Wednesday, December 24, 2008

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

The Christmas story never palls, because there is that spirit, in all of us, that longs for peace and brotherhood, for kindness and charity. Yet it is nonetheless interesting to see how the message of Christianity has been communicated through the ages, and perhaps there are few more intriguing efforts in history than The Heliand, or the Saxon Gospel. No one knows its author, but it is a powerful retelling of the gospels in light of the Germanic warrior culture of northern Europe in the ninth century.

My source is the translation of the Heliand from Old Saxon into modern English by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. (first published by Oxford University Press in 1992). Epic in tone, and replete with the color of the times, it is a story that competed with Beowulf in the mead halls and in the camps of Saxon warriors, and the chapter headings are charmingly (and, I daresay, sometimes amusingly) suggestive of Saxon society and its interests. Who can fail to be beguiled, even today, by chapter headings such as these: “The Passion Begins: Judas betrays his own chieftain to southern people; Christ washes the feet of His earls and thanes”; or, “The last mead hall feast with the warrior-companions”; or “Christ the chieftain is captured; Peter, the mighty swordsman, defends Him bodily.”

As the translator points out in his introduction, the author is unknown. But “[w]hoever he was”, writes Father Murphy, “he was an enormously gifted religious poet capable of profound intercultural communication. He rewrote and reimagined the events and words of the gospel as if they had taken place and been spoken in his own country and time, in the chieftain society of a defeated people, forcibly Christianized by Charlemagne…By the power of his imagination the unknown poet-monk (perhaps ex-warrior) created a unique cultural synthesis between Christianity and Germanic warrior-society – a synthesis that would ultimately lead to the culture of knighthood and become the foundation of medieval Europe.”

I’ll close, in this Christmas season, with the following description of the birth of Christ from the Heliand:

“At that time it all came to pass, just as wise men had said long ago: that the Protector of People would come in a humble way, by His own power, to visit this kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, took Him, wrapped him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands laid Him gently, the little man, that child, in a fodder-crib, even though He had the power of God, and was the Chieftain of mankind. There the mother sat in front of Him and remained awake, watching over the holy Child and holding it. And there was no doubt in the mind or in the heart of the holy maid


bruce said...


It was also around that time, no doubt, that the Germanic people made a choice to name the 'new' Christian Deity 'God', so as to sharply distinguish from pagan deities which were called 'ansu' or 'aesir'.

But the expression 'power of God' in this text may unavoidably revert to the older term, still present in a few names:

Treacherous 'southerners' eh?

bruce said...

I see that Karen Armstrong has written a 'History of God' and I'll bet she misses this central point: the very choice of the word God implies rejection of previous 'spirituality' - a radical and specific choice.