Friday, October 31, 2014

John Gower (following the trend of discussing important interpreters of the parables who deserve more attention)

One of the goals of the book is to represent a diversity of parables and a diversity of responses to the parables. A key element of this goal is to discuss people/works that are important but which are not as “famous” today as they deserve to be. Macrina the Younger is an example of someone in that category, as are Ephrem the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist, and others I have already discussed on this blog.

The next two people I will discuss also fall into that category: John Gower and Hildegard of Bingen.

John Gower (for some reason I often type “Gowler” when I write his last name) has been greatly overshadowed by his friend Geoffrey Chaucer. I remember many years ago, when I visited Southwark Cathedral for the first time and saw his tomb (see the photo above), I had not read any of his works and did not have a good appreciation of his true importance. In the meantime, my appreciation of his work has grown.

A brief introduction about John Gower.

John Gower (1327/30-1408) was a medieval poet whose fame and influence during his lifetime rivaled his friend and contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer. Until the 17th century, Gower was considered to be as influential as Chaucer (note, for example, Shakespeare’s use of Gower as a chorus before each act of his Pericles, since Gower’s Confessio Amantis was one of the two major sources Shakespeare used). In later years Gower’s reputation suffered by comparison to Chaucer, and he slipped into relative obscurity until the 20th century.

Gower most likely was born in Kent or Yorkshire into an affluent and prominent family. Records indicate that he bought an estate in Kent in 1365 and acquired a manor in Suffolk (other properties would follow), so he was certainly economically prosperous. Around 1377, Gower began to live in St. Mary Overeys Priory, and he is often credited for financing the repair and restoration of the damaged priory. Chaucer thought highly enough of Gower that when Chaucer traveled to Europe, he gave Gower and Richard Forester power of attorney over his affairs. Chaucer also dedicates his work, Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1385) to “moral Gower” (and “philosophical Strode”), because of Gower’s concern for social mores and ethics. Gower married Agnes Groundolf in 1398, a marriage—possibly his second—that some scholars speculate was prompted by his need for care in his latter years, since he was around 70 years of age and likely becoming blind—in 1400, he describes himself as “old and blind” (Peck 2006: 38-41). Gower was buried in the church of the priory—in today’s Southwark Cathedral, London—and the inscription notes that he has been called “the first English poet.”

In the next post, I will give an overview of Gower’s major works and then in the following posts discuss his use and interpretation of the parables to discover how “moral Gower” utilized them.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Romanos the Melodist and the Parables (part 3)

Romanos the Melodist

This post is the final one on Romanos the Melodist's kontakion on the parable of the Prodigal Son. What is notable about the ending of this kontakion is that, like some other responses to the parable (e.g., the stained-glass window in Chartres Cathedral, Antonia Pulci's play about the Prodigal Son, etc.), the older brother is depicted as being persuaded by the father to join in the celebration of his lost brother's return.

Stanza twelve turns to the story of the elder brother who is out in the fields when his brother returns and, when he hears what has happened, he refuses to join the celebration (stanza 13). The narrator’s voice then reminds the hearers of the “compassion and measureless pity” of God, who “wishes all to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). God loves both brothers and listens to the lengthy complaint of the elder brother (stanzas 16-17). God then, however, makes very clear to the elder son, who symbolizes the ones who “have not separated from the Church,” that his place is with God, but that the younger brother had come home in shame, lamentation, and repentance. The question God poses to the older brother is: “How could I not have pity and save my son as he grieved and wept?” (stanza 19).

The kontakion then addresses the thorny problem in the parable that the younger son had already received his inheritance so, upon his return, whatever else is given to him actually comes from the older brother’s inheritance (which obviously seems unfair). Not so, God says in stanza 20:

Understand what I say, my son. All that is mine is yours,
and to him I wanted to grant some of my goods.
The property which you have is not any less,
for I did not take from it to give to your brother;
I provided for him from my own treasures.

How that can be true is left unexplained, but the father (God) then invites the older son to the supper, where he will “celebrate and sing with all the angels” the return of his brother who was lost but now is found. Stanza 21 records the older son’s response:

When he heard these words he was persuaded
and shared the gladness with his brother. And he began to sing and say,
“All of you shout with praise,
that blessed are they whose every
sin is forgiven, and whose iniquity
has been covered and wiped away” [cf. Psalm 31/32:1]

The preacher of the sermon concludes with a message for all who are listening to the sermon, which includes a reference to the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican:

O Son and Word of God, Creator of all things,
we your unworthy servants ask and implore you:
have mercy on all who call upon you.
As you did with the prodigal, spare those who have sinned.
Accept and save through compassion
those who in repentance run to you, O King, crying “We have sinned.”
Give us tears, as you did the harlot,
and pardon for the sins we have committed.
And, as you did the publican, take pity on us all,
At the intercessions of the Mother of God.
Make us partakers of your supper, as you did the prodigal.

Master and Lord of the ages.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Romanos the Melodist and the Parables (part 2)

Romanos the Melodist

Romanos’s kontakion, “On the Prodigal Son,” incorporates elements of two sacraments: the Eucharist and baptism. Overall, however, the sermon stresses that God is a loving parent who celebrates a great feast when a sinner returns home. In addition, the sermon gives an answer to a question that the parable itself leaves open: the older brother listens to his father’s entreaties and joins the celebration.
The kontakion begins with the speaker identifying with prodigal sons. Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, this opening implies that everyone hearing the sermon also should identify with the prodigal son, in the sense that they have sinned and are in church to repent and seek God’s forgiveness:

Prelude 1
I have rivaled the prodigal by my senseless deeds
and like him I fall down before you and I seek forgiveness, Lord.
Therefore do not despise me,
Master and Lord of the ages.

The kontakion identifies the feast with which the father celebrates his son’s return with the Eucharistic table. Since the Greek term for the Last Supper is to mystikon deipnon, the English term, the mystical table, is used for both the Last Supper and the Eucharist (see Lash 1995: 101):

Prelude 2
Of your mystical table, O Immortal,
Count me worthy, who have been corrupted by living as a prodigal.

This reference to the Eucharist is immediately followed by a reference to baptism, which signifies also the forgiveness of sins. Here baptism is symbolized as “the first robe of grace,” which also symbolizes theologically the “first robe” given to Adam before the “Fall” (103), which is connected . This symbolism of connecting baptism to the robe in the parable that the father gives to the returning son:

And the first robe of grace,
which I have befouled, wretch that I am, by the stains of the passions
in your unattainable mercy give me once again,
Master and Lord of the ages.

The focus of the sermon then turns to imagining the supper prepared by the father for the prodigal as symbolizing God’s love for humankind and God’s receiving all repentant prodigals. It identifies the sacrificed calf with the sacrificed Jesus, who died for the sins of humankind. This emphasis is reinforced in the second stanza, where the food at the banquet (i.e., Eucharist) is bread—the body of Jesus—and the “holy blood” of Jesus.

The third stanza explores the meaning of the Eucharist by starting with the supper that celebrates the return of the prodigal:

What is the banquet? Let us first learn of the supper
from the Gospels, so that we too may celebrate.
I will therefore recall the parable of the Prodigal.
For he was formerly stripped bare of every grace,
having squandered all his substance,
and he runs to his father with many lamentations crying, “Father, I have sinned.”
So the one who sees all things saw, hurried,
and met him and kissed him,
flung his arms around the neck of the one who had returned,
for he is the God of the repentant.
In his compassion he had mercy on his son who had fallen, he the
Master and Lord of the ages.

“The Saviour of all,” upon seeing his son dressed in “filthy apparel,” tells his slaves to bring his son the “first robe” (i.e., the baptismal robe, the “first robe” of Adam before the Fall) which “the enemy” (i.e., Satan) had stripped from him. Here the kontakion echoes elements of Genesis 1-3 (1:26; 2:1-15; 3:7) to connect the sin of the prodigal with the sin of all humankind against their Creator. God cannot bear to look at the prodigal’s (i.e., Adam’s) nakedness, because it reflects God’s image (Gen 1:26); God commands that the repentant prodigal be clothed “with the robe of grace.” Stanza six declares that the ring given to the prodigal represents “the undivided Trinity to guard him” against his enemies, demons, and the devil. Likewise, stanza seven says that the shoes given to the prodigal will protect his heel from “the all-wicked and crafty serpent” (cf. Gen 3:16) and give him the power to “trample on the dragon as powerless.”

Just like God offered the obedient and sinless Jesus as the sacrifice for the redemption of sinful humankind (stanza eight), likewise the priests re-enact this sacrifice of Jesus in the Eucharist and give “all who are worthy of [God’s] supper . . . the spotless calf.”

More on this kontakion in the next post. It next turns to the elder brother out in the fields.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Romanos the Melodist and the Parables (part 1)

Romanos the Melodist

Many people have never heard of Romanos the Melodist (ca. 485-555), but his voice is another extremely important one in the early church that I will highlight in the book.

Romanos is the greatest Byzantine liturgical poet and hymn writer—some argue that he is perhaps the most famous liturgical poet of the Orthodox Church—and, as such, was often called the “Christian Pindar” (Trypanis 1971: liii). Romanos was born in Emesa (Syria), was educated and became a deacon in Beirut, and later moved to Constantinople, where he spent most of his life serving the church during the reign of Emperor Justinian. Beyond those few details, little else is known about Romanos other than his creation, according to tradition, of around thousand kontakia (although only approximately eighty-nine extant kontakia are attributed to him, and probably only around sixty of them are authentic). A kontakion is a chanted sermon that combines dramatic dialogue and theological teachings (Hastings 1999: 70). Such kontakia consist of at least one prelude and usually between thirteen and twenty-four stanzas (each called an ikos) in the same meter; each stanza ends with the same refrain. Kontakia encourage participation from the congregation both in form and content (Lash 1995: xv-xxix). Only the texts of these kontakia survive; the accompanying music has not.

According to church tradition, Romanos received the spiritual gift of composing kontakia during a dream he had of the Virgin Mary. Mary gave him a scroll, told him to swallow it, and when he awoke from his trance began to chant his first kontakion, which was about the Nativity of Jesus (Lash 1995: xxvii). An analysis of the authentic Romanos kontakia, however, reveals the influence of hymns by Ephrem the Syrian (Benedetto 2008: 577), as well as earlier Greek sermons and other sources (see Lash 1995: 240-261).  

My next two posts will be about Romanos's interpretation of the Prodigal Son parable.

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman   Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem, and I p...