A penitent medieval stanza

Came across this this morning before popping Parsifal into the DVD drive:

Since first I could do harm I sinned my fill;
In deed, with mouth, with all my limbs did ill;
My grief for many sins, which now I spill,
Should earlier have flowed, with Christ’s good will.

This is from a stanza of a poem to the Mother of God in Medieval English Verse, the Penguin Classic translated by Brian Stone, p. 69. My Protestant sensibilities are not much moved by the poem’s appeals to St Mary the Virgin, but this stanza struck me as a potent reminder of the human condition, however much we may try to avoid speaking of it these days.

Wrongdoing runs deep in the human soul, and the mediaeval mind was profoundly aware of this fact, as were the pious men and women of the Early Modern Age.

Have our cries of, ‘Grace, grace!’ deafened our ears to the sounds of sin today? Would it be so wrong to ‘moan and bewail’ our manifold sins and wickedness as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer says? Perhaps some ages were too obsessed with sin. And perhaps a fault of our age is ignoring it and taking it too lightly.

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The Twelfth Day of Christmas: St Francis and the Manger

A beloved Christmas tradition in many places is the staging of a living nativity. This practice seems to go back to 1223 when St Francis, out of a desire to see and experience in a tangible way the poverty and suffering that Our Lord entered into at His birth in the flesh, staged one.

The tale is recorded in Thomas of Celano’s First Life (read it here), where Thomas adds vividness to the telling through his use of the historic present. Most translations fail to do this, but the one in my students’ course reader this past term maintained the original tense, which adds to the intensity of the events.

At St. Francis’ bidding, using a real stable with real animals, they staged a Nativity scene. The above-cited translation says of the event, ‘There Simplicity was honored, Poverty exalted, Humility commended; and of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem.’ These are the virtues of Francis — Simplicity, Poverty, Humility. They are, to use Franciscan terms, Evangelical virtues. They are the virtues Our God espoused when he was born amongst us as a child.

They then, it seems, celebrated the Eucharist, Francis serving in his liturgical role as deacon. Holy Communion is both the typical and highest form of Christian worship. Furthermore, celebrating it at Christmas ties Jesus’ birth to His death and resurrection — highlighting the redemptive nature of the entire Incarnation.

On this Twelfth Day of Christmas, may Jesus fill your hearts with love and light, becoming real to you as He was to Francis.

Lent in 1662: The Commination

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, an edition of said book that was to endure for centuries with little or no modification, and from which all of today’s Anglican Prayer Books, from Edinburgh to Toronto, from New York to Singapore, from Nairobi to Wellington are descended.

This book is descended from the work of Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century, itself a reformed, Anglicised version of the mediaeval Latin Use of Sarum (from which I have my translations of the marriage ceremony and a version of Vespers available on this site).

1662 includes, for Ash Wednesday, ‘A Commination‘ (literally, ‘threatening of vengeance’), descended from 1549’s service for the First Day of Lent. This service breathes fire; those with a knee-jerk reaction to things Reformed will take one look at its preface and declare, ‘This is why I’m not Reformed!’

Here is the fiery text of 1662:

BRETHREN, in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.
Instead whereof, until the said discipline may be restored again, (which is much to be wished,) it is thought good, that at this time (in the presence of you all) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered out of the seven and twentieth Chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of Scripture; and that ye should answer to every Sentence, Amen: To the intent that, being admonished of the great indignation of God against sinners, ye may the rather be moved to earnest and true repentance; and may walk more warily in these dangerous days; fleeing from such vices, for which ye affirm with your own mouths the curse of God to be due.

The service proceeds to list various sinners the Bible calls ‘accursed’ — not just idolaters or cursers of parents, but those who move their neighbour’s landmark as well. Most of us would agree with someone who listed these sins that they are bad — those who purposefully divert the blind, adulterers, fornicators, murderers of the innocent for profit, those who trust humans rather than God and the rest.

But we are careful today to use the word ‘cursed’ of those who commit these sins. Deuteronomy isn’t, declaring a whole swathe of sinners cursed (Gk. epikataratos, Lat. maledictus)* before entering the Promised Land. And in Deuteronomy, as in 1549 and 1662, the people are to answer, ‘Amen,’ to each declaration of cursedness.

I do not think that this service is either excessively ‘Reformed’ in the most dour vision of the Reformed or ‘mediaeval’ in the most fire-and-brimstone vision of mediaeval piety.

The purpose, as with much mediaeval and Reformed proclamations of sin, is to call sinners to repentance. No doubt the Mosaic version had much the same bent. Sin is a reality and it has real consequences. Part of Lent, at least in western views since the Middle Ages, is to repent us of our sins.

If the list of sins seems a bit much to us, perhaps that is good. Perhaps we need a reminder of our own ‘wretchedness’ (to use another BCP word). Once we stand face to face with our own depravity, then can we all the more rejoice in God’s grace.

This is the end goal of healthy mediaeval and Reformed piety. Not for us to spend our lives in sack cloth and ashes, rubbing excrement on our faces like King Priam upon the death of Hector. No, rather, it is for us to acknowledge our own brokenness and to turn to the redeemer for the grace he gives and to be transformed into his likeness.

Finally, a note for those who think this sort of call against sinners is ‘Old Testament’ or ‘too mediaeval’ or ‘Reformed’, take note of the lists of sinners who will not partake in the Kingdom of God according to St. Paul, take a look at Tertullian’s work On Modesty, observe Leo the Great’s calls to sinners, read the Eastern Greek Mark the Monk’s fear for his own salvation despite his asceticism. It is a healthy balance to our joy, not something to abandon because of certain excesses in particular times, places, and traditions.

*If I can’t do Hebrew, I can at least pull out the Classical languages!