The Elevation of the Apostles in Cynewulf's Christ II: Ascension

By Godlove, Shannon | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Elevation of the Apostles in Cynewulf's Christ II: Ascension


Godlove, Shannon, Philological Quarterly


IN THE HOMILY WHICH SERVES AS THE SOURCE FOR Cynewulf's Old English poem Christ II: Ascension, Gregory the Great expounds the standard Gospel pericope for Ascension Sunday, Mark 16:14-20. (1) In this biblical passage, Jesus upbraids the apostles "for their incredulity and hardness of heart" because of their need to see his wounds as proof of the Resurrection. Then, just prior to ascending into the heavens before their eyes, Jesus gives his apostles one final commission to "go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature" promising prodigious signs, such as the ability to speak in tongues and handle serpents, to those who believe and are baptized, and damnation to those who "believeth not." (2) Though less detailed in its account of Christ's Ascension than the version given in the Acts of the Apostles, this passage concisely encapsulates three major, interrelated ideas: (1) that the apostles were considered worthy of rebuke for their lack of belief in Jesus's resurrection; (2) that Christ commissions the apostles to preach the Gospel to the world despite their faults; and (3) that Christ promises to strengthen his apostles, and other believers, with spiritual gifts if they persevere.

Since Cynewulf's Ascension translates (however freely) only the last three sections of Gregory's homily, his poem does not directly explicate this passage from Mark or discuss Gregory's exegesis of it. (3) Yet, in focusing narrowly on sections nine through eleven of Gregory's Homilia in Evangelia XXIX (the immediate source for Cynewulf's poem), scholars have largely neglected to notice the ways in which other biblical and patristic portrayals of Jesus's at times fraught relationship with the apostles (as in the passage from Mark's Gospel) may have influenced Cynewulf's interpretation of the Ascension event and its meaning. By showing Jesus chastising the apostles for their lack of faith just before reminding them of their monumental responsibility to "go forth preaching everywhere," the passage from Mark 16 juxtaposes two qualities of the apostles as model Christians that remain in tension throughout Cynewulf's poem: their all too human frailty and their superhuman heroism.

In his Homilia in Evangelia XXIX, Gregory explicates Jesus's rebuke of the apostles in Mark 16:14 as follows:

Quod resurrectionem dominicam discipuli tarde crediderunt, non tam illorum infirmitas quam nostra, ut ita dicam, futura firmitas fuit. Ipsa namque resurrectio illis dubitantibus per multa argumenta monstrata est, quae dum nos legentes agnoscimus, quid aliud quam de illorum dubitatione solidamur? Minus enim mihi Maria Magdalene praestitit quae citius credidit, quam Thomas qui diu dubitauit. Ille etenim dubitando uulnerum cicatrices tetigit, et de nostro pectore dubietatis uulnus amputauit.

[That the disciples were so slow to believe in the Lord's resurrection did not come so much from their want of strength as to strengthen us in the future, if I may speak in this way. He showed them in their doubt many proofs of his resurrection. What happens to us when we read and acknowledge them is that we are strengthened as a result of their doubt. Mary Magdalene, who was quick to believe, has helped me less than Thomas, who remained in doubt. While doubting he touched the scars of the wounds, and cut out of our hearts the wound of doubt.] (4)

In Ascension, Cynewulf follows Gregory in elaborating on the suggestion of the apostles' weakness and lack of understanding present in Mark 16:14 and other biblical accounts, but, in doing so, he goes beyond what is merely hinted at in Gregory's exegesis of these passages, and takes the idea in a very different direction. (5) Cynewulf draws on an alternative patristic tradition that interprets the apostles as grief stricken by Jesus's departure and deliberately alters the biblical narratives in a way that renders the apostles more sympathetic to his audience and that reinforces his argument about the implications of Christ's Ascension for humankind.

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