Lux Fulgebat Super Nos: a Tolkienian Blessing for Christmas
The adventus Redemptoris is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year, the season of spiritual preparation for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Although it precedes the Nativity, its purpose is to prepare the faithful for the second coming of Christ. It is a time of waiting and hope in which we are invited to reflection on the divine intercession in human affairs. That is the purpose of these lines.
As an undergraduate, J. R. R. Tolkien took in his hands an Old English religious poem preserved in the Exeter Book called Crist. It is a poem in three parts, on the Advent, Ascension, and Last Judgment respectively. Tolkien’s heart was sparked by some verses (lines 103-4) on the Advent:
Eala earendel engla beorhtast Hail Earendel, brightest of angels
Ofer middangeard monnum sended above the middle-earth sent unto men
Tolkien thought of Earendel as John the Baptist, but in the sense of brilliant light Earendel must have pointed to a star, Venus, that brightly shines before the dawn. Something changed in his heart: something remote, preserved in language, awakened. The veil of a lost world became thinner. It was the encounter with an ancient intervention of God in the human world, a strong poiesis telling that, though always in a fallen world, the human being has never been alone.
Here we have a whole theology: man in a mortal (middle) world, an untouchable beauty above it, and most importantly: the light, from another place, from another realm, sent. These motives were made new with Christ. They expanded and acquired their full meaning while their primary sense became clearer: there has always been a continuum of the divine design, light from the Light has never ceased to illuminate the way – hope beyond hope was given until the coming of the Redeemer.
As the Gospels tell, the Light came to us in this world ruled by the Prince of Darkness. Evil was defeated; Death, conquered. But the world remains dark and man still dwells there. Now, while preparing for the parousia and remembering the birth of the Light among men, it is important to bear in mind the divine mediation from the beginning to the end of time. And here comes Tolkien again.
On Christmas Eve of the year 1965, Clyde S. Kilby, who had offered to assist Tolkien during the summer of the next year in preparing the material for the publishable Silmarillion, received a letter of gratitude from Tolkien. There he found this beautiful blessing (1976: 57):
“I hope that perhaps this may reach you at or about Christmas. ‘Lux fulgebat super nos. Ëalä Eärendel engla beorhtast ofer middengeard monnum sended’. Cynewulf’s words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology.”
Tolkien followers know well about Eärendil. But actually, the most interesting fact is that on another occasion Kilby asked Tolkien to translate those lines. And Tolkien told him:
“Here Eärendel, brightest of angels, sent from God to men.”
God’s eye has never failed to watch over the world. And never will. But it is important for today’s Christians to note that those before Revelation, even those before the First Alliance, did not live without support. And that we still dwell under the same stars.
Carpenter, Humphrey. J. R. R. Tolkien. A Biography. London: HarperCollins, 2000.
Gollancz, Israel (ed.). Cynewulf’s Christ: An Eighth Century English Epic. London: David Nutt, 1892.
Kilby, Clyde S. Tolkien & The Silmarillion. Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976.
By Jon Mentxakatorre
(Read more from the author at Mentxakatorre among the Trees)