A TWELFTH CENTURY SERMON IN BOSBURY

Background    I came across this recently. I think it’s a very reasonable assumption that this sermon by Ælfric of Eynsham was preached at Bosbury church on Easter Sunday around this time. As sermons go, it’s a modest length, about twenty minutes.

Ælfric was a Benedictine monk from Winchester who moved to Cerne Abbey in Dorset as a teacher in 987 CE and wrote two books in Old English, not Latin, each containing forty homilies to be read as sermons in the English Roman Catholic churches. He left the abbey in 1005 to become Abbot at Keynsham but died around 1010 at the age of 55. His homilies were copied and read out in English churches long after his death and after the arrival of William of Normandy in 1066.

This sermon from his second book is interesting for two reasons. First it so well-written, carefully argued and clearly explained, and second because Ælfric’s views on the church ceremony of the Eucharist or Holy Communion (which he calls Holy Housel) were more in line with the later Protestant church than the Roman Catholic church to which he belonged which believed that the substance of the bread and wine was changed.


IC Ælfric munuc awende þas bóc of Ledenum bócum to Engliscum gereorde, þam mannum to rædenne þe þæt Leden ne cunnon. Ic hi genám of halgum godspellum, and æfter geðungenra láreowa trahtnungum hi asmeade, þæra lároeowa naman ic awrát on ðære ærran béc, on ðære Ledenan forespræce. . . . .

I ÆLFRIC the monk have turned this book from Latin books into the English tongue for those men to read who know not Latin. I have taken it from the holy gospels, and treated it after the expositions of highly venerable doctors the names of which doctors I wrote down in the former book, in the Latin preface. . . . .

SERMO DE SACRIFICIO IN DIE PASCAE.

MEN þe leofostan, gelóme eow is gesæd ymbe ures Hælendes æriste, hú hé on ðisum andwerdan dæge, æfter his ðrowunge mihtiglice of deaðe arás. Nu wille we eow geopenian, þurh Godes gife, be ðam HALGAN HUSLE ðe ge nú to gán sceolon and gewissian eower andgit ymbe þære gerynu . . . .

A SERMON ON THE SACRIFICE ON EASTER-DAY.

MEN most beloved, it has frequently been related to you concerning our Saviour’s resurrection, how he on this present day, after his passion mightily arose from death. Now we will disclose to you, through the grace of God, concerning the HOLY HOUSEL to which ye are now to go, and direct your understanding with regard to that mystery,
both according to the Old Testament and according to the New; lest any doubt may injure you concerning the vital reflection.

The Almighty God commanded Moses the leader in the land of Egypt, that he should command the people of Israel to take for every hearth a yearling lamb, on the night in which they departed from that land to the promised country, and to offer that lamb to God, and afterwards to slaughter it, and to make the sign of the cross on their door-posts and lintels with the lamb’s blood, to eat afterwards the lamb’s flesh roasted, and unleavened loaves with field lettuce.

God said to Moses, “Eat ye not of the lamb anything raw, nor sodden in water, but roasted at the fire. Eat the head and the feet, and the inward parts, nor let anything remain of it till morning: if there be aught left, burn it. Eat it in this wise. Begird your loins, and be shod, have your staff in hand, and eat in haste: this tide is God’s Passover.” And on that night there was slain in every house throughout the realm of Pharaoh the first-born child; and Israel, the people of God, was delivered from that sudden death through the offering of the lamb, and the marking with its blood. Then said God to Moses, “Hold this day in your memory, and celebrate it solemnly in your generations with eternal observance, and eat unleavened bread constantly for seven days at this feast-tide.”

After this deed God led the people of Israel over the Red sea with dry feet, and drowned therein Pharaoh and all his host together, who had persecuted them, and afterwards fed the people of Israel for forty years with heavenly food, and gave them water from the hard stony rock, until they came to the promised country. Some of this narrative we have expounded in another place, some we will now explain, namely that which relates to the holy housel.

Christian men may not now hold the old law bodily, but it is fitting that they know what it betokens spiritually. The innocent lamb, which the old Israel then slaughtered, was a token, according to the ghostly sense, of Christ’s passion, who innocent shed his holy blood for our redemption; in reference to which God’s ministers sing at every mass, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis:” that is in our tongue, “Thou Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.” The Israelitish people were delivered from sudden death, and from Pharaoh’s thraldom through the offering of the lamb, which was a betokening of Christ’s passion, through which we are redeemed from eternal death and the power of the cruel devil, if we rightly believe in the true Redeemer of all the world, Jesus Christ. The lamb was offered in the evening, and our Saviour suffered in the sixth age of this world; that age is considered as the evening of this perishable world. They marked with the blood of the lamb, on their door-posts and lintels, the letter Tau, that is, the sign of the rood, and so were shielded from the angel who slew the first-born children of the Egyptians. And we should mark our foreheads and our bodies with the sign of Christ’s rood, that we may be saved from destruction, when we are marked both on the forehead and in heart with the blood of the divine passion.

The people of Israel ate the flesh of the lamb at their Easter-tide, when they were delivered, and we now partake spiritually of Christ’s body, and drink his blood, when with true belief we partake of the holy housel. The time they held as their Easter-tide, for seven days, with great veneration, in which they were delivered from Pharaoh, and departed from the country; so likewise we christian men hold Christ’s resurrection as our Easter-tide, during these seven days, because, through his passion and resurrection, we are redeemed, and we shall be purified by partaking of the holy housel, as Christ himself said in his gospel, “Verily, verily I say unto you, ye have not life in you, unless ye eat my flesh and drink my blood. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, he dwelleth in me, and I in him, and he shall have everlasting life, and I will raise him at the last day. I am the living bread, which came down from heaven. Not so as your fathers ate the heavenly meat in the wilderness, and afterwards died; he who eateth this bread shall live to eternity.” He hallowed the bread before his passion, and distributed to his disciples, thus saying, “Eat this bread, it is my body, and do this in my remembrance.” Afterwards he blessed wine in a cup, and said, “Drink all of this: this is my blood, which shall be shed for many in forgiveness of sins.” The apostles did as Christ commanded, in afterwards hallowing bread and wine for housel in his remembrance. In like manner their after-comers and all priests, at Christ’s behest, hallow bread and wine for housel, in his name, with the apostolic blessing.

Now certain men have often inquired, and yet frequently inquire, how the bread, which is prepared from corn, and baked by the heat of fire, can be changed to Christ’s body; or the wine, which is wrung from many berries, can by any blessing be changed to the Lord’s blood? Now we say to such men, that some things are said of Christ typically, some literally. It is a true and certain thing that Christ was born of a maiden, and of his own will suffered death, and was buried, and on this day arose from death. He is called bread typically, and lamb, and lion, and whatever else. He is called bread, because he is the life of us and of angels; he is called a lamb for his innocence; a lion for the strength wherewith he overcame the strong devil. But yet, according to true nature, Christ is neither bread, nor a lamb, nor a lion. Why then is the holy housel called Christ’s body or his blood, if it is not truly that which it is called? But the bread and the wine which are hallowed through the mass of the priests, appear one thing to human understandings without, and cry another thing to believing minds within. Without they appear bread and wine, both in aspect and in taste; but they are truly, after the hallowing, Christ’s body and his blood through a ghostly mystery.

A heathen child is baptized, but it varies not its aspect without, although it be changed within. It is brought to the font-vessel sinful through Adam’s transgression, but it will be washed from all sins within, though it without change not its aspect. In like manner the holy font-water, which is called the well-spring of life, is in appearance like other waters, and is subject to corruption; but the might of the Holy Ghost approaches the corruptible water through the blessing of the priests, and it can afterwards wash body and soul from all sins through ghostly might.

Lo now we see two things in this one creature. According to true nature the water is a corruptible fluid, and according to a ghostly mystery has salutary power; in like manner, if we behold the holy housel in a bodily sense, then we see that it is a corruptible and changeable creature. But if we distinguish the ghostly might therein, then understand we that there is life in it, and that it gives immortality to those who partake of it with belief. Great is the difference between the invisible might of the holy housel and the visible appearance of its own nature. By nature it is corruptible bread and corruptible wine, and is by power of the divine word truly Christ’s body and his blood; not, however, bodily, but spiritually. Great is the difference between the body in which Christ suffered, and the body which is hallowed for housel. The body verily in which Christ suffered was born of Mary’s flesh, with blood and with bones, with skin and with sinews, with human limbs, quickened by a rational soul; and his ghostly body, which we call housel, is gathered of many corns, without blood and bone, limbless and soulless, and there is, therefore, nothing therein to be understood bodily, but all is to be understood spiritually.

Whatsoever there is in the housel which gives us the substance of life, that is from its ghostly power and invisible efficacy: therefore is the holy housel called a mystery, because one thing is seen therein and another thing understood. That which is there seen has a bodily appearance, and that which we understand therein has ghostly might. Verily Christ’s body which suffered death, and from death arose, will henceforth never die, but is eternal and impassible. The housel is temporary, not eternal; corruptible, and is distributed piece-meal; chewed betwixt teeth, and sent into the belly: but it is, nevertheless, by ghostly might, in every part all. Many receive the holy body, and it is, nevertheless, in every part all, by a ghostly miracle. Though to one man a less part be allotted, yet is there no more power in the great part than in the less; because it is in every man whole, by the invisible might.

This mystery is a pledge and a symbol; Christ’s body is truth. This pledge we hold mystically until we come to the truth, and then will this pledge be ended. But it is, as we before said, Christ’s body and his blood, not bodily but spiritually. Ye are not to inquire how it is done, but to hold in your belief that it is so done.

We read in the book that is called ‘Vitæ Patrum,’† that two monks prayed of God some manifestation concerning the holy housel, and after the prayer assisted at mass. Then saw they a child lying on the altar at which the mass-priest was celebrating mass, and God’s angel stood with a hand-knife, waiting until the priest should break the housel. [the bread] The angel then dismembered the child in the dish, and poured its blood into the cup. Afterwards, when they went to the housel, it was changed to bread and to wine, and they partook of it, thanking God for that manifestation. The holy Gregory also obtained from Christ, that he would show to a doubting woman some great proof with reference to his mystery. She went to housel with doubtful mind, and Gregory straightways obtained of God, so that there appeared to them both the morsel of the housel that she should eat, as if there lay in the dish the joint of a finger all bloody: and the woman’s doubt was then rectified. Let us now hear the words of the apostle with reference to this mystery.

Paul the Apostle said of the old people of Israel, thus writing in his epistle to believing men: “All our forefathers were baptized in the cloud and in the sea, and they all ate the same ghostly meat, and they all drank the same ghostly drink. Verily they drank from the stone that followed after them, and the stone was Christ.” The stone from which the water then flowed was not Christ bodily, but it betokened Christ, who thus cried to all believing men, “Whosoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink, and from his inside shall flow living water.” This he said of the Holy Ghost, whom they received who believed in him. The apostle Paul said, that the people of Israel ate the same ghostly meat, and drank the same ghostly drink, because the heavenly meat which fed them forty years, and the water which flowed from the stone, were a type of Christ’s body and his blood, which are now offered daily in God’s church. They were the same which we now offer, not bodily but spiritually.

We have said to you a little before, that Christ hallowed bread and wine, before his passion, for housel, and said, “This is my body and my blood.” He had not yet suffered, but, nevertheless, he changed, through invisible might, the bread to his own body, and the wine to his blood, as he had before done in the wilderness, before he was born as man, when he changed the heavenly meat to his flesh, and the flowing water from the stone to his own blood. Many men ate of the heavenly meat in the wilderness, and drank the ghostly drink, and, nevertheless, became dead, as Christ said. Christ meant not the death which no man may avoid, but he meant the eternal death, which some of the people had merited for their unbelief. Moses and Aaron, and many others of the people who were pleasing to God ate the heavenly bread, but they died not the eternal death, although they departed by the common death. They saw that the heavenly meat was visible and corruptible, but they understood spiritually concerning the visible thing, and partook of it spiritually. Jesus said, “He who eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, shall have everlasting life.” He did not command the body with which he was invested to be eaten, nor the blood to be drunk which he shed for us; but he meant by that speech the holy housel, which is spiritually his body and his blood: and he who tastes that with believing heart shall have everlasting life.

In the old law believing men offered to God divers gifts, which had a future tokening of Christ’s body, which he himself, for our sins, afterwards offered to his Heavenly Father as a sacrifice. Verily this housel, which is now hallowed at God’s altar, is a remembrance of Christ’s body, which he offered for us, and of his blood, which he shed for us, as he himself commanded, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Christ suffered once through himself, but yet his passion is renewed daily through the mystery of the holy housel at the holy mass; therefore the holy mass greatly benefits both the living and the departed, as has very often been manifested.

We have also to consider, that the holy housel is both the body of Christ and of all believing people, by a ghostly mystery, as the wise Augustine said of it, “If ye will understand concerning the body of Christ, hear the apostle Paul, thus saying;, “Ye are truly Christ’s body and limbs. Now your mystery is laid on God’s table, and ye receive your mystery, for which ye yourselves are. Be that which ye see on the altar, and receive that which ye yourselves are.”

Again the apostle Paul said of this, “We many are one bread and one body.” Understand now and rejoice; many are one bread and one body in Christ. He is our head, and we are his limbs. The bread is not of one corn, but of many; nor the wine of one berry, but of many. So we should also have unity in our Lord, as it is written of the faithful company, that they were in so great unity, as if there were for them all one soul and one heart.

Christ hallowed on his table the mystery of our peace and our unity. He who receives the mystery of unity, and holds not the bond of true peace, receives not the mystery for himself, but as a witness against himself. Great good it is to christian men that they frequently go to housel, if they bear innocence in their hearts to the altar, if they are not possessed with sins. For the evil man it turns to no good, but to perdition, if he unworthy taste the holy housel. Holy books enjoin that water be mixed with the wine destined for housel, because water is typical of the people, as the wine is of the blood of Christ; and, therefore, that neither should be offered without the other at the holy mass, that Christ may be with us, and we with Christ; the head with the limbs, and the limbs with the head.

We would long since have treated of the lamb, which the old Israel offered at their Easter-tide, but we would first relate to you concerning this mystery, and afterwards how it is to be eaten. The typical lamb was offered at their Easter-tide, and the apostle Paul said in this day’s epistle, that Christ is our Easter-tide, who was offered for us, and on this day arose from death. Israel ate the flesh of the lamb, as God commanded, with unleavened bread and field lettuces; and we should partake of the holy housel, Christ’s body and his blood, without the barm [meaning yeast] of evilness and wickedness. As barm changes creatures from their nature, so also sins change the nature of man from innocence to corruption. The apostle taught that we should feast not on the barm of evilness, but on the unleavened loaves of soberness and truth. Lettuce the plant was called which they were to eat with the unleavened loaves; it is bitter in the eating: and we should purify our minds with the bitterness of true repentance, if we desire to partake of Christ’s body. The people of Israel were not accustomed to raw flesh, though God commanded them not to eat it raw, nor sodden in water, but roasted at the fire. He will partake of God’s body raw, who without reason weens [thinks] that he was a simple man like unto us, and not God. And he who, according to human wisdom, will inquire into the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, does as though he seethed [boiled?] the flesh of the lamb in water; for water in this place betokens human knowledge. But we are to know, that all the mysteries of Christ’s humanity were ordained through the might of the Holy Ghost, then eat we his body roasted at the fire, because the Holy Ghost came in form of fire to the apostles, in various tongues.

Israel was to eat the lamb’s head, and the feet, and the inward part, and nothing might there remain over night; if anything remained, it was to be burnt in the fire; and they were not to break the bones. In a ghostly sense we eat of the lamb’s head, when we receive the divinity of Christ into our belief. Again, when we with love receive his humanity, then eat we the feet of the lamb, for Christ is beginning and end, God before all worlds, and man at the ending of this world. What is the lamb’s inward part but Christ’s occult commands? those we eat when with eagerness we receive the word of life. Nothing of the lamb might remain until morning, because the words of God are to be considered with so great carefulness, that all his commands, with understanding and effect, be pondered over in the night of this present life, ere the last day of the universal resurrection appears.

But if we cannot investigate all the mysteries of Christ’s incarnation, then should we with true humility commit the remainder to the might of the Holy Ghost, and not too daringly, beyond the compass of our understanding, inquire concerning those deep secrets.

They ate the lamb with girded loins. In the loins is the lust of the body, and he who will eat the housel shall bind up lust, and with chastity receive the holy aliment They were also shod. What are shoes but the hides of dead beasts? We shall be truly shod, if in our course and work we imitate the lives of men departed, who throve to God through observance of his commandments.

They had staff in hand at the refection. [meaning a light meal, hence refectory for dining room] The staff betokens care and guardianship. They who better know and can, should have care of other men, and support them with their aid. The partakers were commanded to eat quickly, because God abominates slackness in his servants, and he loves those who with the speed of God seek the joy of everlasting life. It is written, “Tarry not to turn to God, lest the time be lost through slothful delay.” The partakers might not break the bones of the lamb, nor might the soldiers who hanged Christ break his holy legs, as they did those of the two thieves who hung on the two sides of him. But the Lord arose from death sound, without any corruption, and they shall see at the great doom him whom they cruelly wounded on the rood. [meaning the cross]

This tide is in the Hebrew tongue called PASCHA, that is in Latin, Transitus, and in English, Passover; because on this day God’s folk passed from the land of Egypt over the Red sea, from thraldom [meaning slavery] to the promised country. Our Lord also passed at this time, as the evangelist John said, from this world to his Heavenly Father. We should follow our Head, and pass from the devil to Christ, from this unsteady world to his steadfast kingdom; but we should first, in our present life, pass from sins to holy virtues, from vices to good morals, if we desire, after this transitory life, to pass to the life everlasting, and, after our resurrection, to Jesus Christ.

May he lead us to his Living Father, who gave him to death for our sins. Be to him glory and praise for that beneficence to all eternity. Amen.

He ús gelæde to his Lifigendan Fæder, þe hine sealde for urum synnum to deaðe. Sy him wuldor and lóf þaere weldaede on ealra worulda woruld. Amen.


† “Lives of the Desert Fathers” was written in Greek in the third and fourth centuries and translated into Latin around the sixth century. They were the lives of the early Christian saints, men and women.

Sources: Benjamin Thorpe FSA - The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon church Vol. II published by the Ælfric Society, 1846
Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger - The Year 1000 published by Little, Brown & Co., 1999

B S Sharples 2017

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