Sunday, 30 March 2008

Quasimodo and ‘Doubting Thomas’

Carravagio: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Patrick Comerford

Acts 2: 14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; I Peter 1: 3-9; John 20: 19-31

May I speak to you + in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, has a number of names that introduce us to important Christian values, ideas and concepts.

In the Eastern Churches, this day is known as Thomas Sunday, because of the dramatic story about the Apostle Thomas in our Gospel reading this morning.

In many places, this Sunday is known as Low Sunday. Some say it was called “Low Sunday” because today’s liturgy is something of an anticlimax after the solemn Easter liturgy and celebrations a week ago. Some even joke that today is known as Low Sunday because this is the Sunday choirs take off after their hard work during Holy Week and Easter.

In some places, including parts of France and Germany, this day is called “Quasimodo Sunday.” The Latin introit for the day begins: “Quasi modo geniti infantes ...” “Like new-born infants ...,” words from I Peter 2: 2 reminding newly-baptised Christians and all baptised members of the Church that we have been renewed like new-born infants in the waters of baptism.

Quasimodo, the sad hero in Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), was abandoned as a new-born baby in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on this Sunday, and so was given the name Quasimodo by Archdeacon Claude Frollo who found him.

Perhaps Quasimodo and his love for Esméralda would make a wonderful sermon topic some day. It is a story of how people are often judged, and judged wrongly, because of their looks, their clothes and their social status. Quasimodo is despised because of the large, ugly wart on his face and his disfigured body, and he is ridiculed for his inarticulate speech and for his deafness. And Esméralda fails to appreciate the true beauty and undying nature of the love Quasimodo offers her.

Esméralda, for her part, despite her beauty, her compassion and her talents, is despised because of her ethnic background, her manners and her clothes: those who see her first see her as a gypsy, and so is sidelined and objectified. You might expect an anchorite to be a holy woman, but even Sister Gudele, figuratively representing the Church, curses the gypsy girl who is her true daughter, while Archdeacon Frollo’s all-consuming lust and desire for Esméralda run contrary to the ideals of his ministry and the mission of the Church.

Yet, there is a hint at the Easter theme in this story: Phoebus is not dead, Esméralda is put on trial and sentenced to death unjustly, and is saved from death by Quasimodo. In the end, despite its sadness, it is love and not death that has the final triumph in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Victor Hugo may be a little old-fashioned today, but Quasimodo and Esméralda have important lessons and values for us today. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, and seeing is not always believing. Quasimodo may appear to be ugly, but his love is pure and has an eternal quality. Esméralda appears to be beautiful, but those who are stirred to passion on seeing her put little value on love, respect and inner integrity.

In our society today, are we easily deceived by appearances? Do we confuse what pleases me with beauty and with truth? Do we allow those who have power to define the boundaries of trust and integrity merely to serve their own interests?

Are we are happy to live in a society where a fiscal lack of accountability on the part of politicians, and where obvious obfuscation are accepted instead of honest explanation or confession, as long as my future continues to look prosperous and I continue to be guaranteed a slice of the economic cake?

But appearances can deceive. Those who appear to be ugly are not so due to any fault or sinfulness, and they are often gentle and good-at-heart. Those who appear to be beautiful may threaten our personal confidence and security. And those who appear to guarantee economic, social or political stability may simply be serving their own needs and interests – as Esméralda finds out with Captain Phoebus and the jealous Archdeacon Frollo.

In real life, how often do we fail to make the vital connection between appearances and deceptions on the one hand, and, on the other hand, between seeing and believing?

Quiet often, I think, this comes down to our different styles of learning and approaches to integrating information. How do you learn?

Think of how you go about learning yourself. Can you remember the latest gadget you bought – a new DVD recorder, or a new alarm clock radio? When you get a new car, or a new computer, are you the sort of person who first opens the manual and reads through the instructions carefully and thoroughly. Once you’ve read the handbook thoroughly and understand how all it works, you then get to work on your own. That’s one sort of learner.

Or perhaps you love buying flat-pack furniture, taking it home, and without ever looking at the instructions, figuring out how to assemble it. Others get frustrated and end up with odd bits and pieces, but you see it as a challenge. Like a game of chess, you know that once all the pieces are placed correctly you’re ready to move in and to win. The prize is that new coffee table or wardrobe.

And then there are those who prefer to have someone sit down beside them, showing them how to do things, from switching on that new computer, to setting up passwords, folders and email accounts.

What sort of learners are Mary in last week’s Resurrection story, Thomas in this morning’s Gospel reading, and the other disciples in those readings?

For Mary, appearances could be deceiving. When she first saw the Risen Lord on Easter morning, she didn’t recognise him. She thought he was the gardener. But when he spoke to her she recognised his voice, and then wanted to hold on to him. From that moment of seeing and believing, she rushes off to tell the Disciples: “I have seen the Lord.”

Two of them, John the Beloved and Simon Peter, had already seen the empty tomb, but they failed to make the vital connection between seeing and believing. When they heard Mary’s testimony, they still failed to believe fully. They only believe when they see the Risen Lord standing among them, when he greets them, “Peace be with you,” and when he shows them his pierced hands and side.

They had to see and to hear, they had to have the Master stand over them in their presence, before they could believe.

But Thomas the Twin, or Thomas Didymus, is missing from the group on that occasion. He has not seen and so he refuses to believe.

We can never be quite sure about Thomas in Saint John’s Gospel. After the death of Lazarus, he shows that he has no idea of the real meaning of death and resurrection when he suggests that the disciples should go to Bethany with Jesus: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11: 16). And while Thomas saw the raising of Lazarus, what did he believe in? Could seeing ever be enough for a doubting Thomas to believe?

At the Last Supper, despite assurances from Jesus, Thomas protests that he does not know what is happening (John 14: 5). He has been with Jesus for three years, and still he does not believe or understand. Seeing and explanations are not enough for him.

On the first Easter Day, the Disciples locked themselves away out of fear. But where is Thomas? Is he fearless? Or is he foolish?

For a full week, Thomas is absent and does not join in the Easter experience of the remaining disciples. When they tell him what has happened, Thomas refuses to accept their stories of the resurrection. For him hearing, even seeing, are not enough.

Thomas wants to see, hear and touch. He wants to use all his learning faculties before he can believe this story. See, hear and touch – if they had manuals then as we now have, I’m sure Thomas would have demanded a manual on the resurrection too.

His method of learning is to use all the different available approaches. He has heard, but he wants to see. When he sees, he wants to touch … he demands not only to touch the Risen Jesus, but to touch his wounds too before being convinced.

And so for a second time within eight days, Jesus came and stood among his disciples, and said: “Peace be with you.”

Do you recall how Mary was asked in the garden on Easter morning not to cling on to Jesus? So why then is Thomas invited to touch him in the most intimate way? He is told to place his finger in Christ’s wounded hands and his hand in Christ’s pierced side.

Caravaggio has depicted this scene in his painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Yet we are never told whether Thomas actually touched those wounds. All we are told is that once he has seen the Risen Christ, Thomas simply professes his faith in Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”

In that moment, we hear the first expression of faith in the two natures of Christ, that he is both divine and human. For all his doubts, Thomas provides us with an exquisite summary of the apostolic faith.

Too often, perhaps, we talk about “Doubting Thomas.” Instead, we might better call him “Believing Thomas.” His doubting led him to question. But his questioning led to listening. And when he heard, he saw, perhaps he even touched. Whatever he did, he learned in his own way, and he came not only to faith but faith that for this first time was expressed in that eloquent yet succinct acknowledgment of Christ as both “My Lord and My God.”

Too often, in this world, we are deceived easily by the words of others and deceived by what they want us to see. Seeing is not always believing today. Hearing does not always mean we have heard the truth, as we know in Irish life and politics today. It is easy to deceive and to be deceived by a good presentation and by clever words.

Too often, we accept or judge people by their appearances, and we are easily deceived by the words of others because of their office or their privilege. But there are times when our faith, however simple or sophisticated, must lead us to ask appropriate questions, not to take everything for granted, and not to confuse what looks like being in our own interests with real beauty and truth.

May all our thoughts, all our prayers and all our deeds be + in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at the Cathedral Eucharist at 11 a.m. on Sunday 30 March 2008, the Second Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday).

Friday, 28 March 2008

A Living Word: Easter Week (V: Friday)

Patrick Comerford

In the days immediately after Easter, the Risen Christ asks his disciples to trust in God, asks them whether they love him, and asks them to make disciples of all nations.

When Jesus asks his disciples to trust in him, he’s asking them to believe in him.

In many groups and seminars I have taken part in, we’ve played warm-up games of trust. In games like these, someone can be asked to close their eyes, straighten their back, and fall backwards.

“Trust me,” the other person says. And with that, the person who has closed their eyes knows they can fall back.

In these trust games, “Trust me” means the very same as “believe me.”

The Gospel stories in the weeks after Easter make an interesting connection is made in between faith, love and mission. The three cannot exist without each other.

The disciples who were locked up in fear in the upper room had lost their trust and faith. But once they found their faith and trust again in the Risen Christ, they could go out in love into the world.

Over the years, I have worked with many mission agencies. And in each mission agency the same question is asked constantly: Why are we spending so much money on health care, on hospitals, on education?

But those projects help the very people Jesus was most concerned to bring in from the margins – women, children, the poor, those who suffered because they couldn’t afford to change their lot in life. Those projects show love, develop trust, and bring new life to those who need it most. They are practical demonstrations of the faith in the Risen Christ who brings new life.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 28 March 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

A Living Word: Easter Week (IV: Thursday)

The gift of the Holy Spirit: the Church is the realised Pentecost

Patrick Comerford

In the days immediately after Easter, the Risen Christ promises his disciples peace, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that he would always be with them.

The promise of the Holy Spirit is one that embarrasses many of us as Christians.

We don’t really expect the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.

Once we changed the holy-day of Pentecost into the June Bank Holiday weekend, and changed the days we had off work, the promise and gift of the Holy Spirit became culturally and socially irrelevant.

Some associate the gift of the Holy Spirit with confirmation and our teens. For others, the gift of the Holy Spirit has embarrassing associations with enthusiastic charismatic styles of worship that don’t fit in well with comfortable churches and parishes.

The Holy Spirit gets short shrift even in the Nicene Creed … just a few short lines, a few short phrases, no more than one extended sentence.

But the Holy Spirit didn’t just suddenly appear because of Christ’s promises to the Disciples in those days after the first Easter. Those few phrases in the Nicene Creed remind us that the Holy Spirit has always been there guiding us.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, they like to talk about the Church as the actualised or lived Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is a promise not just to the disciples after Easter, or a promise to be long forgotten after our confirmation.

The gift and gifts of the Spirit are part of the fullness of the gifts we receive as we live out our Easter faith, and an assurance that the Risen Christ is always with us.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 27 March 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

A Living Word: Easter Week (III: Wednesday)

Patrick Comerford

“Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you.”

We hear this phrase three times on Easter morning when Jesus greets his friends and disciples after the Resurrection.

It is a phrase spoken by the Risen Christ three times. It has a Trinitarian resonance. It reminds me of the three times God says to Moses, “I am ...,” “I am…,” “I am …”

It reminds me of the three visitors who receive hospitality from Abraham, and remind him of God’s love, remind him of God’s plans for all creation, and remind him that when we welcome strangers sometimes we are entertaining angels, and in that we get a glimpse of God.

This phrase “peace be with you” in Saint John’s Gospel identifies the Risen Christ in the same way that the phrase “Be not afraid” identifies the Risen Christ in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

In some churches, we can be too glib about that phase, “Peace be with you,” at the sign of peace – too glib, not just with our handshake, but with what we are wishing each other.

The peace that Jesus wishes for his disciples is not the usual sort of peace that we often wish one another on Sunday mornings: Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, it has become yet another saying robbed of its real significance, with no more heart-filled meaning than the supermarket check-out operator who says, “Have a nice day, missing you already.”

The peace that Christ is brings his disciples after Easter is a peace that the Disciples sorely need, a peace that a deeply divided Church needs, a peace that our world needs.

Peace be with you.

Peace be with you.

Peace be with you.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 26 March 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

A Living Word: Easter Week (II: Tuesday)

Patrick Comerford

“Do not be afraid.”

These were the first words that greeted Mary Magdalene and the other Mary when they came to the garden to visit the tomb of Christ on Easter morning.

It would have been very difficult to be anything but afraid if your best friend had been brutally murdered, and all the men who claimed to be his best friends had managed to disappear into the back streets.

I can easily imagine those women trying to slip out of a back door in a narrow street early on that Sunday morning, hoping no-one would see them or notice them as they scurried along and made their way out through the city gates with their small jars of oils and ointments.

They must have wondered whether they were being watched, if they were being followed, if they would be arrested when they arrived at the tomb.

Of course they were full of fear. Of course they were frightened out of their wits.

On its own, to see an angel would have been startling enough, enough of a fright, in those circumstances. I don’t know if I would have been calmed at all by being then told: “Do not be afraid.”

But those same words, “Do not be afraid,” are repeated time and time again that first Easter. When the women see the Risen Christ, he tells them: “Do not be afraid.”

When Luke gives us his account of the Resurrection, we hear Jesus asking the Disciples: “Why are you frightened?”

The Risen Christ challenges us to put aside all our hidden fears. There can be no lows after Easter. It can only be invitation to rise up and let go of all our fears as we accept Christ’s invitation to join him in his risen life.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 25 March 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

The icon of Mary Magdalene by Dimitrios Mourlas is part of the exhibition of Greek icons at the Gordon Gallery in Derry until 12 April 2008

Monday, 24 March 2008

A Living Word: Easter Week (I: Monday)

The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924-1927, Sir Stanley Spencer

Patrick Comerford

The first Sunday after Easter is often known in the Church as Low Sunday.

The first reason for this is because Holy Week and Easter represent the great climax of Christian faith. Whatever happens in churches in the weeks that follow takes a step or two back, and seems less important.

The second reason for calling it Low Sunday is that the attendance in churches was naturally high for Holy Week and Easter. The figures for Mass-going and church attendance in the following week always show a dramatic drop in numbers present.

In recent years, though, I’ve often thought that the figures were low even at Easter.

Christians in Ireland today are more likely to see ourselves as Christmas people rather than Easter people. Christmas has a nice, warm folksy feeling about it in the middle of winter. Easter has too much of a get-up-and-go challenge for us today. The crib is more comfortable than the cross. The manger in Bethlehem asks fewer questions than the grave outside the walls of Jerusalem.

When it comes to Holy Week and Easter, popular culture puts a greater emphasis on the shocking events of Holy Week than on the startling events of those days after Easter.

I only have to think about movies like Jesus Christ Superstar or the Passion of the Christ to have this perception reinforced.

Most people can tell me the Christmas story. Most people can recall the events in Holy Week that led up to Good Friday. But who among us can remember some of those wonderful stories in the Gospels in the days and weeks immediately after Easter?

I believe these are stories worth telling again and again.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 24 March 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. ‘A Living Word’ is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Easter and the joys of the Resurrection

Patrick Comerford

Acts 10: 34-43; Colossians 3: 1-4; John 20: 1-18.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

How many of you find it difficult to get up early in the morning?

I used to find it difficult to get up early on two different types of mornings. There were those mornings when I was a schoolboy and I knew I hadn't done my homework. I found it difficult not so much to wake up as to get up: to face up to my responsibilities, and to take the consequences of not meeting my own responsibilities.

And there were those mornings I found it difficult to get up because I had been allowed to stay up too late the night before. I wasn’t in trouble, but my body sure was.

But, looking back on my childhood, there were mornings when it wasn’t difficult to wake up early in the morning at all. What about you?

● Christmas morning was an easy morning to wake up early. Perhaps looking for Santa’s presents. It was exciting. There was a lot to look forward too.
● Your birthday: birthdays are always full of surprises when you're young and full of life.
● The morning of a big football or hockey match, or a music competition you had entered: and your stomach was full of butterflies.
● There was the morning when we were starting our holidays: when I was at the beginning of an exciting time, setting off on a journey, somewhere wonderful where I knew it was going to be exciting and I was going to have a great time.

And then there are times of sadness, times when you’ve slept uneasily because of what's ahead:

● Being woken up in the dark, fearing what’s happening outside, or even in the house inside, and not being able to get back to sleep, wondering and worrying about what has happened.
● Before going into hospital to have a test or an operation.
● The night before a funeral, especially the funeral of someone we love and who has been close to us.

These are sad times to remember, although years later we’re glad those doctors operated, glad to look back with fond memories on members of our family long after they’ve died.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we are told how the women in the story were up while it was still dark, long before morning would break. It was Passover. But their reasons for being awake while it was still dark and for rising early are not because of any holiday excitement or expectation. They couldn’t sleep the night before because someone very precious – the most important person in their lives – had died.

And yet this story moves from one that begins with being one of the saddest reasons for getting up so early, to being one of the most joyful reasons for being up early in the morning.

At the beginning, it’s as though they were going through the worst time in their lives.

But then the story suddenly changes. It’s as though all their Christmases, all their birthdays and all their holidays had come together, and much, much more.

Jesus has died, died in the most awful way, late on Friday, and he was buried late on Friday evening, just as it was getting dark.

Then, Saturday was a day when no-one in the Jewish world could do anything. You couldn’t open the fridge, turn on the light, cook the dinner. They had to wait until early on Sunday morning to go and sort out things at the grave.

Well, they didn’t get to sort them out. Because it had been such a hurried burial, things would have been in a mess. He wouldn’t have been put in a proper shroud. His eyes wouldn’t have been set closed ... all those messy things that most of us don't have to even think about these days, thanks to the professionalism of funeral directors.

And they brought with them spices and nice clothes, and things like that. Which remind me of the swaddling clothes in which Jesus was wrapped as a baby, and the spices the Wise Men brought to Jesus as his first birthday presents on that first Christmas.

And when the women get to the grave, there’s a greater shock waiting for them. The stone has been rolled away.

Could someone have been there before them?

So, they tell Simon Peter and John the Beloved Disciple.

Now, I have to admit, we men aren’t very good at making deductions – at looking for the whole picture. When these two men look inside the tomb, they take everything at face value.

If we had relied on what they had allowed themselves to see, at first hand, would we have ever realised the significance of that first Easter?

They looked inside, they saw an empty gave, and then they went home again.

But Mary hung around in the garden. And she has the first encounter with Jesus as the Risen Lord. She now realises what it was all about. What those past three years with Jesus were all about. What Jesus was trying to say to them all the time as he preached, as he told them parables, as he healed, as he went fishing, as he had meals with them and fed them all.

Can you imagine her excitement? A dark night of waiting has been turned into the most glorious morning. The spices and clothes they were bringing are no longer needed. Instead, here is the most wonderful present possible. Human hate been defeated by God's love.

No, nothing can ever be that bad any more. Because God loves ... you.

Easter means that all the fears we have in the middle of the night, all the fears you have early in the morning, are nothing compared to how God wants to take care of you, mind you, love you.

God has rolled away all the big stones that get in the way between us and him. We only have to look for ourselves and to believe. And that’s why Easter should be better, is better, that all the Christmases and all the birthdays and all the other special treats rolled together.

Glory to + the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This semon was preached during the Eucharist of the Resurrection from the Church of Ireland Theological College broadcast on RTÉ Radio (medium wave and lon-wave) at 10.45 a.m. on Easter Day, 23 March 2008. The celebrant was Canon Adrian Empey, Principal of the college. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. The icon is a Greek representation, Noli me tangere - Μή μου άπτου

The Harrowing of Hell: Reflection 5

Patrick Comerford

Reflection 5: Magnifcat by Arvo Pärt

As fewer and fewer people come to Evening Prayer in our parish churches on Sundays, we are in danger of forgetting that Magnificat or the Song of Mary is one of the great traditional canticles for Evensong throughout the Anglican Communion. And so I have chosen the Magnifcat as our final piece of music for this evening’s reflections.

This canticle echoes several Old Testament passages, especially the Song of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel (I Samuel 2: 1-10). In the Orthodox Church, Magnificat is usually sung at Sunday Matins.

The words of the canticle are from the Gospel according to Saint Luke (Luke 1: 46-55), in the account of Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. After Mary greets Elizabeth, the child who is to be born, John the Baptist, moves inside Elizabeth’s womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings the Magnificat in response.

The child leaping in the womb can be seen as a haunting prefiguring of those who leap with joy in the depths of death when they hear that Christ is coming to visit them from the tomb. Mary’s words in Magnificat are a harrowing of all the hells in our lives. Wickedness and the misuse and abuse of power are being thrown aside by her son. The greatness of the Lord is proclaimed. He descends to the lowly and with his arm lifts them up. This was the promise made to Abraham and the faithful of the past; it is true for us today; and it is true for the future and for all time.

As Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are sung almost every day in many Anglican cathedrals and chuches, there is a real need for multiple settings of these canticles. Nearly every composer in the 19th and 20th century Anglican choral tradition composed one or more settings of the “Mag and Nunc.” At its extreme, this led such composers as Ireland’s Charles Villiers Stanford to write a Magnificat in every major key, or Herbert Howells to publish 20 settings of these canticles during his career.

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat is probably his most immediately appealing work. But in this Magnificat, which was first performed in Berlin in 1989, he ignores the classical settings for Magnificat from previous centuries. Instead, he gives us a Magnificat with a strong spiritual aura that is intensely serene as we listen.

This is the fifth of five reflections on the Harrowing of Hell delivered on Easter Saturday, 22 March 2008, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

The Harrowing of Hell: Reflection 4

Mantegna: The Harrowing of Hell

Patrick Comerford

Musical reflection 4: Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) is best known for his dramatic operas, including Rigoletto, La Traviata, Nabucco, Aida and Don Carlo. Barbara and I had a memorable evening last summer, sitting on the steps of the Arena in Verona for a breath-taking performance of Verdi’s Aida. It is impossible for us to imagine how central to Italian cultural identity this great composer is … at every interval, the applause was punctuated by enthusiastic cries of “Viva Verdi!” and these, in turn, drew their own applause.<

When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi proposed collaborating with a dozen other Italian composers in writing a Requiem for Rossini, and for this he wrote his Libera me. However, the premiere planned for Rossini’s first anniversary in 1869 was cancelled and the complete Requiem for Rossini only had its premiere in Stuttgart as recently as 1988.

But Verdi knew he had something worth working with in his Libera me. When the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni died in May 1873, Verdi decided to write a full Requiem for Manzoni and set to work on it in Paris that June. With a revised version of his Libera me, Verdi’s new Requiem was performed on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death on 22 May 1874 n the Church of San Marco in Milan.

Despite Verdi’s supposed agnosticism, his Requiem is unmistakably and movingly religious. Throughout the Requiem, he uses vigorous rhythms, sublime melodies, and dramatic contrasts – as he did in his operas – to express the powerful emotions in his text. The terrifying, and instantly recognisable, Dies Irae, which introduces the traditional sequence of the Latin funeral Mass, is repeated throughout the Requiem, allowing Verdi to explore feelings of loss and sorrow as well as the human desire for forgiveness and mercy throughout the Requiem.

The last two verses of the traditional version of the Dies Irae are:

Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!

Lord, all pitying, Jesus blest,
grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.

Verdi ends his Requiem returning to his original working of Libera me, which he introduces to interrupt the Dies Irae as the soprano cries out: “Free me, Lord, from eternal death ... when you will come to judge the world by fire.”

This is the fourth of five reflections on the Harrowing of Hell delivered on Easter Saturday, 22 March 2008, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

The Harrowing of Hell: Reflection 3

Patrick Comerford

Reflection 3: Rossini’s Stabat Mater:

The Stabat Mater is a 13th century hymn written by a Franciscan friar, Jacopone da Todi or Jacobus de Benedictis (1230-1306). The title comes from the opening line, Stabat mater dolorosa, “The sorrowful mother was standing.” The hymn, one of the most powerful mediaeval poems we still have, recalls the sufferings of Mary as she stands by the Cross during her son’s crucifixion (The picture to the right is El Greco’s Pieta).

This hymn has been set to music by many composers, including Palestrina, Haydn, Dvořák, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Gounod, the Scarlattis, Schubert, Arvo Pärt, Verdi, Kodály, Ireland’s own Charles Villiers Stanford, and most recently Karl Jenkins. But the best known setting is by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868).

Rossini’s Stabat Mater has an interesting history. In 1829 at the age of 37, suddenly, and without apparent reason, Rossini severed his connection with the stage. The rest of his life was spent without any musical activity save for the composition of his Stabat Mater and his Messe Solennelle.

During a visit to Spain in 1832, Rossini was persuaded by a wealthy banker to write a Stabat Mater for a Spanish prelate, the Abbé Valera (Don Francisco Fernandez Valera). Rossini accepted the commission on condition that the work was not to be made public.

Rossini worked on the Stabat Mater at his home in Bologna, finishing it with some help despite illness. The work was sent to Spain, and the composer was paid with a snuff-box valued at 5,000 francs. When the Abbé Valera died nine years later, Rossini was told the abbé’s heirs had sold his work for 2,000 francs. Rossini went to court to recover the copyright, saying he had dedicated the work to the abbé but had reserved the rights to publication.

The case caused a sensation in Paris, where the fame of Rossini’s William Tell was growing steadily and he was becoming increasingly popular despite his withdrawal from the stage. A private performance for about 50 people was arranged on 3 October 1841. By the next day, it is said, all Paris had come to know that Rossini had created a new masterpiece.

Rossini won his case, reworked parts of the Stabat Mater that were not his own, strengthened the orchestral parts, and then sold the performing rights for 28,000 francs. At its first public performance in Paris, Rossini’s new Stabat Mater was received with enthusiasm and rapture. Rossini’s name was shouted in the applause, and there were demands for repeat performances of many pieces.

However, the Stabat Mater was not to the liking of many critics, who asked whether the music was appropriate to the text. Do its brilliant loveliness and sensuousness detract from its reverent and religious themes? But the poet Heine pointed out that the same could be asked about painters and their religious subjects: “The true character of Christian art does not reside in thinness and paleness of the body, but is a certain effervescence of the soul, which neither the musician nor the painter can appropriate to himself either by baptism or by study.”

After hearing the Stabat Mater, Heine said the theatre seemed like “a vestibule of heaven.” He described audiences that were deeply moved by the sombre beauty of the long opening and taken by the beautiful melodies of the movements that follow.

The soprano duet Quis est homo was sung by at Rossini’s funeral in the Church of the Trinity in Paris on 21 November 1868.

In his reworked Stabat Mater, Rossini lost neither his creativity nor his individuality. One of the most wonderful parts is the unaccompanied quartet Quando corpus morietur, which comes at the end of the work, concluding with an elaborate double fugue, Amen. In sempiterna saecula. These words come from the final verses of the Stabat Mater, which ends with the prayer:

Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animae donetur
paradisi gloria. Amen

When my body dies,
let my soul be granted
the glory of Paradise. Amen.

That prayer, the prayer we share with the dead visited by Christ on this day at the Harrowing of Hell, is the prayer we share today and the prayer we share with Christians of the past, present and future.

And so this evening we listen to Rossini’s conclusion of the Stabat Mater with his unaccompanied quartet Quando corpus morietur which leads into his elaborate Amen.

This is the third of five reflections on the Harrowing of Hell delivered on Easter Saturday, 22 March 2008, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

The Harrowing of Hell: Reflection 2

Duccio: the Harrowing of Hell

Patrick Comerford

Reflection 2: De Profundis by Arvo Pärt

Psalm 130, traditionally known as the De Profundis, was long associated with funerals and the prayers for the faithful departed. In deep sorrow, the psalmist cries to God (verses 1-2), asking for mercy (verses 3-4). The psalmist’s trust (verses 5-6) becomes a model for the people (7-8).

The depths from which he cries in verse 1 is Sheol, the place of the dead, or a metaphor for total misery; the depths of the sea are an image of the realm of death. In verse 3, the use of the phrase “our sins” is a shift from the singular/personal to the plural/communal, which occurs again in the final two verses. In verse 4, the experience of God’s mercy leads to a greater sense of God.

A long letter by Oscar Wilde while he was in prison bears the title De Profundis, as do poems by Baudelaire, Christina Rossetti, C.S Lewis, Dorothy Parker and the Spanish poet Federice García Lorca. The De Profundis has been set to music by many composers, including Handel, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Purcell, Schoenberg, Bach (as part of the Cantata BWV 131), Gabrieli and John Rutter as part of his Requiem.

Our second piece of music this evening is Arvo Pärt’s De Profundis, a very rich and rewarding composition, with its inter-action between the flickering organ, the tenor and bass voices, the quiet bass drum strokes and the chimes of a singular tubular bell.

Arvo Pärt, who was born 1935, is an Estonian composer who has become very popular in his own lifetime. Pärt’s musical education began at the age of seven. By his early teens, he was writing his own compositions. His early influences included Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bartók and Schoenberg. When his early works were banned under Soviet rule, Pärt started to study 14th-16th century choral music. Later, he immersed himself in early music, looking at the roots of western music and studying plainsong, Gregorian chant, and polyphony. During this period, his new compositions included Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa.

In 1980, he was forced to leave Estonia with his wife and their two sons. They first lived in Vienna, where he finished his De Profundis and became an Austrian citizen. They then moved to Berlin, where he still lives. Pärt’s music came to attention in the West through the efforts of Manfred Eicher, who started to record several of Pärt’s compositions in 1984.

Pärt’s later works include settings for sacred texts, drawing inspiration from Saint John’s Passion, the Te Deum, and the Litany. His choral works from this period include his Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

This year, he was honoured as the featured composer of the RTÉ Living Music Festival in Dublin. The Louth Contemporary Music Society commissioned him to write a new choral setting for Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, called The Deer’s Cry, which had its debut in Drogheda and Dundalk in February.

He has reached a more popular audience through scores for over 50 movies, including Promised Land and part of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

Pärt describes his music as tintinnabuli – like the ringing of bells. The music is characterised by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triad chords. He says his music is like light going through a prism: the music may have a slightly different meaning for each listener, and so it creates a spectrum of musical experience, similar to the rainbow of light.

It is said “his music fulfils a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.” But there is a warning: with Pärt, you have to be patient. At first, his work sounds very austere, almost as if it has a respect for silence. Yet it is music that lingers in the memory for a long time. It has been summed up as “mystical minimalism,” or “spiritual minimalism.”

This evening, we listen to his De Profundis, which was first sketched in 1977, but only completed three years later in 1980 after Pärt moved to Vienna.

This is the second of five reflections on the Harrowing of Hell delivered on Easter Saturday, 22 March 2008, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

The Harrowing of Hell: Reflection 1

The Harrowing of Hell, from the Church of the Saviour, Chora, Istanbul

Patrick Comerford

Reflection 1: two Byzantine Hymns by George Koros, Ton nymphona sou vlepo (I see thy resting place) and I Zoi en Tapho (Life in the Holy Sepulchre), from Byzantinoi Imnoi (Byzantine Hymns):

George Koros is one of the finest Greek solo violinsts of our time. Born on the island of Evia in 1925, he started playing the violin at the age of eight, when his father – who was a church cantor and a teacher of Byzantine music – decided to replace the mandolin with a violin and a bow without strings. His professional career began a year later, when he began playing at weddings and feasts with his father.

His mother spurned the opportunity for him to have a classical musical education. But George Koros later revolutionised Greek folk music through the introduction of the fiddle as an accepted instrument. He became an acclaimed, self-made musician, who has composed about 2,000 songs. But despite his reputation in Greek folk music, for me he is stands out for his Byzantine hymns. In these hymns, he returns to his roots in Byzantine music and with his violin he recreates the tradition of the early hymns he learned from his father in church as a boy.

In our first two hymns this evening, George Koros uses his violin to plaintively recall the sorrow of the tomb: I see thy resting place and Life in the Holy Sepulchre.

In the Western tradition of the Church, at this time of the year, we have traditionally contemplated the cross, and then the empty tomb. As John Waters pointed out in The Irish Times yesterday, the deep joys of the Resurrection have often been overshadowed in the Western Church by the way of the Cross, as though the Cross leads only to death. We have neglected Christ’s resting place, his tomb, and given little thought to what was happening in the Holy Sepulchre on this day.

This day, Holy and Great Saturday, is observed solemnly in the Orthodox Church, with hymns and readings that truly explore the theme of the Harrowing of Hell in depth. For this is the day on which Christ’s body lay in the tomb, this is the day on which he visited those who were dead.

The icon of the Harrowing of Hell reminds us that God reaches into the deepest depths to pull forth souls into the kingdom of light. It reminds us how much we are unable to comprehend – let alone take to heart as our own – our creedal statement about Christ’s descent into Hell – “He descended into Hell.”

Christ’s descent into Hell is captured in Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, which is part of one of the appointed readings for tomorrow week. In one of our readings this evening (I Peter 3:15b- 4:8), we are told that when Christ died he went and preached to the spirits in prison “who in former times did not obey … For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that … they might live in the spirit as God does.”

[In the NRSV, I Peter 4: 6 reads the gospel was “proclaimed even to the dead …” reflecting original Greek: “εἰς τοῦτο γὰρ καὶ νεκροῖς εὐηγγελίσθη …” The New International Version, however, says the Gospel “was preached even to those who are now dead …” But the word “now” is not in the Greek text. It was inserted to rule out the idea that Christ preached to those who were dead when they were preached to, and instead it says that he brought his good news to people who were dead at the time I Peter was written. If you remove the word “now,” the English becomes ambiguous on that point, just like the Greek is ambiguous there.]

The Early Church taught that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall.

The Harrowing of Hell is intimately bound up with the Resurrection, the Raising from the Dead, for as Christ is raised from the dead he also plummets the depths to bring up, to raise up, those who are dead. The Harrowing of Hell carries us into the gap in time between Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Orthodox icons of the Harrowing of Hell, Christ stands on the shattered doors of hell. Sometimes, two angels are shown in the pit binding Satan. And we see Christ pulling out of hell Adam and Eve, imprisoned there since their deaths, imprisoned along with all humanity because of sin. Jesus breaks down the doors of hell and leads the souls of the lost into heaven.

It is the most radical reversal we can imagine. Death does not have the last word, we need not live our lives entombed in fear. If Adam and Eve are forgiven, and the Sin of Adam is annulled and destroyed, who is beyond forgiveness?

In discussing the “Descent into Hell,” Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that if Jesus’ mission did not result in the successful application of God’s love to every intended soul, how then can we think of it as a success. He emphasises Christ’s descent into the fullness of death, so as to be “Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 5).

However, in her recent book, Light in Darkness, Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, says that Christ did not descend into the lowest depths of hell, and only stayed in the top levels. She finds untenable his view that Christ’s descent into hell entails experiencing the fullness of alienation, sin and death, which he then absorbs, transfigures, and defeats through the Resurrection. Instead, she claims, Christ descends only to the “limbo of the Fathers” in which the righteous, justified dead of the Old Testament awaited the coming of the Messiah.

Her argument robs the Harrowing of Hell of its soteriological significance. For her, Christ does not descend into hell and experience the depths of alienation between God and humanity opened up by sin. She leaves Christ visiting an already-redeemed and justified collection of Old Testament saints to let them know that he has defeated death.

However, Archbishop Rowan Williams has written beautifully in The Indwelling of Light on the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is the new Adam who rescues humanity from its past, and who starts history anew. “The resurrection … is an introduction – to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbours, to our physical world.” He says: “Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal began … (This) icon declares that wherever that lost moment was or is – Christ (is) there to implant the possibility … of another future.” [Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, p. 38.]

I ask myself: what’s the difference between the top levels and bottom levels of hell? Is my hell in my heart of my own creation? In my mind, in my home, where I live and work, in my society, in this world? Is hell the nightmares from the past I cannot shake off, or the fears for the future when it looks gloomy and desolate for the planet? But is anything too hard for Lord?

On this day, the icon of the Harrowing of Hell tells us that there are no limits to God’s ability to search us out and to know us. Where are the depths of your heart and your soul – where darkness prevails, and where you feel even Christ can find no welcome? Those crevices even you are afraid to think about let alone contemplate, may be beyond your reach. You cannot produce or manufacture your own salvation from that deep, interior hell, hidden from others, and often hidden from yourself.

Christ breaks down the gates of Hell, and as the icon powerfully shows, he rips all of sinful humanity from the clutches of death. He descends into the depths of our sin and alienation from God; and by plumbing the depths of hell he suffuses all that is lost and sinful with the radiance of divine goodness, joy and light. If hell is where God is not, and Jesus is God, then his decent into hell pushes back hell’s boundaries. In his descent into hell, Christ reclaims this zone for life, pushing back the gates of death, where God is not, to the farthest limits possible.

Our readings and our music this evening remind us that Christ plummets even those deepest depths, and that his love and mercy can raise us again to new life. This evening, as we remember Christ lying in the grave, we can ask him to take away all that denies life in us, whether it is a hell of our own making, a hell that has been forced on us, or a hell that surrounds us. Christ reaches down, and lifts us up with him in his Risen Glory.

This is the first of five reflections on the Harrowing of Hell delivered on Easter Saturday, 22 March 2008, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Friday, 21 March 2008

The triumph of Good Friday

Patrick Comerford

Two newspapers – The Irish Times and the Church of Ireland Gazette – carry leaders today that reflect appropriate themes for Good Friday and the Easter weekend.

The leader in The Irish Times is headed “The Triumph of Easter” and says:

“Good Friday has been free to date of the tendency to commercialise and secularise every religious holiday. So far, there are no noticeable efforts by card makers to cash in on it, nor have the windows of the best department stores been decorated with Good Friday themes. For the theme of Good Friday is stark and challenging: it asks questions to which there are no easy, slick, commercial, profitable answers.

“The mainstream churches share a lengthy but common reading today from Saint John’s Gospel (John 18:1 – 19:42). It is a desolate story of isolation, betrayal, false accusation, miscarriage of justice, denial, abdication of responsibility, rejection of ambition, questioning of values, torture, vilification, crass power play, humiliation, dehumanisation, abandonment and – ultimately – cruel death. And yet it is a story in which gentle tenderness and compassionate love continually break through the walls of hatred and in which light persistently pierces through the dark. It is a story for today for it is the story of our world.

“On this day, Christ is taken to be executed outside the city walls. On this evening, he is buried hastily outside the city walls. In his dying and in his death, he is placed forcibly outside the city limits, outside the realm of civil society. Who are placed outside the limits of our society today? Pushed to the margins and outside the boundaries to places for which we no longer feel responsibility, where we are no longer called to have compassion or challenged to show love?

“The sad stories where love and compassion fail to break through are told throughout our cities this day. There are the experiences of Polish workers, for instance, who are isolated and marginalised, those whose only social life is with one another, who are the victims of racist taunts and – as recent events have demonstrated – appalling violence. Despite popular myths, figures show that immigrants are more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators; a disproportionate number of immigrant children end up in hospitals; and too many immigrants are over-qualified for the jobs they do here.

“Those who are pushed beyond the walls of our cities to the margins of civic life must find it easy to identify with the Christ who is crucified on a hill outside the city, with the Christ who is buried on the margins and the edges, beyond polite society. But today’s reading from Saint John’s Gospel is not the end of the story. The end is not rejection, injustice and eternal marginalisation. Rather, the climax of the story is in the triumph of the Resurrection on Easter Day when night becomes morning, when darkness turns to light, when despair is redeemed by hope and when hatred is conquered by love.

“That Easter message is not easy to package and commercialise. But it challenges us all to look again at how we value the new lives and the new life among us, to ask how we can welcome in from the margins those who should to be accepted and embraced within our civic, political and polite society.”

An Early Easter

In its editorial today headed “An Early Easter” the Church of Ireland Gazette says:

“Easter has arrived early this year. As we noted last week (Gazette, 14th March, Editorial, p.2), Easter is so early that the Church calendar for Holy Week demanded a change to the day on which we celebrated St Patrick. No other festival, mo other commemoration, can be as important as Easter in the life of the Church. However, the fact that most people in Ireland – and at least one cathedral in the Church of Ireland – continued to allow St Patrick to displace the solemn commemorations of Holy Week shows how difficult it is for the Church to communicate its core beliefs and the Good News of Easter in an increasingly secular and secularised society.

“The very name Easter has questionable origins, traced by some authorities to the names of long-forgotten Germanic or Greek goddesses. But in all the Romance and Celtic languages, the name for Easter is derived from Pascha and Pesach, the Passover, the great celebration of liberation and deliverance, while in almost all Slavic languages the name for Easter translates as ‘Great Day’ or Great Night’.

“Easter is truly our Great Night and our Great Day, and, as Christians, we should be able to celebrate our greatest festival in unity. But our linguistic differences are less of a division than the great divide which still exists between east and West when it comes to calculating the date for Easter. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Easter comes much later this year, with Easter Day falling on Sunday 27th April, five full weeks after Easter in the West. We celebrated Easter on the same day last year, but this coincidence will not recur until 2010.

“In 1997, the World Council of Churches proposed reforming the way we calculate Easter, sidestepping the differences in the eastern and Western calendars by using direct astronomical observations of the moon. The reforms were to come into place in 2001, but were never adopted by any member-Church. Other proposals included observing Easter on the second Sunday in April, or always having seven Sundays between the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, but all failed to attract significant support. Legislation in the United Kingdom 80 years ago proposed setting Easter on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. These proposals were never implemented either, although the legislation remains on the statute books and could be implemented if the Churches agree.

“If we are going to reassert that Easter is the greatest festival in the life of the Church, then we need to renew our efforts to ensure all Christians celebrate Easter on the same day.”

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Faithful stewards of the Mysteries of God

Patrick Comerford

Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to the end of the Easter Eve on the Saturday, is the most solemn, precious and sacred week in the calendar of the Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this week is known as Great and Holy Week. On this week, we mark the last week in the earthly life of Christ before his Crucifixion on Good Friday, his burial, and his Resurrection on Easter Day.

The Early Church gave greatest prominence during the “Great Week” to Good Friday and then to the Sabbatum Magnum or Great Sabbath on Holy Saturday or Easter Eve. The earliest references to marking this week are found in the Apostolical Constitutions, when Christians abstained from wine and meat, observing absolute fasts on the Friday and Saturday.

During Great and Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Orthros or Matins services for each day are held on the preceding evening. Thus, the Matins service of Great Monday is sung on Palm Sunday evening, and so on, allowing many more people to take part. Fasting during Great and Holy Week is very strict, with dairy products, meat and meat products strictly forbidden, no-one drinks wine, and no oil is used in the cooking. Friday and Saturday are strict fast days, and nothing should be eaten on those days.

The services on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings are often called the “Bridegroom Prayers,” with their theme of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, a theme movingly expressed in the troparion solemnly chanted each evening. As Tuesday evening draws to a close, the lengthy but sorrowful and deeply-moving Hymn of Kassiani is sung, recounting the story of the woman who washed Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7: 36-50).

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated, without the anaphora or concecration, so that commuicants receive the Eucharist from the reserved Holy Mysteries. Many churches in Greece also have a service of Anointing on the Wednesday evening.

The Divine Liturgy of the Last Supper is celebraterd on the morning of Great and Holy Thursday. The Matins of Great and Holy Friday, with 12 Gospel readings, takes place on the evening of Great and Holy Thursday.

The Vespers of Holy Friday are sung on the Friday morning or afternoon, when the figure of Christ is taken from the Cross, and the eipitaphios, a richly-embroidered icon of cloth, is laid on the bier in the church and strewn with flowers. On Friday evening, rose petals and rose water are scattered and sprinkled over the epitaphios and the bier, which are then carried in a candlelit procession through the parish as the hymns of Lamentation are sung.

On Saturday night, the service begins in complete darkness with the chanting of the Midnight Office. While the church is still in darkness until the stroke of midnight. Then, the priest lights a single candle from the eternal flame behind the iconostasis or icon screen, and as he comes out from through the royal doors, the light spreads rapidly from one to another until everyone in the church holds a lighting candle and the whole church is filled with light. The priest and choir then lead the congregation in a procession out of the church, brnging the light of Christ out into the darkness of the world. The procession moves around the church, recalling the women who came with myrrh to the tomb on the first Easter morning. As the procession returns to the church, the closed doors are opened once again, symbolising the stobe being rolled away from the tomb of Christ on the first Easter.

The Chrism Eucharist

Traditionally, the Western Church has celebrated the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, although it is often brought forward to one of the earlier days in the week so as many as possible of the priests and deacons in a diocese can join their bishop in renewing their ordination vows and for the blessing of oils for the anointing of the sick.

In the Western Church, we have often observed the Saturday of this as a day of silence and prayer which remembers the Christ lying dead in the tomb. No Eucharist is celebrated, and the sanctuary or chancel is left bare and unlit.

But in the West we have often neglected the significance of this day. When we use this as a day of preparing and decorating the church with flowers and Easter bunnies and chocalate eggs so that everything is in place for the children’s services on Sunday morning, we miss the great catechetical opportunity to teach about the significance of that day in the tomb, and the meaning of what the Orthodox know as the Harrowing of Hell.

Holy Week this year

Holy Week, or Great and Holy Week, began on Sunday, or Palm Sunday. On Sunday afternoon, I was in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Sandymount, where I read the Gospel and the Eulogy at a Memorial Eucharist for my friend and colleague, the Revd Dr Robin Wakeley, who died a year ago. Robin and I had been at the same selection conference nine years ago, and his tragic death last year robbed the Church of Ireland of a deeply spiritual priest.

On Monday evening, I led Compline in Whitechurch Parish Church in Rathfarnham, where Philip McKinley, the “Hard Gospel” Project Officer in the Republic of Ireland, spoke on the theme of “Sacrifice.”

On Tuesday at noon, I was in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, where Archbishop John Neill presided and preached at the Chrism Eucharist. During the Eucharist, 12 lay ministry candidates were commissioned as parish readers, and a further three were re-commissioned.

Most of the priests of the diocese, the two deacons, and many readers and ordinands were also present. The priests among us were reminded by the Archbishop that at our ordination we had taken “authority to watch and care for God’s people, to absolve and bless them in his name, to proclaim the Gospel of Salvation, and to minister the sacraments of his new Covenant.” And he asked us: “Will you continue as faithful stewards of the mysteries of God, preaching the Gospel of Christ, and ministering his holy sacraments?”

“By the help of God, I will.”

On Tuesday evening, we were with the parishioners of Whitechurch in the Chapel of the Augustinian House in Orlagh, at the top of the Ballycullen Road. This retreat house overlooks a large number of new houses in the sprawling suburbs of south Dublin, and out across the lit-up city and Dublin Bay.

The Service of the Word was led by the Revd Obinna Ulogwara, and Philip McKinley spoke once again, this time on “Confidence.”

Tomorrow evening, I hope to celebrate the Maundy Thursday Eucharist at 8 p.m. in Whitechurch Parish Church, when Philip will talk about “Receiving.” And I hope to lead the Good Friday evening service there at 8 p.m., when Philip will speak on the topic of “Arrest.”

For many years, I have argued that Holy or Great Saturday should not be marked in Whitechurch by taking our btime up with preparing and decorating the church for Sunday morning. I want us to remind ourselves about the significance of that day in the tomb, and the meaning of the Harrowing of Hell. Over the past few years, I have led an hour of meditation, readings and music on the theme of “Waiting at the Tomb.”

Once again, we will recall and rejoice in the Harrowing of Hell on Saturday at 5 p.m., with appropriate readings, meditations, drawing on music from the Orthodox tradition, and listening to other apporpriate music, including selections from Arvo Part and Verdi.

And then on Sunday we can celebrate Easter Day, the Day of Resurrection, with new hope and new joy.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Plight of Iraq’s Christians being ignored

Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho’s photograph is carried at his funeral in Iraq on Friday

I was worried five years ago, as the war in Iraq was about to begin, and we all saw images of President Bush speaking in a Church, with a bright, fluorescent cross behind him. And I was disgusted as he glibly used that dreaded word Crusade.

For ordinary decent Christians across the world, this war could never be a Crusade. We could never think it a Christian virtue to take up arms to attack our Muslim brothers and sisters, or to take up arms to advance the ideology of a government that consistently fails to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to set the prisoner free.

The Bush government consistently turns its back on those clear Christian duties when it starves the hungry children of Iraq, when it fails to provide adequate health care, even for war veterans, and instead of setting prisoners free subjects them to cruel torture – indeed, vetoes every effort by Congress to limit the kinds of torture it can use.

And Amnesty International has shown this week how unashamedly complicit in this Ireland has been.

If President Bush wanted to con Christians into thinking this was going to be a war on behalf of Christians, let me remind you today of the consequences for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East.

On Thursday last, the Catholic Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was found dead in a shallow grave in that northern Iraq city. At the end of February, this gentle 65-year-old prelate was abducted while he prayed the Lenten Stations of the Cross in his church, praying in Aramaic, the language of Jesus himself.

There could be no starker statement that the war over the past five years has not been a war to create democracy and to introduce pluralism. Instead, the west’s war in Iraq has created a ruthlessly intolerant Iraq where Christians and other minorities are targeted for their faith.

As Cardinal Delly, the Patriarch of Babylon, wept at yesterday’s funeral for his martyred friend, he wept at the bitter fate of Iraq’s ancient Christian Church, one of the oldest faith communities in Iraq.

Many other Iraqi Christians have been terrorised and murdered over the last four years: Father Paulos Iskander was beheaded, Father Mundhir al-Dayr assassinated in his Protestant church, Father Ragheed Ganni and three deacons gunned down and their car booby trapped as they went about their pastoral work.

The list includes many lay people; even Christian children have turned up dead after being tortured.

In the past five years, from southern Basra to northern Kirkuk, all across Iraq, the Christian community has suffered brutally. Forty churches have been bombed, mostly in Baghdad and Mosul. In the once religiously integrated neighbourhood of Dora in Baghdad, 2,000 Christian families have been told to leave or to face death.

If the Americans tell us they have brought law and order to Iraq, let us expose their lies. Criminal gangs have found easy prey in the religious minorities, who have been left defenceless.

Most of Iraq’s Christians have been driven out – whether they are Chaldean Catholic, Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox or Protestant.

Iraq has been home for many centuries for Christians and Mandeans (or Sabeans), the descendants of the followers of John the Baptist. But in the past five years, under the very eyes of Western troops, they are being victimised and obliterated.

Although Christians only account for 4 per cent of the population of Iraq, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says 40 per cent of Iraqi refugees are Christians. They seek temporary refuge in neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Turkey.

When they arrive in Britain and Ireland, they’re told Iraq is a democracy, Iraq is a safe country, Iraq has been made safe by the US and Britain – and they’re told to go home. Go home to what – to victimisation, to kidnap, to murder, and to eventual annihilation?

A Crusade has been turned into genocide. And yet George Bush continues to claim he is a Christian.

Apart from Christians, remnants of Iraq’s other non-Muslim communities are all rapidly shrinking into extinction: Jews number in the double digits (there were only seven in Baghdad at the last count); Mandeans count about 5,000, and have been advised by their leaders to leave; Yizidis now number less than 500,000. They all suffer severe persecution because of their religious status and their numbers continually shrink as their members flee into exile.

Archbishop Rahho was a dynamic leader, who inspired the youth of his diocese, cared for the sick, spoke out for peace. Canon Andrew White, who represents the Archbishop of Canterbury in Iraq, said this week: “We are devastated.”

Condolences have poured in from around the world, from Christians and Muslims, from people of all faiths, and people of none.

But the Bush administration has yet to acknowledge that the Christians and other minorities are being persecuted in Iraq. That would destroy the image of the Bush Administration, and deny any credibility for remaining there as an occupying force.

The Bush administration has no policies to address the needs of these people in Iraq and has no desire to help them find refuge abroad. Their villages are without police, without security, without stability. They live in fear. No senior administration official in Washington has ever even met their exiled leaders in America to hear their views, or to offer them hope.

The archbishop knew the risks of staying in Iraq. But he told his people that he “wanted to remain in Iraq until the end.” Because of the West’s war in Iraq for the past five years, that end may well be near.

Canon Patrick Comerford was speaking as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at the protest march in Dublin on 15 March 2008 organised by the Irish Anti-War Movement to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq war.

Celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day

An icon of Saint Patrick from the exhibition of Greek icons currently running at the Gordon Gallery in Derry

Patrick Comerford

My Greek friends are great at celebrating their name days. But, should I be celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day today (Saturday), or on Monday? Or are you confused by the changes in Church calendar, which appear to have been ignored by the organisers of parades, and the fleet of cabinet ministers dispatched across the globe?

In an editorial on the conflicts between Saint Patrick’s Day and Holy Week, the Church of Ireland Gazette says this weekend:

“There is confusion throughout the length and breadth of the island this weekend as people mark the first holiday weekend of the year, but wonder when they should be celebrating St Patrick’s Day.

“Because 17th March this year falls on the Monday in Holy Week, the bishops of both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church agreed that religious celebrations for St Patrick’s Day would take place two days earlier, with the saint being honoured instead on Saturday 15th March.

“Liturgists point out that the days of Holy Week and Easter Week rank above all others, and liturgical norms require a feast day in those two weeks to be moved to the earliest available date after Easter. This year, that available date is 1st April, because the Annunciation is being moved to 31st March. And so, 15th March became a better option for St Patrick’s Day, with many hoping any conflict with secular and civic events could be minimised.

“However, there are no sensitivities in secular civic society when it comes to the significance of Holy Week. St Patrick’s Day parades are going ahead in many cities, towns and villages on Monday, which remains an official holiday – although the London parade takes place on Sunday, and in many cities in the United States, including Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, St Louis and Seattle, they’ve managed to get it right, moving their parades to Saturday. Even in Savannah – where they have the largest attendance in the world at a St Patrick’s Day parade – religious sensitivities inspired all involved to move the parade to Friday 14th March.

“This is the first time since 1913 that St Patrick’s Day falls in Holy Week, and the first time it has been moved in the Church calendar since 1940 – when 17th March was Palm Sunday and St Patrick’s Day was marked on 3rd April. This coincidence will not happen again for another 152 years, when St Patrick’s Day will fall in Holy Week once again in 2160.

“Writing in the Word magazine, Prof. Vincent Twomey of Maynooth said that ‘it is time to reclaim St Patrick’s Day as a church festival.’ He questioned the need for ‘mindless, alcohol-fuelled revelry,’ and argued that ‘it is time to bring the piety and the fun together.’ Admittedly, this year’s change in the Church calendar does not provide this opportunity. But perhaps it does provide a timely reminder for Christians in Ireland today that the central truths of the faith St Patrick brought to this island – the life, passion, death and Resurrection of Christ – are more important than any commemoration – secular, civic or religious – of the saint’s life.”

And to that I say: “Amen” and “Hear, hear.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College

Friday, 14 March 2008

The spirituality of icons

Patrick Comerford

Several Greek dignitaries were in Derry on Wednesday night (12 March) for the opening of a stunning exhibition of Greek icons at the Gordon Gallery at 13a Pump Street.

The exhibition, which is so appropriate at this time as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, was opened by Dr Victoria Solomonidis, Minister Counsellor (Cultural Affairs) at the Embassy of Greece in London, who is also the representative of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.

(The icon above is the Crucifixion, written by Tilemachos Tsoumbris.)

Opening the exhibition, Dr Solomonidis said she was delighted this exhibition was being displayed in the city. “Some 1400 years ago, St Columba said, ‘the angels of God sang in the glades of Derry and every leaf held its angel.’ He would be pleased to see such a congregation of saints and angels from Greece giving witness to the glory of God in the heart of today’s Derry.”

The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Hellenic Foundation for Culture. Richard Gordon of the Gordon Gallery said: “This is a very unique exhibition of icons within the Byzantine tradition and the only exhibition of this size to ever come to Ireland.” In 1993, Gordon Galleries hosted an exhibition of icons by Sister Aloysius McVeigh from Derry, founder member of the Iconographers’ Association of Ireland.

The most striking icons are written by Dimitris Kolioussis from Oia, on the island of Santorini. This is his first exhibition outside Greece for 20 years. According to Richard Gordon of the Gordon Gallery, Dimitris “uses old wooden doors and reclaimed wood as the basis for his work. Dimitris has a great understanding of the timber and because he does use old reclaimed doors, some of which are hundreds of years old, you can often still see the various graffiti etched into the wood underneath the actual painting.”

Richard Gordon continued: “There is something very special about icons. They have a certain power, something within them that seems to hold our attention. Perhaps it is their pure colours and the fact that every colour means something, everything in an icon is symbolic.”

I was delighted to be asked to contribute my ideas on “The Spirituality of Icons” to the richly-illustrated catalogue for this exhibition. Other contributors to this catalogue include: Sister Aloysius McVeigh; Maria Sigala-Spanopoulos, President of the Panhellenic Society of Iconographers; and Dr Margaret Mullett and Dr Lyn Rodley of the Institute of Byzantine Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Christ Enthroned, an icon in the exhibition by Panagiota Boutsikaki

In the catalogue, I write:

The Spirituality of Icons

For many people on these islands, their first impression of icons may come during a Mediterranean holiday when they stumble by accident into an Orthodox church in Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Egypt or parts of Italy, and are blinded by the beauty of the church interior, filled with frescoes and icons. But in recent years, Western spirituality has become more inquisitive about the place of icons in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Orthodoxy has had a remarkable influence, not just on aesthetic considerations, but on theological journeys in the west too. Our understanding of the Trinity, for example, has grown by the way in which many influential, contemporary theologians have come to a fresh way of talking about the Trinity because of insights received through Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham.

But we are often in danger of seeing icons as mere decorative additions to churches, or as paintings in a style that is curious and engaging. For the Orthodox, on the other hand, icons are never decorative, nor are they ever seen as paintings. For them, the whole edifice of a church building is one great icon of the Kingdom of God. The frescoes, the icons and the icon screen (iconostasis) separating the congregation in main body of the church from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are there not to make a church more pretty or beautiful, but are central to worship, liturgy and praying.

Tradition says Pilate made an image of Christ and that the first icon was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist, the first Christian icons may have been produced in the 4th century, and the earliest surviving icons, found in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, date from the 6th or 7th century.

Although in some of the Western tradition of the Church icons are seen as foreign or exotic, the dispute over the doctrinal orthodoxy of icons and their place in the life of the Church was settled at the Ecumenical Councils in Nicaea in 787 and Constantinople in 843, so that icons are part of the heritage of the undivided church, before the Great Schism of 1054.

The word “icon” comes from the Greek word (eikon, εἰκών) which simply means a depiction or pictorial representation. However, the theological foundation for the use of icons rests in Scripture: the New Testament describes Christ as the eikon, namely the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3). If Christ makes the invisible God visible, then visual theology is as much a requirement for the Church as is verbal theology. And so the Orthodox say that an icon is written rather than painted, and speak of icon writers rather than icon painters. Icons as they are used in Orthodox liturgy and prayer life are no more worshipped than the pages, ink and typeface of a prayer book are worshipped in prayer. The Orthodox believer prays through but not to an icon, and the reverence given to an icon is not worship but the reverence that given to the sacred person depicted or represented in the icon.

Icons are embedded with a symbolism that conveys far more meaning than simply the identity of the person represented, and that symbolism and style is handed on from generation to generation. The personal, idiosyncratic and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely lacking in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian icon writing was strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe. Greek icon writing also began to take on a strong romantic western influence for a period and the difference between some Orthodox icons and western religious art began to vanish. On the other hand, the Orthodox tradition of iconography from Mount Sinai and Crete had a strong influence on Western art after Michael Damaskinos and his pupil El Greco moved from Crete to Italy in the 16th century.

Icons are designed to capture the spiritual aspects of Christ and the Saints, not just the material human form. Large icons can be found adorning the walls of churches and icon-style frescoes usually cover the inside walls completely. They begin with more worldly scenes at ground level, and work their way up through the Gospel stories and the stories of salvation, so that as we are distracted by worldly thoughts during the liturgy, we are called back to the purpose of worship, until our eyes are drawn ever upwards, so that at the height of dome we see the evangelists and angels surrounding the highest and holiest of all in the dome, Christ the Pantocrator, the one through whom all things are made.

Orthodox homes have icons on the wall, usually together on an eastern facing wall, not as decorations but to help the family to pray together. Every Orthodox believer will also have an icon of his/her saint after whom they have been named beside their bed or in a private place at home. They are always understood within the context of the liturgy, the teaching and the prayers of the church.

In recent years, Western Christians have been introduced to the spiritual riches of icons through the writings of writers such as John Baggley, Richard Temple and, more recently, Archbishop Rowan Williams. There is a small number of icon writers in Ireland, and increasingly icons are becoming commonplace in many churches on these islands. Yet, despite the resurgent interest in the Orthodox tradition of icons and icon writing, many people today think of an icon only as an image on their computer screens. Hopefully this exhibition organised by Richard Gordon and Gordon Gallery will go some way towards introducing a discerning public to the beauties and spiritual depths of icons and allowing more people to reclaim a tradition that belongs to an undivided Christianity.

The Greek Icon Exhibition continues at the Gordon Gallery until 12 April from Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Further information on the exhibition is at Telephone: (028) 7137 4044. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Guidelines for Interfaith Events and Dialogue

Patrick Comerford

The Committee for Christian Unity and the Bishops of the Church of Ireland recently published a pamphlet, Guidelines for Interfaith Events and Dialogue, which hopefully will be helpful in situations where people of different faiths encounter one another.

We all know Ireland is changing rapidly, and members of the Church of Ireland need to be aware of and informed about our neighbours who are members of other world faiths. A richer diversity of people from a wide range of nations brings the need for respect, trust, generosity of spirit and real welcome. When all concerned are to be true to their faith, true understanding can challenge fear and ignorance.

The lives of all are enriched when interfaith co-operation works. The first requirement in meeting people of other faiths is living our own faith confidently and compassionately. The second requirement is to learn about what they understand by their own faith.

Speaking at the recent launch of the Guidelines for Interfaith Events and Dialogue, the Bishop of Clogher, the Right Revd Dr Michael Jackson, said it is “the first of its kind in the Provinces of the Anglican Communion.” He added: “This booklet also bears the stamp of Canon Comerford and is offered by what was then the Committee for Christian Unity and the Bishops of the Church of Ireland for use and adaptation in local and parochial situations.”

The Guidelines for Interfaith Events & Dialogue is published by Church of Ireland Publishing and was prepared by the Committee for Christian Unity and the Bishops of the Church of Ireland. The Guidelines are now available - on this link - for downloading as a pdf.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Make Cluster Bombs History

At the Pax Christi seminar on cluster munitions (from left): Canon Patrick Comerford; Michael D. Higgins TD, President of the Labour Party and Labour spokesperson on Foreign Affairs; Joe Little of RTÉ; and the President of Pax Christi, Bishop Raymond Field

Patrick Comerford

I was asked this week to chair a seminar organised by Pax Christi, the International Catholic Peace Movement, on the topic: “Towards a Comprehensive Ban on Cluster Bombs.” This morning’s seminar also saw the launch of Pax Christi’s campaign, “Make Cluster Bombs History.”

Originally, I was going to the seminar as an observer on behalf of Archbishop John Neill, so it came as a surprise and an honour when I was then asked to chair the seminar. The Nobel Laureate, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, was billed to speak, but was unable to attend because of a family bereavement. But the other speakers included the President of Pax Christi Ireland, Bishop Raymond Field, Michael D. Higgins, President of the Labour Party and Labour spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, and Joe Little of RTÉ, who spoke on the effects of cluster munitions in Lebanon.

The organisers also screened a short film on an aerial cluster-bomb attack and Richard Downes’s personal encounter with cluster bombs in Iraq.

Cluster bombs fail to distinguish between military targets and civilians. As speaker after speaker pointed out at the seminar, a war in which cluster bombs are used is a war against civilians, and cluster bombs continue to kill and maim civilians many years after they have been used and a conflict has ended.

Pax Christi’s efforts to secure a comprehensive prohibition on cluster bombs this year evolves out of an international conference Pax Christi organised in 2003 in Dublin Castle on “Explosive Remnants of War.”

As a member of the Oslo Process to prohibit cluster munitions, Ireland is hosting and chairing a two-week meeting of negotiations in Croke Park, Dublin, in May 2008. Over 100 countries are expected to take part in the Dublin meeting.

However, the Oslo process is at a critical juncture, with some countries, including Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Netherlands digging their heels in against a complete ban on cluster bombs. According to Tony D’Costa of Pax Christi, “They would like to ban some types, as they are under pressure to do so, but would like to retain others and develop some new types. A similar situation was faced when the landmine treaty was negotiated. At the end, Ireland and Norway saved the day as they were not ready to compromise.”

He says that at the meeting in Dublin in May, “Ireland, as chair of the meeting, will have to be confident and very strong and not allow the draft treaty text to be weakened in any form.”

Two EU member states – Austria and Belgium – have already passed laws banning the production, use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions. Now Pax Christi is calling on the Irish Government without delay:

● to join Belgium and Austria in introducing legislation to give immediate effect to a ban on the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of cluster munitions as a contribution towards securing a complete ban on cluster munitions;
● to prohibit the participation by the Irish Defence Forces in joint military operations involving the use of cluster munitions;
● to take all necessary steps to give effect to a ban on investment of public funds in companies involved in the production of cluster munitions and other weapons systems;
● to take all necessary steps to ban cluster munitions in advance of the May 2008 Dublin meeting on cluster munitions, reflecting earlier Irish leadership in the process leading to the treaty banning landmines;
● to increase funding for clearance, risk education to protect vulnerable populations and the rehabilitation of survivors; and
● to contribute by means of these steps to an outcome of the ongoing negotiation on cluster munitions with a view to achieving their total elimination.

You can support this campaign by writing to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Dermot Ahern, 80 Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, ahead of the May conference.

Pax Christi Ireland is at