Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Cynewulf and the Great Antiphons...

Since I began to read the works of Medieval authors in my Latin studies (such as St Bede), besides their inherent beauty and genius, one thing has struck me, which hitherto I had only half-heeded: these holy and wise men must have been profoundly steeped in the Latin Liturgy and in the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers - much more than any modern Catholic, besides perhaps a few devout theologians here and there (such as the Holy Father). They write as if they breathe an air of undiluted holiness - O to have been alive in the 12th century! Since I read the short article in The Catholic Encyclopedia on the Antiphonae Maiores, I looked up this wonderful article in Google Books by Thurston called The Great Antiphons, Heralds of Christmas. It is well worth the read; he cites liturgical uses of the Antiphons, and quotes extensively from Cynewulf, an Anglo-Saxon poet (the successor of Cædmon) who, judging by the nature of his marvellous poem Crist, must have been well acquainted with the Antiphons. To my everlasting beatitude and felicity, I have thus established a link between Middle-earth and the Sacred Liturgy! In my post on the Flammifer of Westernesse (interestingly, another -fer word appears in O Emmanuel, namely legifer - law-bringer), I noted that Crist was the poem in which, as a young man of 21, Tolkien had first discovered the name Earendel, a name which can be interpreted ''radiance of the Dawn,'' in deference to St John the Baptist, the herald of Christ's coming. Tolkien was struck by the peculiarly beautiful charm of this word, a name that encompasses many aspects and many facets of Old Testament symbolism about the coming of Christ, almost as the first dawn to illumine the cold lands of Men. In The Silmarillion, Eärendil the Mariner, with the Silmaril as the star upon his brow, penetrated the shadows of the wild seas about the Blessed Realm, and besought the Powers as the messenger of Elves and Men to move them to pity upon their sorrows; and thus was the realm of the Dark Lord brought to ruin. I have often marvelled at this poignant link between the Mariner and the Prophet. Well, the poem Crist is simply bathed in a Catholic exuberance which is scarce to be found nowadays.

This section of Crist represents O Emmanuel. It is beautiful:

O thou God of spirits! how wisely thou
wast named, with name aright, Emmanuel!
As the Angel spake the word in Hebrew first,
which in its secret meaning fully now
is thus interpreted: ''The Guardian of the skies,
God's self, is now with us;'' e'en as of yore
old Men said truly that the King of Kings,
and eke the cleanly priest, would come anon.
Thus long ago the great Melchisedech
so wise of soul, revealed the majesty
of the eternal Ruler; he was the law-bringer
he gave them precepts, who had waited long
his advent hither, for it was promised them
that the Son Himself of the all-ruling Lord
would purify the nations of the earth
and in His course would seek too the abys
by the might of His spirit. Patiently
have they waited in their fetters, till God's Child
should come to the afflicted; wherefore spake Him
those cast in torments: ''Come thou now Thyself
Sovran of Heaven! Bring us salvation
weary thralls oppressed, worn out with weeping
with bitter burning tears. With thee alone
resteth their cure for those in direst need.
Visit us here, captives so sad of mood,
nor leave behind Thee, when thou turnest from hence,
so great a throng! But royally show forth
Thy mercy unto us, O Saviour Christ!''


  1. This is extraordinary! I could read pages more of your writing and not be weary of it. Thank you very much for this very fine post.

  2. Wonderful! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Tolkienian Christianity arises. :)

  4. Thank you all for your kind comments. Blessed Advent and Christmas to you all o/

  5. There are links of this sort all over the place - since Tradition is not a jumble of documents and fragments but a living, coherent stream or body ("corpus") which appears in many facets but contains the same things everywhere.