Sunday, 7 December 2014

'This world is like a man grown old'

Blessing for Advent (BL Add. 49598, f. 10)

Following on from last week's post about Ælfric's homily for the first Sunday in Advent, here are some extracts from his other Advent homily (he only wrote two; you can read the whole thing online here). This homily discusses the Gospel reading from Luke 21:25-33, which talks about the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ, and is based on a homily on this passage by Gregory the Great. Ælfric, like Gregory, begins by describing the signs that the end of the world is approaching, then goes on to explain how one ought to feel about this inevitable destruction:

Ne gewurðe hit la, þæt ænig geleafful, seðe gewilnað God to geseonne, þæt he heofige for middangeardes hryrum... Þa sceolon heofian for middangeardes toworpennysse, þa ðe heora heortan wyrtruman on his lufe aplantodon, þa ðe þæt towearde lif ne secað, ne his furðon ne gelyfað: we soðlice, ðe þæs heofonlican eðles gefean eallunga oncneowon, sceolon anmodlice to ðam onettan. Us is to gewiscenne þæt we hrædlice to ðam faron, and þurh ðone scyrtran weg becumon, forðan ðe ðes middangeard is mid menigfealdum unrotnyssum geðread, and mid ðwyrnyssum geangsumod.

Hwæt is ðis deadlice lif buton weg? Understandað nu hwilc sy on weges geswince to ateorigenne, and ðeah nelle þone weg geendigan. Drihten cwæð, "Behealdað þas fictreowa and ealle oðre treowa: þonne hi spryttað, ðonne wite ge þæt hit sumorlæhð. Swa eac ge magon witan, ðonne ge ðas foresædan tacna geseoð, þæt Godes rice genealæhð." Soðlice mid þisum wordum is geswutelod þæt ðises middangeardes wæstm is hryre. To ðam he wext þæt he fealle; to ðy he sprytt þæt he mid cwyldum fornyme swa hwæt swa he ær sprytte.

Þes middangeard is ðam ealdigendan menn gelic: on ingoðe bið se lichama þeonde on strangum breoste, on fullum limum and halum; witodlice on ealdlicum gearum bið þæs mannes wæstm gebiged, his swura aslacod, his neb gerifod, and his lima ealle gewæhte; his breost bið mid sicetungum geðread, and betwux wordum his orðung ateorað; þeah ðe him adl on ne sitte, þeah forwel oft his hæl him bið adl. Swa is ðisum middangearde: æt fruman he wæs ðeonde swylce on geogoðhade, he wæs on lichamlicere hælðe growende, and on speda genihtsumnysse fætt, langsum on life, stille on langsumere sibbe; ac he is nu mid ylde ofsett, swylce mid gelomlæcendum hefigtymnyssum to deaðe geðread.

Mine gebroðra, ne lufige ge þisne middangeard þe ge geseoð þæt lange wunian ne mæg. Be ðisum cwæð se apostol, "Ne lufige ge middangeard, ne ða ðing ðe him on wuniað, forðan swa hwa swa middangeard lufað, næfð he Godes lufe on him." Wel is Godes rice sumerlicere tide wiðmeten, forði ðonne gewitað þa genipu ure dreorignysse, and lifes dagas ðurh beorhtnysse þære ecan sunnan scinað...

Se witega cwæð, þæt se miccla Godes dæg is swiðe gehende, and þearle swyft. Þeah ðe gyt wære oðer þusend geara to ðam dæge, nære hit langsum; forðan swa hwæt swa geendað, þæt bið sceort and hræd, and bið swilce hit næfre ne gewurde, þonne hit geendod bið. Hwæt þeah hit langsum wære to ðam dæge, swa hit nis, þeah ne bið ure tima langsum, and on ure geendunge us bið gedemed, hwæðer we on reste oþþe on wite ðone gemænelican dom anbidian sceolon. Uton forði brucan þæs fyrstes ðe us God forgeaf, and geearnian þæt ece lif mid him seðe leofað and rixað in ealra worulda woruld. Amen.

'O, let not any believer who wishes to see God grieve for the world's end... They should grieve for the destruction of the world who have planted the root of their heart in the love of it, who do not seek the life to come, nor even believe in it; but truly, we, who know of all the joys of our heavenly homeland, should with one mind be hastening there. We ought to wish that we may swiftly travel there, and come there by the short way, because this world is afflicted with many sorrows, and made wretched by many evils.

What is this deathly life but a journey? Consider what it would be like to grow weary labouring on with a journey, and yet not wish for the journey to end. The Lord said, "Behold this fig-tree, and all other trees: when they sprout leaves, then you know that summer draws near. So in the same way, when you see the aforementioned signs, then you may know that the kingdom of God draws near." Truly, by these words it is shown that the fruit of this world is falling. It grows so that it may fall; it sprouts up so that it may destroy with pestilence what had previously sprouted.

This world is like a man grown old. In youth the body is thriving, with a powerful chest, with strong and healthy limbs; but in old age this man's growth is bowed down, his neck grows slack, his face is wrinkled, his limbs all made weak. His breast is oppressed with sighs, and between words his breath fails him; though sickness may not afflict him, yet very often health is like a sickness to him. So it is with this world. In the beginning it was thriving as in its youth, growing in bodily health, getting fat on the abundance of plenty, with a long time to live and dwelling in lasting peace. But now it is oppressed by old age, as if by its frequent troubles it is afflicted unto death.

My brothers, do not love this world, which you see cannot last long. The apostle said of this, "Do not love the world, nor anything that lives in it, because whoever loves the world does not have the love of God in him." The kingdom of God is well likened to the summertime: for then the clouds of our sorrow will pass away, and life's days will shine with the brightness of the eternal sun...

The prophet said that the great day of God is near at hand, and incredibly swift. Even if it were still a thousand years until that day comes, it would not be any slower, because the end comes swift and quick, and when it is ended it will be as if it had never existed. And even if it were to be a long time until that day - which it is not - nonetheless our time will not be long, and at our ending it will be judged whether we shall await the common doom in peace or in suffering. Let us therefore make use of the time which God has given us, and merit eternal life with him who lives and reigns for ever, world without end. Amen.'

The Second Coming of Christ, illustrated among the texts for Advent in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold 
(BL Add. 49598, f. 9v)

This homily is in part about interpreting the natural world, reading its signs as if it were a book, imitating the example of Christ as reader; as Gregory explains:

[Christ] says: See the fig-tree and all the trees. When they now shoot forth their fruit, you know that summer is nigh. So you also, when you shall see these things come to pass, know that the kingdom of God is at hand. Is it not as though He said: In the same way that you conclude by the trees bearing fruit that summer is near, so by the downfall of the world you will know that the kingdom of God is not far off? These words show us plainly enough that the fall and destruction of this world are its real fruits, since its rise and increase are closely connected with its fall, and since it brings forth those things only which are destined to perish. If, on the contrary, we consider the kingdom of God, we are aware that we may in all truth compare it with the summer, when all the clouds of our afflictions will be dispersed and be followed by happy days, lighted up by a never disappearing sun of bliss.

Ælfric follows closely this reading of the 'fruits of the world', but he adds a few extra botanical touches: he talks, for instance, about those who have 'the root of their heart planted in the love of the world' (heora heortan wyrtruman on his lufe aplantodon), and when he describes how the world is like a man grown old, he uses the word wæstm for the 'growth' which is bowed down by age - the same wæstm which is the 'growth' or fruit of the world, ðises middangeardes wæstm. A tree, the world, and the body of a man all grow to maturity, bear fruit, and then wither and die. (You might like to compare the wæstm of the more fruitful harvests in the Menologium which I discussed back in August).

The last paragraph of the homily is particularly striking; bið swilce hit næfre ne gewurde 'it will be as if had never existed', he says, slipping for a moment into language reminiscent of Old English poetry:

Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære...

Or of the Middle English poem I posted here recently:

Nou hit is, and nou hit nys,
Also hit ner nere, ywys.

I find it strangely touching when Ælfric talks about 'a thousand years' as if that's an impossibly long period of time, beyond imagination, because that's exactly the space of time which separates him from us; and from this side of it, it really doesn't feel like a long time at all. A thousand years into the future is impossible to conceive, but a thousand years in the past can seem like yesterday.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this little Aelfric series or set of two!

(This is the sort of thing Tolkien knew well, and I, not till now!)

And thank you for the links in it to full text and translation and source-in-translation! They suggest that that fine passage about the 'ages of man' is also an addition of Aelfric's, which has to my not-very-well-read mind quite an 'Old English' feel to it - yet I also wonder if it is deliberately indebted and alluding to the context of the verse from 1 John 2:15 quoted after it (the "filioli", "patres", "adolescentes", "infantes" and "juvenes" of verses 12-14)?

The glossing "raise then your heads, that is, be glad in your minds, for then this world shall be ended, which ye loved not; then shall be at hand the redemption which ye sought" in which Aelfric follows St. Gregory made me wonder if both were thinking of "Sursum corda" and the Eucharistic 'change' as well. But Aelfric seems also splendidly to follow it up with the last three sections (in Thorpe as linked): "Ne awendað heofon and eorðe to nahte, ac hi beoð awende of ðam hiwe ðe hí nu on wuniað to beteran hiwe"...!

Thanks, finally, for your last observations! Aelfric was almost as far again from St. Gregory, as St. Gregory from the Incarnation, and here we are, as far again from Aelfric, as he from the Incarnation, and yet, while in one sense it seems a very long time, as you say, "a thousand years in the past can seem like yesterday."

An Old Mertonian

P.S.: A delightful companion or comparison in the Benedictional illustration to Aelfric's "englas and heah-englas, þrymsetl, ealdorscipas, hlafordscipas and anwealdu"!