Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tracing Apocrypha, Medieval to Modern

The other day I started wondering about how to relate my dissertation research on apocrypha in Old English sermons to more contemporary topics. So, on a whim, I returned to a blog post by Michael Peppard that I had read about Pope Benedict XVI's quotation of a saying of Jesus (an agraphon) that ultimately goes back to the Gospel of Thomas. This lead me to the online papal archives (see here), where I started searching and reading around in Benedict's other sermons.

As I soon discovered, serendipitously, the papal archives reveal a wealth of information about Benedict's attitudes toward and uses of apocrypha. Benedict's sermons show a variety of references and appropriations of apocrypha, including allusions, citations, quotations, and narrative adaptations. Even more, his appropriations of apocrypha strike me as very similar to the ways apocryphal materials appear in Old English sermons--typology, allegory, and a number of other connections to Anglo-Saxon cultural currents. Perhaps I should not be surprised to find such strong resonances of the medieval (and such strong connections to Anglo-Saxon sermons) in Benedict's sermons, but I was. Here I share one instance that struck me, with some thoughts about the parallels I found.

Benedict's 2007 Easter Vigil sermon (April 7, 2007) provides a remarkable appropriation of the Harrowing of Hell, drawing on the Psalms, Jonah, and the familiar imagery of Christ's descent in apocryphal materials--however traditional this motif has become, filtered through centuries of authorities.[1] For full effect, I quote the passage in full:
Let us return once more to the night of Holy Saturday. In the Creed we say about Christ’s journey that he "descended into hell." What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery. The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23 [24]: "Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!" The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die—this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. "The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light" (cf. Ps 138 [139] 12). Entering the world of the dead, Jesus bears the stigmata, the signs of his passion: his wounds, his suffering, have become power: they are love that conquers death. He meets Adam and all the men and women waiting in the night of death. As we look at them, we can hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah: "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice" (Jn 2:2). In the incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings--with Adam. But only at this moment, when he accomplishes the supreme act of love by descending into the night of death, does he bring the journey of the incarnation to its completion. By his death he now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits him, and brings them to the light. (par. 6)[2]
It is true that the declaration that Jesus "descended into hell" is part of the Apostles’ Creed and Catechism of the Catholic Church,[3] yet the details added here fully align with apocryphal traditions developed and maintained in early and medieval Christianity. Reading this passage, I was immediately reminded of Blickling VII, which includes a long scene about the Harrowing of Hell. The motifs Benedict incorporates especially relate to iconographic traditions. For example, Benedict appeals to Christ’s cross as key in the Harrowing, and "the Easter icons of the Oriental Church," which are related to similar images in Anglo-Saxon psalters. Benedict’s quotation of Jonah and his incorporation of Adam in this scene are, in fact, typological, rhetorical, and poetic in ways that his medieval predecessors would fully endorse: Adam is not only the first man, with Christ as his typological mirror image, but also a symbol for all of humanity, redeemed from hell through Christ’s Crucifixion, Harrowing, and Resurrection--none of which are independent from the others.

This Easter Vigil sermon is also not devoid of appeal to cultural relevance. Like Anglo-Saxon sermon authors (like all sermon authors are called to do in Pope Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care!), Benedict situates the Harrowing in a contemporary context for his audience. He ends his sermon with an exhortation and a prayer that link the Harrowing with an allegorical spiritual need in the present:
Love made Jesus descend, and love is also the power by which he ascends. The power by which he brings us with him. In union with his love, borne aloft on the wings of love, as persons of love, let us descend with him into the world’s darkness, knowing that in this way we will also rise up with him. On this night, then, let us pray: Lord, show us that love is stronger than hatred, that love is stronger than death. Descend into the darkness and the abyss of our modern age, and take by the hand those who await you. Bring them to the light! In my own dark nights, be with me to bring me forth! Help me, help all of us, to descend with you into the darkness of all those people who are still waiting for you, who out of the depths cry unto you! Help us to bring them your light! Help us to say the "yes" of love, the love that makes us descend with you and, in so doing, also to rise with you. Amen! (par. 8)
For Benedict, as for medieval thinkers, the Harrowing is not merely an event of the historical past; it is soteriological; it is symbolic; it is continual, even up to the present; and it is an act in which believers are called upon to participate. Benedict's Harrowing imagery thus affirms the long tradition, from early Christianity, through the medieval, to the modern, even permeating the postmodern (on which Benedict himself has written in some of his books). In short, I would argue that Benedict's use of apocrypha is, to use the title of this blog, "Modern Medieval."

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil, Saint Peter’s Basilica, April 7, 2007, Vatican: The Holy See,, cited by paragraph.

[2] Biblical citations provided here are original to the transcription.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, I.ii.2.5.1, Vatican,

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