Well here comes 19 August and our Commemorations list says it's the Feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux.
Thing is, the feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux is
actually 20 August. Whyzat? That's the day he died, and
traditionally, the date of a person's death, faith seeing it as the
date they were born to eternity, is used as their feast day, if it's known
and not taken by a saint who already died that day or
by something of more importance. You die on 20 August, your feast day
is 20 August. Pretty simple. It's a Christian version and
continuation of Yahrtzeit, meaning "time of year" in Yiddish, when
relatives remember a family member on the date of their death.
So what possessed the compilers of our
Commemorations list to move it up one day? Hell if I know. I also do
not know what possessed them to import several commemorations for Old Testament figures from the Eastern Orthodox
calendar, but, one of
those is for Samuel on 20 August, so I guess they needed the day and
had to boof Bernard. But to the day before, when he was still alive and
not born unto eternity? Scholars. Oy.
Anyway, Bernard has a pretty good rep among notable
non-Catholics, including Martin Luther and John Calvin. And that in spite of
being a rip roaring kick-ass let's get serious about this Rule of St
Benedict for monasteries type. Or, say, choosing the "right" pope when
two were elected (hey, what if he got the Innocent/Anacletus thing
wrong?). Or, say, seeing one of his students (Bernardo da Pisa)
elected Pope (Eugene III) largely on the basis of his connexion to
Bernard who thought him too naive for the job, then using that naivete
to function as a shadow pope. Or, say, Eugene proclaiming a Second Crusade in reaction to Edessa, a
state established by the First Crusade, getting its butt kicked by the
Muslims, then getting Bernard to promote it,
whereupon the two main takers, Louis VII of France and Conrad III of
Germany, got their butts thoroughly kicked, which completely tarnished
the rest of his life though he insisted the failure was due to the
Crusaders being a bunch of sinners. Or, say, at the Council of Troyes
in 1129 championing the Knights Templar, which secured their endorsement
by the Roman Catholic Church and their transformation into a
multimillion dollar multinational banking and holding company, the
He does, despite all that and more, show some signs
of knowing it all comes down to faith in Christ and what he did for
us. That can happen, even in the RCC, and in all fairness I gotta say
maybe old Bernard was one of those. And me being a Benedictine never-was,
the only thing worse than a has-been, lemme tell ya a little reform
wouldn't hurt those guys at all.
He is best known among non-Catholics because the
hymn "O Sacred Head" is attributed to him. Now, let me be clear, O
Sacred Head -- which everybody knows God sings as O Haupt voll Blut
und Wunden -- is among the greatest hymns ever written by anybody, any
time, any where.
Thing is, Bernard didn't have a damn thing to do with it.
The text to the hymn comes from the last part of a
long mediaeval poem called Salve mundi salutare (I ain't translating,
ask Father Hollywood) which meditates on a number of Christ's body
parts as he suffered on the Cross. The last part meditates on his
head and is called Salve caput cruentatum. It dates from the 14th
Century; Bernard lived in the first half of the 12th Century
(1091-1153 to be exact).
The tune is even later. It was written originally
as a love song by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). When Paul Gerhardt
(1607-1676), one of the great contributors to our magnificent Lutheran
hymn heritage (no clowning around here, he was great and it is
magnificent) translated Salve caput cruentatum into German as O Haupt
voll Blut und Wunden (the aforementioned version God now uses, OK
that's clowning around) Hassler's love song got used as the tune
(there is no textual reason for this parenthetical comment except to
make three in one sentence and thus reflect the perfection of the
Trinity; it's a monkish thing and completely clowning around).
But hey what the hey, our national anthem's tune was originally a drinking song.
So what's the point? Bernard had nothing to do with
O Sacred Head, neither as tune or text, and for that matter, being
thoroughly Roman Catholic as we saw above, makes a hell of a lot
better Roman Catholic saint than Lutheran commemoration.
The point is, the power of the Gospel, well
meditated on in O Sacred Head, is such that the hymn does not depend
on or even need pious legends and myths about its earthly authorship.
And that the power of the Gospel, of which Bernard shows signs of
being aware, is such that it can penetrate even the largely pagan
accretions laid over it by the RCC, in which Bernard was deeply
involved. Thank God for the Lutheran Reformation, that we no longer
live in times like Bernard, where church and state alike were choked
by these accretions, and the Gospel can be rightly preached and the
Sacraments rightly administered in our churches openly.
And hey, next time you write a cheque or use a debit
card to draw somewhere else on your bank deposits back home, rather
than carry your stash with you and make yourself more attractive to
thieves and robbers, thank the Knights Templar, whose system of letters
of credit based on deposits was the low tech forerunner of banking as
we know it.
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