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.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Savior of the Nations, Come

This coming Friday is St. Andrew's Day. Advent begins, according to tradition, "on the Sunday nearest." Soon, then we will break out the glorious Advent hymns, including Savior of the Nations, Come (number 263, for those of us suffering under the yoke of Evangelical Lutheran Worship).

Savior is a fine hymn, with a complicated history.  Its ultimate source is Ambrose of Milan's Veni, Remptor Gentium. No less than Martin Luther translated it into German, and his Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland was appointed for the first Sunday of Advent, and therefore printed as the first hymn in most of the early Lutheran hymnals. It remains a favorite, at least among us Evangelicals.

Luther fiddled with his original, adding a stanza, and English translators (including Neale) have fiddled a bit more. You can find their work readily available in hymnals. For the record, though, we will offer the Latin and (medieval) German:


Veni, redemptor gentium,
ostende partum Virginis;
miretur omne saeculum:
talis decet partus Deum.

Non ex virili semine,
sed mystico spiramine
Verbum Dei factum est caro
fructusque ventris floruit.

Alvus tumescit Virginis,
claustrum pudoris permanet,
vexilla virtutum micant,
versatur in templo Deus.

Procedat e thalamo suo,
pudoris aula regia,
geminae gigas substantiae
alacris ut currat viam.

Aequalis aeterno Patri,
carnis tropaeo cingere,
infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti.

Praesepe iam fulget tuum
lumenque nox spirat novum,
quod nulla nox interpolet
fideque iugi luceat.

Sit, Christe, rex piissime,
tibi Patrique gloria
cum Spiritu Paraclito,
in sempiterna saecula. Amen.


Nu kom der Heyden heyland
der yungfrawen kynd erkannd.
Das sych wunnder alle welt
Gott solch gepurt yhm bestelt.

Nicht von Mans blut noch von fleisch
allein von dem heyligen geyst
Ist Gottes wort worden eyn mensch
vnd bluet eyn frucht weibs fleisch.

Der yungfraw leib schwanger ward
doch bleib keuscheyt reyn beward
Leucht erfar manch tugend schon
Gott da war yn seynem thron. 

Er gieng aus der kamer seyn
dem könglichensaal so reyn.
Gott von art vnd menscheyn hellt
seyn weg er zu lauffen eyllt. 

Seyn laufft kam vom vatter her
vnd keret wider zum vater.
Fur hynvndtern zu der hell
vnd wider zu Gottes stuel. 

Der du bist dem vater gleich
fur hynnaus den syegym fleisch
das dein ewig gotsgewalt
ynnvnns das kranck fleysch enthallt. 

Dein kryppen glentzt hell vnd klar
die nacht gybt eyn new liecht dar
tunckel muß nicht komen dreyn
der glaub bleib ymer ym scheyn. 

Lob sey Gottd em vatter thon
Lob sey got seym eyngen son.
Lob sey got dem heyligen geyst
ymer vnnd ynn ewigkeyt.

Now, it will be obvious to most readers that Ambrose is going after the Arians here, as well he might have considering the way they went after his flock. There is a strong emphasis upon the equality of the three Nicene persons. The Spirit has breathed the Word, and the Son is equal to the Father.

The unattributed version in ELW, which is only six stanzas long, has a great deal to accomplish: reflecting the ideas of two important poets, making it fit the familiar meter, and keeping it to a length attractive to modern congregations. It doesn't do a bad job, although we desperately miss the stanza that begins Aequalis aeterno Patri. It both makes the anti-Arian point, and describes the effect of the Lord's earthly ministry upon us human beings:

...The weakness of our mortal state
With deathlesss might invigorate. (Neale)

But the stanza that concerns us most is the third, dealing with the Blessed Virgin.  In ELW, this is:

Wondrous birth -- o wondrous child -- 
from his throne, a virgin mild!
Very God, and Mary's Son, 
eager now his race to run.

Now, for starters, we despise the frequent rhyme "Virgin mild." Mary is not mild in Luke's Gospel. The Magnificat is not the utterance of a sweet little nothing.  It is a declaration of holy war against injustice. If one must rhyme with "child," we think the only word for Mary is "wild."

That said, other translations of this hymn use the more timeworn "undefiled," which we freely admit  comes closer to St. Ambrose's original idea. And we recognize that several stanzas are being compressed into one here. But on the whole, this stanza is weak. Crudely translated, Ambrose says:

The Virgin's womb swelled;
The door of chastity remained and,
Virtue's flags waving,
Was turned into God's Temple.

That's quite a powerful set of images.  It combines the physicality of birth -- the swollen belly and miraculously intact hymen -- with the sort of waving military flags that, in later years and courtesy of Venantius Fortunatus, Christians would associate with Palm Sunday.  As much as Jesus marching to his death is a battle against death and hell, so too is his mother's pregnancy.

And bluntly put: Mary's uterus becomes God's Temple.

This is a stirring idea, utterly lost in our English version. It is also lost in Luther's. He says that "her chastity remained," and reminds us that Mary's body is the Lord's "throne." He's certainly working on the same idea, but, in our opinion, loses the graphic power of Ambrose.

Still, even watered-down, it is worth singing.  We hope you will.