Sunday 24 March 2013

Ælfric's Sermon for Palm Sunday

The entry into Jerusalem in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598, f. 45v)

The Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric, at the end of a sermon for Palm Sunday written at the close of the tenth century, describes to his congregation the ritual they have just performed, and then tells them what to do next:

Se gewuna stent on Godes cyrcan, þurh lareowas geset, þæt gehwær on Godes gelaðunge se sacerd bletsian sceole palm-twigu on ðisum dæge, and hi swa gebletsode ðam folce dælan; and sceolon ða Godes þeowas singan ðone lofsang, þe þæt Iudeisce folc sang togeanes Criste, þaþa he genealæhte his ðrowunge. We geefenlæcað þam geleaffullum of ðam folce mid þisre dæde, forðan ðe hi bæron palm-twigu mid lofsange togeanes þam Hælende. Nu sceole we healdan urne palm, oðþæt se sangere onginne ðone offring-sang, and geoffrian þonne Gode ðone palm, for ðære getacnunge. Palm getacnað syge. Sygefæst wæs Crist þaþa he ðone micclan deofol oferwann, and us generede: and we sceolon beon eac sygefæste þurh Godes mihte, swa þæt we ure unðeawas, and ealle leahtras, and ðone deofol oferwinnan, and us mid godum weorcum geglencgan, and on ende ures lifes betæcan Gode ðone palm, þæt is, ure sige, and ðancian him georne, þæt we, ðurh his fultum, deoful oferwunnon, þæt he us beswican ne mihte.

'It is the custom in God's church, established by its teachers, that everywhere in God's congregation the priest should bless palm-branches on this day, and distribute them, thus blessed, to the people; and God's servants should then sing the hymn which the Jewish people sang before Christ when he was coming to his Passion. We imitate the faithful ones of that people with this deed, for they carried palm-branches with hymns before the Saviour. Now we shall hold our palms until the singer begins the offering-song, and then we shall offer the palm to God because of what it signifies: a palm betokens victory. Christ was victorious when he overcame the mighty devil and rescued us, and we also shall be victorious through God's power, so that we conquer our evil habits, and all sins, and the devil, and adorn ourselves with good works; and at the end of our life we shall deliver the palm to God, that is, our victory, and thank him fervently, that we through his help have conquered the devil, so that he could not deceive us.'

Ælfric's description gives us a vivid picture of his congregation all holding their palm-twigu, just as congregations in churches throughout the world will be doing today. The rest of the sermon interprets the details of the Gospel passage of the day, Christ's entry into Jerusalem; the extract below is from the text here, with my translation.

'The two disciples whom Christ sent to bring the ass betokened the teachers whom God sends to instruct mankind. There were two of them in order to show the characteristics which a teacher ought to have: he should have learning, so that he may wisely instruct God's people in true belief, and he should set a good example to the people by good works; and so with those two things, that is, with learning and with a good example, he should ever draw the people to God's will.

The tied ass and its foal betoken two peoples, the Jewish people and the pagans. I say 'pagans' because in those days all mankind were still living in paganism, except only the Jewish people, who followed the old law at that time. They were 'tied' because all mankind was bound with sins, as the prophet says: "Every man is bound with the ropes of his sins." Then God sent his apostles and their successors to bound mankind, and commanded them to be untied and led to him. How did they untie the ass and the foal? They preached to the people about the true faith and God's commandments, and confirmed their preaching by many miracles. The people then turned from the service of the devil to the worship of Christ, and were freed from all sins through holy baptism, and led to Christ.

An ass is a foolish animal, unclean, and stupid compared with other animals, and strong for carrying burdens. And so were men, before Christ's coming, foolish and unclean, while they served idols and many kinds of sin, and bowed to the images which they had made themselves, and said to them, "Thou art my God." And whatever burden the devil placed on them, they bore. But when Christ came to mankind, he turned our foolishness to wisdom and our uncleanness to pure virtues. The tamed ass betokened the Jewish people, who lived in discipline under the old law. The wild foal betokened all other people, who were heathen and untamed; but they became tamed and faithful when Christ sent his disciples through the whole world, saying, "Go through all the world, and teach all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and command that they hold all the commands which I have taught you."
The disciples fetch the donkey (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 113v)
The master of the asses asked them why they untied his asses, and in the same way the chief men of every people perversely opposed the preaching of God. But when they saw that the preachers, through God's power, healed the lame and the blind, and gave speech to the dumb, and raised the dead to life, then they could not withstand those miracles, but all at last turned to God. Christ's disciples said, "The Lord needs the asses, and sends for them." They did not say 'our Lord', or 'your Lord', but simply, 'the Lord'; for Christ is Lord of all lords, both of men and of all creatures. They said, "He sends for them." We are exhorted and invited to God's kingdom, but we are not forced. When we are invited, we are untied; and when we are left to our own choice, then is it as though we are sent for. It is God's mercy that we are untied; but if we live rightly, that will be both God's grace and our own zeal. We should constantly pray for the Lord's help, since our own choices have no success unless they are supported by the Almighty.

Christ did not command them to lead to him a proud steed adorned with golden trappings; instead he chose a poor ass to bear him, because he always taught humility, and gave the example himself, saying "Learn from me, for I am meek and very humble, and you shall find rest for your souls." This was prophesied of Christ, and so were all the things which he did before he was born as man...

We will tell you a parable. No man may make himself a king, because the people have the option to choose for king someone who is acceptable to them; but after he has been consecrated as king he has power over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke from their necks. In the same way every man has his own choice, before he sins, whether he will follow the devil's will or withstand it. If he binds himself with the works of the devil, he cannot unbind himself by his own power, unless the Almighty God unbind him with the powerful hand of his mercy. By his own will and his own carelessness he is bound, but through God's mercy he will be unbound, if he merit his liberation from God.
The people who cast their garments under the feet of the ass are the martyrs, who for the faith of Christ gave their own bodies to torments. Some were burned by fire, some drowned in the sea, and killed with various tortures; they gave us an example that we should not, for any persecutions or hardships, forsake our faith and turn away from Christ, any more than they did. Many a man is accounted a Christian in peace, who would very quickly deny Christ if he were sentenced to the fate to which the martyrs were sentenced; his Christianity is not praiseworthy. But a man's Christianity is praiseworthy who will not, for any persecution, turn away from Christ, not for sword, nor for fire, nor for water, nor for hunger, nor for chains, but ever holds to his faith with the praise of God to the end of his life.

Those who cut down the branches of trees and prepared Christ's way with them are the teachers in God's church, who pluck the sayings of the apostles and their successors, and with them direct God's people to the faith of Christ, so that they may be prepared for his way.

The people who walked before Christ, and those who followed him, all sang "Osanna Filio David," that is, in our language, "Hail, Son of David." ['Sy hælo, Dauides Bearne'] Those who walked before Christ are the patriarchs and prophets, who lived before Christ's incarnation; those who went after him are those who turned to Christ after his birth, and daily turn to him. All these sing one hymn, because we and they all hold one faith.
Read the rest here.

The entry into Jerusalem in alabaster, from Haddon Hall

In Old English:

Þa twegen leorning-cnihtas þe Crist sende æfter þam assan, hi getacnodon þa lareowas þe God sende mancynne to lærenne. Twegen hi wæron, for ðære getacnunge þe lareow habban sceal. He sceal habban lare, þæt he mage Godes folc mid wisdome læran to rihtum geleafan, and he sceal mid godum weorcum ðam folce wel bysnian, and swa mid þam twam ðingum, þæt is mid lare and godre bysnunge, þæt læwede folc gebige symle to Godes willan.

Se getigeda assa and his fola getacniað twa folc, þæt is Iudeisc and hæðen: Ic cweðe, hæðen, forði þe eal mennisc wæs ða-gyt wunigende on hæðenscipe, buton þam anum Iudeiscan folce, þe heold þa ealdan æ on ðam timan. Hi wæron getigede, forðan ðe eal mancyn wæs mid synnum bebunden, swa swa se witega cwæð, 'Anra gehwilc manna is gewriðen mid rapum his synna.' Þa sende God his apostolas and heora æftergengan to gebundenum mancynne, and het hi untigan, and to him lædan. Hi untigdon hi ðone assan and þone folan? Hi bodedon ðam folce rihtne geleafan and Godes beboda, and eac mid micclum wundrum heora bodunge getrymdon. Þa abeah þæt folc fram deofles þeowdome to Cristes biggencum, and wæron alysede fram eallum synnum þurh þæt halige fulluht, and to Criste gelædde.

Assa is stunt nyten, and unclæne, and toforan oðrum nytenum ungesceadwis, and byrðen-strang. Swa wæron men, ær Cristes to-cyme, stunte and unclæne, ðaða hí ðeowedon deofolgyldum and mislicum leahtrum, and bugon to þam anlicnyssum þe hi sylfe worhton, and him cwædon to, "Þu eart min God." And swa hwilce byrðene swa him deofol on-besette, þa hí bæron. Ac ðaða Crist com to mancynne, þa awende he ure stuntnysse to geráde, and ure unclænnysse to clænum ðeawum. Se getemeda assa hæfde getacnunge þæs Iudeiscan folces, þe wæs getemed under þære ealdan ǽ. Se wilda fola hæfde getacnunge ealles oðres folces, þe wæs þa-gyt hæðen and ungetemed; ac hí wurdon getemede and geleaffulle þaþa Crist sende his leorning-cnihtas geond ealne middangeard, þus cweðende, "Farað geond ealne middangeard, and lærað ealle ðeoda, and fulliað hí on naman þæs Fæder, and þæs Suna, and þæs Halgan Gastes; and beodað þæt hi healdon ealle ða beboda þe ic eow tæhte."

Þæra assena hlaford axode, hwí hí untigdon his assan? Swa eac ða heafod-men gehwilces leodscipes woldon þwyrlice wiðcweðan Godes bodunge. Ac ðaða hí gesawon þæt þa bydelas gehældon, þurh Godes mihte, healte and blinde, and dumbum spræce forgeafon, and eac ða deadan to life arærdon, þa ne mihton hí wiðstandan þam wundrum, ac bugon ealle endemes to Gode. Cristes leorning-cnihtas cwædon, "Se Hlaford behófað þæra assena, and sent hi eft ongean." Ne cwædon hí na Ure Hlaford, ne Ðin Hlaford, ac forðrihte, Hlaford; forðon ðe Crist is ealra hlaforda Hlaford, ægðer ge manna ge ealra gesceafta. Hi cwædon, "He sent hí eft ongean." We sind gemanode and gelaðode to Godes rice, ac we ne sind na genedde. Þonne we sind gelaðode, þonne sind we untigede; and ðonne we beoð forlætene to urum agenum cyre, þonne bið hit swilce we beon ongean asende. Godes myldheortnys is þæt we untigede syndon; ac gif we rihtlice lybbað, þæt bið ægðer ge Godes gifu ge eac ure agen geornfulnyss. We sceolon symle biddan Drihtnes fultum, forðan ðe ure agen cyre næfð nænne forðgang, buton he beo gefyrðrod þurh þone Ælmihtigan.

Ne het Crist him to lædan modigne stedan mid gyldenum gerædum gefreatewodne, ac þone wacan assan he geceas him to byrðre; forðon þe he tæhte symle eadmodnysse, and ðurh hine sylfne þa bysne sealde, and ðus cwæð, "Leorniað æt me, þæt ic eom liðe and swiðe eadmod, and ge gemetað reste eowrum sawlum." Þis wæs gewitegod be Criste, and ealle ða ðing þe he dyde, ærðan þe he to men geboren wære...

We wyllað secgan eow sum bigspell. Ne mæg nan man hine sylfne to cynge gedon, ac þæt folc hæfð cyre to ceosenne þone to cyninge þe him sylfum licað: ac siððan he to cyninge gehalgod bið, þonne hæfð hé anweald ofer þæt folc, and hí ne magon his geoc of heora swuran asceacan. Swa eac gehwilc man hæfð agenne cyre, ærðam þe hé syngige, hweðer hé wille filian deofles willan, oððe wiðsacan. Þonne gif hé mid deofles weorcum hine sylfne bebint, ðonne ne mæg he mid his agenre mihte hine unbindan, buton se Ælmihtiga God mid strangre handa his mildheortnysse hine unbinde. Agenes willan and agenre gymeleaste he bið gebunden, ac þurh Godes mildheortnysse he bið unbunden, gif he ða alysednysse eft æt Gode geearnað.

Þæt folc ðe heora reaf wurpon under þæs assan fét, þæt sind þa martyras, þe for Cristes geleafan sealdon heora agenne lichaman to tintregum. Sume hi wæron on fyre forbærnde, sume on sǽ adrencte, and mid mislicum pinungum acwealde; and sealdon us bysne þæt we ne sceolon, for nanum ehtnyssum oððe earfoðnyssum, urne geleafan forlætan, and fram Criste bugan, ðe má ðe hí dydon. Menig man is cristen geteald on sibbe, þe wolde swiðe hraðe wiðsacan Criste, gif him man bude þæt man bead þam martyrum: ac his cristendom nis na herigendlic. Ac ðæs mannes cristendom is herigendlic, seðe nele, for nanre ehtnysse, bugan fram Criste, ne for swurde, ne for fyre, ne for wætere, ne for hungre, ne for bendum; ac æfre hylt his geleafan mid Godes hérungum, oð his lifes ende.

Þa ðe ðæra treowa bogas heowon, and mid þam Cristes weig gedæfton, þæt sind þa lareowas on Godes cyrcan, þe plucciað þa cwydas ðæra apostola and heora æftergengena, and mid þam Godes folce gewisiað to Cristes geleafan, þæt hí beon gearwe to his færelde.

Þæt folc ðe Criste beforan stóp, and þæt ðe him fyligde, ealle hí sungon, "Osanna Filio Dauid," þæt is on urum geðeode, "Sy hǽlo Dauides Bearne." Þa ðe Criste beforan stopon, þa sind ða heahfæderas and þa wítegan, ðe wæron ǽr Cristes flæsclicnysse; and ða ðe him bæftan eodon, þæt sind ða ðe æfter Cristes acennednysse to him gebugon, and dæghwamlice bugað: and ealle hí singað ænne lofsang; forðan ðe wé and hí ealle healdað ænne geleafan.

The entry into Jerusalem, BL Royal 2 B VII


Anonymous said...

A diffeent (and very festive) tradition. Greetings from Seville, we're about to enjoy it again in a few hours.

Clerk of Oxford said...

That's great - what a lovely tradition! Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Palmsunnandæges spell is gōd, ic þancie þē.