Resurrection: Another Advent with Herbert

Today’s poem, like yesterday’s, is a two-parter, and there is a well-documented evolution of it in the two manuscripts known to scholars as “W” and “B”. The changes are well described well by Drury (pp. 142-143) who likes this poem much more than Good Friday. The published version merges what are presented as two poems in the earlier manuscripts. Think of it as a volley-ball set-up – the first three stanzas are popping the ball into the air and the second three knock it over the net for a point. The first part address the heart and lute for a song, and the last three stanzas are that song.

It is more than likely that Herbert had a tune in mind, perhaps one of his own making, as Izzak Walton describes him as a musician of considerable skill.


Rise heart; thy lord is risen. Sing his praise
                    Without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
                    With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcinèd thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
                    With all thy art,
The cross taught all wood to resound his name
                    Who bore the same.
His stretchèd sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort, both heart and lute, and twist a song
                    Pleasant and long;
Or since all music is but three parts vied,
                    And multiplied;
O let thy blessèd Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

    I got me flowers to straw thy way; 
I got me boughs off many a tree: 
    But thou wast up by break of day, 
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee. 

    The Sun arising in the East,         
Though he give light, and th’ East perfume; 
    If they should offer to contest 
With thy arising, they presume. 

    Can there be any day but this, 
Though many suns to shine endeavour?       
    We count three hundred, but we miss: 
There is but one, and that one ever.

The metre for the first three stanzas is, and for the last three it is, and the rhyme schemes are AABBCC and DEDE, respectively. If one is looking for a tune for the first half, SANDON, used with Unto the Hills and Lead, Kindly Light would work. 8888 is Long Metre (“LM”) and Ancient and Modern (2013) has no fewer than 56 hymn tunes of that length, including TALLIS’S CANON and OLD HUNDREDTH. Perhaps more interesting is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of the second part as one of his Five Mystical Songs (1911):

In the first part the poet address his heart and his lute. There is a sense of movement in that Herbert frequently starts a sentence on one line and continues it on the next – a practice called enjambment. The resurrection of Jesus results in the rising of the the poet, too, and his death and resurrection result in the alchemical transformation of the heart into dust and then gold. The lute, made of wood and strings of catgut (not really from cats, but goats and sheep) is said to have been taught by the wood of the cross and the sinews of Christ’s body stretched out – and so Herbert commands it to “celebrate this day.” In the third and last stanza of the first part heart and lute consort together to sing a song, and Herbert invokes the Holy Spirit to complete what they lack.

In the second part the poet sings about collecting flowers and boughs, just as Jesus was welcomed on Palm Sunday, only this time Jesus was up earlier and has already brought “sweets” or fragrant things with him – new life, salvation, communion with the divine. Not even the sun can compete with this rising, and the day of resurrection is greater than any other.

The key thing about the resurrection of Jesus is that it begins the process of God’s renewal of the cosmos. “Behold, I am making all things new” says the one seated on the throne in Revelation 21, and it begins with the resurrected body of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the defeat of death, because love is stronger than death. The fullness of the transformation is not yet here, but it proceeds in the world through God’s grace and in the body of Christ, which is the church. This is why it is the Day of Days, outshining any sun. Every Sunday is a little Easter, memorializing the resurrection of Jesus, and that is why the followers of Jesus meet weekly on that day.

Herbert’s poem captures the transcendent significance of Easter. It was utterly unexpected. No one was waiting at the tomb for his rising. All his disciples had fled, and even the women who had watched him die assumed he would remain dead. When they experienced him as risen, it changed their understanding of his death, and of themselves.

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Start with his Death: Another Advent with Herbert

George Herbert (1593-1633) was a Welsh-born English poet, the younger son of a wealthy family that owned much land. As a younger son he had minimal expectation of inheriting any of it so long as his elder brother Richard lived and had sons of his own, which he did. Thus, George Herbert had to make his own way in the world, albeit supported by his family and its political connections. As a young man he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and subsequently taught rhetoric there and became the Public Orator, giving speeches on behalf of the University at graduations and visits from Very Important People. He served in the English Parliament and hoped for a career in government, but gave up on the idea after the death of James I & VI in 1625. Herbert then began a career in the Church of England, something for which he was eminently suited given his piety and education. Ordained deacon in 1626, married in 1628, and ordained again as a priest in 1629, he became rector of Fugglestone St Peter with St Andrew’s, Bremerton, both then just outside Salisbury. He served for only three years and a bit, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 39. After his death his friend and colleague Nicholas Ferrar (of Little Gidding fame) received his papers, and he arranged for their publication. Among them were two works that are still in print and read today: The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633), and A Priest to the Temple or the Country Parson (1652). The latter is a prose work offering advice to rural clergy, and following the Restoration in 1660 is was (and is) used as a manual for Anglican clergy. The book of poems is even more widely read, being part of the canon of English poetry.

While many post-Restoration High Church Anglicans, as well as 19th and 20th century Anglo-Catholics, read Herbert as a forerunner of their variety of Christianity, more recent historical work seeks to restore the poet as an ordinary Protestant divine. He was not adverse to the then High Church Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, but neither was he a follower. Likewise, he was no Puritan, accepting the Book of Common Prayer and the reformed Church of England as it was. However, his theology does appear to be very much closer to that of the reformers and Puritans than some later readers would care to admit. Unlike some Anglo-Catholics, he saw the English Reformation as a good thing, and saw no need to restore some of the pre-Reformation ritual and theology. He had strong opinions about the importance of preaching, of the responsibility of a cleric for the care and admonition, of everyone in his parish, and of the necessity of salvation.

It is with this in mind that we look at the poem for today. Despite it’s name, it is not about the events of Good Friday, but rather it is about the Atonement and how the poet – the first person narrator of the poem – responds to Christ’s death. Have a read:

Good Friday

O my chief good,
How shall I measure out thy blood?
How shall I count what thee befell,
And each grief tell?

Shall I thy woes
Number according to thy foes?
Or, since one star show’d thy first breath,
Shall all thy death?

Or shall each leaf,
Which falls in Autumn, score a grief?
Or cannot leaves, but fruit be sign
Of the true vine?

Then let each hour
Of my whole life one grief devour:
That thy distress through all may run,
And be my sun.

Or rather let
My several sins their sorrows get;
That as each beast his cure doth know,
Each sin may so.

Since blood is fittest, Lord to write
Thy sorrows in, and bloody fight;
My heart hath store, write there, where in
One box doth lie both ink and sin:

That when sin spies so many foes,
Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes
All come to lodge there, sin may say,
‘No room for me’, and fly away.

Sin being gone, oh fill the place,
And keep possession with thy grace;
Lest sin take courage and return,
And all the writings blot or burn.

First, a few technical observations. The poem is a double poem – indeed, the second section stood on its own in the earlier draft known to scholars as “W”. All the stanzas are in the rhyme pattern of AABB – we just have to work at understanding that “good” and “blood really did rhyme in the early17th century. The first five stanzas are made more interesting in that the first and last verses have only four syllables, and the middle two have eight, i.e. 4884. The poem ends with the second section in 8888 – interest created by the shift.

John Drury in Music at Midnight:The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (London UK: Penguin Books, 2014, p. 271) finds it “particularly disappointing” as the title would suggest something better and more epic that what he finds. However, the title may well have been added after the verses were written – so perhaps it is best to take it as it is.

In the first line Christ is addressed as the poet’s chief good, and Herbert wonders “how to measure out they blood?” – in other words, how to comprehend its magnitude, the sacrifice of his lord and master. As Jesus’s blood was shed for the sins of the world, his suffering and grief are many. The poet contemplates various measures – 1) the number of foes Christ had, 2) the stars of the sky, 3) the leaves that fall in Autumn, 4) the fruit that ripens, or 5) the hours of his life. He plays with the idea that, Christ as the true vine (John 15.1), bears fruit, and that fruit is found in the lives of his followers (“You will know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7.16). Thus, Christ’s distress runs through the poet, although all the hours of his life could account for but one grief borne by Jesus. In the final 4884 stanza, he bids Christ give the poet the sorrow required for each of his sins.

In the second part of the poem Herbert plays with Paul’s description of the Corinthians:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all, and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are human hearts. 2 Corinthians 3.2-3

If the human heart is a letter, then perhaps the ink is blood – the blood of Christ, even though Paul describes it as being written with the Spirit of the living God. Herbert slides around this by stating that, “Since blood is fittest, Lord to write/ Thy sorrows in” that Christ could write upon the poet’s heart with blood, too, filling it with “Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes” so that sin would have no room. Then grace – God’s favour – would fill it.

We are a long way’s away from the simplicity of Antiphon (1) and the two “Easter-wings” poems, and Drury finds the equating of the heart with a writing box just a little too precious. However, the Cambridge Orator would have been expected to develop precisely such precious imagery for his speeches, and in his poetry he played with such similes and word-pictures just as often as he invoked plain, earthy images; perhaps it is just not to our modern tastes.

What I find interesting is that Herbert’s meditation on the blood of Jesus is a poetic counterpart to the Baroque Catholic paintings and statues of a bloody, suffering Jesus. It is for many people uncomfortable imagery, and they do not like to equate the suffering of Jesus with any sense that God was punishing Jesus on our behalf. The atonement is viewed not as a penal substitution, but as a ransom from the devil (or perhaps God?), or a battle between Jesus and the forces of evil behind human oppression, or as a new Exodus, or as a witness to God’s identification with the poor and all who suffer oppression. However that might be, that is not how Herbert saw things. He felt the weight of his personal sin, and considered himself worthy of eternal damnation, and is saved only by God’s gift demonstrated love in offering his son in his place. In viewing things this way, Herbert exhibited the theology expected of a Protestant in his day.

This is the challenge to reading Herbert. He is not an Anglo-Catholic, and he is not an 20th Century Evangelical either. He is a priest in the Church of England that underwent a transformation in its restoration in 1660 after the Commonwealth, and continued to be changed by Evangelicalism in the 18th century, Anglo-Catholicism in the 19th century, and Ecumenism and the Liturgical Renewal movement in the 20th. When we read his poems we hear a voice from the past.

However, let us listen. Let us acknowledge the distance between us, but also our common language. Let us be informed, reassured, and challenged, all at once. Above all, let us be motivated to know Jesus better.

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Another Advent with Herbert: The Poems So Far

In Lent 2019 and Advent 2021 I blogged on poems from the Rev’d George Herbert (1593-1633). I did this primarily as my own seasonal discipline, a devotion which might be of interest to others. As it turns out, some of them are – the post on Avarice, for example, has been read some 2138 times this year alone.

I started doing them consecutively, but then I started jumping around, and now I have plum forgot which ones I have done and which I have not.

So, Dear Reader, below is a list of the poems on which I have commented, in the order in which they are found in The Temple. They are hyperlinked to the relevant blog post.

God willing, each day in this Advent 2022 I will reflect daily on the poems I have not already studied. I will not post a poem commentary on Sundays, as that may be filled with a sermon instead. That will still be some twenty-four posts – it is a long season of Advent, four full weeks. I have so far commented on only 59 of the poems of the 162 in The Temple so there is still much more on which to reflect!

If I find the time, I may add a column with the poems in alphabetical order. Then, after Advent 2022, I will add the poems which I have talked about and update the list.

The Dedication
The Church-Porch (Peirirrhanterium)
The Altar
The Sacrifice
The Thanksgiving
The Reprisal
The Agony
Easter Wings (1)
Easter Wings (2)
Affliction (1)
Prayer (1)
The H. Communion
Antiphon (1) Let All The World In Every Corner Sing
Love (1)
Love (2)
The Temper (1)
The Temper (2)
Jordan (1)
Employment (1)
The H. Scriptures I
The H. Scriptures II
Praise (1)
Church Monuments
The Church-floor
The Windows
Trinity Sunday
To all Angels and Saints
The World
Coloss. 3.3
Antiphon (2)
Justice (I)
The British Church
Sin’s Round
The Pilgrimage
Praise (2)
The Call
A Dialogue-Anthem
Love (3)

Poems outside of The Temple

The H. Communion (as found in W)
Trinity Sunday (as found in W)
Poem 18 (Memoriae Matris Sacrum, Greek)

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An Address at a Brief Service Honouring Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Delivered at Souda Bay Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery,
Souda, Crete, Greece
September 16, 2022, 10:00 am

Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor receives vehicle maintenance instruction on an Austin 10 Light Utility Vehicle while serving with No 1 MTTC (Motor Transport Training Centre) at Camberley, Surrey. From here.

We are gathered here on hallowed ground – ground that is holy not because of consecratory prayers made by a vicar or chaplain, or because it was a gift from the Greek nation to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but because it contains the earthly remains of over 1700 young men who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as other parts of the Commonwealth.

For that reason it is right for us to gather here to give thanks for the life, service, and witness of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second. There is no place on this island that has a stronger connection to the Crown.

A second reason for us to gather in this place is that Her Majesty was the Commander-in-Chief of the various armed forces. She was the Colonel-in-Chief of multiple regiments, both in the UK and in other nations of the Commonwealth. She was the wife, mother, and grandmother of people who served in the Forces. She presented new regimental colours and annually trooped the colours of her guards. She attended countless commemorations of battles and wars. She attended military graduation ceremonies, and those serving made their oaths to her. All officers’ commissions were given in her name. She was the lead mourner on Remembrance Day. I suspect that in her weekly meetings with UK Prime Ministers she was a quiet advocate for the serving members of the Armed Forces and veterans. In a multitude of ways she supported those who defended the nation.

But there is a third reason as to why it is right for us to gather in the presence of those buried here in this cemetery – she, also, served in the Second World War. Of course, as a teenager and a female her service was restricted, and she never saw battle. However, she participated as much as she could – as part of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. I would not be surprised if, of all of the ranks she carried in her long life, she was most proud of having been a Second Subaltern and Junior Commander in the ATS.

So let us give thanks and commit to God Junior Commander Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, our late Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth.

Part of those in attendance at the short service. About forty people attended, mostly veterans.

Prayers and Blessing

1 – A prayer of thanksgiving

Eternal God, our heavenly Father, we bless your holy name
for all that you have given us in and through
the life of your servant Queen Elizabeth.

We give you thanks:
 for her love of family and her gift of friendship;
 for her devotion to the United Kingdom and the
nations of the Commonwealth;
 for her grace, dignity and courtesy
and for her generosity and love of life.

We praise you for:
the courage that she showed in testing times;
the depth and of her Christian faith;
         and the witness she bore to it in word and deed.

Accept our thanks and praise, we pray, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

2 – A prayer of commendation

God our creator and redeemer,
by your power Christ conquered death
and returned to you in glory.

Confident of his victory
and claiming his promises,
we entrust your servant Elizabeth into your keeping
in the name of Jesus our Lord,
who, though he died, is now alive
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. 

Amen. Common Worship*

3 – A prayer for those who mourn

Father of all mercies and God of all consolation,
you pursue us with untiring love       
and dispel the shadow of death
    with the bright dawn of life.

Give courage to the Royal Family
in their loss and sorrow.

Be their refuge and strength, O Lord;
reassure them of your continuing love
and lift them from the depths of grief
into the peace and light of your presence.

Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
by dying has destroyed our death,
and by rising, restored our life.

Your Holy Spirit, our comforter,
speaks for us in groans too deep for words.

Come alongside your people,
remind them of your eternal presence
and give them your comfort and strength. Amen. Common Worship*

4 – A prayer for the new King

Lord God,
you provide for your people by your power,
and rule over them in love:

Grant to your servant our King
the Spirit of wisdom and discernment,
that being devoted to you with his whole heart,
he may so wisely govern,
that in his time we may live in safety and in peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. Adapted from the Coronation Service 1953


God grant to the living, grace;
to the departed, rest;
to the Church, the King, the Commonwealth,
and all humankind,
peace and concord;
and to us and all his servants, life everlasting;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always. Amen.


May the memory of our late Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second, whom we honour this day, be a blessing for us this day and always. Go in peace, in the name of Christ. Amen.

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Hymns for Sunday, August 7, 2022

These are the hymns we will be using at the Anglican Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, on the island of Crete in Greece. Hymn numbers refer to Complete Mission Praise.

August 7, 2022         Eighth Sunday after Trinity
The Rev’d Ruth Wooster presides and preaches

            445     Lord, the Light of your Love is Shining (Shine, Jesus, Shine) Verse 1 and 3 only

            660     The Lord’s My Shepherd Verses 1, 2, 3, and 5 only.

            921     Purify My Heart

            1003   My Jesus, My Saviour

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The Nag Hammadi Library & “Gnosticism”: A Short Introduction

Codex VI of the Nag Hammadi Library

After finishing Living Stones, Living Hope, a five session study from USPG on Contextual Theology, our online Small Group Bible Study suggested that we have some sessions on “the Gnostic gospels”. As I had spent some time two decades ago studying with one of the leading experts on the Nag Hammadi Library, I was up for this. I created a PowerPoint Presentation, and this blog is a re-presentation of that.

Our online Small Group Bible Study meets online with Zoom every Wednesday at 7:30 PM EEST / 5:30 PM BST/ 12:30 PM EST. All are welcome to join – click this link or enter into your Zoom “Join Meeting Dialogue” Meeting ID: 850 4483 9927 Password: 010209.

Some Preliminaries

Tonight’s study group will be a bit different from the usual, in that I will make a presentation for about an hour using a PowerPoint, and then we will have some discussion afterwards. Normally we just jump in and we have a much more open discussion, but the material here is not so well known in ordinary Christian circles, and even divinity students typically have little exposure to it. Thank you to those of you who looked at The Gospel of Thomas and its first fifteen sayings as suggested in my weekly e-mail – we will talk about those sayings later and perhaps in future sessions.

I remind you that we are doing this while we wait to get paper copies of John Stroyan’s Turned by Divine Love: Starting again with God and with others. Bishop John is the Bishop of Warwick in the Diocese of Coventry, and he and Mary Stroyan are occasional visitors to St Thomas’s. The book can be downloaded to a kindle, but many of us are still using paper only, and so we will have to wait a few weeks for copies to arrive from the UK or elsewhere, and also take some time to read this book (although it is relatively short!). I expect we will get to this, at the latest, by the beginning of July.

Discussion about the Nag Hammadi Library and Gnosticism tends to be confined to corners of academia concerned with early Christian history and Biblical studies. There have been some popular works – Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels has been a best-seller since 1989, but good ones have been few and far between. Various New Age groups have emerged that claim to be newly re-constituted Gnostic Churches.

In my experience, looking into Gnosticism is really like Alice going down the rabbit’s hole – you will get lost, feel startled by all the new information, and be overwhelmed by the mass of ancient texts and all the modern writings. Unless one already has a good grasp of early Christian history, including not only the age of Jesus and the disciples described in the New Testament, but also the post-apostolic age down through the second century to the fourth, it really will feel like Wonderland. If in the past five weeks we have been doing Contextual Theology for contemporary churches in Zambia, Korea, Brazil, Ireland, and India, this is Contextual Theology for 2nd Century Egyptians – and I suspect most of us have only a very limited idea of what that might be.

It can also be deeply unsettling, both because of the content and its implications. There is a narrative out there which describes a march towards orthodoxy (“right praise”) and orthopraxis (“right conduct”) from the ministry of Jesus straight through to the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. It describes what happened in the fourth century and thereafter, as what we know as the church, as inevitable and triumphant. It minimises the diversity of Christianity that was in existence in the first three centuries.

The fact is that there were faithful Christians who lived their lives long before the things we consider necessary to orthodox belief and church practice – a set canon of scriptures, settled understandings of who Jesus and the Trinity were according to the councils, a three-fold ordained ministry, the two major sacraments – calls into question those very things. When we actually read the texts we see similarities with things we know, while at the same time we are usually struck by the weirdness of it all. The texts of what is called “Gnosticism” are definitely Christian, but a very strange version of it.

When one goes to an amusement park there are sometimes warnings that the ride one is about to go on is “a dark ride”. Studying Gnosticism and the texts associated with that topic can be a bit like that – one heads into the unknown, and you cannot see everything. Even though you know the ride is entirely artificial and made by human hands, it’s not hard to be spooked by it all.

Well, with those caveats and warnings out of the way, I just want to also note a number of distinctions:

Scrolls versus Codex. A book can be a scroll or a codex; in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Roman times books were written on one side of a long piece of paper or vellum, and the rolled up. In a Jewish synagogue the Torah is usually chanted from a scroll by the rabbi or cantor or other individual requested to do so (such as an adolescent marking their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah). Plato and Julius Caesar would have known books to be scrolls. Starting in the 2nd century a new technology wrote on both sides of rectangular sheets of paper or vellum, and the sheets were then sewn together on one side and given leather covers. This is what today we would normally call a book, but the technical name is “codex” (plural: “codices”). A codex is much easier to use than a scroll, as one does not have to roll and unroll them but just flip the pages. The codex dominated book technology right through the inventing of printing presses, and only now is it being challenged by e-books that can be read on Kindle or one’s phone.

Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s in the Judean desert, which at that time was administered by Jordan and now is occupied by Israel. They date from before the time to Jesus to shortly thereafter, but they are not Christian, but Jewish. They are mostly in Hebrew, and contain much of what is now canonical scripture from the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh, but also various other non-canonical writings, such as the Damascus Rule and the War Scroll. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated from around 1050 CE; the Scrolls took this back a thousand years. What was striking was how little the text of the canonical scriptures had changed over that thousand years, which speaks to the diligence of the copyists over the ages.

Some of the Nag Hammadi Library

•Nag Hammadi Library. The Nag Hammadi Library, which is the topic this evening, are not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls (as people sometimes do). The texts from Nag Hammadi are leather-bound codices, not scrolls, and as manuscripts they date from the fourth century. They are Christian in nature, and in some cases express Anti-Jewish sentiments. So, very different!

The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Texts

The Library of Nag Hammadi was discovered in 1945 in Egypt, buried in the sands near the town of Nag Hammadi, well south of Cairo but not as far as Aswan. The Muslim farmers who discovered them had no idea what they had found, and some of them said they feared they were magical incantations. Some of the pages were apparently burnt, but the rest were preserved, and in due course they made their way to the antiquities market in Alexandria. Most of them were seized by the government of Egypt and are now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. At least one codex was purchased and secretly taken out of Egypt – that codex was presented to the psychotherapist Carl Jung, and so is known as the Jung Codex; after many years in Zurich, it was returned to Cairo in 1975.

It is known that there was an ancient Coptic monastery founded by St Pachomius in the 4th century, and there is a consensus that the Library was buried by members of of that community sometime in the late 4th century or early 5th century.

The Library consists of 52 texts in thirteen codices. As is true of all ancient texts from the Mediterranean, they are handwritten. Scholars have arbitrarily numbered the codices from I to XIII, and the last two codices are in considerable disarray. All have been damaged with holes and tears in the papyrus, but it is usually possible to figure out what is missing.

Codex II

The Beginning of the Gospel of Thomas

Codex II consists of the following treatises or texts:

•The Apocryphon of John

•The Gospel of Thomas

•The Gospel of Philip

•The Hypostasis of the Archons

•On the Origin of the World

•The Exegesis on the Soul

•The Book of Thomas the Contender

The most famous of these is undoubtedly The Gospel of Thomas for reasons that we will get to in a moment. If you have some knowledge of Greek you should be able to read part of what is presented in the picture above. In the Library the titles are put at the end of each book or treatise, so we see the end of ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΗΝ Η ΑΠΟΚΡΥΦΟΝ, or The Apocryphon of John (i.e. The Secret Writing of John). However, although the rest is written in Greek letters, except for a new names you will not be able to read anything else, because it is written in Coptic. All of the Nag Hammadi Library is written in this ancient language. It is, quite literally, the ancient language that is in continuity with that spoke by the people who built the pyramids in the times of the pharaohs 4600 years ago and was inscribed in the syllabary known as hieroglyphs. It was spoken as late as the 17th century and continues to be used in the worship of the Coptic Orthodox Church, even when Egyptian Copts have all moved on to speak Arabic. From the way the letters are written and the form of the language scholars can tell within about twenty-five years as to when the manuscripts were written, and they all date to the late 4th century.

We know that these texts were translated from Greek. The Greek titles suggests as much, and we have scraps of older papyrus from other places in Egypt which are written in Hellenistic Greek, and are clearly fragments of the originals. Church Fathers such as Irenaeus of Lyon and Clement of Alexandrria also quote from the Greek originals some 200 to 100 years before some Coptic copier made the Nag Hammadi codices. We are dealing, then with translations, not the originals, except when we can refer to those few fragments in Greek.

What is “Gnosticism”? A Scholarly Consensus

One way of figuring out what something is is to look in the dictionary, and the definition in the online Merriam Webster looks pretty authoritative.

If you prefer a British source, one might look in the Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford/New York, OUP, 1993), where there is indeed a lengthy entry on “Gnosticism.” It describes the common characteristics as (and I paraphrase):

Matter vs Spirit. There is a duality, and an opposition between matter and spirit. Matter is, if not downright evil, a lesser state than the spiritual. Thus, the body is a prison from which the soul longs to escape.

God vs. Demiurge. There is a contrast between the unknown transcendent God, who is good, and the Demiurge, who is not. The Demiurge is the creator of the world, and is usually identified the God of the Hebrew Bible. The Demiurge is ignorant, so ignorant that he is unaware of the true God.

True God and Humanity. The human race is essentially a divine spark of heavenly light imprisoned in a material body, and is thus there is a continuity between the divine and humanity that is ignored because of being clothed in matter.

A Great Fall accounting for the present human predicament. This is not normally the Fall as described in Genesis, but rather it is the creation of the Demiurge and consequent imprisoning of the divine spark in matter as humanity. In one Nag Hammadi text, the Genesis story of the Fall is reinterpreted as a good thing!

Gnosis – a special knowledge – will save human beings. This is the mythology just described above. In this schema, Jesus is the bearer of this gnosis.

Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, scholars were mainly dependent on reading the Church Fathers describing heresy:  Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165 CE), Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 CE), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 CE), Origen (c. 185 – c. 253), Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – c. 235 CE), and Epaphanius of Salamis (c. 310/320 – 403). As well, various scraps of Greek writing on papyrus were found in Egypt, and were considered as possibly gnostic. Interestingly, none of the Church Fathers or the fragments described the “heresies” as “gnostic” – there was no ancient concept of “Gnosticism”.

The first use of the term “gnosticism” only came in 1669. However, real scholarship on this only came in the middle of the 19th century. There were two approaches, the older being an examination of origins – where did Gnosticism come from – and the more recent one starting in the 1930s looking at typologies in the ancient writings.

The origins approach was pioneered by Adolf von Harnack, who in 1885 wrote that he considered Gnosticism to be an acute Hellenization of Christianity. A different school, grounded in the comparative history of religions, instead looked to the Orient for the genesis, and found it in such religions as Mandaeism (still in existence in southern Iraq) and in the ancient Vedic scriptures of Hinduism.

Hans Jonas in 1934 published a different approach that identified types or characteristics of Gnosticism, which is called the typological approach. Among the typologies he identified were: the loss and reclaiming of gnosis; the dynamism of time, meaning that time was moving towards a particular conclusion; the mythologies involving many emanations from the unseen, unknowable God, including Sophia and the Logos; the sense that humanity is alienated from the divine, and needs to be reconciled through gnosis; and the dualism already described above.

This scholarly work, then is what gave rise to the definition in the dictionary, and the description in the Oxford Companion to the Bible. However, it has been called into question by some scholars, including Prof Karen King of Harvard University.

I had the opportunity of studying with Prof King two decades ago. She is a recognised expert on the Nag Hammadi Library, and has produced translations and commentaries on several of the texts. Since I studied with her she has been appointed the Hollis Professor of Divinity, not only the oldest endowed chair at Harvard, but also in any North American University; among other things, the position has the right to pasture a cow on Harvard Yard – something her predecessor did, but I am not aware if she has done so.

In her book What is Gnosticism? (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 18, she writes

As long as defining Gnosticism was still primarily about determining the historical identity of Christianity, its purpose remained largely the same as that of heresy. Heresy appears to be a very tidy category—its purpose is to distinguish right and wrong belief and behavior, define insider outsider boundaries, and establish clear lines of power and authority. Gnosticism has often performed these same functions. It has marked the erroneous, the heretical, the schismatic, as well as all things threatening, anomalous, esoteric, and arcane.

To a great extent, although they did not acknowledge it, the scholars of the 19th and 20th century, were essentially the same kind of heresy hunters as the Church Fathers. The result is that when people in the 1960s and 1970s began to read the Nag Hammadi texts they did so using preconceived categories. This was a bit like hammering a square peg into a round hole, and damage would be done if it was allowed to happen. Prof King suggests that perhaps we just drop the category of “gnosticism” with its taint of heresy and smoothing out of differences among the treatises of the Library, and just let the texts speak for themselves, with all of their diversity and contradictions, as well as commonalities.

These encaustic paintings (wax on wood) date from 100 BCE – 250 CE, and were used on mummies in the Greek-Egyptian community of Fayum. Some 900 of them have survived, and they show the diversity of peoples of that time and place.

The Gospel of Thomas

The title The Gospel of Thomas is found at the end of the treatise in Codex II, and the whole text follows on the Apocryphon of John, as seen above. It consists of one hundred and fourteen sayings of Jesus, and there is little or no context for them. There is no obvious plan or order in the sayings. The sayings consist of parables, proverbs, eschatological sayings, and rules for the community. There is never any explanation for a parable (unlike in the canonical gospels). Most striking is what is not present in the Gospel of Thomas: there is no passion narrative, no resurrection, no healings or exorcisms, and no birth narrative. The sayings often parallel with things said by Jesus in the canonical gospels, as well as some phrases of Paul. There are also parallels outside of the canon of scripture. Because of references to it by people like Clement of Alexandria, as well as preserved Greek fragments, we know that it circulated in Greek in Egypt before 200 CE. The dating is highly contested – some scholars date it as early as the 1st century, contemporary with Paul’s letters and the gospels; others date it to the middle of the 2nd century.

Arguments over the dating revolve around how the text may have changed over time. While all the Nag Hammadi scholars agree that there is some “gnostic” influence on the final form, some suggest that in its original Greek form it may have not had them; perhaps it entered through translation, or into Greek manuscripts through additions of phrases here and there.

The canonical gospels, most scholars would say, are the result of a three or four stage process. The first stage is that in which Jesus spoke and taught, while living his life, death, and resurrection, and training disciples. The second stage is after his death and resurrection, which remained oral, as Jesus’s disciples taught and sifted through the stories and teachings. Certainly, when Paul was writing his letters, he assumed his recipients had heard these stories and preachings. Finally, at a certain point, perhaps as that first generation was dying, people began to write down the stories and sayings. The anonymous person who wrote the Gospel according to Mark appears to have been the first (the attribution of the gospels to apostles or companions is traditional, but are not claimed by any of the texts themselves). Most biblical scholars believe that the authors of Luke and Matthew had manuscripts of Mark in front of them, because of what looks like word-for word literary dependence. In some cases, the authors of Matthew and Luke correct Mark’s grammar or references, or rewrite Mark to suit their exposition of the good news.

Scholars also believe there was another source available to Matthew and Luke, but lost to the mists of time. This was simply called “Source” in German, or “Quelle”; this is known now as “Q” or the “Q source”. This included things such as the three temptations of Jesus in the desert, which Mark does not have, as well as things such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes.

The saying above is, with the exception of one word in Luke, identical in the two gospels. This kind of absolute similarity strongly argues for a written literary dependence. While some schemas suggest that Matthew is dependent on Luke or vice-versa, those suggestions create more problems than they solve. If Matthew is dependent on Luke, why did Matthew not incorporate the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the Parable of the Prodigal Son? If Luke is dependent on Matthew, why did Luke break up the Sermon on the Mount and relocate some of the sayings to the Sermon on the Plain? Why are their infancy narratives so different and contradictory? The simple solution is to assume a literary dependence on the lost source we now call Q, and that the arrangements of the sayings were due to the aythors of Matthew and Luke.

Now, when goes through Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and sieve out Mark and note what is common to Matthew and Luke, one gets a collection of sayings that, like The Gospel of Thomas, lacks much context. So when The Gospel of Thomas was found, while it did not appear to be Q, it certainly seemed to be in the same genre, a Sayings Gospel.

The First Fifteen Sayings

From (The headings and numbering is modern, not in the original).

Prologue These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.

Saying 1: True Meaning And he said, “Whoever discovers the meaning of these sayings won’t taste death.”

Saying 2: Seek and Find Jesus said, “Whoever seeks shouldn’t stop until they find. When they find, they’ll be disturbed. When they’re disturbed, they’ll be […] amazed, and reign over the All.”

Saying 3: Seeking Within Jesus said, “If your leaders tell you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they tell you, ‘It’s in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and outside of you.
“When you know yourselves, then you’ll be known, and you’ll realize that you’re the children of the living Father. But if you don’t know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”

Saying 4: First and Last Jesus said, “The older person won’t hesitate to ask a little seven-day-old child about the place of life, and they’ll live, because many who are first will be last, and they’ll become one.”

Saying 5: Hidden and Revealed Jesus said, “Know what’s in front of your face, and what’s hidden from you will be revealed to you, because there’s nothing hidden that won’t be revealed.”

 Saying 6: Public Ritual His disciples said to him, “Do you want us to fast? And how should we pray? Should we make donations? And what food should we avoid?”
Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate, because everything is revealed in the sight of heaven; for there’s nothing hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing covered up that will stay secret.”

Saying 7: The Lion and the Human Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion that’s eaten by a human and then becomes human, but how awful for the human who’s eaten by a lion, and the lion becomes human.”

Saying 8: The Parable of the Fish He said, “The human being is like a wise fisher who cast a net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisher found a fine large fish and cast all the little fish back down into the sea, easily choosing the large fish. Anyone who has ears to hear should hear!”

Saying 9: The Parable of the Sower Jesus said, “Look, a sower went out, took a handful of seeds, and scattered them. Some fell on the roadside; the birds came and gathered them. Others fell on the rock; they didn’t take root in the soil and ears of grain didn’t rise toward heaven. Yet others fell on thorns; they choked the seeds and worms ate them. Finally, others fell on good soil; it produced fruit up toward heaven, some sixty times as much and some a hundred and twenty.”

Saying 10: Jesus and Fire (1) Jesus said, “I’ve cast fire on the world, and look, I’m watching over it until it blazes.”

Saying 11: Those Who Are Living Won’t Die (1) Jesus said, “This heaven will disappear, and the one above it will disappear too. Those who are dead aren’t alive, and those who are living won’t die. In the days when you ate what was dead, you made it alive. When you’re in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one, you became divided. But when you become divided, what will you do?”

 Saying 12: James the Just The disciples said to Jesus, “We know you’re going to leave us. Who will lead us then?”
Jesus said to them, “Wherever you are, you’ll go to James the Just, for whom heaven and earth came into being.”

Saying 13: Thomas’ Confession Jesus said to his disciples, “If you were to compare me to someone, who would you say I’m like?”
Simon Peter said to him, “You’re like a just angel.”
Matthew said to him, “You’re like a wise philosopher.”
Thomas said to him, “Teacher, I’m completely unable to say whom you’re like.”
Jesus said, “I’m not your teacher. Because you’ve drunk, you’ve become intoxicated by the bubbling spring I’ve measured out.”
He took him aside and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked, “What did Jesus say to you?”
Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the things he said to me, you’ll pick up stones and cast them at me, and fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.” 

Saying 14: Public Ministry Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you’ll bring guilt upon yourselves; and if you pray, you’ll be condemned; and if you make donations, you’ll harm your spirits.
“If they welcome you when you enter any land and go around in the countryside, heal those who are sick among them and eat whatever they give you, because it’s not what goes into your mouth that will defile you. What comes out of your mouth is what will defile you.” 

Saying 15: Worship Jesus said, “When you see the one who wasn’t born of a woman, fall down on your face and worship that person. That’s your Father.”

Some Final Comments from the Group about the First 15 Sayings.

  • I find it to be a bit like a computer generated joke – it has the form of a saying of Jesus, but does not quite get there.
  • I miss the context. I struggle with what the saying might mean. Perhaps that’s because these would have been discussed in a master/disciple situation, and the full interpretation would have been given orally.
  • Gnomic, much like some of the parables in the canonical gospels.
  • It reminds me of Proverbs – only these are not proverbs!
  • Some of this is familiar – “There’s nothing hidden that won’t be revealed”; “the kingdom is within you”; “the first shall be last”.
  • Struck by the faithfulness of these early Christians who were seeking the truth.
  • I miss the narratives of the death and resurrection.
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We Begin With Prayer for Peace

A Sermon Preached on February 27, 2022
The Sunday Next to Lent
with special readings and prayers for peace
at the Anglican Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
in the Diocese in Europe, Church of England

The readings used were Isaiah 9.1-6, Psalm 72.1-7, Philippians 4.6-9, and Matthew 5.43-end.

Well, just when we thought the past two years could not get any worse, it does. The Russian Federation invades Ukraine. The capital Kyiv is under siege, and parts of southern Ukraine have fallen to separatist and Russian armed forces. Putin and his paranoid security advisors seems bent on regime change and the Ukrainian people under Zelenskyy are putting up a brave fight.

And what are we as Christians supposed to do? What is our response to aggressive war, to the armed resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and ordinary citizens, and to our own role as people living here in Greece, as citizens of NATO nations, as Christians?

There are at least three approaches used by Christians to war.

First is the one which sees Christians endorsing aggressive war. We saw this in the 11th century with the Crusades, and it continued in the Reconquista in Span and Portugal, in the conquests of Mexico and Peru in the 15th century, and the genocidal colonisations that all the major Christian nations participated in up until the last century. While often justified as bringing the gospel and civilization to those who were conquered, they invariably ended in oppression and exploitation, if not outright extermination. Indeed, these genocidal practices often seemed rooted in a prescriptive reading of the Book of Judges. As modern Christians we know that this is deeply problematic, and since WW II wars of aggression are seen as criminal, outlawed in the the United Nations charter and other treaties.

Deus Vult is Latin for “God wills it”. This was the rallying cry of the First Crusade in 1099

On might ask why it is that Christians ever came to believe that violence against others was justified. Part of it was that when Constantine legalized Christianity in the early 4th centuries and convened conferences to define doctrine such as the one at Nicaea, the Christian leaders really dd not know what to say. After going from being persecuted and martyred to being wined and dined by the Emperor, they must have felt as if the kingdom of God had finally come in some way. So who was going to criticise the great Constantine, patron of the Church, for his military actions? That said, Constantine refrained from formally joining the church through baptism until his deathbed, holding that the Christian life and the lethal requirements of the office of Emperor were inconsistent.

After Constantine church leaders became inured to state violence, especially if they benefited from it. They frequently attempted to use the force of government to their own ends, such as becoming the official religion in 380, attacking pagan religions and turning their temples into churches. They felt that the violent use of force by governments was legitimate in the name of orthodoxy. In northern Europe the militaristic ways of Frankish, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon warriors were moderated by the teachings of the church, but not ended.

Another view is that of Augustine of Hippo, who in the 5th century formulated the basics of what is known as Just War Theory.  This was elaborated by Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius, and remain influential today in International Law. Just War Theory combines a moral aversion to violence with the recognition that sometimes it is necessary. There are generally four conditions that need to be met.    

  1. The war must be fundamentally defensive, and the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.
  2. All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
  3. there must be serious prospects of success.
  4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated, such as the massacre of civilians, or a breakdown in civil society.

This is the teaching of the Church of England (Article XXXVII: It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars). I suspect that this is where many of us stand. If I had been a young man in 1939 I would have undoubtedly volunteered for military service. If I were a Ukrainian in the Ukraine now I would be thinking seriously of defending my country and its democracy.

Needless to say, what looks acceptable on paper becomes difficult in practice.

War brutalizes both soldiers and civilians, and what would be considered horrific in peacetime becomes all too acceptable in wartime. War is also so very unpredictable, as both World Wars and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria demonstrate. Political leaders and generals often overestimate their capacity to control events, and what appears to be a nice little war can metastasize into decades-long conflict.

But there is another approach.

The third Christian approach to war is perhaps the most challenging. It is the approach that is non-violent and pacifist. It is rooted in the behaviour of our Lord Jesus Christ when assailed by his enemies, who did not strike back and did not call upon an army of angels to destroy those who would kill him. It is an attitude which turns the other cheek and prays for its enemies. It is the original approach to violence, as practiced by Christians for three centuries from Jesus until Constantine. It is the practice which breaks the chain of violence. It was the practice that successfully converted up to half the Roman Empire by the time it was finally legalized (Constantine was following the crowd here, not leading it). It was used by Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu to challenge and overcome segregation and apartheid. It is the practice of small but significant denominations – usually radical Anabaptists such as Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites, but also the Quakers. There are also Anglican Pacifists (see the website for the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship). Because it is so centered in Christ it is the one that seems the most true, but it is also the one that seems most full of suffering for Christians, and so against the strong sense of self-preservation. I wish I had the courage and the faith to be a Christian pacifist, but I find myself returning to the previous approach of the Just War Theory; I fear I may not be in the right.

John Lewis (1940-2020), later an American congressman, is attacked as he kneels to pray. This is “Bloody Sunday”, March 7,1965 just across the James Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama during the Voting Rights campaign there and the march from Selma to Montgomery.

We begin with prayer.

It is not my job to tell you how to think and act, but rather to convey the teachings of the church, which, as always, is complex and has multiple voices and opinions. That said, I hope you do not see yourself in the first approach, but rather are challenged by the legacy of violence in our colonial history. But I imagine you are also challenged by the second and third approaches. All violence is a sign of our broken and sinful nature, and our need for redemption and transformation. We should never become comfortable with war. The good news of Jesus Christ is that in the resurrection we see the sign that the change has already come, and that God is making all things new.

In the meantime we should pray.

Pray for the families of the soldiers who are in distress that their sons and daughters are being killed.

Pray for the people of Ukraine, that they may find a way to maintain their independence and democracy.

Pray for the people of the Russian Federation, that they too may find a way restore democracy in their country, and hold their leadership accountable for waging an unnecessary war.

Pray for religious leaders in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, that they may witness to the importance of avoiding violence.

Pray for those who are fleeing Ukraine, and for ourselves, that our governments may welcome them.

Pray for those wars and conflicts we have forgotten: the peoples of Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and so many other places.

Pray for those who have died or will die today.

May God have mercy on us all.

Prayer for Ukraine:

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Of Christ’s Inn and Shepherds

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Twenty:
Christmas Eve

White Horse Inn by Moonlight (1851) by Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872), from the National Gallery of Canada.

George Herbert wrote a poem named Christmas and so we will close our Advent retreat with it, anticipating the late evening Christ Mass and the celebration on Christmas Day.


All after pleasures as I rid one day,
        My horse and I, both tir’d, body and mind,
        With full cry of affections, quite astray,
I took up in the next inn I could find,
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
        My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
        Of pleasures brought me to him, ready there
To be all passengers most sweet relief?
O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
        Wrapt in nights mantle, stole into a manger;
        Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:
        Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
        A better lodging then a rack or grave.

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
                My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul ’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
                Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace
                Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
                Out-sing the day-light hours.
Then we will chide the sun for letting night
                Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
                Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
                Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
                As frost-nipt suns look sadly.
Then we will sing, shine all our own day,
                And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n his beams sing, and my music shine.

The poem is evidently in two parts. The first is a sonnet with a standard rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG, and the second is ten rhyming couplets.

The sonnet starts in the first-person, the persona confessing that he is all after pleasure. He rides his horse, but tired, arrives at an inn. Instead of finding worldly pleasures, he finds Christ, who is waiting him as he will inevitably realise that pleasure brings only grief, while he, Jesus, brings relief. That takes us to the mid-point of the sonnet. The second half plays with the fact that the traveler sought a lodging, but now he invites his Lord to lodge in him. Reflecting on his dark soul, Jesus who is the light of the world will enlighten it, just as it “stole into a manger” in the Incarnation on Christmas.

Building on the reference to Christmas, Herbert recalls the shepherd’s praise (although the Biblical witness is that the angels sang, not the shepherds!). He slides sideways by identifying his soul as a shepherd, keeping watch over “thoughts, and words, and deeds.” These “sheep” graze on the word and drink God’s grace. Then both sheep and shepherds sing. I’ve not heard shepherds sing – I assume they are as good or bad as anyone – but the idea of sheep singing is interesting, since they usually just bleat or croak. But these are Herbert’s sheep, so his thoughts, words, and deeds are better than most, I suppose.

Sheep sing like this, right?

In the northern hemisphere Christmas comes at the winter solstice, and so Herbert is aware of how dark the days can be at this time. This is perhaps why the shepherd and sheep “chide the sun” for giving way to night. The poet says he will seek a sun, who is none other than the light of the world, the Son of God.

Christmas was a somewhat different celebration in Herbert’s time. It would have been more of a religious ceremony, and the commercialism and frantic purchasing of gifts that we moderns associate with December had not yet emerged. There may have been some gift giving, although that may have been more the type that reinforced legal relations, such as landlord and tenant, and not so much about children. There would have been no Santa Claus – that tradition was still about Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Nieuw Amsterdam, awaiting Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” to free it from its Dutch origins. Father Christmas as we know him had not yet appeared – that seems to have happened first in reaction to the abolition of Christmas under the Puritan Commonwealth. There was undoubtedly a great feast on Christmas day with singing, dancing, and in great houses, dramatic performances such as masques.

It is perhaps in that context, then, that we should hear the shepherd and the sheep singing, and the light of Christ shining when the sun goes down. Herbert approved of the old customs in moderation, so while he probably looked askance at public drunkenness and gross consumption of food – all after pleasures – he would have smiled upon public and family gatherings. So perhaps we should imagine this being sung at the end of a great Christmas meal, when with stomachs full and minds a little softened by wine, we turn our souls to the reason we feasted in the first place.

Thank you for joining me for part or all of these twenty days of an Advent Retreat with George Herbert. As you will have discerned by now, I am no great student of English – I have great trouble scanning lines of poetry and figuring out where the accents are. However, despite my limitations, I welcome the opportunity to read these old poems and dog deep. God bless you, and may the one who was born at Christmas brighten these dark days, and may the Holy Spirit empower you to shine as well.

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Anthropoangelic Praise

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Nineteen: Thursday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Christ with Singing and Music-Making Angels from here.

As we approach Christmas we should turn to praise. Here is another poem named Antiphon, by which Herbert means a chorus sung by two choirs – in this case, of “Men” and “Angels”.

Antiphon (2)

Chor.      Praised be the God of love,
                        Men.    Here below,
                        Angels. And here above:
Cho.       Who hath dealt his mercies so,
                        Ang.    To his friend,
                        Men.   And to his foe;

Cho.       That both grace and glory tend
                        Ang.    Us of old,
                        Men.    And us in th’ end.
Cho.       The great shepherd of the fold
                        Ang.    Us did make,
                        Men.    For us was sold.

Cho.       He our foes in pieces brake;
                        Ang.    Him we touch;
                        Men.    And him we take.
Cho.       Wherefore since that he is such,
                        Ang.    We adore,
                        Men.    And we do crouch.

Cho.       Lord, thy praises should be more.
                        Men.   We have none,
                        Ang.    And we no store.
Cho.       Praised be the God alone,
                        Who hath made of two folds one.

Ann Pasternak Slater (p. 434) makes the technical note:

The form of this poem is also ingenious. The fifth line of each stanza provides the first rhyme of the next (thus, stanza 1 : ababcb; stanza 2: cdcded; stanza 3: efefgf). In the last stanza the aberrant fifth line is amalgamated with the sixth to create total harmony: ghghg. Metrically, this final line also amalgamates two expected short lines sung by Men and Angels, making of two folds one. (All the pairs of short lines scan ‘ ˘ ‘ followed by ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ; [The last line] combines the two, making ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘, the same metre as the majority of the Chorus’s lines.)

This was eventually put to music by Benjamin Britten, and you can find a recording of it below, but I don’t think it is his finest work.

There’s an interesting contrast between the angels and “men”. Humans are below, conscious of God’s foes, that grace and glory will come to them “in th’end”, that Christ was “sold” for them, that we adore in kneeling and take Christ in the bread of Communion, and that we are incapable of sufficient praise. Angels are above, conscious of God’s friends, know God’s grace and glory “as of old”, of God as Creator, close enough to touch God, simply adore, and do not store up praise but simply offer it at once. While the praise is of God, it comes across through God’s relations with God’s creatures – the eternal angels and the ephemeral humans. As Pasternak Slater notes, the two species combine in the merged fifth/sixth line of the last stanza.

Praise is simple and direct, and Herbert does this in this poem. As we approach Christmas may our praise be likewise.

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Form and Content: “Trinity Sunday”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Eighteen: Wednesday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent

To demonstrate that Herbert was not a true Puritan, one need only look at his poems on feast days. He wrote about Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and, in today’s poem, Trinity Sunday. Radical Puritans held that the Church calendar was a creation of human beings, not being found in the Bible. Yes, Jesus was born, but the date is nowhere specified. Therefore, abolish Christmas. Celebrate every Sunday as a Sunday of the Resurrection, and do not get all caught up with pointless arguments about the right day for Easter, with its confusing ties to new moons and the Spring Equinox.

But that was not Herbert. He accepted the Church calendar as it was, and in theory used it to help form the piety of his congregation. Here is what he wrote on the theme of Trinity Sunday:

Trinity Sunday

Lord, who hast formed me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee.

As you can see, it is a short poem of three triplets with the rhyme pattern of AAA BBB CCC, and eight syllables in each line. Each triplet, especially the first, suggests Trinitarian action on the poet, line by line. Thus, in the first stanza, creation from mud is associated with the Father, redemption with the Son, and sanctification with the Spirit. In the second, purgation is the work of the Son, confession is made to to the Father, and the effort to strive to sin no more is only possible through the Spirit. The third triplet is less easily classified, although it may be that the Spirit enriches the poet body and soul, the gifts of faith hope and love (from 1 Corinthians 13 “these things remain”) are from the Father, and the sense of “run, rise, rest” is to be with the resurrected Jesus. That said, I am not sure even I buy that analysis. Perhaps Herbert is deliberately blurring the Trinitarian action, thus pushing the reader towards seeing the unity of action.

The poem is no longer than it should be. It is a prayer whose structure repeats content we already know, and arguably its significance is in that structure.

Like yesterday’s poem, this also has a counterpart with the same name in W, which as you may recall, is an earlier manuscript of the collection that became The Temple, perhaps written in Herbert’s own hand. It follows the poem above, so there are two with the same name in W. In the end, Herbert seems to have decided against the second poem being preserved. Here it is:

Trinity Sunday (from W)

He that is one,
Is none.
Two reacheth thee
In some degree.
Nature and Grace
With Glory may attain thy Face.
Steel and a flint strike fire,
Wit and desire
Never to thee aspire,
Except life catch and hold those fast.
That which belief
Did not confess in the first Thief
His fall can tell,
From Heaven, through Earth, to Hell.
Let two of those alone
To them that fall,
Who God and Saints and Angels loose at last.
He that has one,
Has all.

This is a whole lot more obscure than the other poem, and I am not sure I really understand what Herbert was getting at. But let’s have a go.

Who is the “he”? The Father, perhaps? The soul of a human being? What is Herbert trying to say in stating that “He that is one / is none”? That no man is an island, perhaps, that humanity needs God, I suppose. Or is he stating some thing ontological, that God, who is one, is beyond being, and so is no thing? “Thee” must be God, but who are the two that “reachest thee”? Nature and Grace, one would suppose, but then in the next line he suggests that with “Grace” he may attain the Face of God – the beatific vision – is that not three?

Well, it goes on in this opaque state, and enters some kind of Miltonesque world with the fall of angels to Hell. I am sure that one could unravel exactly what Herbert is getting at, but the poem is not in the plain language that the poet usually uses. I suspect that, while he thought it a lovely compact statement meditating on Trinity Sunday, that concluded that it was not worthy of preservation, and so did not make it into the later final manuscript known as B and the published version of 1633.

This is the great danger of Trinitarian theology – that in the attempt to explain it, one falls into confusion, heresy, or obscurity, if not all three at once. As an orthodox Christian I am a Trinitarian, but I would happily say that while the content of salvation is in Trintarian form, it is not necessary to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity for salvation (however one conceives of salvation). While contemplation of the Holy Trinity may bring one into closer communion with the Divine, God’s grace does not depend on any person’s ability to explain the internal workings of the Divine. In salvation history we see God acting in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the Source of all Being, the Incarnate Word, and the Breath of God upon us.

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