Sunday, 15 February 2015

'Now a pure and holy time draws near': Ælfric's Sermon for Quinquagesima

Some extracts from Ælfric's sermon for Quinquagesima, the Sunday next before Lent. He begins, as is his usual practice, by translating into English the Gospel reading for the day; in this case it's Luke 18:31-43, in which Christ speaks of his death to come and heals a blind man.
Her is geræd on þissum godspelle, þe we nu gehyrdon of ðæs diacones muðe, þæt se Hælend gename onsundron his twelf leorningcnihtas, and cwæð to him, Efne we sceolon faran to ðære byrig Hierusalem, and þonne beoð gefyllede ealle ða ðing þe wæron be me awritene þurh witegan. Ic sceal beon belæwed ðeodum, and hi doð me to bysmore, and beswingað, and syððan ofsleað, and ic arise of deaðe on þam ðriddan dæge. Þa nyston his leorningcnihtas nan andgit þyssera worda. Ða gelamp hit þæt hi genealæhton anre byrig þe is gehaten Hiericho, and ða sæt þær sum blind man be ðam wege; and þaþa he gehyrde þæs folces fær mid þam Hælende, ða acsode he hwa þær ferde. Hi cwædon him to, þæt þæt wære ðæs Hælendes fær. Þa begann he to hrymenne, and cwæð, Hælend, Dauides Bearn, gemiltsa min. Ða men þe beforan þam Hælende ferdon ciddon ongean ðone blindan, þæt he suwian sceolde. He clypode þa miccle swiðor, Hælend, Dauides Bearn, gemiltsa min. Þa stod se Hælend, and het lædan þone blindan to him. Þaða he genealæhte, þa acsode se Hælend hine, Hwæt wylt ðu þæt ic þe do? He cwæð, Drihten, þæt ic mage geseon. And se Hælend him cwæð to, Loca nu: þin geleafa hæfð ðe gehæled. And he ðærrihte geseah, and fyligde þam Hælende, and hine mærsode. Þa eal þæt folc, þe þæt wundor geseh, herede God mid micelre onbryrdnysse.

Ðyses godspelles anginn hrepode ures Hælendes þrowunge, þeah-hwæðere ne ðrowade he na on ðysne timan; ac he wolde feorran and lange ær cyðan his ðrowunge his leorningcnihtum, þæt hi ne sceoldon beon to swiðe afyrhte þurh ða þrowunge, þonne se tima come þæt he ðrowian wolde. Heora mod wearð afyrht þurh Cristes segene, ac he hi eft gehyrte mid þam worde þe he cwæð, "Ic arise of deaðe on þam ðriddan dæge." Þa wolde he heora geleafan gestrangian and getrymman mid wundrum. And hi ða comon to ðære stowe þær se blinda man sæt be ðam wege, and Crist hine gehælde ætforan gesihðe ealles þæs werodes, to ði þæt he wolde mid þam wundre hi to geleafan gebringan.

Þeah-hwæðere þa wundra þe Crist worhte, oðer ðing hi æteowdon þurh mihte, and oðre ðing hi getacnodon þurh geryno. He worhte þa wundra soðlice þurh godcunde mihte, and mid þam wundrum þæs folces geleafan getrymde; ac hwæðre þær wæs oðer ðing digle on ðam wundrum, æfter gastlicum andgite. Þes an blinda man getacnode eall mancynn, þe wearð ablend þurh Adames gylt, and asceofen of myrhðe neoxenawanges, and gebroht to ðissum life þe is wiðmeten cwearterne. Nu sind we ute belocene fram ðam heofenlican leohte, and we ne magon on ðissum life þæs ecan leohtes brucan; ne we his na mare ne cunnon buton swa micel swa we ðurh Cristes lare on bocum rædað. Þeos woruld, þeah ðe heo myrige hwiltidum geðuht sy, nis heo hwæðere ðe gelicere ðære ecan worulde, þe is sum cweartern leohtum dæge. Eal mancyn wæs, swa we ær cwædon, ablend mid geleaflæste and gedwylde; ac þurh Cristes tocyme we wurdon abrodene of urum gedwyldum, and onlihte þurh geleafan. Nu hæbbe we þæt leoht on urum mode, þæt is Cristes geleafa; and we habbað þone hiht þæs ecan lifes myrhðe, þeah ðe we gyt lichamlice on urum cwearterne wunian.

Se blinda man sæt æt þære byrig þe is gehaten Hiericho. Hiericho is gereht and gehaten 'mona.' Se mona deð ægðer ge wycxð ge wanað: healfum monðe he bið weaxende, healfum he bið wanigende. Nu getacnað se mona ure deadlice lif, and ateorunge ure deadlicnysse. On oðerne ende men beoð acennede, on oþerne ende hi forðfarað. Þaða Crist com to ðære byrig Hiericho, þe ðone monan getacnað, þa underfeng se blinda man gesihðe. Þæt is, ðaða Crist com to ure deadlicnysse, and ure menniscnysse underfeng, þa wearð mancyn onliht, and gesihðe underfeng...

Ne bæd se blinda naðor ne goldes, ne seolfres, ne nane woruldlice ðing, ac bæd his gesihðe. For nahte he tealde ænig ðing to biddenne buton gesihðe; forðan ðeah se blinda sum ðing hæbbe, he ne mæg butan leohte geseon þæt he hæfð. Uton forði geefenlæcan þisum men, þe wæs gehæled fram Criste, ægðer ge on lichaman ge on sawle: ne bidde we na lease welan, ne gewitenlice wurðmyntas; ac uton biddan leoht æt urum Drihtne: na þæt leoht ðe bið geendod, þe bið mid þære nihte todræfed, þæt ðe is gemæne us and nytenum; ac uton biddan þæs leohtes þe we magon mid englum anum geseon, þæt ðe næfre ne bið geendod. To ðam leohte soðlice ure geleafa us sceal gebringan, swa swa Crist cwæð to ðam blindan menn, "Loca nu, þin geleafa ðe gehælde."

'Here it is read in the gospel, which we heard just now from the deacon's mouth, that the Saviour took his twelve disciples apart and said to them, "Behold, we shall go to the city of Jerusalem, and then all the things which were written about me by the prophets shall be fulfilled. I shall be betrayed to the Gentiles, and they shall mock me, and scourge me, and afterwards kill me, and I shall rise from death on the third day." His disciples did not understand the meaning of these words. Then it happened that they came near to a city which is called Jericho, and a certain blind man sat there beside the road; and when he heard the passing of the people with the Saviour, he asked who went past there. They said to him that the Saviour was passing. Then he began to cry out, and said, "Saviour, Son of David, have mercy on me!" The men who were going in front of the Saviour chided the blind man to make him keep quiet. He cried much louder then, "Saviour, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Then the Saviour stopped, and told them to lead the blind man to him. When he came near, the Saviour asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?" He said, "Lord, that I may see." And the Saviour said to him, "Look now: your faith has healed you." And he immediately saw, and followed the Saviour, and glorified him. Then all the people who saw that miracle glorified God with great fervour.

The beginning of this gospel touched on our Saviour's passion, though he did not suffer at this time; but he wanted to make known his suffering to his disciples, from afar and long before, so that they would not be too afraid at his suffering, when the time came that he chose to suffer. Their minds were afraid at Christ's saying, but he encouraged them again by the words he spoke: "I will rise from death on the third day." Then he wanted to strengthen and confirm their faith with miracles. And they came then to the place where the blind man sat beside the road, and Christ healed him in the sight of all the multitude, so that by that miracle he might bring them to faith.

But the miracles which Christ worked manifested one thing by power, and betokened another thing by mystery. He worked those miracles, truly, through divine power, and with those miracles confirmed the people's faith; but yet there was another thing hidden within those miracles, in a spiritual sense. This one blind man betokened all mankind, who were blinded through Adam's sin, and thrust from the joy of Paradise and brought to this life, which is likened to a prison. Now we are shut out from the heavenly light, and we may not, in this life, enjoy the eternal light; nor do we know any more of it than we read in books, through Christ's teaching. This world, though it may at times seem pleasant, is really no more like the eternal world than a prison is like the bright day. All mankind, as we said before, were blinded with lack of faith and error, but through Christ's coming we were snatched up out of our errors and enlightened by faith. Now we have the light in our minds, that is Christ's faith; and we have a hope of the joy of everlasting life, though we still dwell bodily in our prison.

The blind man sat at the city which is called Jericho. Jericho is interpreted and called 'moon'. The moon both waxes and wanes: for half the month it is waxing, for half it is waning. Now the moon betokens our mortal life and the decay of our mortality. At one end men are born, at the other they depart. When Christ came to the city of Jericho, which betokens the moon, the blind man received sight. That is, when Christ came to our mortality, and assumed our human nature, mankind was enlightened, and received sight...

The blind man did not pray for gold, or silver, or any worldly thing, but prayed for his sight. He did not think anything worth praying for except sight, because though the blind man may possess something, without light he cannot see what he has. Let us then imitate this man, who was healed by Christ, both in body and in soul: let us pray not for false riches, nor for transitory honours, but let us pray for light from our Lord; not for the light which will be ended, which will be driven away with the night, which is common to us and beasts, but let us pray for the light which we and the angels alone may see, which will never be ended. To that light, truly, our faith will bring us, as Christ said to the blind man: Look now, your faith has healed you.'

The story of the blind man in the Grimbald Gospels (Add. MS 34890 f. 103)

Read the rest here. There's a brief digression into that favourite theme of Anglo-Saxon writers, exile and the heavenly homeland:

Nis ðeos woruld na ure eðel, ac is ure wræcsið; forði ne sceole we na besettan urne hiht on þissum swicelum life, ac sceolon efstan mid godum geearnungum to urum eðele, þær we to gesceapene wæron, þæt is to heofenan rice.
'This world is not our homeland, but our exile-journey; so we should not set our hope on this untrustworthy life, but should hasten with good merits towards our homeland, for which we were created - that is, towards the heavenly kingdom.'

And he concludes by saying:

Nu genealæcð clæne tid and halig, on þære we sceolon ure gimeleaste gebetan: cume forði gehwa cristenra manna to his scrifte, and his diglan gyltas geandette, and be his lareowes tæcunge gebete; and tihte ælc oðerne to gode mid godre gebysnunge, þæt eal folc cweðe be us, swa swa be ðam blindan gecweden wæs, ðaða his eagan wæron onlihte; þæt is, Eall folc þe þæt wundor geseah, herede God, seðe leofað and rixað a butan ende. Amen.

'Now a pure and holy time draws near, in which we should atone for our neglect. Every Christian, therefore, should come to his confession and confess his hidden sins, and amend according to the guidance of his teacher; and let everyone encourage each other to good by good example, so that all people may say of us what was said of the blind man when his eyes were enlightened: that is, All people who saw that miracle praised God, who lives and reigns forever without end. Amen.'

It was the custom described in this last paragraph, of preparing for Lent by going to confession (scrift), which later led to these three days before Ash Wednesday being known as Shrovetide. On the one hand, this three-day period was a time for the kind of devout preparations Ælfric describes here, in order to start off Lent in a good spiritual state. At the same time, at least by the later Middle Ages, it was also a period of last-chance merrymaking and revelry before the soberness of Lent: a carnival of Shrovetide games, riotous plays, and eating up the rich food which would be off the menu until Easter. Hence, of course, pancakes.

For Ælfric's homily for Ash Wednesday, see this post.

The story of the blind man in an Old English translation of the Gospel of Luke 


Jo Siedlecka said...

What a beautiful sermon. Thanks for the translation!

Matt G said...

I love "leorningcnihtas" = "disciples". A new movement; The Knights of Learning!

Clerk of Oxford said...

That's one of my very favourite Old English words :D

Anonymous said...

I was enjoying - and wondering about - that 'cnihtas', too.

In English (Standard, anyway: I'm no dialectologist!) the 'knight'= 'Latin 'miles' sense is all that has survived.

That is not true of other modern Germanic languages, where 'miles' = 'Ritter' (German)/'ridder'(Dutch, Danish, Norwegian) /'riddari' (Icelandic)/ 'riddare' (Swedish), while the 'chiht'-analogues (where they survive) have some (of the) other sense(s).

Can we see when that sort of specialization occurred in English? Conversely, could Alfric's sermon have conjured up in any contemporary hearer's mind a picture of the disciples as a byrnied warband?

An Old Mertonian

John Michael said...

Clerk of Oxford; Thank you for making the effort and taking the time to post these writings. Our medieval predecessors may have been more enlightened than we realize. Again, thank you.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Old Mertonian - no; 'cniht' in Old English usually means 'boy, young man', and thus 'servant, attendant', but not 'warrior'. That's a development which seems to have taken place late in the eleventh century.

neebleneeble said...

I like this, Matt G!