Advent Reflections through Apocryphal Dialogue

Sacramentary of Robert Jumieges-Nativity (32v)
The Nativity in the Sacramentary of Robert of Jumièges, (Rouen, Bibliothèque Municipale 274 (Y.6), fol. 32v), from the Bibliothèque virtuelle des manuscrits médiévaux.

As someone who specializes in Anglo-Saxon literature, each year during the season of Advent, I’m reminded of a poem in the Old English Exeter Book titled Christ I. This poem, written in vernacular English (probably in the ninth century), is a series of reflections known as the Advent Lyrics, based on a Latin liturgical cycle sung in masses for the season called the “O Antiphons.”

Each of these antiphons focuses on a single, symbolic image of the Advent and Christmas story: for example, “O King of the nations,” “O key of David,” “O Jerusalem,” “O Virgin of virgins,” “O Emmanuel,” “O Joseph,” to name only a handful. In composing the Old English lyrics, the poet took these brief Latin antiphons (each only a sentence or two each) and expanded them into longer reflections on the themes evoked. In total, Christ I contains twelve of these lyrics for meditation on Advent.[1]

In this post, I want to focus on Advent Lyric 7:[2]

Eala Ioseph min,         Iacobes bearn,
mæg Dauides,         mæran cyninges,
nu þu freode scealt         fæste gedælan,
alætan lufan mine!”         “Ic lungre eam
deope gedrefed,         dome bereafod,
forðon ic worn for þe         worde hæbbe

sidra sorga         ond sarcwida,
hearmes gehyred,         ond me hosp sprecað,
tornworda fela.         Ic tearas sceal
geotan geomormod.         God eaþe mæg
gehælan hygesorge         heortan minre,

afrefran feasceaftne.         Eala fæmne geong,
mægð Maria!”         Hwæt bemurnest ðu,
cleopast cearigende?         Ne ic culpan in þe,
incan ænigne,         æfre onfunde,
womma geworhtra,         ond þu þa word spricest

swa þu sylfa sie         synna gehwylcre
firena gefylled.”         Ic to fela hæbbe
þæs byrdscypes         bealwa onfongen!
Hu mæg ic ladigan         laþan spræce,
oþþe ondsware         ænige findan

wraþum towiþere?         Is þæt wide cuð
þæt ic of þam torhtan         temple dryhtnes
onfeng freolice         fæmnan clæne,
womma lease,         ond nu gehwyrfed is
þurh nathwylces.         Me nawþer deag,

secge ne swige.         Gif ic soð sprece,
þonne sceal Dauides         dohtor sweltan,
stanum astyrfed.         Gen strengre is
þæt ic morþor hele;         scyle manswara,
laþ leoda gehwam         lifgan siþþan,

fracoð in folcum.”         þa seo fæmne onwrah
ryhtgeryno,         ond þus reordade:
“Soð ic secge         þurh sunu meotudes,
gæsta geocend,         þæt ic gen ne conn
þurh gemæcscipe         monnes ower,

ænges on eorðan,         ac me eaden wearð,
geongre in geardum,         þæt me Gabrihel,
heofones heagengel,         hælo gebodade.
Sægde soðlice         þæt me swegles gæst
leoman onlyhte,         sceolde ic lifes þrym

geberan, beorhtne sunu,         bearn eacen godes,
torhtes tirfruman.         Nu ic his tempel eam
gefremed butan facne,         in me frofre gæst
geeardode.         Nu þu ealle forlæt
sare sorgceare.         Saga ecne þonc

mærum meotodes sunu         þæt ic his modor gewearð,
fæmne forð seþeah,         ond þu fæder cweden
woruldcund bi wene;         sceolde witedom
in him sylfum beon         soðe gefylled.”

[Mary] “O my Joseph, son of Jacob, descendant of David, the great king, must you now be bound to break off affection, to abandon my love?”

[Joseph] “I am deeply troubled, bereaved of honor, because I have heard many words of much sorrow and reproach about you, and they speak scorn about me, many painful words. Sorrowful, I must pour out tears. God may easily heal the sorrow in my heart, console a miserable wretch. O young virgin, maiden Mary!”

[Mary] “Why do you mourn, cry out in anguish? Never have I found any fault in you, nor any suspicion of evil deeds, and yet you speak those words as if you are filled with every sin and evil.”

[Joseph] “I have endured too many injuries from this pregnancy. How might I refute the hateful speech, or find any answer against the wrathful? It is widely known that I received from the glorious temple of the Lord a clean virgin, free from sins, and now that is changed through something unknown. Neither helps me, speech nor silence. If I speak truth, then the daughter of David must die, killed with stones. Yet it is worse if I hide a crime; a perjurer must afterward live loathed by everyone, abominable to the people.”

Then the Virgin revealed the mystery, and thus spoke: “I tell the truth through the son of the Maker, Helper of souls, that I know no man, anywhere on the earth, through intercourse; but to me, a young woman at home, it was granted that Gabriel, archangel of heaven, hailed me with a greeting. He said truthfully that the heavenly Spirit would illuminate me with light, that I should bear life in glory, a bright Son, mighty Child of God, splendid Lord of glory. Now I am made his temple without sin; the Spirit of Comfort dwelled in me. Now abandon all your sad sorrow. Speak eternal thanks to the great Son of the Maker that I have become his mother, though remaining a virgin, and you are known as his earthly father in the thoughts of humankind. Prophecy must be truly fulfilled in his very self.”

Thomas D. Hill originally identified the specific Latin antiphon (perhaps an English composition) used as a source for Advent Lyric 7:[3]

O Ioseph, quomodo credidisti quod antea expauisti? Quid enim? In ea natum est de Spiritu Sancto e quem Gabrihel annuncians Christum esse uentrurum.

O Joseph, why did you believe what before you feared? Why indeed? The One whom Gabriel announced would be the coming Christ is begotten in her by the Holy Spirit.

Hill also noted in this lyric the longer tradition of the “Doubting of Mary”—ultimately from Joseph’s doubts about Mary’s pregnancy in Matthew 1:18-21, and expanded in early Christian literature like the apocryphal Protevangelium of James and later Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (see more on this apocryphon here), as well as patristic and early medieval biblical commentaries. In Advent Lyric 7, we see Joseph’s doubting enacted and then refuted, linking the gospel story to the Hebrew prophets.

Indeed, like the midwife’s doubt about Mary’s virginity in the Protevangelium and Pseudo-Matthew, as well as Thomas’ doubt about Jesus’ resurrection, Joseph’s doubt is even embedded in the iconographic tradition. This notion is attested in Anglo-Saxon images of the Nativity—for example, in the tenth-century Benedictional of Æthelwold and eleventh-century Sacramentary of Robert of Jumièges (pictured above), where we see Joseph pointing to his eye, finally able to see as well as to believe in Jesus as the Messiah after his birth.

What is fascinating about Advent Lyric 7 is how the Anglo-Saxon poet took the basic story of the immaculate conception of Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s reactions, and the psychological conflict between them, in order to present a striking dialogue. This drama, then, is not wholly biblical, but based on a range of interrelated sources from the bible, Christian apocrypha, commentaries, and liturgy.

Instead, the poet reimagines a conversation between Mary and Joseph—derived from biblical accounts but adapted and expanded—creating apocryphal dialogue to convey the story through drama.

In many ways, this apocryphal dialogue is in line with ideas rooted in the canonical gospels, as well as the ways in which medieval Christians imagined Mary and Joseph and their roles in the story leading up to Jesus’ Nativity. In this retelling, the poet of Christ I gives dramatic life to the dialogue, offering us a glimpse into the imaginative ways in which Christians thought about the inherent tensions in the Advent story.

[1] For more on the relationship between the antiphons and the Old English Christ I, see Susan Rankin, “The Liturgical Background of the Old English Advent Lyrics: A Reappraisal,” Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies Presented to Peter Clemoes on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Michael Lapidge and Helmut Gneuss (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), 317-40. For the text of the antiphons (and notes about the relationship to the Advent Lyrics), see Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry: The Major Latin Texts in Translation, trans. Michael J. B. Allen and Daniel G. Calder (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1976), 70-77.

[2] Old English from The Exeter Book, ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia, 1936), 7-9, available online at; translation my own.

[3] Thomas D. Hill, “A Liturgical Source for Christ I 164-213 (Advent Lyric VII),” Medium Ævum 46 (1977), 12-15.

[Note: This post originally appeared on the History of Christianity Blog, December 21, 2015, now available in archive form here. I have undertaken minor revisions in this version.]

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