The Joyce Hill Column

January 2018

Holy Innocents Day

As you will see from Common Worship, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December. So you may well wonder why it’s the subject of this year’s article for January. The answer is that it’s integral to the narrative of the Visit of the Magi, which we commemorate on 6 January as the Feast of the Epiphany, the premier feast-day of this month. Before I go any further, let me say that I have always thought it odd that we commemorate the massacre of the Holy Innocents before we focus on the Visit of the Magi!

It’s only Matthew who tells us about the Magi; and according to his narrative, it is only after the wise men have visited the Christ-child and have gone home by another route, without going back to report the child’s whereabouts to Herod, that Herod orders the killing of all the male babies under two in the region of Bethlehem. So you see why I wonder about Holy Innocents’ Day being on 28 December. In fact, when the feast-day was first recorded in the Western Church, in a manuscript called the Leonine Sacramentary, which dates from about 485, it was — more logically I think — connected with the Feast of the Epiphany. But liturgical calendars from Anglo-Saxon England, which follow continental models, show that it was already firmly established as 28 December by the very early eighth century. The Holy Innocents were generally regarded as the first martyrs for the faith, although, of course, they were unknowing and not Christian.

Whether the story is actually historical is, of course, a matter for debate, as indeed is much of the colourful detail of the Nativity stories. Herod was certainly ruthless enough to resort to murder to protect his precarious position as a non-Jewish puppet king under the Romans, and if he were indeed told by the Wise Men that they were seeking a child who would be the Governor of Israel (Matt. 2 v. 6), one could well understand his reaction.


The Jewish historian Josephus, writing towards the end of the first century, tells us that Herod murdered three of his own sons, his mother-in-law and his second wife. But there is a twist in our tale: the information said to be given by the Magi to Herod in verse 6 is taken from an Old Testament prophecy, the need for the Holy Family to flee to Egypt for a while to escape Herod, and the grief which followed the massacre are all presented by Matthew as fulfilments of Old Testament prophecies, and so can be seen as part of a construct, after the event, to give expression, though narrative, to what people had subsequently come to understand about the nature of Jesus and his significance for the Jews (for whom, primarily, Matthew’s gospel was written). In this scenario, Herod was a good peg on which to hang the story, given his well-known and extreme ruthlessness.

It is the cruelty and the suffering of the women which have always fired the imagination of artists, even to the present day, although most strikingly in the gruesome depictions from the Middle Ages. It was also the subject of some of the more vivid medieval mystery plays. According to these and other written traditions, large numbers of children were killed. But even if we believe that the event occurred as described, the number is more likely to have been somewhere between six and twenty — horrific though that is.

Joyce Hill


February 2018 

Into the Wilderness

Lent, which we begin observing this year on 14 February, is a period of reflection and self-denial, serving both as a commemoration of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry and as a preparation for a joyous participation in the celebration of Easter — a kind of spiritual spring-cleaning. The early church had a practice of very strict self-denial to prepare for Easter, but at first this only began on Good Friday. It soon extended to a week (what we now call Holy Week), and by the fourth century, when the liturgy was increasingly structured to reflect major events in Christ’s life, the  period of penance was extended to forty days to echo Christ’s time in the wilderness. At first this extended period of Lent started on a Sunday, which gave forty days before the commemoration of the Crucifixion on Good Friday, although Good Friday and Holy Saturday remained days of extreme fasting, as they had always been. But in the latter part of the seventh century, recognising that Sundays weren’t fasting days, Lent was extended back into the previous week to compensate. This means that, with Lent now starting on a Wednesday, there are forty fasting days. Sundays are not counted, but Good Friday and Holy Saturday are, so the forty days run right up to Easter Eve.


John’s gospel makes no reference to Christ’s withdrawal into the wilderness, and in Mark it is only mentioned briefly.  It is from Matthew and Luke that we have the account of three temptations, although they are not in the same order. Both start with the temptation to turn stones into bread. Matthew’s second temptation is for Jesus to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple and be saved by God;  and the third is to receive at Satan’s hand  all the kingdoms of the world in return for worshipping him. In Luke these last two are reversed.


Withdrawal into the wilderness, which in Palestine meant the barren desert, was an ascetic practice known in Judaism. But following the example of Christ, it became a major movement in the Christian church, starting in Egypt and Palestine towards the end of the third century. Solitaries withdrew to live a life of extreme self-denial in the desert, where they wrestled with temptations that often appeared to them in the form of demons. These holy figures, known in later times as the Desert Fathers, were the first ‘monks’ (the word comes from the Greek monos, meaning ‘alone’). Over time some began to live in scattered colonies, occasionally coming together for worship, and so monastic communities began. What we are more familiar with in the west, however, is monasticism as a withdrawal from the secular world into a dedicated close-knit community — a rather different concept from the ‘wilderness’ life of the early monks of the Middle East. Even so, a tradition of withdrawal and self-denial to meditate and to wrestle with temptation continued to have an important place. St Cuthbert often withdrew to Cuddy’s Isle, the small tidal island off Lindisfarne, and for more extreme isolation and self-denial went to Farne; others, such as St Guthlac, withdrew to the wilderness of the Fens, not then drained and so notably inhospitable. Christian history provides us with There  many examples of such forms of withdrawal, and there are still monks in the east who spend time alone in the rugged wilderness, even if they then return to their monastic community.

Joyce Hill


March 2018 

Jews and Romans in the Trial of Jesus

The account of Jesus’ trial, involving first the Jewish authorities and then the Roman, brings us face to face with the complexities of power-play within an occupied country. In a month when we hear about this hasty sequence of events, it’s useful to take a look at the historical context.

The narrative is similar in all four gospels, although there is some variation in the  detail. John is unique in making no reference to the involvement of the Council of the Jews (i.e. the Sanhedrin); only Luke refers to Pilate’s attempt to pass the buck by sending Jesus to be judged by Herod, who was in Jerusalem at the time; and it is only John who states that Jesus was first taken to Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest Caiaphas, before being taken to Caiaphas himself. Since Annas had been the previous High Priest, this suggests that he still exercised considerable authority and that Caiaphas deferred to him to some extent.  However, neither had the last word. If what they wanted was Jesus’ death by crucifixion (the capital punishment routinely used by the Romans for common criminals), they had to bring the case to the Roman authority — and for this the backing of the Sanhedrin was needed.


This was a long-established judicial body which dealt with legal matters relating to the practice of the Jewish religion. When originally founded, the High Priest presided, but after 191 BC the Sanhedrin had its own distinct President. The Romans, following their usual custom of allowing local administration to continue provided it did not conflict with the interests of the Empire, recognised the Sanhedrin as a body with which it could do business. In the case of Jesus’ trial, however, while the Jewish position was that Jesus deserved death because he had blasphemed, this religious violation would have cut no ice with the Romans; instead, when making the case to Pilate, the Jews adapted the way they framed the charge, insisting that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews.


By Roman standards this was treasonous, and in the context of Judaea was dangerously inflammatory because the Romans supported a family of puppet kings (the Herodians) that was not even of Jewish descent. It is worth noting also that although the Sanhedrin was ‘allowed’ by the occupying power as a way of gaining a degree of acceptance among the Jews, the High Priests had become Roman appointments. Additionally, while the Romans controlled the death penalty throughout the Empire and were not at all squeamish about using it, they did not like it when others tried to manoeuvre them into using it to serve what they saw as purely local interests. We are dealing here with thoroughly poisonous politics!

Pilate, as the Procurator or Prefect of Judaea, was a middle-ranking functionary, subordinate to the Governor of Syria, so he wouldn’t have wanted to rock the boat. In any case he was temporarily in a very exposed position, being in Jerusalem with only a small auxiliary force for the duration of the Passover in order to forestall trouble on the streets at a time of year when crowds assembled and Jewish national feeling ran high. His normal residence was in the much safer enclave of Herod’s palace on the coast at Caesarea Maritima, which was then functioning as Judaea’s Roman capital. It is here, in the 1960s, that  archaeologists found what is so far the only surviving stone inscription bearing Pontius Pilate’s name.

Joyce Hill


April 2018 

The Cross and the Crucifix

Earlier this year I was in a church with a beautiful medieval Rood Screen, above which, resting on the screen, a large crucified Christ, flanked by a sorrowing Mary and John, had been re-erected in the twentieth century. Many screens survive, separating nave from chancel, and were originally topped by either a cross or a crucifix (with or without Mary and John on either side) – hence the name ‘Rood Screen’, rood being the Norman respelling of  rōd, the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘cross’. The Norman scribes indicated that it was pronounced with a long vowel by writing the letter twice. Rood Screens were not usually taken down at the Reformation, but any images on their lower panels were covered up or scraped off, and the large cross or crucifix resting on it, which gave the screen its name, was taken down. ‘Cross’ and ‘crucifix’ are not, I must emphasise, interchangeable terms, despite the sloppy usage of modern journalists! It is not a crucifix unless it has the figure of Christ on it, the word coming from the Latin meaning ‘fixed to the cross’.

A plain wooden cross replicates what the Romans used to execute common criminals, and so at one level it draws attention to the human suffering of Christ. At the same time, however, being without a body, in the Christian context it points to the Resurrection, the death transcended. By contrast,  highly decorated crosses, made of precious metals and adorned with jewels, still without a body, give primary focus to the transcendent — the preciousness symbolising the glory of what the cross stands for in the context of the faith. More directly, this understanding may be displayed by having the symbols of the four evangelists at the end of each of the four arms of the cross, and the Paschal Lamb of the Resurrection, with his flag, at the crossing. In such crosses, the Resurrection is visually present at the centre, as is the teaching of the church through the allusion to the Gospels, from which the understanding of Christ’s sacrifice is drawn. Yet, at the same time, it is a cross, and so always contains within itself suffering and death.

Crucifixes respond to the paradox of suffering and triumph rather differently. Some, of course, portray to a gruesome degree the suffering of the homo crucifixus, the man fixed to the cross. But others, while giving the suffering prominence through the twisted body and the wounds, point to transcendent glory through the precious metals from which the crucifix is made: the visual suffering, while being strongly present, is at the same time transformed to precious treasure, thus symbolically (and in a sense actually) making a statement of theological meaning. In fact, the graphic representation of Christ crucified, with which we are so familiar, really only begins in western art in the tenth century and then intensifies greatly in the centuries that follow. Before that, it was quite common to represent Christ on the cross with straight arms, straight body, sometimes even an actual crown (rather than a crown of thorns) and with the wounds not at all emphasised. In these depictions, we see Christ ‘reigning from the tree’. It is this triumphal concept that is captured in some of the older Easter hymns, written originally in Latin. We see it perhaps most clearly in the great hymn by the sixth century bishop and poet Venantius Fortunatus, which we know in translation as ‘The royal banners forward go’. Have a good look at the words when you sing it this Easter-tide.

Joyce Hill


June 2018 

Etheldreda of Ely


Nearly a year has gone by since I last wrote about a saint and it’s about time I did so again. This month is a good one to choose because on 23rd we commemorate Etheldreda, Abbess of Ely, whose posthumous fame brought such riches to the ‘Isle of Eels’ that we now have one of the most glorious of our cathedrals on the site of the abbey she founded, visible across the Fens like a great ship of faith.

Etheldreda, or Audrey, the names by which we know this saint today, was actually called Æþelþryþ (þ being a single letter in Anglo-Saxon times for what we now write as th). The later versions of her name are all post-Conquest, reflecting a world in which Anglo-Saxon name-elements and spelling conventions were no longer understood. She was born before the mid-seventh century, when England was a land of many small kingdoms. Her father was the King of East Anglia, and as a royal princess her expectation in life would have been one of dynastic marriage, cementing alliances, and producing royal heirs. In around 652, when presumably still quite young, she was given in marriage to Tondberht, chief of the South Gyrwas, a tribal group in the Fens, over which her father King Anna claimed authority. Tondberht’s bridal gift to Æthelthryth/Etheldreda was the Isle of Ely, and it was here, only three years later, that she took up residence after Tondberht’s early death. It was believed that she had remained a virgin: certainly, there were no children. But, retiring and pious as she was in her widowhood, the fact remained that she was still a young and dynastically eligible princess, and so in 660 she was married to Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria. At the time he was only fifteen years old and did not immediately insist on consummation. But when he later did so, Æthelthryth, supported by Wilfrid, Bishop of Northumbria, left her husband and became a nun at Coldingham near Berwick, then in the kingdom of Northumbria. This was a royal foundation, ruled by Æthelthryth’s aunt, Æbbe, sister of  Oswald, king of Northumbria (died 642), who had been responsible for inviting Aidan from Iona to bring Christianity to his subjects.

In 673 Æthelthryth moved back to Ely, founding there a double monastery for men and women, which she ruled as abbess until her death in 679. Double-monasteries (of which Whitby was also one) were relatively common in Europe in the seventh century: the two communities lived separately on the one site, often ruled jointly by a woman of aristocratic status. On her death, Æthelthryth was succeeded as abbess by her sister Sexburg. Seventeen years later her coffin was opened and her body was found to be incorrupt. She had been much admired in life for her great austerity and devotion, and now the incorrupt nature of her body was taken to be confirmation of her sanctity. As a result, she was moved (‘translated’) to an elevated shrine, which became a popular focus of pilgrimage as well as a site of many miracles.  She was greatly admired by leading Anglo-Saxon scholars and authors, such as Bede and Aldhelm, and was much venerated by later Anglo-Saxons, especially within monastic circles, as a model of virginity. The most famous story about her is that, as she lay dying of a neck tumour, she interpreted this affliction as divine punishment for all the necklaces she had enjoyed wearing in her youth; and that when her body was later found to be incorrupt, the tumour had healed, leaving a small scar.

Joyce Hill

July 2018 

Anna and Joachim


The calendar of Holy Days at the beginning of Common Worship doesn’t draw much upon apocryphal literature – no surprises there! But ‘Anna and Joachim, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary’, listed in this way for 26 July, are rare exceptions. Their names and the story of the circumstances of the Virgin’s birth occur only in New Testament apocrypha, the earliest written text giving us this information being the Gospel of James, from around AD 150. 

The traditional story is that Anna, born in Bethlehem, married Joachim of Nazareth, where they lived as a pious couple. However, they suffered from the sorrow of being childless and this led to a certain Ruben denying Joachim entry to the Temple in Jerusalem on the grounds that men without offspring were unworthy to be admitted. Joachim, grief-stricken, did not return home, but fled to the mountains to pray. Anna realised that her sterility was the reason for Joachim’s absence, and so she, like Joachim, called upon God. Their prayers were answered when an angel came to Anna promising that she would ‘conceive and give birth and the fruit of thy womb shall be blessed by all the world’. The angel also made the promise of a child to Joachim, who thereupon returned to Anna, and in due course they had a daughter, whom they called Miriam (Mary).


These apocryphal texts, of which the Gospel of James is one of the most significant, satisfied desires for more information about the lives of New Testament figures. There are those who consider that they enshrine sound oral tradition. But modern scholars more readily point to the mirroring of stories elsewhere in the Bible, and argue that several of their narratives are inspired by and modelled on these. In the case of Anna, we see something of the story of the barren Hannah being blessed, in answer to prayer, with the birth of Samuel, as told in the Old Testament; there is even a coincidence of name, since Anna (or Anne), as we know it, is actually the same name as Hannah. The story also includes a form of annunciation, expressed in terms similar to that of the Annunciation to Mary, as told in the Gospels; and there are echoes too of the story of the birth of John the Baptist to the hitherto childless but devout  Elizabeth and Zacharias. Anna / Anne / Hannah means ‘grace’ in Hebrew; Joachim means ‘he whom Yahweh has set up’, both being obviously highly suitable names for the principal figures in this particular context. 

Mary’s parents are honoured in the Eastern Church as well as the Western, but in the West they were not given much attention in the liturgy until the twelfth century. Indeed, Anglo-Saxon church calendars, which closely follow the wider traditions of the Western Church, have no feast-day for either of them. In the East, though, the cult of St Anne is traceable to at least the sixth century, when the Emperor Justinian built a church in Constantinople in her honour. In the West, despite their absence from the liturgy, we find the earliest sign of Anna’s veneration in an eighth century fresco in Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome. Mary’s ‘family story’ entered popular imagination in the thirteenth century, thanks to its inclusion in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend collection, and from then on scenes from Mary’s early life, including depictions of Anna and Joachim, were given imaginative expression in western art until apocryphal scenes were restricted by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.

Joyce Hill


August 2018 

St Augustine of Hippo

In choosing to write about St Augustine of Hippo, whose feast-day we keep on 28 August, I have given myself an almost impossible task in a small space since he is most influential of Christian theologians whose vast body of Latin writings formulated and developed such fundamental concepts as original sin, free will, divine grace, sacramental theology, the concept of the just war; made powerful pronouncements on slavery, sexuality, and the troubled society of his day;  and furnished future generations with detailed interpretations of parts of the Bible through commentaries and sermons. As a result he is the leading figure in a small group of formational writers and thinkers who are known as the Fathers of the Church. Another title, again alongside a small number of others of similar theological standing, is Doctor of the Church. His supreme importance in Christian thought weathered the Reformation since Luther considered him to be pre-eminent (after the Bible itself and St Paul), and Protestants generally regarded him from the outset as one of the ‘fathers’ of their tradition because of his teaching on salvation and divine grace. So he is honoured in all Christian denominations which commemorate saints. In the Eastern Church his feast-day is 15 June.

Augustine’s life is well-documented, not least because he tells us quite a bit about himself in his autobiographical Confessions, a work that is very different from his scholarly output: it is personal, appealing, and short, and is readily available in paperback, unlike his other works, which are very much research library material, even when in English translation! He was born in 354 to a pagan father and Christian mother (Monica) in Tagaste in the rich imperial North African province of Numidia. He studied rhetoric at the University of Carthage, with the intention of becoming a lawyer. But he soon abandoned this idea, together with the form of Christianity in which he had been brought up, and took a mistress, with whom he had a son. In this period he joined the Manichaean sect and remained faithful to it for nine years – although later in life much of his work was given a combative edge by attacking the Manichees and other such groups for the divisive beliefs they held and the heresies they put forward, which threatened the still relatively young faith of Christianity.


Eventually, Augustine went to Rome to open a school of rhetoric. But he quickly moved on to what we might call a professorship at Milan, where he came under the influence of Ambrose, the great Bishop of Milan – another figure who was subsequently regarded as one of the Fathers of the Church.  This led to Augustine’s baptism in 387, and his return to Tagaste in 388, where he set up a kind of monastic community. He was priested in 391 and began to make a name for himself as an influential figure in the North African church. In 395 he was consecrated as co-adjutor bishop to the then aged Valerius, Bishop of Hippo Regius (modern Annaba in Algeria), and after Valerius’s death in c. 396 ruled as sole bishop until his death on 28 August 430. During his episcopacy he wrote many treatises against contemporary heresies, refining the formulation of Christian belief in the process, and addressed  the challenging social issues of his day — a time when  the Roman Empire in the West was beginning to be destabilised until, in 476, not so very long after Augustine’s death in 430, the last Emperor in Rome was deposed.

Joyce Hill


September 2018

When were the Gospels written?

Exactly twelve months ago I tackled the question of why the four Gospels appear in the order they do in our Bibles. At the same time, I promised to return to a number of other related questions, such as who wrote them, and when. The question of ‘when’ actually needs to be dealt with before we can address the question of ‘by whom’, although there is actually no very definite answer to either of these questions.

In answering the question ‘when?’ we need to understand how we try to work out the chronology and so end up with dating-brackets within which each of the Gospels is likely to have been written. The answers, in other words, are arrived at by deductive reasoning — though this makes the dating of the Gospels no different from the dating of almost all surviving writings from this period. The BC/AD dating method did not exist at the time: it was not invented until the sixth century, and it was several centuries beyond this before it was generally adopted. Most texts were written and circulated in manuscript without any indication of date associated with them; and even documents which needed to be dated for legal reasons did so using relative dating. So, for example, something might be dated as occurring in a particular year of the reign of  Emperor such-and-such, or since the founding of the city of Rome. In consequence, most of the dates we ‘know’ from the first millennium (and of course from earlier) have had to be worked out in relative terms, and then clues within the text are used to try to pin them down to the specific year-counting system that we use today. It’s a tricky business, compounded by the fact that at different times, in different places, and sometimes in one place for different purposes, the year began on different dates (think, for example of 1 January, versus the start of the UK tax year on 6 April).

With the Gospels, the first thing that had to be done was to work out the order in which they were written. Nineteenth-century scholarship demonstrated that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke each independently made use of the text we know as the Gospel of Mark. So that means that Mark came first. The author of John’s Gospel may have known the other three (the Synoptics), but did not use them in the way that Matthew and Luke used Mark. All this helps — a bit! Then there are various analyses to be made of the texts themselves: for example, their references to specific events, and to cultural and historical circumstances and assumptions that can be related to what we know about from other texts which might, in themselves, gives us better dating clues, simply because they provide us with more circumstantial and chronological give-aways.

Of course the analyses are very involved and — as you would expect when dealing with conjecture —  not everyone agrees on everything. But a common view of modern scholars is that Mark was written probably in the late 60s, Matthew and Luke in the late 80s, and John around 90-110. That being so, it will be immediately obvious that the dates themselves call into question the traditional assumptions about authorship, since while one could imagine that someone writing in the late 60s might have known Jesus in their adulthood, that is hardly imaginable for anything written much later. So, clearly, authorship is something that to be dealt with on another occasion.

Joyce Hill

October 2018

Alfred the Great

I do sometimes wonder, when I look through the calendar of Holy Days at the beginning of my copy of Common Worship, why this or that person was included. Alfred the Great, listed for 26 October is one such. Why was he chosen? He is not, after all, one of our royal saints. Yet there he is, in roman type, signalling that this is a Lesser Feast, one up in the hierarchy from Commemorations, which are printed in italics. The date — as with saints — is the date of his death in 899.

King Alfred ruled Wessex, one of several kingdoms in an England that was not then unified, from 871 to 899, at a time when England was being ravaged by pagan Viking invasions. Only Wessex held out, resulting in the Treaty of Wedmore in 878. This established a demarcation line across the country, running roughly from London to Chester, north of which Viking power held sway, leaving an expanded Wessex to rule to the south. Alfred gets his epithet ‘the Great’ from this resistance, which involved considerable organisation of the army, fortified garrisons across Wessex, and the creation of a rudimentary naval force. But in terms of politics and practicalities, the crucial outcome was that Alfred maintained a Christian kingdom within England. So he was ‘Alfred the Great’ not just because he was a successful king in military terms, but also because his actions meant that Christian faith and culture were preserved in a substantial part of the country and did not succumb to pagan attack. Indeed, the principal Viking leader, Guthrum, with whom the Treaty of Wedmore was made, was obliged, as part of the treaty, to be baptised as a Christian.

However, there was yet more to Alfred’s support of Christianity than this since, alongside his physical protection of his people, he also set about stimulating their moral and religious regeneration, responding to the common belief of the time that defeat of Christians by a pagan foe was the result of backsliding by the Christians, leading to God withdrawing his favour. Like all good leaders, Alfred knew how to draw upon the expertise of others and so, in order to carry out his aims, he brought together Asser from Wales, John from continental Saxony, Grimbald from St Bertin in northern France, and English scholars from outside the confines of Wessex, and with their help encouraged the production of works which would aid the revival of Christian learning. His decision to translate key works from Latin into English for this purpose was a radical departure from the norm, the idea being that it would make the subject-matter more widely accessible, although of course he recognised that those entering the church would need to learn Latin. At the outset, he enlisted the support of the bishops, sending to them copies of a translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, a work which sets out the responsibilities of bishops to teach and to preach. Other works associated with this programme were Boethius’ On the Consolation of Philosophy (a work of central importance throughout the Middle Ages), a modified theological treatise by St Augustine, a translation of the first fifty Psalms, a history of the world by Orosius, an English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the saintly tales of Gregory’s Dialogues.

It is for this that we honour Alfred the Great, a king who consciously set out to exercise his duties as a Christian leader through wisdom as well as war.

Joyce Hill


November 2018

The Feast of All Souls

The Feast of All Souls, which we celebrate in the Western Church on 2 November, made a relatively late entry into the liturgical calendar. It was instituted in 998 by Odilo, abbot of Cluny (France), a monastery which, at that time, was hugely influential and in effect ‘controlled’ many of the abbeys of western Europe. These were all Benedictine since, before the Cistercian Order was established in the late eleventh century —  then to be followed by several other new Orders — this was western Christendom’s only monastic Order. Benedictine houses had always commemorated the dead  from within their own communities or otherwise associated with them: each monastery kept an ever-extending list of names, called the Liber Vitae, or Book of Life, reflecting the theological understanding that those being prayed for had passed to the life eternal. What Odilo did was to extend this to all other unnamed souls who had died, this in turn reflecting a theological understanding that the saying of masses for the dead would benefit those who, because of their venial sins, were in purgatory. The church generally, even beyond the monastic context, had always had a regular practice of praying for the dead: all that Odilo did was give the practice a special day, when three masses would be said; and he fixed on 2 November to associate it with the already well-established feast of All Saints on 1 November.

Odilo’s new feast-day caught on quite quickly, but not quickly enough to be reflected in the Anglo-Saxon liturgy. However, it spread to England soon after the Norman Conquest, and continued through to the Reformation. Throughout this period masses for the dead and the establishment of chantry chapels for this purpose increased considerably. But the whole idea of purgatory, and in particular the notion that the actions of those on earth could buy relief from purgatory, whether through masses or indulgences, became a major bone of contention in the Reformation. Protestants were firmly against all of this, and so it’s not surprising that when the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer was compiled, there was no reference to a Feast of All Souls (although All Saints was retained on 1 November as an act of commemoration).

All Souls came back into the Anglican tradition as a result of the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century which, in developing what we now know as High Church practices, introduced liturgical and ritual customs that in varying degrees looked to pre-Reformation times. Of course, the theology of All Souls remained rather problematic in reformation terms, and so the new — or restored — feast-day was officially called the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. Although it is not in the BCP, it was listed in the Church of England’s Alternative Service Book, published in 1980, and it appears in Common Worship, published in 2000, where it is named in the Calendar as ‘Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day)’. However, while All Saints’ Day, on 1 November, is listed in Common Worship in bold-red, meaning that it is a major holy day, All Souls (which is given in parenthesis as the unofficial but common name for the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed) is printed in ordinary black type, signifying that it is a lesser festival. The careful treatment of the name of the day in the Common Worship calendar reflects the impact of the Reformation on our understanding of what this festival is about or, to put it another way, how it actually works, theologically speaking.

Joyce Hill


December 2018


Last year’s article for December was on Bethlehem – an obvious topic for the month when we celebrate Christmas. Nazareth is of course the other town associated with the Nativity, far to the north in Galilee which, under Roman occupation as organised at the time of Jesus’ birth, was in a different administrative sub-division from Judaea, in which Bethlehem is found.

Nazareth, unlike Bethlehem, is not named in the Old Testament. But Matthew and Luke, the only two gospels which give us any information about Jesus’ birth and early life, refer to Nazareth in this context, although in rather different ways. It is only Luke who tells of the Annunciation to Mary (chapter 1), which is said to have taken  place in Nazareth. The obvious inference is that this was Mary’s home town, since she was as yet only betrothed to Joseph. He is identified not by place, but by the statement that he is ‘of the house of David’. Luke’s next reference to Nazareth is in Chapter 2 where he explains that Mary and Joseph subsequently travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the purpose of the Roman taxation census because Joseph was ‘of the house and lineage of David’ (Bethlehem being the city of David).


Later in Chapter 2 Luke describes how Mary and Joseph made an offering in the Temple in Jerusalem, and then ‘returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth’.  Matthew, by contrast, says that Mary, betrothed to Joseph, was ‘found with child of the Holy Ghost’, but no narrative is provided and no place is named. Instead, this gospel gives us an account of  how an unnamed angel came to Joseph in a prophetic and reassuring dream. Matthew then moves directly to the birth in Bethlehem, with no suggestion at all that Mary and Joseph had to travel there from anywhere else (a journey that would not, in any case, have been required by Roman census rules).


Afterwards, according to Matthew, the Holy Family flees to Egypt (a different Roman province) to escape the persecution of Herod. Later, Joseph  hears in a dream that Herod is dead and that it is safe to return. But then he finds out that Herod’s son Archelaus had succeeded him and fears that Judaea is consequently still risky, so they decide go to Galilee and settle in Nazareth — the clear implication being that this was not their original intention. Subsequently, when Jesus is identified  in terms of his ‘home town’, he is associated with Nazareth, or at least the distinctive region of Galilee, where much of his ministry takes place. If one were to read Matthew’s gospel alone, then, one would imagine that Mary and Joseph had lived in Bethlehem all along, until their flight into Egypt, and that they only took up residence in Nazareth after their return from exile.

 The differing implications of these two gospel narratives, which clearly emerge when we look closely at the role that Nazareth plays, points yet again, as do many other problematic details about the Nativity story, to the impossibility of reading the two gospel-narratives at face-value as straightforward factual rapportage. But there is nothing odd about this: we cannot and do not read narrative histories from this period as ‘simple fact’ because that is not how texts of this type were composed or how they were intended to function, regardless of whether they were secular or religious ‘histories’. We are need to think, rather, about the purposes of what is written and the often inconsistent oral traditions that lie behind it.

Joyce Hill