A Tenth Century English Christmas

This past Spring I stumbled across a great find in my good friend’s used bookshop.  It was a well-worn, expertly highlighted edition of Jackson Campbell’s highly regarded translation of the Advent antiphons from the Exeter Book.[1]  Intending to read it this Advent season, I bought the book, forgot about it, and rediscovered it this month when it showed up in my notes for December reading. And am I ever glad to have bought it!

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, I would like to share with you my favorite poem from that very, very old collection.  The poem would have been used in the liturgy of the Old English church on the Sunday the Greater Antiphon “O Oriens” was recited.  While that antiphon would have been spoken in Latin, this poem would have been read in the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

But the words in any translation demonstrate a deep and rich comprehension of the significance of Christ’s birth.  May these ancient words recall to your mind and heart an even older truth, and may you be moved to utter thanks to the Lord for the gift of salvation – even in our “era of time.”

O Radiance, brightest of angels

sent to men throughout the earth

and veritable splendor of the sun,

dazzling beyond the stars, you ever enlighten

of yourself every era of time.

Since you, God of God, begotten of old,

son of the True Father in the glory of heaven

without beginning always existed,

so now your own works in dire need

ask confidently that you send us

the bright sun, and come yourself

that you may illumine those who long before,

covered with darkness and obscurity here,

have sat in continual night; enshrouded in sin

we had to endure the dark shadow of death.

Now we hopefully believe in the salvation

brought to men by the word of God,

which was at the beginning coeternal

with God, the Father Almighty, and now has become

flesh free from stain which the virgin bore

as a help to the miserable.  God was among us

seen without sin; together they lived,

mighty son of God and son of man

in harmony among people.  For that we may

utter thanks forever to the Lord for his acts,

for he willed to send himself to us.


Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas


[1] Campbell, Jackson J., The Advent Lyrics of the Exeter Book (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959).

N.B.  The above image of a tenth century manger scene is from the manuscript Homilarium and is courtesy of Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, B IV 26, p. 6r.


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