Monday, July 16, 2018. Have a blessed day on this Feast of Our Lady!
Aleppo, Angel, Annunciation, Aramaic, Bethlehem, Bible, c. 1500s, carol, cherry, Christ, Christianity, Christmas, Church, Crusades, England, English Midlands, faith, Family, God, Gospel, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, History, Holy Land, hymn, Infancy Gospel of James, Jerusalem, Jesus, Joseph, literature, liturgy, Luke 2:4–5:, Mary, Matthew 1:20, Medieval, Middle East, Mystery Plays, Nativity, Sura 19.22–25, Syriac, tree
Mary Joan Winn Leith • 10/11/2016
JOSEPH was an old man,
And an old man was he,
When he wedded Mary
In the land of Galilee.
Joseph and Mary walk’d
Through an orchard good,
Where was cherries and berries
So red as any blood.
O then bespoke Mary,
So meek and so mild,
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
For I am with child.’
O then bespoke Joseph
With words so unkind,
‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
That brought thee with child.’
Then bow’d down the highest tree
Unto our Lady’s hand:
Then she said, ‘See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command!’
‘O eat your cherries, Mary,
O eat your cherries now;
O eat your cherries, Mary,
That grow upon the bough.’
—The Cherry Tree Carol (c. 1500)
Ever since I first discovered it in college, the “Cherry Tree Carol” has been one of my favorites. Its surprisingly risqué story line shines an unexpected light on the familiar Christmas Journey to Bethlehem from Luke 2:4–5: Joseph walking alongside the donkey and Mary, very pregnant, perched on its back. Creatively building on gospel narrative, the song fills in the gaps of the brief Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. How endearing and wholly human, that Joseph might have had trouble fully coming to terms with his wife’s mysterious pregnancy despite the angel’s reassurances (“…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”) in Matthew 1:20! Mary and Joseph in the cherry orchard recalls, of course, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. There, trouble with fruit led to big trouble for humanity, trouble that the baby in Mary’s womb will set right. In this somewhat feminist counter-story, a man is put in his place by a woman—with God’s full cooperation!
Mosaic of the Journey to Bethlehem from the Chora Church in Istanbul.
A visit to YouTube will yield an assortment of lovely performances, including a version discovered in Appalachia. While the Cherry Tree Carol blooms in cyberspace, however, its roots go deep and wide: from medieval England back to the 12th-century Crusader kingdoms and ultimately to early Christian communities of the Middle East who worshipped in Syriac, a liturgical (religious) form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Adherents of Syriac Christianity include a range of different denominations, but they have lived in the Middle East for 2,000 years. Today, facing the twin threats of ISIS and the Syrian civil war, the future of these ancient communities is in doubt. The beleaguered Syrian city of Aleppo in particular (see the Google city map) is home to many churches, from Syriac-speaking to Evangelical, whose congregations may never recover. Syriac Christianity, in particular, has generally flown under the radar of mainstream scholarship, although this is beginning to change. It now appears that the Cherry Tree Carol’s distinctive take on Joseph’s outspokenness at Mary’s pregnancy can be traced back to a unique feature of Syriac liturgy, one still operative in churches (if they survive) today, the dialogue hymn.
Churches in Aleppo, Syria
Like many carols, the “original” version of the Cherry Tree Carol comes from the Middle Ages. It appears in a set of Bible-based “Mystery Plays,” known today as the “N-Town Plays,” that were performed in the English Midlands around 1500. The Middle Ages may be the quintessential Christmas setting (yule logs, holly and ivy, wassailing!), but the inspiration for the magical fruit tree and Joseph’s bitterness is even older. Scholars generally identify the carol’s prototype in a ninth-century bestseller, the “Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew,” in which a date palm bows to Mary. This story, however, is set after Jesus is born, during the Flight to Egypt, and it is the infant Jesus who commands the tree to “bend thy branches and refresh my mother with thy fruit” when Mary grows faint. Variations on the miraculous fruit tree motif appear in a wide variety of sources, from Greek mythology to the Qur’an’s account of Mary and the birth of Jesus in Sura 19.22–25. On the other hand, nowhere in “Pseudo-Matthew” does Joseph utter a harsh word to Mary, not even when he finds Mary pregnant; Mary’s virgin companions, not Mary, face Joseph’s interrogation until the angel shows up to calm him down.
The most striking aspect of the Cherry Tree Carol is that Joseph is so disrespectful to the Virgin Mary. In the N-Town “Nativity” play, Joseph is quick to apologize, and the play passes on to its main subject, the birth of Jesus. Joseph’s bad attitude, however, is the sole topic of another N-Town play, “Joseph’s Doubt,” that was performed right after the “Annunciation” and before the “Nativity.” The play seems to have been popular; the two other leading medieval mystery play cycles, the York Mystery plays and the Wakefield Plays, also include versions. “Joseph’s Doubt” devotes 135 astonishing lines to back-and-forth between a distressed and angry Joseph and his increasingly anguished wife. Joseph’s scorn is unrelenting: “God’s child? You lie! God never played thus with a maiden! … All men will despise me and say, ‘Old cuckold,’ thy bow is bent.” Hearing of the angel’s visit to Mary, Joseph scoffs, “An angel? Alas for shame. You sin by blaming it on an angel … it was some boy began this game.” Helpless, Mary prays to God and the angel appears to set Joseph straight, at which point he apologizes abjectly, “I realize now I have acted amiss; I know I was never worthy to be your husband. I shall amend my ways and follow your example from now on, and serve you hand and foot.”
In the Bible, faced with Mary’s interesting condition, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). No histrionics here. Joseph is rather more upset in the second-century apocryphal “Infancy Gospel of James”: “[H]e smote his face, and cast himself down upon the ground on sackcloth and wept bitterly,” demanding of Mary, “‘Why have you done this? … Why have you humbled your soul?’ But she wept bitterly, saying, ‘I am pure and I know not a man.’”Around the fifth century, however, this story line expanded into a full-fledged drama in the form of a Syriac Christian dialogue hymn sung in church by twin choirs—one singing the part of Joseph; the other, Mary—as part of the Christmas liturgy. One published version runs to well over 100 lines of dialogue. Joseph’s words often recall the later medieval “Joseph’s Doubt” plays, but in this Syriac drama, Mary holds her own and does not falter. She even proves herself an adept Biblical scholar: “You have gone astray, Joseph; take and read for yourself in Isaiah it is written all about me, how a virgin shall bear fruit.”1
How did a Syriac drama find its way to the medieval English Midlands? The likely answer is with Crusaders returning from the Holy Land in the 12th and 13th centuries. During the Crusades, relations between Western (“Latin”) Christians and Middle Eastern Christians began badly. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the Crusaders (the “Latins”) considered the indigenous Christians (Syriac and Orthodox) to be citizens of secondary status—no better in their eyes than Muslims or Jews. This view evolved as the Latins came to know the various indigenous Christian groups, particularly those from northern Syria whose leaders took care to make their interests known to the new rulers. Much productive interaction occurred between Latin, Orthodox (“Greek”) and Syriac Christians (with Muslims, too, but that is another story). Art historian Lucy-Ann Hunt has described the Crusaders’ growing “concern with language, rites, and customs” of the indigenous Christians and “sympathetic reception and transmission of eastern works of art.”2
How appropriate, since this is a Christmas blog, that some of the best evidence for cooperation between Crusaders and local Christians comes from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem! The Church was famously founded in the fourth century by Constantine and his mother Helena, but the existing wall mosaics and some of the barely visible column frescoes date to the 12th century. This is when the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenos forged an alliance with King Amalric of Jerusalem and sponsored a new decorative program in the Church of the Nativity. Interestingly, trilingual (Latin, Greek, Syriac) inscriptions in the church attest to both Byzantine-trained and local Christian artists. Furthermore, as Hunt notes, “While the Orthodox and Latin were the predominant communities, the ‘Monophysites’ [i.e., local Christians] were also represented at the Church of the Nativity.”3These days, Crusaders have a deservedly clouded reputation, but perhaps for one brief shining moment at Christmas in the Church of the Nativity they acquitted themselves as one would wish with open ears and hearts. I like to imagine “Latin” Crusaders hearing the Syriac Joseph and Mary dialogue performed at Christmas in the Church of the Nativity. Captivated by the hymn, they adopted and adapted it to become part of the developing English Mystery play tradition, a tradition we can thank for the Cherry Tree Carol.
Mary Joan Winn Leith is chair of the department of religious studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. At Stonehill, she teaches courses on the Bible and the religion, history and culture of the Ancient Near East and Greece. In addition, she offers a popular course on the Virgin Mary. Leith is a regular Biblical Views columnist for Biblical Archaeology Review.
1. Sebastian Brock, “A Dialogue Between Joseph and Mary From the Christian Orient,” Logos: Cylchgrawn Diwinyddol Cymru (The Welsh Theological Review) 1.3 (1992), pp. 4–11.
2. Lucy-Ann Hunt, “Art and Colonialism: The Mosaics of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (1169) and the Problem of ‘Crusader Art,’” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 45 (1991), p. 72.
3. Hunt, “Art and Colonialism,” p. 77.
Sura 19, “Maryam”: Lines 22–34 include the palm tree episode.
|Before the egg became closely entwined with the Christian Easter, it was honored during many rite-of-Spring festivals. The Romans, Gauls, Chinese, Egyptians and Persians all cherished the egg as a symbol of the universe, of the earth’s rebirth at springtime. With the advent of Chrisianity the symbolism of the egg changed to represent, not nature’s rebirth, but the rebirth of man.Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose. Saint Augustine first described Christ’s Resurrection from the dead as a chick bursting from an egg. This symbolism was enhanced in the Christian East’s celebration of Easter. At the end of the Paschal Liturgy, the faithful exchange paschal greetings and the priest and the faithful present each other with red eggs. Wooden eggs are sometimes suspended from hanging lamps and chandeliers, and often the faithful decorate wooden eggs with icons and hang them from the vigil lights in their homes.|
|THE FIRST EASTER EGG
According to tradition, Saint Mary Magdalene, who had patrician rank, gained an audience in Rome with the emperor after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. She denounced Pilate for his handling of Jesus’ trial and then began to talk with Caesar about Jesus’ resurrection. She picked up a hen’s egg from the dinner table to illustrate her point about resurrection. Caesar was unmoved and replied that there was as much chance of a human being returning to life as there was for the egg to turn red. Immediately, the egg miraculously turned red in her hand! It is because of this tradition that Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Easter.
|OTHER CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS
Eastern Christian legends blended folklore and Christian beliefs and firmly attached the egg to the Easter celebration. A Polish legend tells of when Mary Magdalen went to the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. She had with her a basket of eggs to serve as a repast. When she arrived at the sepulchre and uncovered the eggs, lo, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors.One legend concerns the Virgin Mary. It tells of the time the Blessed Virgin gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel and she wept. Her tears fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color.Decorating and coloring eggs for Easter was the custom in England during the Middle Ages. The household accounts of Edward I, for the year 1290, recorded an expenditure of eighteen pence for four hundred and fifty eggs to be gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.
|PYSANKY – THE UKRAINIAN EASTER EGG
The sets of colorful wooden eggs offered by Monastery Icons were handpainted and engraved in the Ukraine and feature traditional folk and religious symbols and designs.FABERGE EGGS
The most famous decorated Easter eggs were those made by the well-known goldsmith, Peter Carl Faberge. In 1883 the Russian Czar, Alexander, commissioned Faberge to make a special Easter gift for his wife, the Empress Marie.
This special Faberge egg so delighted the Czarina that the Czar promptly ordered the Faberge firm to design further eggs to be delivered every Easter. In later years Nicholas II, Alexander’s son, continued the custom. Fifty-seven eggs were made in all.
|To see the colorful wooden eggs offered by Monastery Icons, click here.|
The Queenship of Mary
From the earliest centuries of the Catholic Church, Christians have addressed suppliant prayers and hymns of praise to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the hope they have placed in the Mother of the Savior has never been disappointed. They have looked upon Her as Queen of Angels, Queen of Patriarchs, Queen of Prophets, Queen of Apostles, Queen of Martyrs, Queen of Virgins. Because of Her eminence, She is indeed entitled to the highest honors that can be bestowed upon any creature. Saint Gregory Nazianzen called Her Mother of the King of the entire universe and the Virgin Mother who brought forth the King of the entire world.
Prayer to Our Lady, Queen of Prophets
To thee, O Queen of Prophets, foreseen by them, Mother of God and of His people, to thee we have recourse in our necessities, confident that as thou thyself art the fulfillment of prophecy, so thou wilt desire the fulfillment of thy own words, bringing, out of all generations, N_______, to call thee blessed. Say to all the erring for whom we beseech thee, and especially to N________, "Thy light has come." Say but one word to thy Son, and the glory of the Lord shall rise upon them, and the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and so they, wondering at the star, will follow into the house of bread, where, finding thy Child with thee, they will eat of the true bread and live forever, possessing joy and gladness, while sorrow and sadness will disappear.
O Thou who art omnipotent in prayer, at whose request thy Son worked his first miracle, beg Him to say: "I the Lord will do this suddenly in its time," and grant to those for whom we pray, that they may draw water with joy at the fountains of the Savior. May it be granted to us all to be united with thee, O Mother, in singing thy Magnificat to Him thy Son, our Lord Jesus.
(100 Days, once a day. Leo XIII, January 24, 1901)
Video Bible Gives Japanese Deaf New Understanding of Scripture
Pastor Minaminda explains a passage from Ecclesiastes that he has just played on the screen behind him. (Heather Pubols)
It’s Sunday morning. Across the world Christians are gathered to hear the Word—to remember the gospel and grow in their faith. In Yamagata, four hours north of Tokyo, Japan, Kumiko Matsumoto begins leading worship.
“Shepherd of my soul, I give you full control.” A flashing light directs the congregation’s attention to the front of the room. No one is singing aloud, but everyone is moving their hands. Music plays in the background for the benefit of those who are hearing or hard of hearing, but most of the music in this room isn’t audible. It’s visual. It’s in Japanese Sign Language (JSL), the heart language of Japan’s deaf community.
After the singing pastor Eiji Matsumoto comes forward to preach, also in JSL. He pauses often to point the congregation to a passage from the Gospel of Mark not written in a book but signed on a screen. After each passage, Pastor Matsumoto expounds on the meaning of what’s just been signed. The congregation is using Scripture recorded by ViBi—Video Bible. ViBi is a ministry of Japan Deaf Evangel Mission.
The Need and the Work
Most Deaf people in Japan have never heard Japanese. They learn written Japanese as a second language, so most have difficulty reading Bibles written in Japanese. Attempts to translate the Japanese Bible into a simplified version for the deaf have proven inadequate. Years of misunderstandings and frustrations have accumulated for deaf Christians as they have waited for the Bible in their own language.
In 1993 a broad coalition of Japanese deaf Christian organizations came together for the common goal of a JSL Bible for the deaf, translated by the deaf. Ten years later, the Japan Bible Society joined the project. Today, ViBi is run completely by Japanese Deaf leadership. The work of translation and recording is well underway.
Across the Lands
The signer in the video of Matthew’s Gospel is pastor Masahiro Minamida. For 12 years, he has been pastor of Toyko Deaf Church. He’s been involved in ViBi for seven years. Pastor Minamida and Pastor Matsumoto are also the leaders of the Asia Pacific Sign Language Development Association, a new group of leaders from 12 countries. Each member of the group is involved in a Sign Language translation project or is trying to get one started.
ViBi team members eagerly share their experience, expertise and encouragement with deaf translators and leaders across Asia. They host workshops to teach translation principles, signing skills and technological techniques. They participate in international conferences and connect with other organizations. Twenty years of experience in Japan are being multiplied across the Asia Pacific region.
Pastor Matsumoto has been engaged in ViBi since the beginning of the project. Since then more than 10 books have been translated. They make a huge difference in his work as a pastor.
“Before, I had nothing but the written Japanese version of the Bible,” he says, “and it gave me limited understanding of the message I had to share with the people in my church. Now I see … Deaf people find Scripture more interesting. It’s especially powerful when we work with this in a group, because we can look at the verses together and grow together.”
With the Bible in a visual language, a language he understands, Pastor Matsumoto makes new discoveries in Scripture every week.
“Some time ago I finally understood the meaning of reconciliation between Man and God,” he says. “In JSL the sign is to take one hand from above and bring it down to the other hand with palms facing upwards. God came DOWN to us, it’s not the other way around!” He demonstrates the sign that helped him understand.
‘We Really Need Those 66 Books Quickly!’
Akira and Tomoko Sakamoto are a young couple in Pastor Minamida’s church who have been deeply impacted by the Scriptures in JSL. Akira is deaf. Tomoko, who is hearing but had deaf parents, learned to speak Japanese later in childhood.
“Sometimes I want to explain something in Japanese to a deaf person—and other times I want to sign something to a hearing person. It’s frustrating,” says Tomoko.
“And when she’s angry, she uses both!” Akira interrupts with a smile.
Akira has been deaf all his life. When he met Tomoko, he wasn’t a Christian. He started going to church with Tomoko, and there he met Pastor Minamida.
“Every time I went to church, I felt Minamida was preaching about my life. In the beginning I thought Tomoko had told him what to say! I started to think that God was watching all the time, and it scared me!” Akira says. “After a while Tomoko … explained to me how Jesus died for all of our sins, and that there’s nothing to be afraid of. After that I stopped worrying and became a Christian.”
Akira and Tomoko use the video Bible regularly, often in conjunction with the written Scriptures. “If I just read, I can’t create the image in my head. When I see it on the DVD, I immediately get it,” Akira says.
He is eager for the ViBi project to be completed. “Now we don’t even have the book of John; I really want to learn about the love of Jesus, the meaning of love and how John describes it. I want to know deeper, and there are so many things I’m curious about. I know it’s hard, but we really need those 66 books quickly, so the Deaf can see it now.”
In This Generation
Shunko Teragawa is a deaf believer in the city of Toyooka, six hours west of Tokyo. She leads songs in her church and serves the congregation by cleaning between services. She is 70 years old. Twenty years ago, seeing the gospel shared in JSL changed her life forever. Today, seeing it on the video Bible continues to illuminate her understanding.
“It is hard to understand Japanese words,” she says, “so I check things on the [JSL Bible] DVD to see what the Scripture really means. The JSL Bible is something I can understand.”
Shunko’s pastor, Miya Kori, has been involved in an advisory capacity on the JSL Bible translation project. Even though Pastor Kori has fluency in several spoken and sign languages, she agrees that the translation of the Bible into JSL is essential.
“[JSL] was the first language I learned,” she explains. “I can understand it clearly. When I was little, we didn’t have the JSL Bible. My father was such a good storyteller in JSL. He shared all the Bible stories with me. Now I want that for others through the JSL Bible.”
There is still no full translation of the Bible in any sign language. Pastor Matsumoto and Pastor Minamida both say that they wouldn’t mind if JSL was the first finished Sign Bible translation. At the current pace of work it will take more than 30 years to complete the JSL Bible. However, if adequate funding comes through, completion of the JSL translation could take as little as 10 years.
Mark Penner, an American hearing person born in Japan, was instrumental in helping to form ViBi. Today he is a translation consultant with the project. He eagerly anticipates the day when the Deaf church will have the Scriptures so necessary to their growth in Christ.
“My feeling,” he shares, “is that when a new generation of Deaf Christians rises up with a Bible in their own language to support them, many of the other issues we face will fall into place.”
God’s people need God’s word in a language that is clear and easy to understand.
“Reading the Bible is sometimes like a stream of water running through—it doesn’t stick to you,” shares Akira. “Watching it makes it easy to remember and it sticks! Years of reading is just not enough—a little video clip can do so much.”
This story was written for the Wycliffe News Network.P
And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. —Deuteronomy 30:6
Circumcision is the surgical removal of the male foreskin, usually performed shortly after birth. It is a symbol of God “cutting away” from our hearts the “covering” of fleshly attitudes that prevent us from loving and serving Him.
Often we trust in mere instruction and discipline to effect this change in our children. In this verse, God is promising to do it supernaturally. Convincing a child through logic and reason is nowhere near as powerful as when that child has an encounter with God that transforms him or her from within. Praise God, the Most High pledges to do that very thing (Rom. 2:28–29).
Lord, I claim for my child a circumcised heart, that You will “cut away” the worldliness, the carnality and the sensuality that could otherwise corrupt him/her. I acknowledge that this is a promised divine deliverance, a supernatural act of God, and not something I can force by mere religious instruction. I trust You, Lord, to work this awesome, internal transformation in ___________ and give him/her a circumcised heart. In the name of Jesus, amen (let it be so)!
From 65 Promises From God for Your Child by Mike Shreve