Tuesday, September 08, 2020

"An Awful Thing"

 "The priesthood is an awful thing."

So reads the translator's description of a chapter in John Chrysostom's Treatise On the Priesthood (3:4), as found in the venerable NPNF collection, volume 9.  It's a funny remark -- many of us, over the years, have found our vocation to be awful indeed, in the colloquial sense, and yet we soldier on. But that's not the point.

Obviously, the word "awful" has changed its sense a bit, as latterly has even "awesome."  Chrysostom is trying to say that priesthood inspires awe, particularly in the priests themselves. He is certainly correct, and the way that he says it is worth considering. Here is the passage, lightly edited for clarity:

[T]he priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded human beings still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. This is why the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers. [...]

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then believe that you are still among human beings, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, carried at once to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? 

Oh! what a marvel! what love of God to the human race! The One who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp him. And this we all do through the eyes of faith!

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Donne on Luther on Baptism

Racking our brains for something new (but not very new, if you take our point) to say about the Baptism of Our Lord last Sunday, we skimmed over a few dusty texts in the Egg's Central Archive, a grand name for such a cramped, poorly-lit newspaper morgue.

Doing so, we stumbled over this nice passage from a sermon by the Dean:
[Christian] Baptisme is to us Ianua Ecclesiae as S. Augustine calls it, The Doore of the Church, at that we enter, and Investitura Christianismi, the investing of Christianity as S. Bernard cals it, there we put on Christ Jesus, (and as he whom wee may be bold to match with these two floods of spirituall eloquence for his eloquence, that is Luther, expresses it) Puerpera regni Coelorum, the Church in Baptisme is as a woman delivered of child, and her child is the Kingdome of heaven, and that kingdome she delivers into his armes who is truly baptized. (John Donne, Sermon 41, Preached at S. Dunstan's, Trinity-Sunday 1624).
The first are splendid, if familiar images:  the Door of the Church, the Putting-On of Christianity. But that third image, from Luther, is less familiar: a woman giving birth to the Kingdom of Heaven.

We ourselves spend a fair amount of time with Uncle Marty, but the phrase rang no bells. So we Googled it, and discovered a couple of interesting things.

First, the phrase in question is quoted in several 17th-century Lutheran sources. To take them in reverse order:

  • The estimable Johann Gerhard uses it, without attribution, in a commentary on 1 Peter, published at Jena in 1660. (As does Richard Baxter in his 1653 Plain Proof).
  • It appears in a loci communes, or commonplace-book, taken from Luther's Latin writings in 1651. The citation there is to Tome 3, p. 157a. Presumably, this refers to the Jena edition, but we do not know for certain. (For those unfamiliar with commonplace-books, they were essentially indexed collections of other people's works, based in part on the older gradus ad classsicum -- essentially, a quick reference guide to some compendious body of work.)
  • Christian Dauderstadt quotes it, in the section regarding the Ascension, in his multi-volume neo-Scholastic treatise on Church festivals, published at Jena in 1646.
  • It appears in another 1617 commonplace published at Wittenberg and gathered by pastor and economist Christian Gilbert de Spaignart, and given the glorious title Stars of Lutheran Piety [Softly shining in the works of blessed Father Luther]. There it is given a different citation, which is 8.3.f.557.a  

These are all trivial in themselves, but they do raise an interesting question about Donne's sermon preparation. His sermons are rich with references not only to the Scriptures but to the Fathers and, to a somewhat lesser degree, to medieval and Reformation-era writers, up to and including regular appearances by so unlikely a writer as Bellamine. But did he know them all with equal intimacy?

Donne's references to Bernard, in particular, are so frequent that one must assume a deep acquaintance. But Luther's name appears only a handful of times in the sermons, often in proximity to the catchword "paradox." It is quite possible that, rather than keeping a stack of Luther's works on hand, Donne consulted de Spaignart or some other commonplace book.

The second thing that a quick search teaches us about this phrase, and the reason it is likely not as well-known as it might be, is that its source is not one of Luther's major works.

The only source that we can find for the phrase in question is from a brief sermon (or "coniuncula") on John 3 preached on Trinity Sunday. It was published in volume 7 of the Wittenberg edition, in 1557.  It is reprinted in Heinrich Schmidt's 1873 edition, volume 7, pp. 413ff.  The phrase occurs in a longer sentence, which changes its grammar from the epigrammatic form in which it is otherwise cited:
Igitur statuendam est, hic aquam esse intelligendam veram aquam, et ut distingueretur ab aliis aquis veris sine verbo, additur: Et Spiritu, ut sciamus, baptismum esse puerperam regni coelorum, ubi aqua, non ut aqua sola, sed Spiritu coniuncto et cooperante, eduntur filii regni coelorum. 
Very roughly: Let us be clear, that this water is to be understood as true water, and so that it will be distinguished from other waters without the Word, is added: And the Spirit (John 3:5), that we may know baptism to be a mother giving birth to the kingdom of Heaven, wherever water, not water alone, but rather joined to and working with the Spirit, the children of the kingdom of heaven are brought forth.
The relative obscurity of the phrase may have a great deal to do with its source. The coniunculae (a rare word, and one not in our trusty little Latin dictionary) are sermons transcribed by Luther's friends. This limits their reliability, as they can be no more accurate than the notes or memories of the transcriptor. So a phrase like this must be treated with caution, as it may not be precisely what Luther said.

On the other hand, consider the customary sources of the "quotable Luther." Unless we are mistaken, the great majority of popular quotations from Luther come from three sources:  (1) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, an early essay on the sacraments which seems to be the most-assigned-in-class of Luther's works; (2) the Table-Talk, which like the coniunculae are transcriptions from memory, often by people who had been drinking; or (3) one's imagination, like the spurious remark about the apple-tree.  A sermon transcript is at least as solid a source as any of the Table-Talk.

In any case:  baptism is a mother giving birth to the Kingdom of Heaven. It's a lovely thought, and one we are a bit surprised has not been more widely taken up by the present era of female-positivity in matters of ecclesiastical imagery. Perhaps it will be, once the masses read this blog post and take heed.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

John Donne on the Prodigal Son

Through a happy coincidence, this coming Sunday falls on 31 October, the commemoration of John Donne. Although the rubrics are quite clear that a Sunday in Lent has precedence over the remembrance of a saint, some preachers may be inspired to say a word or two about the late Dean.

Of course, our attention will fall, naturally, on the Gospel lesson, the tale of the Prodigal Son. But in doing so, there is no reason on earth that we might not cite one of Donn'e own reflections upon the same text. And Father A. is here to help.

In Sermon LXXXVII, undated but preached at a christening, Donne deals principally with Galatians 3:27, and the idea that is baptism we "put on" or "are clothed with" Christ. It is in this context that he draws our attention to  Luke 15:22, in which the gracious father calls for a long robe -- "the best one" -- to clothe his son:
When the prodigal child returned to his father, his father clothed him entirely, and all at once. He put a robe upon him, to cover all his defects -- which robe, when God puts upon us, in clothing us with Christ, that robe is not only dignitas quam perdidit Adamas Augustine says, but it is amictus sapientiaeas Ambrose enlarges it. It does not only make us as well, as we were in Adam, but it enables us better, to preserve that state; it does not only cover us, that is, make us excusable, for our past, and present sins, but it indues us with grace, and wisdom to keep that robe still, and never to return to our former foulnesses, and deformities. (Alford ed., punctuation altered).
The quotations are from (1) Augustine's Quaestionum Evangeliorum Libri Duo, 2:33, "the first robe is the dignity which was lost by Adam," and (2) Ambrose's De Cain et Abel, 1:6:24, "the putting on [a garment] of wisdom and piety."

Please note, preaching companions, that Donne himself is not by any means a type of the Prodigal Son.  Although it took him quite a while to discern his vocation, he was a lifelong and extraordinarily devout Christian.  From a family of passionate (and sometimes martyred) Roman Catholics, he wrestled mightily with the question of conformity to the established church. But even as a law student and aspiring courtier, he spent his leisure time composing theological tractates both speculative (Biathanatos) and polemical (Ignatius His Conclave).

In other words, we beg you not to be deceived by Donne's own self-bifurcation, and to be overly sharp in distinguishing "Jack Donne" from "Dean Donne." They were the same man, with the same life-long interests.

Friday, December 21, 2018

This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

If you listen to some of the idle pre-holiday chatter, this winter as in any of the previous few, you will hear quite a bit of grousing about our folkloric images.  Jesus, as most of us know by now, was born in neither a cave nor an outdoor stable. He was almost certainly born in the main room of a private home, because the bedroom -- reserved for guests -- was already taken. Needless to say, it was not winter, at least so far as we have any reason to believe. The Magi were not kings, nor necessarily three in number, nor even necessarily men. Saint Nicholas was Turkish, not elfin.  Neither Black Peter nor Krampus has anything much to do with Christianity. And yes, of course the date was chosen to align with a pagan winter festival.

Old news to most readers. And all legit. But still.

We are living in an era when the same people argue that Santa Claus should not be a white man, and that Black Peter must become one. And this passes itself off as talking about Christmas.

It gets tiresome trying to focus on the appearance of God in human form -- the finite proving beyond question that it is capable of the infinite -- when one must also listen to prattle about things that are not That.

So maybe I won't this year. Let's keep Christmas simple:  just the Incarnation, and nothing else.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Multiple "O"s

It is the time of year when pastors sometimes teach about the so-called "O-antiphons" which form the basis of the splendid Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

(It is amusing to reflect upon how much attention these little scraps of medieval poetry get even in churches where the Magnificat itself is rarely sung, much less its proper antiphons. But that is a discussion for another day.)

Father A. has been leading one of these little cottage classes recently, and was delighted, in his antiquarian way, to discover that there are a great many more O-antiphons than he had realized.  Most of us are familiar with the seven used in the Roman Breviary during the days before Christmas Eve and imitated, imperfectly, in the lyrics of the hymn:
  1. O Sapientia (Wisdom)
  2. O Adonai (Adonai, or Lord)
  3. O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
  4. O Clavis (Key of David)
  5. O Oriens (East, or Dawn)
  6. O Rex (King)
  7. O Emmanuel          
Some of us are also aware that Anglicans add another antiphon:
8. O Virgo VirginumO Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For never was there one like you, nor ever will there be.O Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you look wondering at me? What you behold is a divine mystery 
Now, this little gem was certainly written after the originals, probably during the flowering of Marian devotion during the 12th century. When sung last, it has the neat effect of changing the acrostic from ERO CRAS (I will come tomorrow) to VERO CRAS (truly tomorrow).

Fewer of us are aware however, that during the 12th and 13th centuries, and beyond, several more antiphons constructed on the same pattern were in use at many monasteries and some parish churches all over Western Europe. The Twelve "Great Antiphons" include those we have just noted as well as the following:

9. O Gabriel, Nuntius Coelorum
O Gabriel, messenger of the heavens,
who has entered to me through the closed doors, and announced the word:
“You shall conceive and bear, and he shall be called Emmanuel.”
10. O Rex Pacifice
O King of Peace, born before the world,
come by the Golden Gate, visit your redeemed ones,
 and call them back to the place from which they fell by sin.
11. O Mundi Domina
O Lady of the world, sprung of a royal race,
now Christ has come forth from your womb
as a bridegroom from his chamber:
Here lies he in the crib, who also rules the stars. 
12. O Hierusalem
O Jerusalem, city of God most high:
lift up your eyes around you, and see your Lord,
who comes now to loose you from chains.
These are pretty neat, although -- like Virgo Virginum -- they are obviously quite different from the seven familiar Os. They are not directed only to Jesus, but to Gabriel, Mary and Jerusalem. This displays a rather different piety. And, without extensive research, it also seems to us that they are a bit less dense with Biblical allusions than their predecessors.  Still, they are lovely in their own way.

Oh, and here's a lovely trivium:  in the Friuli, O mundi Domina was intoned on Christmas Eve by the priest celebrant, after he sang the Gospel and just before the Te Deum. Neat, huh?

But wait, as the K-Tel advertisements used to say, there's more! It seems that, once this style of antiphon became popular, people couldn't get enough of it. Local variations began to pop up everywhere -- O Thomas Didyme for the feast if that saint replaced O Gabriel after the 13th century, at leas in some places. In Paris, we are told they sang O sancte sanctorum and O pastor Israel, of which we cannot even find texts on the mighty Internet.

And in some French churches, specifically those that followed the custom established by Lanfranc of Canterbury, O mundi Domina was replaced by this long and curious marvel:
O beata infantia 
O blessed Infancy,
By which our race
Was restored to life; 
 O sweet and loveable wailing,
by which we have escaped
eternal sobbing 
 O happy swaddling bands
By which we have wiped off
The soil of sin 
 O splendid manger,
In which not only lay
The hay of animals,
But was also found the supper of angels.

Cool, huh?  It's a little late now, but maybe some of our readers can integrate these into their planning for next year's Advent observances.
--> --> --> --> --> --> --> --> --> --> --> -->