Medieval and Modern Meet: Advent

As a Christian scholar, I read the medieval texts that are my primary area of study with a curious double vision.  A scholar must keep a certain distance between herself and her object of study.  We historicize, always historicize, recognizing that texts are produced within a specific and contingent context different from our own.  Not imposing the present on the past is not only a professional rule but an ethical imperative—to assume that people of different times and places share our worldview would be to disrespect their uniqueness and appropriate their culture.

As a Christian, however, I also recognize a real continuity between myself and the writers I study.  Despite the differences that separate us, we worship the same God, who is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Across the centuries, we participate in the same body of Christ in the church.  We are enfolded in the same communion of saints.  Thus, I can claim their writings as a rightful inheritance and receive them not as dead texts but a living tradition.

Ultimately, I think the Christian works of the past are best understood not as museum pieces safe under glass, but as estates or cathedrals that have been continuously occupied by hundreds of generations.  Such a building has been shaped by countless disasters, additions, and remodels, so that it may be impossible to recover its pristine original state.  It is a place where one can not only learn, but live, not only preserve ancestors, but raise children.  It is a place, above all, haunted.  The dead are not so wholly gone that we can appropriate their works however we wish; the dead are not so wholly gone that we can never recover what they really meant.  When we read their writings, imitate their examples, and share their prayers, we call them back into present life.  And someday, in the resurrection, we will meet them face to face.

Last semester, as I studied medieval cycle plays, I did my best to recognize the historical specificity of their contexts in late medieval England.  These cycles, performed annually by the guilds of a town at a summer festival, recount the whole of salvation history from the creation of the world to the last judgment.  I wrote a research paper examining how changes in Eucharistic theology from the mid-1300s, in which the Chester cycle originated, to the late 1500s, when the extant copies were transcribed, changed how audiences experienced the pageants.

At the same time, though, the fundamental impulses behind these plays—to understand the Bible as a single coherent narrative, to bring past events entombed in text into living motion and color, and to enter into the grand story of salvation by enacting it as a community—remain the same not only from the 1300s to the 1500s but right down to our own day.  I don’t just want to examine these plays as texts—I want to do the very same things that the medieval authors, performers, and audiences were trying to do!  So in addition to my paper, I wrote my own short pageant, imitating elements of the cycle plays but adapting them to a specific performance context.  This play was performed at a MacLaurinCSF dinner on the first Sunday of Advent last November.  In it many times meet: Old Testament types, New Testament fulfillments, patristic exegesis, medieval tradition, modern remembrance, and the future coming of Christ for which we still long.

 

ADVENT

Stage directions:  Let each speaker enter upon their first lines.  Adam may be indicated by a garment of fur or leather, Abraham by a robe, David by a crown and harp, and Mary by a blue shawl; or, each may carry a paper bearing his or her name.

Chorus:
The people lost in darkness
See light in eastern skies;
Deep in the barren desert
Green shoots begin to rise;
Dead bones, dry bones, dust of dust
With breath are rustling;
And in the cold of winter
Comes rumor of the spring.

From days of old our fathers
Have hoped and never seen;
Patriarchs and prophets
Blindly have faithful been;
The whole world groans with longing
For the promised day.
If those honored dead could speak,
Hear what they would say.

Adam:
I am the father of all human woe.
Exiled from Eden, through the world I go
Mourning my fatal pride and senseless greed.
Yet all’s not lost; there will spring from my seed
A chosen son, of whom the Lord has said
Though the snake bite his heel, he’ll crush his head.
Still, still my children weep and strive and toil;
The world is still within the serpent’s coil.
Where is the promised one who will set right
My wrong, and sow peace where I scattered blight?

Abraham:
I am the father of the chosen race.
The LORD called me out of my people’s place
To be a people set apart for him,
Prophets and priests to raise his holy hymns.
Four promises he swore, and three has done.
From parents half dead he brought forth a son.
He gave a child, and made that child a nation,
Gave that nation a land; yet expectation
Still waits and wonders for the last and best:
For he said through me all men would be blessed.

David:
I am the father of a line of kings,
And I composed the songs that Israel sings.
From tending sheep unto a ruler’s part,
God called me a man after his own heart.
He promised me his kingdom for my own,
A son of mine forever on the throne.
But Israel is scattered; Judah bows
To Caesar, and lives but as Rome allows.
My heirs are dispossessed, and none prevail.
Is God’s word faithful?  Can his promise fail?

Adam:
He promised me the world, if I had stayed
Within his will; but I disobeyed.
I lost my kingdom when I lost his trust.
Can I complain?  His punishment is just.

Abraham:
Perhaps the grace we turned from now is spent.
My people have not kept our covenant.
Even the best, to guard themselves from sin,
Strove to drive out and not to welcome in.

David:
I myself called the curse into my house
When I chose lust and murder for my spouse.
What wonder if I lost the favor of
The God of righteousness and peace and love?

Chorus:
Behold who now draws near,
Meek and without fear.
Behold now. Who is this?
She bears with her our bliss.

Mary:
I am a maid who has not known a man.
I can do nothing, but by God who can;
A mere girl, to no wealth or station born,
In conquered land, a small town held in scorn.
And yet God chose this nothing, by his grace,
To rock him in my arms, kiss his sweet face—
To give the world its Savior.  See how small
The vessel is that holds the hope of all.
Hear, honored fathers, how brief is the word
That will forever magnify the Lord:
“I am your servant.”  Simple as a nod.
I am the mother of the Son of God.

Adam:
Hail, new Eve, mother of a better race.
Her self-will brought sin, your obedience grace.

Abraham:
Hail, faithful one, who made no doubt or mirth
Of not a barren, even a virgin birth.

David:
Hail, living branch sprung forth from Jesse’s root,
World’s fairest flower, bearing the world’s best fruit.

Mary:  
Do not bless me, but all of those who do
The will of God, and to his word are true.
For everyone who does God’s will becomes
A home for Christ to dwell in when he comes.

All:
Come quickly, Christ.  Each promise God has made
Is YES in you, through you, and by your aid.
Prepare our longing hearts, Lord, that we may
Be fit to meet you on that blessed day.
Praise to the Son of Man, Savior of men,
With the Father and the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

Kathryn Mogk is a second-year graduate student in the English department, studying late medieval literature and religion. This job combines several of her favorite activities—reading, discussing books, and correcting other people’s grammar—while living in a Christian household satisfies the remainder of her earthly desires—talking philosophy with friends and incessantly singing hymns.

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