas, and bilewite, and hi lufiað annysse, and fleoð him floccmælum. Do eac swa se cristena man; beo him unsceaðþig, and bilewite, and lufige annysse, and broðorrædene betwux cristenum mannum; þonne geoffrað he gastlice Gode þa culfran-briddas.

Þa turtlan getacniað clænnysse: hi sind swa geworhte, gif hyra oðer oðerne forlyst, þonne ne secð seo cucu næfre hire oðerne gemacan. Gif ðonne se cristena man swa deð for Godes lufon, þonne geoffrað he ða turtlan on þa betstan wisan. Đas twa fugel-cyn ne singað na, swa swa oðre fugelas, ac hi geomeriað, forðan þe hi getacniað haligra manna geomerunge on ðisum life, swa swa Crist cwæð to his apostolum, “Ge beoð geunrotsode on þisum life, ac eower unrotnys bið awend to ecere blisse.” And eft he cwæð, “Eadige beoð þa þe heora synna bewepa, forðan ðe hi beoð gefrefrode.”

'In the old law it is set down in several places that God often said that birds were to be offered to him in sacrifice, because of the symbol which they signify. It is not now permitted for anyone to keep the old law literally, but everyone should keep it spiritually. Pigeons are very gentle and innocent birds, and they love unity, and fly together in flocks. This is just what the Christian ought to do: he should be gentle, and innocent, and love unity and brotherhood among Christian people, and in this way he offers the young pigeons to God in a spiritual sense.

The turtle-doves represent purity: they are made in such a way that if one of them loses the other, the surviving one never seeks another mate for itself. If a Christian acts in this way for the love of God, then he offers the turtle-doves in the best manner. These two kinds of birds do not sing as other birds do, but murmur, because they represent the mourning of holy men in this life, just as Christ said to his apostles: "You will be sorrowful in this life, but your sorrow will be turned to everlasting bliss." And again he said, "Blessed are they who mourn their sins, for they shall be comforted."'

Seo eadige Maria, and Ioseph, ðæs cildes fostor-fæder, gecyrdon to þære byrig Nazareth mid þam cilde; “and þæt cild weox, and wæs gestrangod, and mid wisdome afylled, and Godes gifu wæs on him wunigende." He weox and wæs gestrangod on þære menniscnysse, and he ne behofode nanes wæstmes ne nanre strangunge on þære godcundnysse. He æt, and dranc, and slep, and weox on gearum, and wæs þeah-hwaeðere eal his lif butan synnum. He nære na man geðuht, gif he mannes life ne lyfode. He wæs mid wisdome afylled, forþan ðe he is himsylf wisdom, and on him wunað eal gefyllednys þære godcundnysse: lichomlice Godes gifu wunude on him...

Wite gehwa eac þæt geset is on cyrclicum þeawum, þæt we sceolon on ðisum dæge beran ure leoht to cyrcan, and lætan hi ðær bletsian: and we sceolon gan 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 a butan ende. Amen.
'The blessed Mary, and Joseph, the child's foster-father, returned to the city of Nazareth with the child; "and the child grew, and was strengthened, and filled with wisdom, and God's grace was dwelling within him." He grew and was strengthened in human nature, but he needed no growth and no strengthening in his divine nature. He ate, and drank, and slept, and grew in years, and nevertheless lived all his life without sin. He would not have seemed a man, if he had not lived the life of a man. He was filled with wisdom, because he is himself wisdom, and in him dwells the whole fullness of divinity: God's grace dwelt bodily within him...

Be it known also to everyone that it is appointed in the custom of the church that on this day we should carry our lights to church, and let them be blessed there: and that we should go afterwards with that light among the houses of God, and sing the hymn which is appointed for that. Though some people cannot sing, they can nevertheless bear the light in their hands; for on this day was the true Light, Christ, borne to the temple, who redeemed us from darkness and will bring us to that eternal light, who lives and rules for ever without end. Amen.'

Blessing for candles in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Add. 49598, f. 33)


Anna said...

Thanks for posting this wonderful text with translation and images!

Chika said...

Lovely sermon and food for thought. Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much.