Laetentur coeli: A Christmas Sermon from the Speculum Ecclesiae

Now, my dear ones, with the utmost brevity, I will unlock the mysteries of the Nativity for you: why God’s Only-Begotten should have visited the world in this way. The prepotent emperor Augustus who set the bridle of his power over every nation signifies that newborn King who had already arranged to draw the whole world under the yoke of the Gospel with the reins of faith.

After a long time away from the blog—much of it spent preparing the Gemma animae and Voyages Liturgiques for publication—we are pleased to offer another installment in our series (see below) of translations from Honorius Augustodunensis’ Speculum Ecclesiae:

On Christmas day, Honorius offers us a rich and varied feast of themes carefully culled from Patristic, Carolingian, and modern writers. Orosian history, the sermons and Moralia of Bede and Gregory, and some animal lore from the Physiologus are all set in his signature rhymed prose, and performed with an Eriugenan ear for the symphonic interplay of the microcosm and macrocosm as the heavens and earth join in praising the newborn King.

The sermons conclude with some remarks on the commemorations of Saints Anastasia and Saint Eugenia, which were done on Christmas day in many mediæval uses.

As usual, the English translation is below and a PDF with the English and Latin texts may be downloaded

The Mystic Nativity, Botticelli, 1500

Give praise, O ye heavens, and rejoice, O earth, ye mountains, give praise with jubilation: because the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy on his poor ones.[1] How fittingly the heavens are told to give praise today, since today they were found worthy to be irradiated with a new light and a new joy. For today the King of the heavens visited the land through his presence, and deigned to repair, by means of men, the damage wrought in heaven by the angels’ fall.[2] As a sign of their allegiance to the King, the heavens promptly gave expression to their merriment by sending out the brightest of stars. Fittingly too the earth is urged to rejoice today, because today the Truth, sprung out of the earth,[3] comes to free her from the curse and to unite her progeny, mankind, to the angels in the heavens. She made her great joy known to the world when, gushing up from her bowels, she brought forth a stream of oil for the God newly-born in her bosom.[4] The mountains too are exhorted to sing sweet melodies in God’s praise. The mountains are the patriarchs and prophets, who overclimbed the rest of mankind’s merits by their holy living as mountains tower over the flat places of the earth by their height.[5] Today they jubilated in God’s praise, exulting to see fulfilled today what the patriarchs foretold in their figures and the prophets in their scriptures: namely the Gentile people thatwalked in the darkness of ignorance have seen today the great light of eternal Wisdom; and to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, that is Hell, light is arisen:[6] forsooth Christ, Splendor of the eternal Father,[7] is born, and after he went down to them and snatched them from the darkness, he carried them out into light eternal.[8]

Furthermore, the just are called “heavens” because God dwells in them,[9] for the sun of wisdom, the moon of eloquence, and the stars of the virtues gleam within them.[10] These heavens gave praise today, because they perceived that the desire they long yearned for in many prayers is today fulfilled in Christ’s Nativity, and that their reward is drawing nigh. The earth, on the other hand, stands for sinners, in whom the thorns and thistles of sins have sprung up.[11] Today they are urged to exult, because they are summoned by Christ to forgiveness. I have not come, he says, to call the just, but sinners.[12] Now the mountains are the angels, who made a sweet and joyful melody[13] in God’s praise today when with loud voices they raised the hymn Glory to God in the Highest[14] to their King newly-born upon the earth. The same angels merrily sang peace to men of good will, from whose number, as they have now grasped, their diminished ranks are to be restored.

Mosaic of the Nativity, Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome), 13th century.

The sun wreathed itself in a new splendor today, rejoicing to see that he shone upon the Sun of justice who arose in the lands he bathes with light. Verily, a brilliant circle of light gleamed forth far and wide about the sun’s splendorous orb today,[15] a clear allusion to the Sun of justice, who rose in the darkness of death and proceeded to array the world in the royal purple of his blood. Some say a dumb beast spoke with a human voice today obviously signifying that the mouth of the Gentiles, formerly dumb, had to open and give God praise; and the Gentiles marveled to see the star and made ready to offer gifts to the newborn King.

Today all creation stirred itself to gladness because the Son of the King of Heaven came from heaven’s palace today into the prison of the world[16] to find the lost servant, delivering joy to the whole globe. Full rightly, then, the whole world put on a new mirth today, for the Lord has comforted his people. His people are the meek, humble, chaste, modest, merciful, long-suffering, and those who love God and neighbor. Those who had been sad at being so long separated from heavenly happiness today receive comfort from our Lord, when Christ not only swung open for them the gates of paradise that had been closed on account of inobedience but even the doors of heaven. This is also promised to them by an angel, who says, “he will save his people from their sins.[17] And he will have mercy on his poor ones.” His poor ones are those who, like me, have not faithfully kept God’s commandments, and have insatiably clung to grave sins all their life long. Such people bewail their misery and naked injustice, and yearn deeply to be freed from the misery of sins and punishment. They are his poor ones, because they know none can be saved except by the grace of God alone. Therefore God has mercy on them, promising them the hope of forgiveness, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[18] The just and sinners, therefore, share the glad merriment of today’s light: the just are promised a crown if they shall persevere in justice, and sinners shall be granted forgiveness if they fly swiftly from sin to penance.

The Nativity, Edward Burne-Jones, 1888.

My dearest brethren, let it not seem burdensome to you if this sermon is extended a bit longer. If a foreigner from a strange land came here to reside in this place as an exile,[19] and one of his countrymen that was known to him passed through, he would lend him an attentive ear and hear without boredom what he had to tell of his land, his friends, and his countrymen. All of you here are exiles and pilgrims, and so you should listen with great attention to what is reported to you regarding your fatherland, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and what is told you regarding your Father, your Mother the Church, and your fellow citizens the angels and saints. Nevertheless, as today you are tired by the unusually long office, and some of you are gripped by the severity of this rather bitter cold, I desire to intimate, as briefly as possible, how the Son of God came into this world to free the human race from the devil’s power.

As the Gospel relates,[20] in those days Augustus Cæsar ruled the Roman empire, having subdued to his sway all the kingdoms that crowded round the ocean’s girdle with their sturdy walls. He issued an edict ordering the whole world to be enrolled in the census. He promulgated the decree in such terms that every man should have to return to his fatherland whence his family originated, and there, if any man had unjustly lost possession of his patrimony, he should receive it back without fee; and each should recite his family’s genealogy to the principal judge, and with that he should be marked down for the census by the scribe’s authority. At that time there was a man from Bethlehem, named Joseph, who was betrothed to a holy virgin of God, who, though born of poor parents, was a descendant from the royal family. Driven by poverty, he had migrated from Judaea to Galilee and settled in the town of Nazareth to seek his bread. And thus, as the whole population of the globe travelled, under the compulsion of the emperor’s edict, each to the land of his birth, Joseph too set out to declare the census with his spouse Mary to the town of King David called Bethlehem, because he and the Virgin were descended from the nobility of David’s family. Since there was no room in the whole city that was not occupied by the large crowds of lodgers who were flooding in from near and far, since at that time they were from a poor family and there was no room for them, they stayed in the street.[21] Then came that fullness of time when God had determined to look forth from heaven upon the earth,[22] and on that night the Blessed Virgin bore, without birth pangs or uncleanness,[23] a child who held the whole world in the hollow of his hand.[24] She wrapped him in swaddling clothes against the weather and lay him in the pen that Joseph or perhaps some of their neighbors had set up in the street for their animals.[25] Forthwith, the heavens gratefully made known his birth through a new star, and so did the earth in merriment, instantly gushing forth streams of oil from its hidden places. The angels too appeared to men in an overwhelming light, and with their joyous hymn proclaimed that Heaven’s King was born on earth. Such are the solemnities of this sacred day, so festively observed by angels and men.

The Nativity, detail from the altar frontal of the church of Santa Maria in Avià, Catalonia, 12th century.

Now, my dear ones, with the utmost brevity, I will unlock the mysteries of these things for you: why God’s Only-Begotten should have visited the world in this way. The prepotent emperor who set the bridle of his power over every nation signifies the newborn King who had already arranged to draw the whole world under the yoke of the Gospel with the reins of faith.[26] The fact that that world was brightened by profound peace points to the fact that Christ, our true Peace,[27] has appeared, come to dissolve the enmities between God and men[28] and raise human nature to angelic dignity by his blood.[29] Everyone going back to their fatherland signifies that all had to go return to Paradise, our fatherland, through Christ. Stolen patrimony is returned to them, because through Christ believers recover possession of Paradise. Each person is recorded by family lineage and entered into the census because believers who profess through faith and works that their land of origin is Paradise deserve to be certified for the kingdom of heaven by Christ through an anointing of chrism oil.[30]

We also read that some who did not know the sequence of their generations were killed, and that is because those who do not undergo the Church’s rite of regeneration perish in an eternal death. People paid Caesar a penny that had to be stamped with his image and weigh ten pounds of coins, because whoever longs to be reformed in the image of the Creator must above all not tarry to fulfill the Ten Commandments of the Law.[31] That Christ willed to be born in the street means that having been made an exile from his heavenly fatherland for our sake he came unto what was not his own. Although all things are his and he came unto his own,[32] nevertheless, being so full of troubles, this world was most alien to his glory. He is born at night because, whereas later God will come manifestly,[33] now, coming in secret, he is not recognized. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes and our apron, woven from the fig leaves of our sins, is untied by his death.[34] He is laid in a pen, amidst animal fodder, because his body is given to the faithful as the food of life. An ass and ox stood over the pen, the story goes, and surely that is because the Gentile people, signified by the ass, and the Jewish people, signified by the ox, are led by faith to feed on Christ’s Body. A star shone brighter than the rest, because today the Holy of Holies lit up the world.[35] In Rome a fountain of oil erupted from the earth and ran in great streams into the river Tiber, for today the pure Virgin bore a fountain of mercy that copiously watered the human race.[36] Angels showed themselves to men singing hymns in a great glow of light, foretelling how mankind would come to the undying light and perpetual praise of the Creator through the King who was born today. These are the sacrosanct mysteries Holy Church honors today, delighting in the Lord along with the angels. The fact that three masses are celebrated today signifies that mankind is saved by Christ’s birth throughout three ages; to wit, the patriarchs before the Law, the prophets under the Law, and believers under grace. Today the day’s light begins to lengthen, and the darkness of night to shorten, because the Splendor of eternal light appeared today and put to flight the darkness of vice and sin among the human race, and shone upon the world with the rays of virtue, and called it forth toward the undying light.

Palatine Chapel, Palermo (Sicily), c. 1150

Finish here if you wish. Otherwise, add the following:

This singular birth, dearly beloved, was anticipated in the first man, who was created singly from the pure earth,[37] and soon predicted this birth as well, saying, “A man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife.[38] That is to say, Christ left his Father in heaven and his mother on earth, the Synagogue, and cleft to his wife, who is the Church. This birth was also prefigured by the patriarchs, when an angel foretold that Isaac would be born from a barren old woman. Isaac, whose name means “joy” is Christ, who is the full joy of the faithful. All the prophets foretold this birth in sundry ways; even the very beasts expressed through figures that it would come to pass.

Unicorn tapestry, Musée de Cluny

The unicorn is a very fierce beast, with only one horn.[39] To catch one, a young maiden is placed in a field. When the beast comes to her and lies in her lap, it is caught. This beast expresses Christ, and its horn his insuperable strength. When he lay in the Virgin’s womb he was captured by hunters, which is to say he was found in human form by those who loved him.

My dearest brethren, because the Son of God willed to come from heaven down to your prison and purchase you out of the Tyrant’s captivity, refrain with all your might from entering the service of the dark lord, who deals out nothing but endless punishments to his serfs; and bind yourselves with great confidence to the domain of the best Master, who rewards those who serve him with eternal joys.[40] God the Father had not but one Son, and since he did wish him to be his only heir, he dispatched him into exile to go after the runaway serf, intending to bestow the royal palace upon the serf when he returned with his Son. Run now toward him, all of you, with all your strength, serve him as best you possibly can, so that one day you may celebrate these temporal feasts with the angels in eternity. Amen.


On Saint Anastasia

Statue of Saint Anastasia in the church of Sant’Anastasia al Palatino (Rome), F. Aprile and E. Ferrata, 17th century.

Today the commemoration of the blessed martyr Anastasia increases for us the joys of this holy day. She was one of the most noble women in Rome, but forsook all her riches for the love of Christ and began to visit Christians in prison, ministering to all their needs. Then she was arrested by the pagans, afflicted by many torments, and finally beheaded for Christ’s sake.


On Saint Eugenia

Saint Eugenia, from the retable of the eponymous church in Astudillo, Castille, 15th century.

A companion joins her today, the holy virgin and martyr Eugenia. Her father Philip was sent from Rome to Alexandria as prefect[1] and ruled all of Egypt. Her daughter, however, secretly abandoned her palace with two personal slaves, Protus and Hyacinth, and, wearing men’s clothing, entered a men’s monastery. She was eventually made its abbot and shone with many miracles. No one realized she was a woman, and so a certain matron impiously tried to seduce her. When Eugenia rejected her advances, the matron accused her before the judge, who was Eugenia’s own father. He bound all Christians in chains together with her, who was led to torment for attempting seduction. After a long exchange with her father, she tore open the robe she was wearing for the glory of Christ, manifesting to the prefect that she was his daughter. He was soon converted to God with all his household and then became bishop, and not much later was beheaded for Christ over the altar as he celebrated mass. A heavenly fire, meanwhile, devoured Eugenia’s accuser and all her household. Thereafter, Eugenia’s mother Claudia went to Rome with her daughter, her two sons Sergius and Bacchus, and her eunuchs Protus and Hyacinth. Sergius and Bacchus became proconsuls and converted many to the faith. Claudia converted many matrons, and Eugenia many maidens. Yea, Protus and Hyacinth converted many soldiers who were slain for Christ’s name. Eugenia, meanwhile, having suffered many trials and divers torments, shed her blood today, immolated as Christ’s victim. And since Christ willed to come down to earth, he gave men, even tender maidens, the power to go up to heaven.

Commend yourselves to these and all saints, so that after this wretched life you might merit by their merits to exult with them in the everlasting feast.

[1] Isaias 49:13.

[2] Saints Augustine (Civitas Dei 22, Enchiridion 29) and Anselm (Cur Deus Homo 18) famously argued that the elect make up for the number of rebellious angels expelled from heaven. See Elucidarium 6, where God the praepotens rex predestines nine ranks of angels to staff his palace guard (PL 172:1113b,c).

[3] Psalm 84:12. Antiphon for the Nativity, Cantus Index 005368.

[4] The seventh of Rhabanus Maurus’s “Miracles of the Nativity,” discussed in his Christmas homily on the Genealogy of Christ (Homily 163, PL 110:468b), and summarized by Honorius in Elucidarium 19 (PL 172:1124a,b). Honorius uses Maurus’ list but interprets the miracles uniquely.

[5] See Augustine, In psalmos 39.6 (CCL, 38:429): “By hills we understand the Church’s great and famous spiritual men.”

[6] Isaias 9:2. Selections of Isaias 9, 61, and 52 were read at the three masses of Christmas in many medieval uses.

[7] See Hebrews 1:3.

[8] See perhaps Isaias 60:19.

[9] See Psalm 122:1: Ad te levavi oculos meos, qui habitas in coelis.

[10] We sense the Eriugenan doctrine of microcosm here, where superlunary elements of the cosmos are said to be inside man. See Elucidarium 11 (PL 72:1116).

[11] A reference to the curse of the earth in Genesis 3:18. A gloss, perhaps following Rhabanus Maurus, identifies the thorns as the vices (vitiorum).

[12] Matthew 9:13.

[13] See Job 38:7 and Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram 4.24, where Augustine teaches that the light created before the world (Genesis 1:3) represents the angels, whose “morning knowledge” is contrasted with our “evening knowledge.”

[14] The words of the angelic hymn given in Luke 2 were expanded into the prose hymn Gloria in excelsis sung on Sundays and at festive liturgies in the Latin rite.

[15] The sixth miracle of Christmas according to Rhabanus Maurus, Homily 163 (PL 110:468a). Cf. Elucidarium 19 (PL 172:1124a).

[16] The notion of the world as a prison, for men or angels or both, was a patristic theme. The Fathers’ reflections stand in the philosophic tradition of antiquity, especially Platonism, which viewed the human body, and by extension the whole material world, as a prison encasing the spiritual soul, tormenting it with the pains of mortality and impeding its flight to the divine realm.

[17] Matthew 1:21.

[18] Matthew 3:2.

[19] The dynamic of pilgrimage and return is central to Augustine’s conception of Christian life and the two cities. See City of God, esp. 1.35; 15.15, 18, 20-21, 26-27. Existentially, it expresses the soul’s “alienation” in this life, and may be translated as “wandering, ” “banishment,” “pilgrimage,” or “exile,” as the context demands. Honorius seems to be appropriating a tropological interpretation of the Augustan census from Bede’s Commentary on Luke (PL 92:329a-329d), deploying it here as a rhetorical tactic to keep his audience interested.

[20] The following account summarizes Luke 2:1-20.

[21] Cf. Gregory’s Homily 8, read during Christmas Matins in medieval uses, part of which appears in a marginal gloss on Luke 2:7: Qui non in parentum domo, sed in via nascitur, ut profecto ostenderet, quia per humanitatem suam quam assumpserat quasi in alieno nascebatur. Alienum videlicet non secundum potestatem dico, sed secundum naturam. Nam de potestate eius scriptum est: In propria venit. In natura etenim sua ante tempora natus est, in nostra venit ex tempore. Honorius adopts Gregory’s allegory below.

[22] Psalm 101:20.

[23] See Elucidarium 14 and 19 (PL 172:1118b, 1123c).

[24] An abridgement of Isaiah 40:12 found in Gregory and Bede. For an exhaustive study of the phrase, see Sabatier, Vetus latina : die Reste der altlateinischen Bibel, vol. 12.2.

[25] Rather than the traditional “stable,” Honorius interprets praesaepium as a pen or fold, according to its root in the verb saepio which means to fence in. The medieval imagination felt quite free to “vernacularize” biblical stories to make them accessible to contemporary audiences.

[26] The mighty emperor Augustus’ (praepotens rex) use of coercive violence (imposuit) to subjugate the world’s peoples with a curb or bit (frena) is contrasted with the gentle invitation of the child-king (Rex natus) who draws (trahere) the world under the ‘sweet yoke’ (iugum suave) of the Gospel. There is a great history of expanding Christ’s metaphor of the yoke into an image of the Church. On Christ’s chariot, see Gemma 1.6. On the ‘plowing servant,’ see Gemma 1.17. The expression “reins of faith” (loris fidei) comes from Gregory I (Moralia 12).

[27] Christ is called “our peace” in Ephesians 2:14, with which the whole sentence resonates. The coincidence of the pax Romana and Christ’s birth is the second miracle of Christmas.

[28] Cf. the reflection on Christ “our peace” in Ephesians 2:14-16, where the ‘enmities,’ however, are between Jew and Gentile.

[29] Cf. Ephesians 2:19: “Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners; but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God.”

[30] The verb firmo could mean ‘to strengthen or encourage’ (as in the sacrament of confirmation), or in a legal sense ‘to declare, confirm, or attest,’ as the scribe who administers the census certifies the Roman subject’s identity in the official record. If, in addition, Honorius means to pun census and chrisma, he is going far out on an unsturdy limb. For Honorius’ notion of being ‘enrolled’ in the Kingdom of heaven through various sacraments, see Gemma 3.54-56. The idea of heavenly tablets bearing the names of the elect comes from Exodus 32:32, Daniel 12:3, Luke 10:20, and Revelation 3:5.

[31] This fact and interpretation are taken from Bede, Homily 31 (PL 94:335a). Cf. Bede, In Luc. (PL 122:470a).

[32] John 1:11

[33] A phrase from Psalm 49:3 that appears in several office propers of Advent.

[34] Adam and Eve weave fig-leaf “aprons” (DR), in other versions “loincloths”, out of shame to hide their private parts (see Genesis 3:7: perizomata), giving rise to our expression “a fig-leaf of shame.” In a gloss, Hippolytus, bishop and martyr says: Folia fici signa peccatorum fuerunt. Augustine agrees in Tractates on the Gospel of John 124 (PL 35:1448): Folia ergo ficulnea intelliguntur peccata.

[35] As an expansion of scripture’s astronomical symbolism that makes Christ the Sun of Justice, the saints were often portrayed as the stars, shining with the holiness of virtue. See esp. Gemma 2.49-50. In another layer of complexity, Honorius argues that Christ is the “Holy of Holies,” which may also be rendered “Saint of the saints” or “Most Holy One,” hence also the brightest of the stars. A gloss on Matthew 2:1 attributed to Jerome argues that Daniel’s prophecy concerning the Most Holy One (Daniel 9:24) is fulfilled in Christ, when Pompey transferred rulership of Israel from the high priest-king Hyrcanus to the Hasmonean dynasty (63 B.C.).

[36] See Orosius, Historiae 31 (PL 31:1054B), where the miracle actually happens in 29 B.C., when Augustus celebrated his triumphs that marked the end of the civil wars. Orosius interprets the event as a prophecy of Christ’s universal dominion.

[37] The pun is on singularis (singular, extraordinary, unequaled) and singulariter (singly, alone).

[38] Genesis 2:24.

[39] The ancient Greek Physiologus, in its medieval Latin versions, used scripture to explain the unicorn’s importance, drawing particularly from Deuteronomy 33:17, John 10:30 and 1:14, Luke 1:69, Psalm 22:21, Matthew 11:29, and Romans 8:13.

[40] The choice facing the Christian hearer is presented in terms of feudal economics that Honorius’ audience knew and experienced intimately, since in the early 12th century, many whether rich and poor were bound in service to a feudal lord, as servants or serfs. One may “work for the Devil” a harsh master who deals out fierce punishments, or serve on God’s estate, where one is assured of a happy life.

This tapestry, from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, shows a small white unicorn leaping onto the lap of the Virgin Mary (Credit: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection)

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