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:

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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.

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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.
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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Sun of Justice

A friend recently asked for a little background on a hymn in With One Voice, and we are happy to oblige to the best of our ability.  It is # 659, translated by Peter Scagnelli as "O Sun of Justice." The original is Iam Christe sol iustitiae, a 6th-century hymn (extensively revised in 1632 and now entitled O sol salutis intimis). The Roman Breviary appoints it for weekday Lauds during Lent.

John Julian observes that in the hymn, Lent "is regarded as a season of waiting and penitential preparation for the Second Creation at Easter," which seems like the sort of thing that should be true of any Lenten hymn. The opening line contains an obvious reference to Malachi 4:2, and the second stanza one to Isaiah 49:8 and 2 Corinthians 6:2.

It has been translated many times. The excellent site Preces Latinae offers a version by John Dryden, which we have printed below.  J.D. Chambers version, "O Christ! Thou Sun of Justice, Come," was once in common use.  In its revised version, it has also been translated by Edward Caswall as "The Darkness Fleets, and Joyful Earth."  We think that the WOV version is faithful enough, except perhaps for its doxology. It does not, however, retain the church-y words like "penance," which is either a gain or a loss, depending upon one's perspective.

Here are the original Latin lyrics:

Iam, Christe, sol iustitiae,
mentis dehiscant tenebrae,
virtutum ut lux redeat,
terris diem cum reparas.
Dans tempus acceptabile
et paenitens cor tribue,
convertat ut benignitas
quos longa suffert pietas.
Quiddamque paenitentiae
da ferre, quo fit demptio,
maiore tuo munere,
culparum quamvis grandium.
Dies venit, dies tua,
per quam reflorent omnia;
laetemur in hac ut tuae
per hanc reducti gratiae.
Te rerum universitas,
clemens, adoret, Trinitas,
et nos novi per veniam
novum canamus canticum.
Amen.
Here is the translation by no less than John Dryden (which is the one we chose for Odd Hours):

Now Christ, Thou Sun of righteousness,
let dawn our darkened spirits bless:
the light of grace to us restore
while day to earth returns once more.

Thou who dost give the accepted time,
give, too, a heart that mourns for crime,
let those by mercy now be cured
whom loving - kindness long endured.

Spare not, we pray, to send us here
some penance kindly but severe,
so let Thy gift of pardoning grace
our grievous sinfulness efface.

Soon will that day, Thy day, appear
and all things with its brightness cheer:
we will rejoice in it, as we
return thereby to grace, and Thee.

Let all the world from shore to shore
Thee, gracious Trinity, adore;
right soon Thy loving pardon grant,
that we our new-made song may chant. Amen.

Here is WOV's version:


O Sun of justice, Jesus Christ,
dispel the darkness of our hearts,
till your blest light makes nighttime flee
and brings the joys your day imparts.

In this our “time acceptable”
touch ev’ry heart with sorrow, Lord,
that, turned from sin, renewed by grace,
we may press on toward love’s reward.

The day, your day, in beauty dawns
when in your light earth blooms anew;
led back again to life’s true way,
may we, forgiv’n, rejoice in you.

O loving Trinity, our God,
to you we bow through endless days,
and in your grace new-born we sing
new hymns of gratitude and praise. Amen

Friday, November 30, 2018

Stir Up Your Power

Some days, poor Father A. feels like the dumbest little cleric in the world. There are so many things he ought to know but doesn't and that, when he discovers them, make other -- smarter -- people pause politely and say, "Uh, yeah.  Didn't you know that already?"

In a few days, most of us will say aloud or in our hearts the beautiful and ancient Collect for the First Sunday of Advent:

Excita, domine, potenciam tuam et ueni, et quod aecclesiae tuae usque in finem saeculi promisisti, clementer operare: per. [Gelasian #1120]
Or, in the somewhat impressionistic translation we use these days:
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
But here's the thing.  Only today -- after decades of reciting that prayer! -- did we grasp that it begins with a direct quotation from Psalm 80 (Vulgate 79:3):
Excita potentiam tuam, et veni, ut salvos facias nos.
 ("Stir up your might, and come to save us.")
So did you all know this already?  And nobody thought to tell me? Humph!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Anarchy and the Virgin's Pinions

One of Father A.'s occasional pastimes is reading -- or rather, trying to read -- the poetry of Geoffrey Hill.

In the years before his death in 2016, Hill was widely, if somewhat embarrassedly, said to be the most important poet writing in English. The embarrasment in this statement grew from his notorious "difficulty," which means that even among his admirers few are quite certain what he intends to tell us. Reading Hill, except perhaps for a rarefied few experts and initiates, is consideralby harder than, say, reading Greek. We imagine it is more like reading skaldic verse, replete with those pesky kennings.

Still, one soldiers onward. And from the humility-inducing murk will on occasion emerge something comprehensible and stirring. This happened today, with a passage from his Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres (1982-2012). It is, we think, a wonderful description of St Mary, to hold in one's heart through Advent, and which may inspire a sermon or two come Christmas:

She, prejudged to common wantonness
in a land racked for tribute, takes pity
on us by virtue of the Nativity
which was not without shock, although faultless;

and not devoid, some say, of blood and pain.
I place no call to sleeping heresies.
The three adventurers whom we deem wise --
pedigree of imperious Iran --

or Botticelli's angels on the thatch
did not deplore the tearlessness of things;
lawlessness, yes. Anarchy is what brings
the pinions of her grace to fullest stretch.


It still takes a bit of explaining, but not too much. The question of whether the BVM suffered during childbirth is an old one, but since at least the 4th century reputable authors have said she did not, a view confirmed officiually at Trent, and closely associated with her perpetual virginity. The "tearlessness of things" reverses Virgil's rather obvious claim that there are tears of things -- sunt lacrimae rerum (Aeneid 1:462). In other words, a painless childbirth, if that's what she had, reverses the natural order -- but is not the point, to the Magi, the angels or the poet.

The point is not whether the birth of Christ violated the laws of nature, but that it was provoked by the rejection of divine law. This, or so we take it, is the anarchy from which Christ comes to take rescue us, and against which Mary spreads her, um, wings. (Okay, we don't pretend to get every line.  We said he's difficult.)