Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ailerán the Wise: Homily on the Genealogy of Jesus

A ninth century copy of Ailerán's Interpretatio 
MS CSG 433 f.686

Ailerán Sapientis, (i.e. Ailerán the wise), was a fer léigind (lector) at the famous monastic school at Clonard, Co. Meath, Ireland. He died in the terrible plague of 664. He was the author of the Interpretatio Mystica Progenitorum Domini Iesu Christi (The Mystical Interpretation of the Genealogy of the Lord Jesus Christ). This homily takes the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel and interprets each name in a messianic and moral sense. For Ailerán each name signified something about Christ’s mission and also something for the Christian to emulate.

For example one ancestor of Christ was Obed. The Hebrew etymology of Obed (servant) provides Ailerán with his two-fold point,

a. Christ came not to be served but to serve, even taking on the form of a servant.
b. The Christian likewise “may serve the Lord with that servitude which is not out of fear, but with the spirit of the adoption of sons (per spiritum adoptionis filiorum seruitur Deo)”

The onomastic and patristic sources for Ailerán’s work are very impressive and give us a good insight into the resources available to early Irish monasteries. Apart from Latin sources (Jerome, Refunius, Augustine, Tertullian, Ambrose etc.) Ailerán made use of Greek material not attested in other parts of the Latin church. Breen has shown that Ailerán not only made use of Philo and Josephus in their original Greek, but also the Greek forms of the Prayer of Manasseh and Cyril of Alexandria’s Glaphyra in Genesim. Far from simply copying out Greek etymologies Ailerán displayed a sophisticated knowledge of Greek that allowed him to adapt and utilize a variety of Greek sources. Breen noted that onomastic sources “alone could not have made sense to someone who did not have a fuller knowledge of the Greek language” and that “Ailerán’s use and command of such a diverse range of Greek onomastic material extended far beyond their immediate context in this short liturgical-devotional text… The resultant picture certainly raises more questions than it answers: how the Irish, dwelling at the furthest extremity of Europe, could have obtained access to, and made use of, such a wide range of material at this early period…”

The main lessons that Ailerán wanted his students to take from his homily on Matthew 1 were the supremacy of Christ as fount of the Christian’s life and that the only way to understand Scripture was to obey Scripture. One could not say that they understood the message of Scripture if they did not live the message of Scripture.

Here is a small excerpt concerning Amon's etymology.

[Messianic Interpretation] "Amon, faithful, who says ask and it shall be given to you. And Paul says, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest. And John in the book of Revelation [says] Jesus Christ who is a faithful witness. For he is said to be faithful whose promises are always faithful, which are to be hoped for and feared.
[Moral Interpretation] In Amon, that we may be steadfast in the faith, and being faithful let us cling to the faithful Lord. For love believes and hope in all things. Faith moreover is the substance of things hoped for and the proof of things that are yet unseen. For what a man sees, why does he hope for? Faith is thus what makes us sons of Abraham, who believed in God and was considered justified by the faith; by following which pattern all our fathers before us were likewise justified. Accordingly, we live by faith and by faith are righteous, for the just man finds life through faith."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cummian's Commentary on Mark

A ninth century copy of
Cummian's Commentary
from the Irish monastery of s. Gall,
MS CSG 127

An Irishman, Cummian Fota from Co. Galway, wrote the earliest surviving commentary on Mark’s Gospel. He composed it in Latin around the year 610 and it became the most important commentary on Mark in the western church for the next 1000 years. Copies of it survive in nearly 100 manuscripts scattered all over Europe. A copy in Turin library is heavily glossed in old Irish, showing us the importance of the commentary to Irish exegetes.

Cummian’s commentary was later erroneously attributed to Jerome (which is a beautiful irony since Jerome once quipped his heretical foes were too ‘full of Irish porridge’!). The Latin speaking church, far from viewing this work as Irish porridge, incorporated it into the standard medieval reference work the Glossa Ordinaria and Aquinas cited from it in his Catena Aurea.

The commentary deals with all twelve chapters of Mark and its main themes are Christ, the virtuous Christian life, the unity of the church and asceticism. The exegetical method draws deeply from the Alexandrian allegorical school, and Patristic sources.

Clare Stancliff questioned Cummian’s authorship on internal grounds but Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and Maura Walsh have defended it, (if your interested see Maura Walsh and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Cummian's Letter De Controversia Paschali, Toronto: PIMS, 1988). Several of the commentary's features point to an Irish author, for example;
-       Use of the tres linguae sacrae
-       Descriptions of Jesus and the disciples in a currach on the sea of Galilee (puppis mortius pellibus)
-       Descriptions of the authors home land as ‘a western nation, wild and untamed’
-       Interest in the correct Easter computus
-       The Celtic inverted Eucharistic formula
-       The Cross-Vigil method of prayer (crux-vigilia)
The late German scholar Bernhard Bischoff also pointed out that a manuscript in Angers, France (not a copy of the commentary) records that a new commentary on Mark was written by one Comiano, whom he argued was our Cummian (nouellum auctorem in Marcum nomine Comiano, Angers, Bibl. munic., 44). Angers library also contains what is generally seen as the best copy of Cummian’s commentary (ms 275).

There are so many great passages in this little commentary, here is a sampling from chapter 14, the trial of Jesus;

“Peter follows from a distance. Here is a man with two minds, inconstant in all his ways (cf. James1.8). Fear draws back but love draws forward. …some said we heard this man saying I will destroy this temple. It is the custom for heretics to extract an imperfect representation from the truth. He did not say what they claim, but a similar expression about the temple of his own body which after three days he reawakened. … The High Priest standing interrogates Jesus but he remained silent…The silence of Christ absolves the excuses of Adam…[Christ is declared guilty] This was so that by his guilt he might remove our guilt; that by the blindfold on his face he might take the blindfold from our hearts; that by receiving the spits, he might wash the face of our soul, that by the blows, by which he was struck on the head, he might heal the head of the human race, which is Adam… The high Priests stirred up the crowds so that they would ask for Barabbas and so that they might crucify Jesus. Here we have the two goats. One is termed ἀποπομπαίος meaning ‘the scapegoat’ (cf. Lev. 16). He is set free with the sin of the people and sent into the desert of hell. The other goat is slain like a lamb for the sins of those who have been set free. The Lord’s portion is always slaughtered. The portion of the devil, who is their master, is cast out, without restriction, into the infernal regions.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Marian devotion and the Early Irish Church

Mary holding Jesus in the Book of Kells, c. 800
Someone asked me recently if the early Irish church held views on Mary similar to what the Roman Catholic Church teaches today. It's a great question, and I cannot offer anything in the way of a definitive answer, but for what it's worth here are some thoughts on the question.

Before we look at Ireland a quick perusal of the wider continental church may be helpful.

It may be surprising to note but the Apostolic Fathers have very little to say concerning Mary. When writers like Ignatius do mention her their reasons are always Christological, i.e. defending the virgin birth etc. According to Shoemaker, Marian piety and veneration developed relatively late in Christianity. Writers like Tertullian in the second century affirmed the virgin birth of Christ but denied that Mary remained ever-virgin or sinless. The issue of Mary remaining sinless was open for discussion among the early church fathers and several fathers such as Origen, Basil, Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius and John Chrysostom openly write of Mary’s personal sins of doubt and ambition. Yet, it must be said, they had no issue in praying to her. By the fourth century prayer and invocation of the saints and Mary was accepted practice. Jerome and Augustine wrote that Mary indeed lived a sinless life (though she still had original sin). These two writers were hugely influential in early Ireland. The council of Trent dogmatically declared that Mary was free from actual sin. The later dogmatic declaration in 1854 by Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, i.e. that Mary had no original sin. This is something that Augustine did not teach and it is not found in Latin writings until the twelfth century and even then it was opposed by Bernard of Clairvaux and others.

Concerning the perpetual virginity of Mary, Tertullian as we have seen regarded the brothers of Jesus in Matthew 13.55 as children Mary had with Joseph. However, by the second century the basis for Mary’s perpetual virginity was already coming into discussion. The Decretum Gelasianum condemned the earliest texts that refer to her perpetual virginity such as the pseudepigraphical Protoevangelium of James. Writers like Jerome stressed heavily her perpetual virginity, because for Jerome asceticism and celibacy were fundamental to spirituality and he held up Mary as the example par excellence for young Christian women. For Jerome the brothers of Jesus were actually his cousins. In the east Basil also taught that Mary was ever-virgin but accepted that others did not hold this view, he accepted this as within the borders of orthodoxy. The RC Church today regards Mary’s perpetual virginity as a dogma.

The bodily assumption of Mary had few advocates in the early church and the earliest sources that mentioned Mary’s bodily ascension were declared heretical by Pope Gelasius. His dectretal in the fifth century declared these works as the works of heretics and schismatics and condemned them forever under anathema. However, this teaching gained currency over time and in 1950 Pope Pius XII had declared Mary’s bodily assumption an infallible dogma.

Detail from Book of Kells
Looking at the early Irish Church we find that the earliest theologians that we have genuine written sources from have practically nothing to say about Mary. St. Patrick’s writings are the earliest Christian documents to have been written in Ireland, but they are not an attempt by Patrick to develop a detailed theology, and tell us practically nothing concerning his views on Mary. However, he does mention new female converts as becoming Virgins of Christ, showing us that for Patrick celibacy was encouraged but not demanded (his own grandfather was a married Priest). The earliest extensive theological writings from an Irish Christian are found in the sixth century in the writings of Columbanus. A collection of his theological writings has survived and is invaluable for listening to an early Irish Christian describe his own faith. Columbanus never mentions Mary in either his epistles or sermons; he does however mention his belief in the intercession of the saints. In the later part of seventh century Adomnán of Iona describes Mary as ‘ever-virgin’, but implicitly denies any ideas of a bodily assumption of Mary. In his popular work De Locis Sanctis he mentions Mary's grave in Jerusalem and that the tomb was empty because her body had been later removed from it. According to Adomnán her body awaits the resurrection, in quo loco resurrectionem exspectat. Another Irish writer Augustinus Hibernicus mentions Mary’s perpetual virginity, though he does not teach that Mary was free from original sin.

The most significant Irish expressions of devotion to Mary come in the eighth century and following. In the eighth century we have Cú Chuimne’s hymn to Mary and in the ninth century Blathmac’s poetry praising Mary. Both of these Irish writers were connected with Iona. This growing Marian devotion can be seen in the Book of Kells, which presents the earliest Madonna and Child image in any western manuscript. Concerning the bodily assumption of Mary there is by the tenth century accounts of her bodily assumption after she dies. Irish accounts of the assumption (see Herbert & McNamara, No. 24) while presenting Mary as the summit of holiness and an intercessor for the faithful also present Mary as doubting Jesus. This is similar to what we saw earlier in writers like John Chrysostom. Invocation of Mary and the saints is evident in the liturgy of the Irish church in the eighth century as the Stowe Missal testifies. A twelfth century litany in Irish is devoted entirely to Mary and invokes her as ‘Queen of the world’.

In conclusion we can see how the various Marian dogmas evolved over time within the western and eastern churches, the Irish church was no exception. While the earliest Irish sources seldom mention Mary there is certainly good evidence for Marian devotion in Ireland by the eighth century and following. So did the Early Irish Church hold to the modern Roman Catholic Church’s Marian dogmas? In all particulars no, but they were certainly in agreement with the wider church of her day concerning these teachings. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Excerpts from the Litany of the Trinity

Litany of the Trinity
The Litany of the Trinity is an old Irish prayer preserved in several old manuscripts in Britain and Ireland. The author is said to have been Mugron Coarb of Colum Cille. His death is recorded in the Annals of Ulster s.a. 978. The litany contains a long prayer to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was composed in Irish and was probably used for personal prayer. The longest section relates to Jesus and I include that section here. The text is taken from Charles Plummer's Irish Litanies: text and translation. Edited from the manuscripts, (London, 1925). I went through the titles attributed to Jesus and tried to find a Scriptural reference for each. Practically every line in this litany is drawn directly from Scripture.

Some of the titles given to Christ are very familiar and others may seem strange. Perhaps the most obscure title is near the end where Christ is described as A fhír-duine, A leo, A oc-daim, A aquil, i.e. O very man, O Lion, O Calf, O Eagle. This series of titles was very familiar to the early medieval church as a description of the four-fold Gospel and of Christ’s Incarnational ministry. These four ‘beasts’ are mentioned in both Ezekiel 1.10 and Rev. 4.7-8. Augustine (Harmony of the Four Gospels 1.6) interprets the imagery as follows. The Lion is Matthew’s Gospel, which presents Christ as the Lion of Judah, the man is Mark’s Gospel who depicts the servant hood of Christ, the calf is Luke’s Gospel, which presents the sacrifice of Christ. Finally the eagle is John’s gospel, which takes us to higher things, namely the divinity of pre-incarnate Christ. In short Augustine, Jerome, Irenaeus et al. all sought to link the four beasts with aspects of Christ’s life and work in the Gospels, hence their inclusion here in our Irish litany as Christological titles.

Airchis dín, a Dé uili-comachthaig, a Isu Crist, a meic Dé bi.
Have mercy upon us, O Almighty God, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God.

O Son twice-born, (Jn 1.14)
O only-begotten of God the Father, (Jn 3.16) 

O first-born of the Virgin Mary, (Matt 1.16)
O Son of David, (Luke 18.38)
O Son of Abraham, 
(Matt 1.1)
O beginning of all things, (Rev 3.14)

O completion of the world, (Rom 11.36)
O Word of God, (Jn 1.1)
O Way to the heavenly kingdom, (John 14.6)
O Life of all things, (Jn 1.4)

O everlasting Righteousness, (Isa 53.11)
O Image, O Likeness, (Col 1.16)
O Form of God the Father, 
(Phil 2.6)
O Arm of God, 
O Hand of God, (Isa 59.1)
O Might of God, O Right-hand of God, (Psalm 110.1)
O true Knowledge, 
(1 Cor 1.30)
O true Light of love, that lightens every darkness, [Jn 1.9]
O guiding Light, 
O Sun of righteousness, (Mal 4.2)
O Morning star, 
O Brightness of the Deity, 
(2 Pet 1.19)
O Radiance of the eternal brightness, 
(Heb 1.3)
O Intelligence of the mystic world, 
(1 Cor 2.7)
O Mediator of all men, 
(1 Tim 2.5)
O promised one of the Church, 
(1 Pet 1.10-11)
O faithful Shepherd of the flock, 
(Jn 10.11)
O Hope of the faithful, 
(1 Tim 1.1)
O Angel of the great counsel, 
(Ex 3.2)
O true Prophet, (Matt 21.11)

O true Apostle, (Matt 15.24)

O true Teacher, 
(Matt 22.36)
O High Priest, 
(Heb 4.14)
O Master, (Luke 8.24)
O Nazarene, (Matt 2.23)

O Bright-rayed, (Heb 1.3)
O everlasting Satisfaction, 
(Prov 19.23)
O Tree of life, 
O true Heaven, 
O true Vine, 
(Jn 15.5)
O Rod of the stem of Jesse, 
(Isa 11.1)
O King of Israel, 
(Jn 19.19)
O Savior,
 (Matt 1.21)
O Gate of life, (Jn 10.9)
O choice Flower of the field, 
O Lily of the Valleys, (Song of S. 2.11)

O Rock of strength, 
(1 Cor 10.4)
O Corner-stone, 
(Matt 21.42)
O heavenly Zion, 
O Foundation of the Faith, 
(Jn 7.38)
O innocent Lamb, 
(Jn 1.29)
O Diadem, (Isa 28.5)
O gentle Sheep, 
(Isa 53.7)
O Redeemer of the human race, 
(Isa 48.17)
O very God, (2 Pet 1.1) 

O very Man, 
O Lion, 
O Calf, 
O Eagle, (Rev 4.7-8)

O Christ crucified, (Mat 27.35)
O Judge of doom, 
(2 Tim 4.1)
Have mercy upon us. (Luke 18.38)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Mael Brigte's Gospel Book

British Library MS Harley 1802, f3.
British Library Manuscript ‘Harley 1802’ is a pocket sized copy of the four gospels in Latin written by a young Irish scribe called Mael Brigte Ua Maeluánaig in the year 1138. It measures 165mm x 120mm, and was clearly designed as a personal copy of Gospels rather than as a magnificent public Gospel book like the Book of Kells. In other words it was designed to be read and studied rather than admired. A quick glance at the tiny pages reveals that in addition to the Gospel text there are copious notes and comments written in the margins and interlinear. These notes are mainly drawn from the early church fathers (including older Irish writers such as Manchén). The notes are simple and were designed much like a study Bible to bring together details to aid study of the text. For example an Irish gloss in the margin of folio 97b reads,
There were three that were resuscitated by the gentle Christ, when he was for a time upon the earth, the daughter of Jarius the noble, the son of the widow, and Lazarus.”
A curios gloss is recorded next to Matthew 24:26a. The context is where Jesus warns people against believing reports of false Messiahs. The biblical text is,

“If therefore they shall say to you, Behold he is in the desert: go ye not out.” DRB.

To which our scribe added the gloss, which he attributed to Manchén,

Ecce in deserto .i. ut fiunt anchoritae” (here in the desert, i.e. to become an anchorite).

The connection between the desert and the hermit was strong in early Irish exegesis. The Latin word for desert (deserto) was adopted into the Irish language as dísert, meaning hermitage. In this little gloss the lasting influence of the eastern Desert Fathers on the Irish is seen.

In addition to these explanations of the text there are Irish poems relating to some of the Gospel characters. These poems mainly focus on Christ, the Apostles and the Magi. The Irish church drew from early Greek Magi traditions (i.e. their names and number) and developed these into detailed stories relating to the Magi’s clothes and personalities.

Magi Poem
The poem in our manuscript goes into great detail on the appearance of the Magi, who are called ‘druids’. Melcho is described as grey-haired and without guile, with a very long beard. Caspar, a fair, blooming, beardless youth, and Damascus (normally called Belthazar) is described as, a grizzled man with a crimson and white spotted cloak, with soft yellow sandals.

Another poem focuses on the appearance of Christ and the Apostles. According to William Reeves this poem was, “framed according to certain rules which guided the ancient scribes in the illumination of their biblical manuscripts, and may possibly find a partial illustration in the figures which appear in the Book of Kells and other manuscripts of that class.” Similar literary descriptions were used in the eastern churches for iconography. It’s amusing to read the descriptions of the Apostles in this poem. Apparently Thomas was the best looking (“choicest of faces was his face”), Bartholomew was a ginger, John was beardless (a common description), James and Andrew were blonde with long beards, and Peter had a glossy head of grey hair and a short beard. Such details strike the modern reader as bizarre and unhelpful, but the early Irish church enjoyed them.

The amount of material packed into this pocket-sized book by Mael Brigte is vast. The patristic sources and commentary alone display a remarkable acquaintance with the theological literature of his day. What is perhaps more remarkable is that this manuscript was compiled by a scribe in his twenties! We know this from a note added at the end of Luke’s Gospel, “Mael Brigte who wrote this book in his 28th year, the second year after the great storm.” The storm in question is also recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters s.a. 1137. For a man in his twenties he certainly was well versed in theology.

Colophon asking for clemency
The manuscripts ends with a colophon asking for people who later read this manuscript to, “pardon the faults of this book…for it requires much clemency both in text and commentaries!”