Episode 37: Christmas Sermons, a Holiday Special!
Updated: Dec 23, 2021
Happy holidays! It’s the end of another year, and we’re back with another Christmas special. Not really into candlelight mass? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! This year, we’re reading three medieval Christmas sermons, each filled with bad analogies and questionable theology. Come along as we break down these strange sermons to find the “true” meaning of Christmas — at least, according to these priests.
Before we jump in to the content of these sermons, let’s talk about the context of medieval Christianity. This topic is, of course, far too broad for our purposes in this episode, but here’s a few pointers to keep in mind.
During the medieval period, the Christian church had not yet split into Protestant and Catholic denominations. This split occurred after the Middle Ages during the Reformation. Thus, some differences in Christian culture that you may be familiar with had not yet occurred.
The medieval Christian church was referred to as the “catholic” church, as “catholic” simply means “universal” or “unified,” and was organized under the pope. While this reflects the structure of the post-Reformation Catholic church, it also had a few key differences. The pre-Reformation church, while organized, was less structured than the later Catholic church. Because travel and education were far more difficult, Christian traditions and teachings varied across Europe. Of course, any outstandingly heretical opinions were cast out, but there was a greater overall variety in the pre-Reformation Catholic church.
Different sermon types reflect this variety; as Siegfried Wenzel notes, “two major types of
sermons were created and employed: the ancient ‘homily' and, beginning around the year 1200, the modern university or thematic or scholastic ‘sermon.’” While the homily explains verses through exegesis, even word by word, the scholastic sermon would take a verse’s theme and expand upon it. The former is now more commonly seen in Catholic sermons, while the latter is the usual template for Protestant churches. However, both were common during the Middle Ages. Priests would therefore pull from the Bible, common doctrine, classical Roman sources, and even encyclopedias to craft sermons for their congregations. When the church split during the Reformation, this variety was more limited to its respective denominations.
The first sermon we’re looking at is an Advent sermon. Advent celebrates the days leading up to Christmas and was a long-awaited festival time for most medievals. This sermon combines both the homiletic sermon with the academic sermon by dissecting Zechariah 9:9 and combining it with an exegesis on Christ’s arrival into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Perhaps an odd choice for a Christmas sermon, and the preacher expounds upon Christian virtue and analogies from the verse he chose, including such gems as “The ass indicates the soul.”
The second sermon is perhaps more thematic as it does relate to its day of preaching: Christmas Eve. Wenzel notes that this sermon was like written by Nicholas Philip in the 1430s, especially because the sermon switches between Latin and Middle English. Though it includes some fascinating analogies, the most interesting facet of this sermon is its preoccupation with the figure of Mary, Christ’s mother, who is exalted almost more that the Christ-child Himself. Despite this preoccupation, the sermon uses a clear, scholastic style. Each point is bracketed by a Middle English verse: “To us who were forlorn, / A savior has been born.” This verse punctuates the sermon, effectively chunking the sermon into separate points. Finally, this sermon is notable due to its sources; Philip continually cites sources to better back his post whether from Augustine and Alselm to Pliny or even Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi, who wrote a treatise on astronomy. Interesting for a Middle English sermon to include such a figure.
The final sermon, written for Christmas Day, is perhaps the most wacky of the three. Written early in the fifteenth century, this sermon is based solely on the beginning of Jeremiah 1:6, reading “Ah, ah, ah.” A striking beginning to a sermon, no doubt. The preacher expounds upon how each of the three “ah”s represent a part of Christmas, from Mary’s wellness at bearing the Christ-child, to Christ’s woe at his crucifixion, and Joseph’s wonder at seeing the events of Christ’s life and resurrection. While this might be an astounding leap of logic to some, it doesn’t come close to the preacher’s later points, such as how Christ “was the smallest and shortest human being, because while other humans do not have their souls infused from God until four months after their conception, Christ was a true human being from the first moment of his conception on.” Despite such seemingly random “logical” connections, this sermon is brief and ties together its theme of Christmas well, if perhaps oddly.
These three sermons appear wildly incoherent to those outside a Christian worldview and lexicon, and provide ample examples for the reasons so many Romans and other foreigners,, hell, even believers of other Christian traditions, reacted strangely to Christian culture. We found them hilarious examples of weird doctrine and bad logic, and hope they bring you some Christmas cheer as well.
Final Rating: 6.5
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia! Searching for our sources? Read Perlesvaus here, and check out our Library for more! Additional references for interested scholars:
Menache, Sophia, and Jeannine Horowitz. “Rhetoric and Its Practice in Medieval Sermons.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 22, no. 2, Berghahn Books, 1996, pp. 321–50. Link.
Stoop, Patricia. “Sermon-Writing Women: Fifteenth-Century Vernacular Sermons from the Augustinian Convent of Jericho in Brussels.” Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, vol. 38, no. 2, Penn State University Press, 2012, pp. 211–32. Link.
We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated! Are we missing something? Let us know! We'd love to add more knowledge to our ever-growing compendium. Chat with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Thanks for checking us out! If you like our content, please share it! If you want to support us, rate and review on iTunes, find us on Patreon, or buy us a coffee so we can keep making content you love. You can also find some cool merch to rep your love for medievalism and support us here!