Sunday 1 June 2014

Christ the Bird and the Play of Hope: An Anglo-Saxon Ascension

The Ascension (Benedictional of St Æthelwold, BL Additional MS. 49598, f.64v)

Last Advent I posted a series of extracts from the Old English poem known as Christ I, which is a poetic meditation on the 'O Antiphons' (the series begins here). The poem which follows Christ I in the manuscript is known, logically but unimaginatively, as Christ II, although the two poems were probably composed at different times and by different people (the second is signed by Cynewulf, one of the few Anglo-Saxon poets whose name we know). Christ II deals with the Ascension, and so it seems appropriate to post a few short extracts from it today. All three Christ poems can be read in Old English here; the following translations are mine.

One thing this poem does have in common with the 'Advent lyrics' of Christ I is that it's an extraordinarily sophisticated theological meditation on its Biblical theme, rendered in the traditional language of Anglo-Saxon poetry but drawing on learned interpretations of the subject by the Church Fathers. The poem begins by describing the delight of the angels at Christ's return to heaven, contrasting their joy with the grief of the disciples at parting from Christ, and giving his words of comfort to his followers:

"Gefeoð ge on ferððe! Næfre ic from hweorfe,
ac ic lufan symle læste wið eowic,
ond eow meaht giefe ond mid wunige,
awo to ealdre, þæt eow æfre ne bið
þurh gife mine godes onsien...
Ic eow mid wunige
forð on frofre, ond eow friðe healde
strengðu staþolfæstre on stowa gehware."

“Rejoice in your hearts! I will never leave you;
I will always remain with you in love,
and give you strength and dwell with you
for ever and ever, so that through my grace
you will never want for anything good...
I will dwell with you
from henceforth as a comforter, and keep you in peace,
a steadfast strength in every place.”

Then all of a sudden we hear the noise of rejoicing in heaven - compare this to the busy Ascension scene depicted above in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold:

ða wearð semninga sweg on lyfte
hlud gehyred. Heofonengla þreat,
weorud wlitescyne, wuldres aras,
cwomun on corðre. Cyning ure gewat
þurh þæs temples hrof þær hy to segun,
þa þe leofes þa gen last weardedun
on þam þingstede, þegnas gecorene.
Gesegon hi on heahþu hlaford stigan,
godbearn of grundum. Him wæs geomor sefa
hat æt heortan, hyge murnende,
þæs þe hi swa leofne leng ne mostun
geseon under swegle. Song ahofun
aras ufancunde, æþeling heredun,
lofedun liffruman, leohte gefegun
þe of þæs hælendes heafelan lixte.
Gesegon hy ælbeorhte englas twegen
fægre ymb þæt frumbearn frætwum blican,
cyninga wuldor. 

Then suddenly a loud clamour
was heard on high: a throng of heaven's angels,
a brightly shining band, heralds of glory,
came in a company. Our king passed
through the temple roof while they gazed,
they who remained behind the dear one still
in that meeting-place, the chosen thegns.
They saw the Lord ascend on high,
God's Son from the ground.
Their minds were sorrowful,
hot at heart, mourning in spirit,
because they would no longer see
the dear one beneath the heavens. The celestial heralds
raised up a song, praised the Prince,
extolled the Source of life, rejoiced in the light
which shone from the Saviour's head.
They saw two bright angels
beautifully gleaming with adornments around the First-begotten,
the glory of kings.

The angels speak to the disciples, explaining their joy at Christ's return and what it means for heaven and earth. But then the poem turns from narrative to reflection, following, in its most famous section, Gregory the Great's exposition in a homily on the Ascension of the 'leaps of Christ':

Hence it is that Solomon has put into the mouth of the Church the words: Behold, He cometh! leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.

These hills are his lofty and noble achievements. “Behold, He cometh leaping upon the mountains.”

When He came to redeem us, He came, if I may so say, in leaps. My dearly beloved brethren, would you know what His leaps were?

From heaven he leapt into the womb of the Virgin, from the womb into the manger, from the manger on to the Cross, from the Cross into the grave, and from the grave up to heaven.

Lo, how the Truth made manifest in the Flesh did leap for our sakes, that He might draw us to run after Him for this end did He rejoice, as a strong man to run a race.

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, it behoves us in heart and mind thither to ascend, where we believe Him to have already ascended bodily.

Christ is presented as a wheeling bird, moving with ease between the heavens and the earth:

Swa se fæla fugel flyges cunnode;
hwilum engla eard up gesohte,
modig meahtum strang, þone maran ham,
hwilum he to eorþan eft gestylde,
þurh gæstes giefe grundsceat sohte,
wende to worulde. Bi þon se witga song:
"He wæs upp hafen engla fæðmum
in his þa miclan meahta spede,
heah ond halig, ofer heofona þrym."

So the beautiful bird ventured into flight.
Now he sought the home of the angels,
that glorious country, bold and strong in might;
now he swung back to earth again,
sought the ground by grace of the Spirit,
returned to the world. Of this the prophet sang:
“He was lifted up in the arms of angels
in the great abundance of his powers,
high and holy, above the glory of the heavens.”

This picture of Christ in movement, the embodiment of sheer unfettered energy, expands on Gregory's idea of the 'leaping' Christ, the lover of the Song of Songs, springing across the mountains to seek his beloved:

Bi þon Salomon song, sunu Dauiþes,
giedda gearosnottor gæstgerynum,
waldend werþeoda, ond þæt word acwæð:
"Cuð þæt geweorðeð, þætte cyning engla,
meotud meahtum swið, munt gestylleð,
gehleapeð hea dune, hyllas ond cnollas
bewrið mid his wuldre, woruld alyseð,
ealle eorðbuend, þurh þone æþelan styll."

Wæs se forma hlyp þa he on fæmnan astag,
mægeð unmæle, ond þær mennisc hiw
onfeng butan firenum þæt to frofre gewearð
eallum eorðwarum. Wæs se oþer stiell
bearnes gebyrda, þa he in binne wæs
in cildes hiw claþum bewunden,
ealra þrymma þrym. Wæs se þridda hlyp
rodorcyninges ræs þa he on rode astag,
fæder, frofre gæst. Wæs se feorða stiell
in byrgenne, þa he þone beam ofgeaf,
foldærne fæst. Wæs se fifta hlyp
þa he hellwarena heap forbygde
in cwicsusle, cyning inne gebond
feonda foresprecan, fyrnum teagum,
gromhydigne, þær he gen ligeð
in carcerne clommum gefæstnad,
synnum gesæled. Wæs se siexta hlyp,
haliges hyhtplega, þa he to heofonum astag
on his ealdcyððe. þa wæs engla þreat
on þa halgan tid hleahtre bliþe
wynnum geworden. Gesawan wuldres þrym,
æþelinga ord, eðles neosan,
beorhtra bolda. þa wearð burgwarum
eadgum ece gefea æþelinges plega.

þus her on grundum godes ece bearn
ofer heahhleoþu hlypum stylde,
modig æfter muntum. Swa we men sculon
heortan gehygdum hlypum styllan
of mægne in mægen, mærþum tilgan
þæt we to þam hyhstan hrofe gestigan
halgum weorcum, þær is hyht ond blis,
geþungen þegnweorud. Is us þearf micel
þæt we mid heortan hælo secen,
þær we mid gæste georne gelyfað
þæt þæt hælobearn heonan up stige
mid usse lichoman, lifgende god.
Forþon we a sculon idle lustas,
synwunde forseon, ond þæs sellran gefeon.
Habbað we us to frofre fæder on roderum
ælmeahtigne. He his aras þonan,
halig of heahðu, hider onsendeð,
þa us gescildaþ wið sceþþendra
eglum earhfarum, þi læs unholdan
wunde gewyrcen, þonne wrohtbora
in folc godes forð onsendeð
of his brægdbogan biterne stræl.

Of this sang Solomon son of David
in spiritual mysteries, wise in songs,
ruler of nations, and spoke these words:
“This shall be made known: that the King of angels,
the Lord mighty in strength, will come springing upon the mountain,
leaping the high uplands; hills and downs
he will garland with his glory, and redeem the world,
all earth's inhabitants, by that glorious leap.”

The first leap was when he descended into a woman,
an unblemished virgin, and there took human form
without sin; that became a comfort
to all earth's dwellers. The second bound
was the birth of the boy, when he was in the manger,
wrapped in cloth in the form of a child,
the glory of all glories. The third leap
was the heavenly King's rush when he climbed upon the cross,
Father, Comforting Spirit. The fourth bound
was into the tomb, when he relinquished the tree,
safe in the sepulchre. The fifth leap
when he humbled the host of hell's inhabitants
in living torment; the King bound within
the advocate of the fiends in fetters of fire,
the malignant one, where he still lies
fastened with chains in prison,
bound by sins. The sixth leap,
the Holy One's hope-play, when he ascended to heaven
into his former home. Then the throng of angels
in that holy tide was made merry with laughter,
rapt with joy. They saw the glory of majesty,
first of princes, seek out his homeland,
the bright mansions. After that the blessed city-dwellers
endlessly delighted in the Prince's play.

Thus here on earth God's eternal Son
sprang in leaps over the high hills,
bold across the mountains. So we men
should spring in leaps in the thoughts of our hearts
from strength to strength, striving after glory,
that we may ascend to that highest heaven
by holy deeds, where there is joy and bliss,
a distinguished company of thegns. It is greatly fitting for us
that we seek salvation with our hearts
where we eagerly believe with our spirits
that the Saving Son will ascend from here
with our bodies, the living God.
And so we should always shun idle desires,
the wounds of sin, and delight in what is better.
We have as a comfort to us a Father in the heavens,
the Almighty. From there he sends
his messengers here, holy from the heights,
to shield us from our enemies'
terrible arrows, lest the hostile ones
wound us, when the lord of sin
sends among the people of God
a bitter shot from his deceitful bow.

This Christ is dynamic, full of joy and energy: everything that happens in his life is propelled by his triumphant vigour, even his 'rush' (ræs) towards the cross and the moment he chooses to relinquish it (þa he þone beam ofgeaf). His Ascension is not a passive lifting-up into heaven but an active bound towards his homeland (again, compare the Christ of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold; he's definitely leaping into heaven!). His leaps are called plega, 'play', movement as swift and natural as the play of fire or light, and the Ascension is hyhtplega, a beautiful compound: hyht is both 'hope' and 'joy', so this is 'a play of hope', 'an action which brings joy' to us and to the laughing angels, who spend eternity delighting in the 'Prince's play' (æþelinges plega).

Blessing for Ascension Day (BL Additional MS. 49598, f.65r)

The final section of the poem moves on to the subject of Judgement Day and what we should do to prepare for it. The closing lines are exquisite:

Nu is þon gelicost swa we on laguflode
ofer cald wæter ceolum liðan
geond sidne sæ, sundhengestum,
flodwudu fergen. Is þæt frecne stream
yða ofermæta þe we her on lacað
geond þas wacan woruld, windge holmas
ofer deop gelad. Wæs se drohtað strong
ærþon we to londe geliden hæfdon
ofer hreone hrycg. þa us help bicwom,
þæt us to hælo hyþe gelædde,
godes gæstsunu, ond us giefe sealde
þæt we oncnawan magun ofer ceoles bord
hwær we sælan sceolon sundhengestas,
ealde yðmearas, ancrum fæste.
Utan us to þære hyðe hyht staþelian,
ða us gerymde rodera waldend,
halge on heahþu, þa he heofonum astag.

Now it is very much like this: as if we were sailing
in ships across cold water, over the sea-waves,
beyond the wide ocean in water-steeds
traversing the floods. The waters are perilous,
the waves immeasurable, amid which we journey here
through this frail world, the stormy oceans,
across the paths of the deep. Dangerous was that life
before we came to land
across the rough waves. Help came to us
that we might be led to a haven of healing,
God's Spirit-Son, and gave us grace
that we might find, by the ship's side,
where we could moor our water-steeds,
our ancient wave-horses securely anchored.
Let us fasten our hope on that haven
which the Ruler of the skies opened for us,
holy in the heights, when he ascended into heaven.

Christ's Ascension on the Wirksworth Stone

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