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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Honey in the Mouth

If you are preaching come Sunday, we certainly hope it is upon the Name of Jesus. This feast (which is historically connected to that of the Circumcision) is sufficiently important to Lutherans that it is, along with the Comites Christi, among the only Lesser Festivals granted precedence over a Sunday for which the color is white.

For those averse to rubrics, that means, um, "Hulk like Jesus Day."

Devotion to the Name of Jesus has a long and complicated history, well beyond the scope of a little blog post. But it is especially prominent in two very different settings: Western Europe in the later Middle Ages, and modern African-American churches.

With regard to the latter, a member of our Bronx parish often reflected upon her experience when visiting friends' congregations. She was an uneducated woman from the deep South, and we will not try to reproduce her distinctive grammar, but as she described it,
They just sit there during the sermon, as if they were barely listening. But then the preacher says 'Jesus' and they all begin to moan. Then he says 'JE-sus,' and the moaning turns to clapping. Then he says 'JEEE-SUS,' and they are all shouting and stomping their feet.
Please note that this woman was not herself entirely comfortable with the devotions she described to us. On the contrary, although raised in Bapticostal churches, she had been Lutheranized deeply enough to find the practice a bit suspicious. The name, she said, is not an idol to be worshiped; she came to church in order to hear the good news of sin and redemption, rather than to bark like one of Pavlov's dogs. (That may not be quite how she said it.)

In fairness, however, it is hard to imagine that, in most African-American churches, the Name of Jesus can ever be separated from the content of the Gospel. On the contrary, it serves as an epitome of the Gospel narrative, the proverbial nutshell containing the Iliad.

As for the first setting, we don't know very much about it. The old Catholic Encyclopedia has a short article, which makes special mention of Bernardino of Siena (1380-144). Blogger Terry Prest has a very nice piece on St. Bernardino, about whom we knew nothing previously. He posts a sermon by Bernardino from the Vatican website, which includes this stirring bit:
The name of Jesus is the glory of preachers, because the shining splendour of that name causes his word to be proclaimed and heard. And how do you think such an immense, sudden and dazzling light of faith came into the world, if not because Jesus was preached?
This is well worth quoting, or adapting, for a Lutheran sermon.

Bernardino's more famous namesake (and we imagine eponym) is of course Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), about whom there is no shortage of information on the web, or in any respectable church history. Bernard, sometimes called "the last of the Fathers" and "the honey-tongued doctor," was a Cistercian reformer, and -- perhaps apart from his enthusiasm for the Crusades -- one of the most admired churchmen of his own or any other time. (John Donne quotes him more frequently than any other medieval writer.) Bernard's passion for the Name of Jesus comes through in much of his writing, and samples can be found with a quick web search.

But here is a thoughtful meditation on Bernard and the Holy Name, offered by Pope Benedict XVI at a 2009 audience in St. Peter's Square. We'll highlight the best bits:

[Bernard's] solicitude for the intimate and vital participation of the Christian in the love of God in Jesus Christ does not offer new guidelines in the scientific status of theology. But, in a more than decisive way, the abbot of Clairvaux configures the theologian to the contemplative and the mystic.
Only Jesus -- insists Bernard in face of the complex dialectical reasoning of his time -- only Jesus is "honey to the mouth, song to the ear, joy to the heart (mel in ore, in aure melos, in corde iubilum)." From here stems, in fact, the title attributed to him by tradition of Doctor Mellifluus: his praise of Jesus Christ, in fact, "runs like honey."

In the extenuating battles between nominalists and realists -- two philosophical currents of the age -- the abbot of Clairvaux does not tire of repeating that only one name counts, that of Jesus the Nazarene. "Arid is all food of the soul," he confesses, "if it is not sprinkled with this oil; insipid, if it is not seasoned with this salt. What is written has no flavor for me, if I have not read Jesus." And he concludes: "When you discuss or speak, nothing has flavor for me, if I have not heard resound the name of Jesus" (Sermones in Cantica Canticorum XV, 6: PL 183,847).

For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consists in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And this, dear brothers and sisters, is true for every Christian: Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us."
"Honey to the mouth, song to the ear, joy to the heart." While Lutheran pastors are generally not encouraged to steal their sermons from the Pope, it seems to us that these paragraphs, at least, could be borrowed (with attribution!) to good effect.


Pastor Joelle said...

You know I usually ALWAYS go with the commemoration but I just couldn't pass up Anna and Simeon this time.

Father Anonymous said...

As a guy who recently admitted to transferring the Epiphany, I don't feel I'm in a position to say a thing. (And I was bitterly torn over passing up a chance to preach on the Nunc dimittis.)