Wednesday, 31 December 2008

What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland?

Going back in time: outside No 108 Birmingham Road, Lichfield

Patrick Comerford

Undoubtedly the news this year has been dominated by the global economic crisis, global warming, global conflicts, and by the way global hopes have been raised by the election of Barack Obama.

I am constantly caught off-guard as I wake up so often to the reality that the Bush era is over. The world has become so much a safer place for all of us, I hope. But so many hopes andd expectations have already been laid on Obama’s shoulders, he cannot possibly meet them all; many, undoubtedly, will be disappointed. But then I remember expecting little from Robert Runcie and a lot from George Carey when they became Archbishops of Canterbury, and how I was then delighted that Robert Runcie stood up to Margaret Thatcher and surprised at how disappointing George Carey was.

Taking responsibilty

Thanks to the government, everyone here in Ireland has become a shareholder in the major banks – the Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish Banks and Anglo-Irish Bank. I don’t have any deposits in any one of these banks, so I feel I’ll never get value for my money. My future pension fund is being used to gamble on the future performances of people who have already proved themselves wanting when it comes to managing the national banking system. I’ll never get to vote for their removal, and they are hardly the people to trust with my pension and my future.

Someone recently joked that the only differences between Iceland and Ireland are one letter and six months. If we are not to get to the same plight as Iceland within the next six months, then the banks and the government must accept more responsibility for leading us into the present crisis. But how can they? Already, Bertie Ahern has washed his hands and walked away, as has the chairman of one major bank. How can they take the blame if they are not in office?

It’s much more serious than being sentimental about the passing of Woolworth or other brand names we all remember from our childhoods. The Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, hit the nail on the head when he said: “It is becoming clearer how far we have been mortgaging our children’s tomorrow to fund our today, both financially and in our use of the finite resources of the earth.”

In recent weeks, the Irish Government also appears to have mishandled the problems in the pig-meat industry. The poor handling and over reaction dealt a severe blow to farmers and bacon producers all over the country. But it also threatened disaster for small, family-run businesses such as organic farmers, small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, small-shop butchers and cafés that depend on selling breakfasts.

I respect pigs as intelligent and sensitive animals – one of the nicest rural sights I know in England is a free-range, organic pig farm at Packington, halfway between Lichfield and Tamworth. I have been a vegetarian for almost 40 years. But the way the government mishandled this crisis and over-reacted was almost enough to make me reconsider my principles, because people must always be put before animals.

In recent weeks we’ve also seen the Greek Government fail to accept responsibility for the crisis that has found expression in the riots on the streets of Athens and other Greek cities. My Greek friends are divided as they discuss these riots. But many young people in Greece have lost faith in the future and faith in the political system. This is dangerous for Greek democracy. The Government there must take responsibility, and immediate responses of responsibility would be promises to reform the police and promises to thoroughly reform rather than further privatise the education system.

The Olympic Games in Beijing showed China at its best, and the government response to the earthquakes in China also boosted confidence in China. But human rights there are still a worry in China, and the monks in Tibet, link the monks in Burma, offer an ethical example of people of religion taking responsibility for human rights, freedom of expression and democracy in their own countries.

Moral leadership

I wonder where the moral voice is being heard and moral leadership is being provided with the present humaniotarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Despite Israel’s claim that is only responding to the breakdown in the Hamas ceasefire, the response bears no relationship in its proportion to the violence Israelis have suffered: in Gaza, they havehit innumerable civilian targets, including children in their homes, female students in their dormitories, patients in hospitals, and people whose only crime is to be the neighbours of politicians Israel does not want to listen to and to talk to.

The Palestinian Administration has attempted to steer a moderate course. Israel has already risen to the bait shamefully, proving the point that Hamas wants to make: that violence will be listened to. Barack Obama is silent, and appears to be listening to Condoleza Rice. When will the rest of the world listen to cries of the starving and dying children of Gaza who have been deprived of food and medicine in a cruel siege that has choked them of any hope?

Israel’s action may have less to do with the legitimate desrire security of Israeli citizens for security and more to do with Tzipi Livni’s fright at seeing her Kadima party slipping in opinion polls and wanting to prove that she is as tough, as militant and as hard-hearted as Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud party ahead of general elections next February.

Until the spiralling of violence in the Gaza Strip in the past week, the American presidential election, the global economic crisis and events in China, Burma, India, Darfur, DR Congo and Zimbabwe tended to knock the Middle East off the front pages. The visit of Irish Church leaders, including Cardinal Sean Brady, to the Israel and the Palestinian territories was a boost for people of faith seeking peace and justice in the region. In their Christmas message earlier this month, 13 Patriarchs and heads of Churches in Jerusalem spoke of their being more than the usual “darkness, conflict, and despair in the world around us.”

Church leadership

In the church, the major news for the Anglican Communion was this year’s Lambeth Conference, which obviously failed to prevent a future split in the Anglican Communion. But, as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (TEC), Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, has noticed, while most Episcopalians are concerned with “gathering for weekly worship, saying their prayers, and serving their neighbour, nearby and far away,” news about the Church only makes the front pages “if it’s about but schism or sex – and in the current era, preferably both.”

The agenda at the Gafcon meeting in Jerusalem provided stories about both schism and sex, but how deep the coming split is going to be, or the degree to which it is about sex rather than authority is still to be seen.

I was able to take part in a pre-Lambeth conference organised by Anglicans in World Mission – the new name for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) at Swanwick in Derbyshire. Typically, the media once again focussed on sex and schism, dissecting a paper by Archbishop Alan Harper of Armagh on Hooker and the place of tradition in Anglican theology.

It was my first return visit to Swanwick for, I think, a quarter of a century. Later in the year, the general secretary of USPG, Bishop Michael Doe, visited Ireland for a board meeting of USPG Ireland in Kilkenny, and to preach at the Harvest Festival Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

There was much talk at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Galway about the transformation of the Church of Ireland Theological College into the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. I shall truly miss my colleague, the Revd Canon Dr Adrian Empey, who retired as the Principal of CITC at the end of August.

Later, there was formal inauguration of the new institute at a special Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at which my new colleague, the Revd Dr Maurice Elliott, was introduced as the Director of the new institute.

Visitors to the college during the year included, Hubert Che, a third year student at the Ming Hua Theological Institute in Hong Kong, who stayed at CITC as an exchange student in a programme arranged jointly by CITC and the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission.

Some new books and publications

My book on immigration and cultural diversity, Embracing Difference, was launched by the Minister for Integration, Conor Lenihan, at the ‘Hard Gospel’ conference in Swords in January, along with the Church of Ireland’s new Guidelines for Interfaith Events and Dialogue.

Peter Thompson, in his review of Embracing Difference in the Church of Ireland Gazette, said: “The fusion of theology and praxis, combined with an eminently readable style, make this book a very welcome, timely and important publication which demands wide circulation.”

In March, as chair of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, I wrote the foreword to and launched a new report commissioned by DUFEM and the China Educational and Cultural Liaison Committee. This sociological study looks at the religious values and beliefs of the Chinese people living in Ireland, and was carried out as the first step in determining the pastoral care the Churches might offer to these people.

The report, Mainland Chinese Students and Immigrants in Ireland and Their Engagement with Christianity, Churches And Irish Society, by Dr Richard O’Leary of Queen’s University Belfast and Dr Lan Li of University College Dublin, was launched in the Chapel in Trinity College Dublin after Choral Evensong.

During the year, the National Bible Society of Ireland has published my lecture in the Bedell Boyle Lecture series in a new booklet: Reflections of the Bible in the Qur’an: a Comparison of Scriptural traditions in Christianity and Islam.

My other publications this year included a sermon preached in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 2006 as part of the commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The sermon is included in a collection of sermons selected and edited by Dean Robert MacCarthy. Its inclusion in this book is surprising because at the time I was working for the Church Mission Society Ireland, which refused to post it on their website, although it received very positive coverage in the print media, including The Irish Times and the Sunday Independent.

In May, The Lure of Greece: Irish Involvement in Greek Culture, Literature, History and Politics, was published by Hinds on behalf of the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies in Athens (IIHSA). The book includes the papers and proceedings of the institute’s conference in the NUI Galway in 2003, and is edited by Professor John V. Luce, Dr Christine Morris, Dr Christina Souyoudzoglou-Haywood.

My paper, ‘Sir Richard Church and the Irish Philhellenes in the Greek War of Independence,’ is the opening chapter in this book. This is the first major publication of the Irish Institute for Hellenic Studies at Athens, and there were book launches in both Athens and Dublin.

In May, I also contributed a paper on the spirituality of icons to the sumptuous catalogue that went with an exhibition of modern Greek icons, organised by the Gordon Gallery, Derry, in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and in Derry at the Gordon Gallery. The exhibition was organised in collaboration with the Hellenic Foundation for Culture and the Panhellenic Society of Iconographers. This exhibition was a rare opportunity to see modern Greek icons written in the Byzantine tradition, and works like these had not been seen in Ireland since Gordon Galleries hosted an exhibition of icons written by Sister Aloysius McVeigh in Derry in 1993.

A paper on prayer and the spiritual life was published in the Spring edition of Search, a Church of Ireland Journal (Vol 31, No 1), I was invited to contribute to the Dublin Review of Books, and I continue to write for The Irish Times, the Church of Ireland Gazette, the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe).

Broadcasts and lectures

My broadcasting work this year included ten contributions to A Living Word on RTÉ, five in the week after Easter and five on inter-faith dialogue. I took part in a number of broadcast services, including the RTÉ televised service organised by the Irish School of Ecumenics to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

I was asked to join a panel discussion on Newstalk that turned into a very heated debate about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks on civil and religious law. Two other heated debates took place in July, when I was invited on Sunday Sequence and the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Northern Ireland to discuss Archbishop Alan Harper’s pre-Lambeth paper at the USPG conference in Swanwick, and George Hooke interviewed me on Newstalk about this too.

I was a panellist at the Greenhills Ecumenical Conference in Drogheda in January, with the Revd Ruth Patterson, the British Ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Campbell, and I was part of a panel of speakers that included Ambassador Campbell, and the chair of the Irish Council of Churches, Gillian Kingston.

Other lectures outside the theological college included a lecture in Maynooth on Anglican mission history, a paper to the Church of Ireland Historical Society in Christ Church Cathedral on Irish Anglicans who took part in the Greek war of Independence, and a lecture in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin, on the contemporary relevance of the Anglo-Catholic Movement as part of the commemorations of the 175th anniversary of the Oxford Movement.

Cultural highlights

The cultural highlights of the year for me included Leonard Cohen’s concert in Kilmainham in July. Other high points in my cultural calendar included the presentation of the Cloud of Unkowing , as a tribute to the late Dean Desmond Harman, and Mozart’s Requiem and Duruflé’s Requiem in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, with the cathedral choir, the Orchestra of St Cecilia, and the gap year choral scholars who have been staying at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

One of the privileges of being a canon of the cathedral is sitting in the stalls and listening to the choir. It was wonderful, therefore, to be nominated by the new Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, to sit on the cathedral music committee.

The choral scholars have added a new dimension to music and singing in the chapel at CITI, and they took part in the end-of-year Advent Carol Service, which took place this year in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in Dublin city centre.

Dublin City Council’s open-air, lunchtime performances for “Opera in The Open 2008” in the Amphitheatre behind Christ Church Cathedral included Donizetti’s comic opera L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, both of which I attended with a dear friend. On both occasions, I found that opera is good for the soul and that comedy and stories of love are good for the heart.

This year also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Vaughan Williams. I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams when I was 19 and was staying in Wilderhope Manor on the slopes of Wenlock Edge. It was 1971, and I was walking through rural Shropshire, visiting small towns and villages such as Much Wenlock, Church Stretton, Longville and Shipton. Appropriately, the warden of the youth hostel suggested I should listen to Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge. Ever since, I have continued to enjoy the music of Vaughan Williams.

Travels in England and Europe

During the year, I continued to enjoy travelling. In Turkey, I stayed once again in Kusadasi, which is a brash resort but an ideal base for visiting Ephesus, where I spent a few days, and the sites at Priene, Miletus and Didyma. I also visited the island of Samos in Greece twice. It’s a charming island, but I missed getting back to other favourite spots in Greece this year, including Athens, Thessaloniki and Crete.

In addition, I had a pleasant week in Cambridge in the summer, thanks to the generosity of the J.E.L. Oulton Memorial Fund. I stayed at Sidney Sussex College while I took part in the summer school on patristics and holiness run by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, one of the theological colleges in the Cambridge Theological Federation.

During my stay in Cambridge, the Revd Christopher Woods arranged a warm welcome for me at Christ’s College, where I visited the chapel and was invited to dinner with some of the fellows, and I spent a day at the Orthodox monastery in Tolleshunt Knights.

There were a few visits to London, including one with my elder son to see the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. During that visit to London, we also attended choral evensong in Westminster Abbey, and walked the legs off ourselves as we visited Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Whitehall, Downing Street, Chinatown, Piccadilly Circus, the City, the Tower of London and the Globe Theatre. And the year eneded with a visit to London for the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

I spoke about theological education in the Church of Ireland at a pre-Lambeth Conference symposium on teaching Anglicanism at Trinity College Bristol. The visit gave me time to visit Bristol and, for the first time, Bath, as well as spending time in Calne and Quemerford, in Wiltshire, to which the Comerford family traces its origins.

I managed three return visits this year to Lichfield, where I stayed in the Cathedral Close as part of my own, self-designed retreats, listening to the choir, praying, and visiting the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital in Upper John Street, where I had my first adult experience of the light and love of God at the age of 19.

One of those visits coincided with the Lichfield festival and the Mediaeval Fayre in the Cathedral Close. And there was even an opportunity to revisit the house on Birmingham Road that I stayed during those years, while I was freelancing for the Lichfield Mercury, the Rugeley Mercury and the Tamworth Herald.

My stays in Lichfield also allowed me to return to the Moat House, the Jacobean mansions on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, once owned by the Comberford family, and to visit Comberford Hall, which has been back on the market since last March.

During those return pilgrimages to Lichfield, I was reminded of John Yates, the former Principal of Lichfield Theological College (1966-1972) and later Bishop of Whitby (1972-1975) of Gloucester (1975-1991) and at Lambeth (1991-1994). He died in Winchester in February, but back in 1971 I think he was probably the canon in Lichfield Cathedral who first suggested to me that I should consider ordination.

Family, friends, colleagues and losses

I visited my Lynders cousins in Portrane throughout the year. There I received the warmest welcome imaginable, and there I had the best fun weekend of the year when I took part in the Great Portrane Sale in August, raising funds for projects in Romania and Albania.

The sad moments in the year included the death of my aunt, Eily Murphy, and the deaths of former colleagues in journalism, including Paul Tansey, Nuala O Faolain, Jim Dunne, and June Levine, and three stalwarts of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and other campaigns, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Sean Kilfeather, who had both written for The Irish Times, and Father Austin Flannery, who started up Doctrine and Life.

But my greatest loss this year has been the loss of friendship with a very dear friend who so clearly understood so much of my inner mind. There is a little compensation in discovering as I referred to this on my blog that so many of my friends care about me, and they offered continuing support and comfort. Thank you, all of you.

To close, I was tickled to have been elected President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND), and tickled too that this blog come second in the media awards at the General Synod in Galway in May. But perhaps the best accolade of all came from An Phoblacht, the propaganda mouthpiece for Sinn Fein and the IRA. Their writers said the “prize for the most magnificent act of hypocrisy in trying to have it both ways at once must go to long-time Irish Times journalist and man of the cloth, Canon Patrick Comerford, director of spiritual formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.”

I upset them when I wrote proudly in The Irish Times and on this blog about my grandfather, explaining why as a pacifist I wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. When I upset people like that, and they shower me with such shallow praise, I know I’m getting through. I’ll keep writing. Please keep reading.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Did Herod lose any sleep over the innocent children?

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Domenico Ghirlandaio: the fresco is part of a series of panels in the Cappella Tornabuoni in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, dating from 1486-1490

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 28 December 2008: The Holy Innocents: Jeremiah 31: 15-17; Psalm 124; I Corinthians 1: 26-29; Matthew 2: 13-18

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

I wonder: did Herod lose any sleep at night over the innocent children at Christmas-time?

So many of us know what it’s like to be kept awake at night by innocent little children, especially at Christmas time.

You stay up late into the night, waiting until you’re sure they’re fast asleep before you even start wondering where they’ve hung their stockings, or thinking about where Santa is going to find space beneath the Christmas tree.

Eventually, you’ve sorted everything out, and tired and bleary-eyed you creep up to bed. Then, just as you think you’re about to fall asleep, you hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet on the stairs. The excitement, the shrieks and the joy mean that’s the last snatch of sleep you’ll get until the afternoon when you drowse in front of the television.

It’s cyclical. When they’re born, you lose sleep over them, waking regularly for constant night-time feeds. A little latter, you lose sleep as you’re called each night to change nappies or to change sheets. When they’re teenagers, you lose sleep worrying whether they’re out too late.

Then, in your naivety, you imagine that when they are adults you’ll get a decent night’s sleep. Don’t be deceived – they’ll be in Australia or Canada … and they’ll call, forgetting it’s the middle of the night. Or, they’ll ask you to mind the grandchildren.

Now I can remember those sleepless nights as nights filled with love … those big beaming eyes looking up after feeding or changing a lovely, loving child were enough thanks, and gave me a real feeling of the love of God.

I wonder: did Mary and Joseph get a decent night’s sleep in the stable in Bethlehem? Did Mary look into her child’s eyes, and as he looked up from his crib after being fed or changed, did she see the love of God shining through those eyes?

I wonder: did the Wise Men lose sleep on their way to Bethlehem? Or were they too anxious to make sure they didn’t lose sight of the start guiding their way?

I wonder: did the Wise Men lose sleep as they made their way back from Bethlehem? Or were they too anxious to make sure Herod’s men weren’t tracking them in order to drag them back for a cruel grilling in Jerusalem?

I wonder: how many nights’ sleep did Herod lose over the little child he heard had been born? Did he think of combing through the back streets and the side alleys of Bethlehem to find him himself?

I wonder: did Mary and Joseph sleep at all at night during their perilous journey down through the Sinai Desert and across the Nile into Egypt, worried about their safety and saving the Saviour-Child?

I wonder: how many nights’ sleep did Herod lose over all the Innocent Children who had been slaughtered at his command?

The Byzantine liturgy says 14,000 Holy Innocents were slaughtered on Herod’s orders, an early Syrian list says these first martyrs for Christ were 64,000 in number. But given the size of Bethlehem at the time, the number of slain children may have been only between six and 20. But even if it was one or two children – did Herod lose even one night’s sleep if he heard a voice in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, if he heard Rachel weeping for her children?

There is no such thing as an innocent child unless we say that all children are innocent. And no child’s suffering is ever tolerable or acceptable. Whether the number was 64,000, 14,000, 20, six, or even one, the thought of even one innocent child suffering at the hands of someone who has power over his or her life should move us to tears.

It is a sad judgment on the whole Church that the suffering of any child, even one child, should be seen as an agenda item for discussing the efficiency or inefficiency of different layers of church administration: should the recommendations of a report be implemented? Who is responsible for its implementation? Should we make its findings public?

Shifting the blame is always a sure indication that responsibility is being abandoned.

Oscar Schindler famously said: “Whoever saves the life of one saves the entire world.” He was referring to a well-known teaching in the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4: 8, 37a). It is a teaching that has inspired the inscription on medals awarded to the Righteous Gentiles, those brave people who risked their own lives to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust: “Whoever saves a single soul, it is as if he had saved the whole world.”

The obvious deduction from that, of course, is: Whoever destroys the innocence of one child, it is as if he has destroyed the innocence of all children, as if he has destroyed the childhood of everyone. It is for this reason that Jesus reserves his most severe and most frightening warning and rebuke for those sort of people (see Mark 9: 42; Luke 17: 2).

The appalling cases of child abuse and the mishandling of those cases is not just a matter of shame for one bishop, or for one diocese, whether it is Cloyne, Ferns or Dublin. Nor is it a matter of shame for one branch of the Church, in isolation from other branches of the Church. This is a matter of shame for the whole Church.

Quite frankly, I think the Bishop of Cloyne, and anyone else involved in the mishandling and hiding of child abuse cases, in any part of the Church, should resign immediately. But this is not a matter of triumphalism for the Church of Ireland – we too have had some very sad cases, and have been saved humiliation and embarrassment by a very fair handling of court cases in the media.

But this is not about embarrassment and humiliation. It is about how the Church should defend and protect the innocence of children and deal swiftly and immediately with those who threaten and destroy the lives of children.

When one part of the Church errs, the whole Church should cry out in lamentation and with bitter weeping, for if one child suffers we should weep for all children. Or else, the whole Church errs.

When I say the Bishop of Cloyne should resign, and resign immediately, do not mistake my intentions. I would say the same about anyone who mishandles reports of child abuse, in any part of the Church, including the Church of Ireland, or, for that matter, in any part of society. And while cases like this continue, then we should lose not just one night’s sleep, but many nights’ sleep.

When God came to us in the Christ child, God came to us as a little, small vulnerable child. As Mary looked into this innocent babe’s eyes, she saw the love of God shining out to her.

But how many mothers have seen this love, night after night, and have realised that they too are receiving the love of God as they answer the call from a cot for a feed or a nappy change?

Love and innocence; the gift of God in every birth, and especially in the birth of Christ at Christmas; the innocence of one child and every child – we should always guard it, protect it, cherish it, and cry out whenever it is violated.

And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin, on Sunday 28 December 2008.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Bible stories in the Qur’an

Patrick Comerford and Kieran O’Mahony at the Bedell Boyle Lecture in the Milltown Institute, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

The National Bible Society of Ireland has published my lecture in the Bedell Boyle Lecture series in a new booklet: Reflections of the Bible in the Qur’an: a Comparison of Scriptural traditions in Christianity and Islam.

This new publication points out that Muslims respect Jews, Christians and Muslims as “People of the Book,” sharing a common scriptural tradition, based on the Torah (tawrat) or first five books of the Bible, the Psalms (zabur) and the Gospels (injil). The Qur’an includes many Biblical stories, with numerous parallels of the Gospel stories in the Qur’an.

This publication also explores the place of Jesus in later Islamic traditions, including the hadith, apocalyptic and Arabic literary traditions, and Sufi poetry, and examines both the Muslim view of the Bible and the attitude towards the Bible found in the Qur’an and in Islamic teachings.

The annual Bedell Boyle lecture honours Bishop William Bedell (1571-1642), who translated the Old Testament into Irish and Robert Boyle (1626-1691), who published Bibles for Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This year’s lecturer was Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. In previous years, the lecturers have included John Dexter, Trevor Sargent TD, Dr Peter Harbison, Bishop Harold Miller, Dr Margaret Daly-Denton, Abbot Christopher Dillon and Bishop Donal Murray.

The lecture in the Milltown Institute on 15 November 2006 was chaired and introduced by the Augustinian Biblical scholar and former President of the National Bible Society of Ireland, the Revd Dr Kieran O’Mahony.

In his introduction to this new publication, Professor O’Mahony, writes:

“In these days of closer social contacts between Muslims and Christians, a sympathetic reading of each other’s scriptures and traditions is all the more needed. The Rev. Patrick Comerford’s eirenic presentation of Muslim teaching on Jesus and other biblical figures makes an ideal and highly-informative opening up for the non-Muslim. The members of the National Bible Society of Ireland are grateful to Patrick Comerford for making his experience and research so accessible to all.

“Probably it will be a surprise for many Western readers to discover just how much of the biblical tradition, both Jewish and Christian, is to be found in the Qur’an. The Abrahamic faiths are related, Eirenic though it may be, this study does not shirk the contrasts of opinion between Christian and Muslim teaching in the person of Jesus. Such honesty is a mark of respect and a prerequisite for genuine dialogue. Nevertheless, I think the author would be pleased if his readers were moved to take up and read the Qur’an for themselves. Perhaps that suggestion may seem surprising in a publication of the National Bible Society of Ireland. Nevertheless, our own experience of being led to holiness by our Holy Book may help us appreciate sympathetically our Muslim brothers and sisters are also led to holiness by their Holy Book.”

Reflections of the Bible in the Qur’an: a Comparison of Scriptural traditions in Christianity and Islam by Patrick Comerford is available from the National Bible Society of Ireland, 41 Dawson Street, Dublin 2 (ISBN 0954867238).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Who cares about Boxing Day?

Patrick Comerford

Who cares about Boxing Day? Today, 26 December, is Saint Stephen’s Day – although it is popularly known to many as the “feast of Stephen” because of the popular Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas.

Today is a public holiday here in Ireland and in many other European countries. But in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantine-rite Eastern Catholic Churches, Saint Stephen will be remembered tomorrow on 27 December, which is also known as the Third Day of the Nativity.

Saint Stephen (Στέφανος, Stephanos) is known as the Protomartyr (Πρωτομάρτυς, Protomartis, or first martyr) of Christianity. Saint Stephen is mentioned for the first time in the New Testament at the appointment of the first deacons (Acts 6: 5). Because of dissatisfaction in the Church over the distribution of alms from the community funds, seven men were selected as deacons to take care of the temporal relief of the poorer members.

The Greek-speaking Christians complained that their widows and orphans were being over-looked in the daily distribution of food. The 12 Apostles called a meeting and decided to appoint seven good men from the Body of the Church to deal with these worries.

Stephen, is the first named and the best known of these seven. Although we know nothing about his life before this, as a deacon Stephen was full of grace and power. He worked great miracles and signs. Many came and argued with him but they could not hold their own against his wisdom. Because of this he made enemies.

The Acts of the Apostles tells how Stephen was hen tried by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy against God and for speaking against the Temple and the Law of Moses (Acts 6: 11-14). He and was then stoned to death by a mob encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, the future Saint Paul (Acts 8: 1).

Stephen’s final speech recalls the persecution of the prophets who spoke out in the past: “Which one of the Prophets did your fathers not persecute, and they killed the ones who prophesied the coming of the Just One, of whom now, too, you have become betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7: 52).

Stephen's name is derived from the Greek Stephanos, meaning “crown.” Saint Stephen is traditionally invested with a crown of martyrdom and is often depicted in icons and art with three stones and the martyrs’ palm. In Orthodox iconography he is shown as a young beardless man with a tonsure, robed in a deacon’s vestments, and often holding a church building and a censer.

As he was on trial and being prosecuted, Saint Stephen experienced a theophany, in which he saw both the Father and the Son: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7: 56.

The Lions’ Gate In the old city of Jerusalem is also called Saint Stephanus Gate, because tradition says that Stephen was stoned to death there, although it probably occurred at the Damascus Gate.

When Stephen’s relics were discovered in 415, they were solemnly transferred to a church built in his honour in Jerusalem. When Christian pilgrims were travelling in large numbers to Jerusalem, a priest named Lucian said he had learned in a vision that the tomb of Saint Stephen was in Caphar Gamala, north of Jerusalem.

His relics were exhumed and were carried to the Church of Mount Sion. In the year 460 they were placed in the Basilica erected by the Empress Eudocia outside the Damascus Gate on the spot where it was believed the stoning had taken place. Later, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Younger (408-450) they were moved to Constantinople.

In Dublin, we have Saint Stephen’s Church in Mount Street, and, of course, Saint Stephen’s Green. Saint Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster was first built in the reign of Henry III and eventually became the first location of the chamber of the House of Commons. During visits to Vienna, I have always made a point of visiting the Stephansdom, the Cathedral of Saint Stephen, founded in 1147. And I like to remember this day because Stephen was the baptismal name of my grandfather, my father and my eldest brother.

In the Anglican tradition, we ordain men and women as deacons, and traditionally, they wait a year before ordination to the priesthood. Although many forget this, all priests who are ordained in this traditional form remain deacons, and today’s saint, Stephen the first Deacon and Martyr, is a good reminder that the Ministry of a Deacon, the Ministry of service that involves waiting on others and looking after the needs of the marginalised and the forgotten, is the foundation of all ordained ministry.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

In the Bleak Midwinter

Patrick Comerford

25 December 2008, Christmas Day

Isaiah 62: 6-12; Titus 3: 4-7; Luke 2: 8 - 20.

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

I have to confess to being a life-long fan of Leonard Cohen. His concert in Dublin in June was the cultural highlight of the year for me. And I don’t care who wins the X Factor or tops the charts with the Christmas No 1 – Leonard Cohen’s version of Hallelujah is still my favourite.

But when it comes to Christmas carols, then one of my favourite carols is also a chart topper because it was recently voted the best carol ever. It is Christina Rossetti’s poem, In the Bleak Midwinter. In a BBC poll of some of the world’s leading choirmasters and choral experts, it was chosen as the best-ever Christmas carol.

It came out top in the BBC Music Magazine poll last month, above well-known songs and carols such as Silent Night, Ding Dong Merrily on High and Once in Royal David’s City.

The poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was part of the Victorian arts-and-crafts movement and the pre-Raphaelite movement; she was a leading advocate of women’s rights, a campaigner against slavery and war, and a prominent member of the Anglo-Catholic movement. She wrote In the Bleak Midwinter in 1872 in answer to a request from a magazine. But, like a lot of writers, she must have been frustrated that it took so long to have her poem published.

Although she wrote it in 1872, In the Bleak Midwinter was not published until 1904, ten years after she died. Gustav Holst (1874-1934) then set it to music, and it was first published as a Christmas carol just over a century ago, in The English Hymnal (1906), edited by Percy Dearmer and Holst’s friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

So it took over 30 years, more than a generation, before this poem was first sung as a Christmas carol. But ever since then, it has been a firm Christmas favourite. Another setting for the carol, by Harold Darke (1888-1976), with his beautiful and delicate organ accompaniment, has been popular since the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, began using it in the radio broadcasts of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

It has been recorded by the King’s Singers, Julie Andrews, the Moody Blues, the Pet Shop Boys, James Taylor, Alison Crowe, Moya Brennan, Celtic Woman, Sarah McLachlan, Sarah Brightman and Loreena McKennitt. And yet, I find this popularity surprising. Because this is no popular, cosy, comfortable Christmas carol. The images are harsh, and bleak, and demanding.

So often I hear it said that people only come to church at Christmas to be comforted and consoled, not to be challenged, that what they want is the carols and the crib, the tinsel and the tree, Santa and the snowman, but that we don’t want the challenge of Christmas.

Yet Christmas is a truly challenging story: it is the story of a single mother, of a homeless family that finds no welcome, of farm labourers left to the mercy of the wolves and the thieves of the night, of a capricious ruler who stoops to using any violence that secures his throne, and of the exile and search for asylum of an unwanted family in a foreign country.

But then, Christmas was never meant to be a comfortable story. Christmas is irrelevant unless we bear in mind the whole purpose of Christmas: it is God’s identification with us in the flesh, in the here-and-now; with our sufferings and hardships as we live them out; his identification with us that becomes complete on the Cross on Good Friday; his identification with us that triumphs over all that is bleak and miserable with the Resurrection on Easter morning.

And this poem and carol by Christina Rossetti, which gets to the heart of the Christmas message, seems more relevant to me in this bleak mid-winter than it has seemed for many years.

For many of us know that this Christmas is in the middle of a very bleak mid-winter. It is a bleak Christmas for too many this year. It’s not just that there have been fewer office parties, that in business there have been fewer Christmas presents to and from clients, that there have been fewer cards and complimentaries.

It is much more worrying than that. How many are now worried that they may have no job, no income, perhaps even no home when we move on into the New Year?

And quite clearly, nobody is taking responsibility for this predicament. We can blame who we want to: the government, the builders, the banks, the speculators. But when we move on from the blame game, who is going to take responsibility?

It seems that these days, when something wrong is uncovered, a contributory factor in our present economic crisis is unfolded or is revealed, those who should bear responsibility simply walk away. They resign, and at their resignation they take a nice comfortable package. But accepting true responsibility never means walking away from a problem … accepting responsibility means admitting that something is wrong, and then trying to do something about it.

How often do we hear people say that they did nothing wrong, that what they did may have been “inappropriate” but it was legal and they didn’t break any rules?

“I accepted a large, anonymous donation and used it for my personal gain. But it wasn’t against the rules at the time, and I didn’t break any law. I’m resigning and I’ll leave it to other politicians to sort things out.”


“I borrowed large sums from my own bank as I watched the value of my shareholders’ stock spiral in decline, as depositors saw their savings put at unacceptable risk, as taxpayers were called on to prop up the system while their pensions, their healthcare and their children’s education were put at risk. I’m resigning, and the taxpayers and the voters, Sean and Sile Citizen, can bear the cost of my folly.”

We’ve blurred the lines that distinguish between right and wrong, between what’s permitted and what should never happen. We no longer ask whether something is ethical. We simply want to know whether it was illegal or not, whether any rules that applied at the time were broken.

And we no longer link responsibility to the moral imperative to own up and to act responsibly, to act without self-interest for the general and common good, even when it puts my own potential for selfish gains at risk.

At a time when the world as we once knew it – socially, politically, economically, ethically and morally – appears to be collapsing all around us, the Christmas story appears to be the one comfort that many people are falling back on.

Perhaps this is because this is precisely what is at the heart of the Christmas story. God sees that the world is in a truly bleak midwinter. According to Christina Rossetti, it was a bleak midwinter, when

Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone:
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow, / Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter

when God took responsibility for this cold-hearted world.

God didn’t walk away from this cold-hearted, stone-hearted world.

God didn’t say there’s nothing in the rulebook that requires me to do something about it.

God didn’t decide to wipe his hands of the dust and dirt of this world.

God didn’t say there is nothing ethically compelling that demands that I should take action.

At Christmas, God does the very opposite of walking away.

At Christmas, God does the very opposite of putting the blame on others.

At Christmas, God does the very opposite of refusing to identify with the suffering, the marginalised, the victims and the losers.

At Christmas, God throws all the rules aside, defies all expectations, behaves in a way that is totally selfless and unselfish.

He seeks no rewards, no benefits, no pay-offs, no dividends.

He just comes in search of humanity, in all dejection and rejection.

He just seeks you and me.

He doesn’t come as a wealth-seeking banker, a power-driven politician, a get-rich-quick merchant.

He just identifies with us in our human flesh, in our nakedness, as we are, without any wealth or fashion to hide our weak, frail and naked but beautiful humanity.

He offers us his love. God loves you.

And all he asks in return is our love, your love and my love:

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him —
Give my heart.

Poor or wise, strong or weak, powerful or powerless, all he asks of us in return, all he asks of you and me, is your heart, my heart.

To an apparently heart-less world, that may be an awesome price. But that’s what the world and our society, Irish society, every society, needs most at this bleak, mid-winter time: our love, and the love of God, which is offered freely at Christmas-time.

Have a Happy Christmas. Now and tomorrow, every tomorrow, may you enjoy and reflect the love of the incarnate Christ. Hallelujah!

And so, may all praise honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin, on Christmas Day 2008

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day
A breast full of milk
And a manger full of hay.
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But his mother only,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him —
Give my heart.

Listen to a free recording of Darke’s In the bleak midwinter from Coro Nostro, a mixed chamber choir based in Leicester.

Leonard Cohen’s Halleluljah is at:

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The Spirit of Hope

This morning’s front-page photograph by Daragh McSweeney/Provision in The Irish Times shows a stained-glass window in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Carrigavar, Co Cork

The following editoral is carried in The Irish Times this morning (Christmas Eve 2008):

The Spirit of Hope

A POPULAR story this Christmas season tells of a shopper picking up a charity packet of Christmas cards, each with a nativity scene, and being overheard saying: “They’re trying to bring religion into everything these days!” In sharp contrast, pulpits throughout the land will be filled tomorrow with priests and preachers reminding us of the need to recover “the real meaning of Christmas”.

The reality of course, lies somewhere in between. For, in a time of economic foreboding, the Nativity story poses real challenges both to those who would like to relegate religion to the realm of private opinion and those who think any secular celebrations debase the meaning of Christmas.

The Nativity is as brutal in its imagery as it is compelling in its contemporary relevance. It is a story about poverty, homelessness, marginalisation and the capricious abuse of political power. And yet it is also a story about the value of giving generously, giving freely and taking responsibility. The image in Saint Matthew’s Gospel of visiting wise men or kings who bring all their wealth and lay it before a lowly-born child is in sharp contrast to the brutal abuse of absolute power by a despotic Herod, who uses every unethical but legal means available to him to shore up his power and control. On the other hand, the wise men in their generosity, like the shepherds in their simplicity, joyfully accept responsibility for the news they hear and for the events around them. Unlike the self-interested Herod, they are ethical, realistic and responsible in their actions and response.

In religious terms, the Christmas story is good news because it is the story of God taking responsibility for the here-and-now and identifying with every one of us. Instead of walking away from the human condition, God in Christ identifies with the full panoply of human crises, not merely by intervening but by becoming human.

Christmas, therefore, is a story that is in sharp contrast to those politicians, financiers and captains of industry who refuse to accept responsibility for present-day problems. Christmas is the story of how God takes responsibility for the world and steps into it at the birth of Christ. Christmas is a story about God refusing to walk away and God showing the difference between legal decision-making and ethical action. It is a story that is relevant to all of us, whether we sent Christmas cards with a religious theme or simply sent ones that sought to bring cheer in this bleak midwinter.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

A real Christmas Card for a real Christmas

Patrick Comerford

How many Christmas cards have you received this Christmas? And how many of them depicted the Christmas story, keeping Christ at the heart of Christmas?

The five main characters or sets of characters in the Christmas story – Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Angels, and the Wise Men – are seen in the icon of the Nativity, which gives us a very different take on the Christmas story than the ones we find on popular Christmas cards.

In the Orthodox tradition, the icon of the Nativity of Christ shows the Creator of the Universe entering history as a new-born babe, and the impact of his birth on the natural life of the world.

The background of the icon traditionally displays an inhospitable world, the world since our expulsion from Paradise. In the centre of the icon are Mary, the central and disproportionately large figure, who is see resting in a cave, and the Christ Child as a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Around the icon, we can see details from the Christmas story.

The icon is rich with theological symbolism.

The Christ Child

The little helpless figure in swaddling clothes represents the complete submission of Christ to the physical conditions governing the human race.

The earth provides him with a cave. The animals watch over him in silent wonder and we humans offer him one of us, the Virgin Mother. His manger is like a coffin and his swaddling clothes are very much like the grave clothes, for this child is born to die.

Far from the Christmas-card image of being born in a sweet, cosy stable, surrounded by cuddly animals and adoring fans, Jesus is born in a dark cave. The craggy rocks above the cave form the shadow of the cross on which he dies.

One very old version of the Christmas story has it that Jesus was born in a cave outside Bethlehem, which is why the icon shows him that way, in the midst of jagged rocks and pitch dark. Christ has come into the world to save it, but that means he has come into a place of darkness and danger. He is in the depths. His birth anticipates his death, just as the gift of myrrh (a spice used in burials) points us to Christ’s death and burial.

So, while the nativity is a joyful event, it carries a serious message. Jesus is God with us, God come to live the life of a human being on earth. But he has also come to die, to set us free from our slavery to evil, poverty and injustice. As one writer puts it: “God became a human child so that we might become children of God.”

The Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary is known in Orthodoxy as the Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God. Although Mary is the most dominant figure in the icon, she is not the most important. Sometimes she is shown kneeling, still concerned.

Mary is right at the centre of the Christmas story, which is why she is at the centre of this icon. It was her “yes” spoken to the angel who told her she would give birth to Jesus which set the whole story in motion. It was her belief that God could do what he promised that made it all possible. And it was she who gave birth and laid her son in a feeding trough for cattle, due to overcrowding in Bethlehem.

In this icon, we see Mary lying on a sort of long, red cushion – it almost looks like a bean bag – with Jesus in his makeshift cot by her side. She is pulling her cloak around her for warmth, and perhaps she is trying to catch some sleep after the exhaustion of giving birth. The icon-writer presents Mary like this to remind us that the birth of Jesus – like any birth – was hard work and that it was a human event. Jesus was fully human. The way Mary wraps herself in her cloak and turns to get some sleep tells us that.

But Jesus was more than just a human being, as we are told in the words of the nativity narratives in the Gospels, and through the images in this icon.

The Star

The sky salutes the Christ Child with a star, the light of wisdom. This is a sign that Christ came for everyone. Some icons have three rays from the star, representing the Holy Trinity.

The Shepherds

The shepherds and the Wise Men or Magi bring their gifts as signs that Christ has come for everyone.

Saint Luke’s Gospel has a special emphasis on the poor and disadvantaged, on people living on the margins of society. While Saint Matthew’s Gospel focuses on the wise men who travelled from the East, Saint Luke’s spotlight falls on these working men, who hear the news about the birth of Jesus from heaven itself.

There shepherds are on the right-hand side of the icon, and one young shepherd is wearing a wreath as he plays his flute, showing the joy of the Good News.

Below the shepherds, their sheep drink in a river. One of the shepherds looks up and is blessed by an angel looking down on him. Luke is the only evangelist to mention the shepherds in his Gospel.

Jesus later said, “I have come to bring good news to the poor.” The shepherds in the story remind us of God’s love for those who are forgotten and left behind in our world.

The Wise Men

The Wise Men are on horseback on the left-hand side of the icon, galloping uphill, their faces turned up looking for the star which has led them there. The wise men are also part of the Christmas story, and they bring not just their strange and exotic gifts but they also bring the world of politics and military power into the story.

King Herod, a violent and cunning ruler who was paranoid about holding on to his power, is alarmed by his unexpected visitors. Eventually, he orders the horrific massacre of all new-born baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to liquidate any rival to his throne, no matter how young he may be.

In this icon, the uphill angle of the horses tells of the long, hard journey of the wise men, and how important the event was to them. Perhaps they alone in this story have realised something of what was truly happening. And the speed of their horses tells us of the urgency and danger in their part of the story.

They show how the story of the incarnation of Christ was rooted in the real world of political corruption and intrigue, with a ruler who was prepared to kill anyone who stood in his way. It is this real world of oppression, death and danger that Christ has come to save.

The midwives

The women on the bottom right of the icon are midwives. They tell us that Jesus was born in the normal way and would have needed washing, as a regular human baby does.

The tree

Below the centre of the icon is a tree, representing the Jesse Tree in Old Testament prophecy, which says that a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse, the father of King David: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump (tree) of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him” (Isaiah 11: 1-2).

The ox and ass

Christ comes into the world that does not recognise him for who he is. The ox and the ass below the centre of the icon are also referred to in an Old Testament prophecy: “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1: 3). In some icons, the ox and ass are shown near the Christ child, providing warmth from their breath.


The Righteous Joseph is shown away from Jesus and the Virgin Mary, to the bottom left. This is to show that he was not involved in the miracle of the Incarnation of the Son of God, but that he was the protector of Mary and Jesus.

Joseph reminds us of a very human dilemma in the Nativity stories: how could Mary be pregnant? It was a scandalous thing (see Matthew 1: 18-24).

From Saint Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that Joseph did not believe Mary’s explanation of how she had conceived. It was only after a dream that he accepted Mary as his wife.

In the icon, Joseph has his back to Mary, listening to his doubts and fears. He cuts an isolated figure, right at the bottom of the picture, and he looks thoroughly fed up with everything. And yet, despite any lingering doubts he may have harboured, Joseph has an important place in the whole icon. Doubt can help us get honest with God and with ourselves.

The tempting old man

The old man speaking to Joseph represents the devil bringing new doubts to Joseph. The devil suggests that if the infant were truly divine he would not have been born in the human way. This argument, presented in different forms, keeps on reappearing throughout the history of the Church, and is the foundation of many heresies.

In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all humanity, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God. But Mary in the centre, from her reclining position at the centre of the icon, looks at Joseph as if trying to overcome his doubts and temptations.

The Angels

The Angels in the icon are glorifying God, tending to the action, and ministering. They are announcing the Good news to the shepherds, or singing. The angels in the middle group are kneeling or bowing in worship before Jesus, lying in his cave, while the angels on the left of the icon are standing like a choir, singing.

Prayer and reflection

Spend a few moments in thought and prayer while you are at your computer or laptop. If it is now night-time, dim or turn off the lights in your room. If it is possible, light a candle or night-light and think of Mary and her “yes” to God. Remember her open-hearted faith.

If you have some of those Christmas cards you have received close to hand, take three or four of them and pray for the people who have sent them to you. If you haven’t, pray for those you are thinking of most at the moment.

Here is a prayer to pray for yourself and others:

May God shield us
May God fill us
May God keep us
May God watch over us.
May God bring us
To the land of peace
To the country of the king
To the peace of eternity.

Have a Happy and a Holy Christmas.

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

Thursday, 18 December 2008

House of Gold

The “Library of Celsius” on a hot day last summer – given the decadent reputation of Ephesus at the height of its prosperity I have no doubt the library shelves once held some hot topics (Photograph © PatrickComerford 2008)

The latest edition of the Dublin Review of Books, Issue Number 8 Winter 2008-09, includes my review of the latest book by the Cork-born biblical scholar, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor:

House of Gold

Patrick Comerford

St Paul’s Ephesus: Texts and Archaeology, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 289 pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-0814652596

Strolling down the paved Priests’ Way, or Curetes Street, in Ephesus at the height of the summer, our guide happily pointed out the vista ahead of us, including – in his own words – the “Library of Celsius”. Well it was a scorching hot day – and given the decadent reputation of Ephesus at the height of its prosperity I have no doubt the library shelves once held some hot topics.

Ephesus is one of the most stunning and intact archaeological sites in the Eastern Mediterranean. Pompeii aside, it is the largest and best-preserved ancient city in the Mediterranean, and after Istanbul the most popular tourist site in Turkey. The city owed its early growth and prosperity to its proximity to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World – according to Pausanias, it was the largest building of the ancient world – where the Greek goddess Artemis and the Anatolian goddess Cybele were worshipped.

Today its most inspiring wonders are the Theatre, where Saint Paul preached, and the Library of Celsus, built ca 110-135 AD by the consul Gaius Julius Aquilus in honour of his father, Julius Celsus Polemaenanus. The library is a magnificent and imposing two-storey building with a finely-crafted facade, four niches for statues personifying Virtue, Wisdom, Fate and Genius – long removed to Vienna – a spacious paved courtyard, and reading rooms with cavities to keep over 12,000 papyrus scrolls. The building faced east so that the reading rooms could make the best use of the morning light.

Ephesus is of particular interest to Christians because of its associations with the Apostle Paul, who made it the second major centre of his missionary work, after Corinth. He spent two or three years there between 52 and 54. He wrote at least one Letter to the Church in Ephesus – his Epistle to the Ephesians, probably from prison in Rome – while his letters from Ephesus make his time there the best documented period of his career. Ephesus was equidistant from his churches in Achaia, Macedonia and Galatia, and from there he wrote his Epistles to the Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, his First Letter to the Corinthians, and a lost Letter to Laodicea. Some were written from his prison cell in a tower near the western end of the city walls.

To read the full book review in the Dublin Review of Books (drb), use this link to the Full Article.

The other contributors to the current edition of the Dublin Review of Books include Enda O’Doherty, Terence Killeen, Paul Bew, Patrick Maume, George O’Brien, James Moran, Manus Charleton, Kevin Stevens, John Sweeney, Martin McGarry, Brian Earls and Eunan O’Halpin.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Christmas in Christ Church Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

With just ten days to go to Christmas Eve, this is a busy time in Christ Church Cathedral. On Tuesday, 16 December, at 1.10pm, there is a Charity Carol Service with the Cathedral Girls’ Choir and Lay Vicars Choral.

On Wednesday, 17 December, at 4 p.m., the Cathedral Choir will sing a live broadcast service on BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong programme. Music will include Boles, Adam lay y-bounden, Walsh responses, Howells, Gloucester service, and Maw, There is no rose, with a concluding organ voluntary by Duruflé, Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, Op 7.

On Sunday next (21 December 2008), the settings for the Sung Eucharist at 11 a.m. include Ceasar’s Missa Brevis and Guerrero’s Ave Virgo sanctissima, and at 3.30 p.m. there is a Cathedral Carol Service with the combined Cathedral Choirs.

On Monday 22 December 2008, at 8 p.m., the service of Nine Lessons and Carols will include the combined Cathedral Choirs. Free tickets are available from the Cathedral Office (01-677 8099).

On Christmas Eve, Wednesday 24 December, the first Eucharist of the Nativity will be celebrated at 11 p.m. On Christmas Day, 25 December, the Festal Eucharist will be celebrated at 11 a.m.

And after Christmas, at 7.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 30 December, there is a recital of Handel’s Messiah by the International Handel Festival Chorus.

This month’s edition of the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine, the Church Review, also carries two photographs by Garret Casey from recent events in the Chapter Room of the cathedral: a meeting of the Church of Ireland Historical Society, and a visit by French pilgrims from Eu on the feast day of Saint Laurence O’Toole.

Both Professor William McCormack (above) and I delivered papers at the autumn conference of the Church of Ireland Historical Society in Christ Church Cathedral.

The conference was chaired by the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, and the former principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College, the Revd Canon Dr Adrian Empey. My paper is availabe here: Irish Anglicans and the Greek War of Independence

The French pilgrims from Eu in France were visiting Christ Church Cathedral on the occasion of the feast day of St Laurence O’Toole. The patron saint of the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough is buried in Eu, but his heart is preserved in Christ Church.

The pilgtims were led by the Archbishop of Rouen, the Most Revd Dr Jean-Charles Descubes, and Madame Le Maire, Marie-Francoise Gaouyer. They are pictured with the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Dr John Neill, the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, and chapter members.

This month’s Church Review also carries a report by Carol Casey on a recent paper I delivered at a meeting of the Diocesan Guild of Lay Ministries: Orthodox Spirituality: insights for today

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Patrick Comerford

The Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, the Very Revd Dr Robert MacCarthy, has edited a selection of sermons recently preached in the cathedral and published them in a new book, A Year of Sermons at Saint Patrick’s, Dublin.

The book was first suggested by Canon Maureen Ryan, who was impressed by the sermons preached Sunday-by-Sunday at the Sung Eucharist and Choral Evensong each week. As the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland and as the venue for special services of thanksgiving, remembrance and celebration, Saint Patrick’s has attracted an unusual breadth of sermons and addresses, reflected in this collection.

Dr MacCarthy’s book, published this autumn, includes sermons by the dean, the cathedral dignitaries and canons and the Dean’s Vicar. There are sermons too from visiting Anglicans, including the Archbishop of Armagh, the Bishop of Manicaland in Zimbabwe, the late Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Desmond Harman, and Dr Hueston Finlay, a Canon of Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

The ecumenical dimension is provided by sermons preached by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Bishop Anthony Farquhar, Father Martin Clarke and the Revd Terence McCaughey, while from the world of politics there are addresses by Councillor Mary Freehill and Senator David Norris.

The book also includes an address by the former British Ambassador, Sir Ivor Roberts, marking the 25th anniversary of the murder of his predecessor, Sir Christopher Ewart-Biggs.

The book includes (pp 19-22) the following sermon I preached on 5 February 2006:

The Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, 3 February 2006: 100th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although he went to his death in a German concentration camp before even reaching the age of 40, this youthful pastor was one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, and is widely regarded as a modern saint and martyr.

For my generation, Bonhoeffer was one of the most influential theologians on our reading lists. We drew endlessly on such books as the Cost of Discipleship, No Rusty Swords and Ethics. We bandied around phrases such as “religionless Christianity” and the “man for others”, perhaps without fully understanding its meaning. We were quick to dismiss any church activity we deemed unfashionable as purveying “cheap grace”. And we saw Bonhoeffer as a role model for our resistance to racism and apartheid, nuclear weapons and modern warfare, and even the very political and economic foundations of society.

Like all great theologians, like all great thinkers, philosophers and writers who are now dead, it was easy to quote him and to use him for our own ends: he could hardly answer back and say “I have been misunderstood” or “you have quoted me out of context.” Bonhoeffer has been claimed in recent years, on the one hand, by conservative evangelicals who are happy with his theological method but unwilling to take his radical discipleship to the point of challenging social and corporate sin in our society; and on the other hand by radical reformers who would tear down all our received wisdom and traditions in their vain attempts to construct their own brand of “religionless Christianity.”

Unhappily, in recent years, theological rigour has gone out of fashion in many centres of learning. Where once students were happy to explore how faith could find understanding, many have slipped into the cold comfort of position-taking, relying on their own protestations of faith instead of warming to the challenge of new thinking and exploration. Theologians are no longer great names; even among the general public today, people are less likely to take their questions about faith and belief from the theological giants of the last century, such as Bultmann, Barth and Bonhoeffer, and more likely to be detracted by the silly, peripheral questions about truth and religion raised by Dan Browne in his Da Vinci Code.

So, 100 years after his birth, we might ask this afternoon, who was Bonhoeffer, and why do his writings and thoughts continue to have relevance for us in our society today?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born on 4 February 1906, had the potential to become a great musician or poet and playwright. Instead, he studied theology in Tubingen, Rome and Berlin, travelled through Rome and North Africa, and later spent time in Barcelona, New York, Cuba, Mexico and London, giving him an experience of the world church that would make a leading contributor to the foundation of the modern ecumenical movement.

He was still in his 20s when Hitler came to power. In a radio address two days after Hitler assumed office in 1933, Bonhoeffer warned against the idolatry of the “Fuhrer” principle. He went on to become involved in the Pastors’ Emergency League, was closely associated with those who signed the Barmen Declaration, helped to form the Confessing Church, and, outside Germany, became a close friend of the saintly Anglican bishop, George Bell.

The Barmen Declaration declared that the Church must not be allowed to become an instrument of political ideology, and rejected “the false doctrine that the Church should acknowledge, as the source of its message over and above God’s word, any other events, powers, figures and truths as divine revelation.”

Bonhoeffer paid the price for speaking out. His licence to teach was withdrawn, he was dismissed from his university, and eventually the Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde was closed. However, at Finkenwalde, he produced his two best-known books, The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1939). In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argues that cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Church. The sacraments and forgiveness are thrown away at cut price. We offer grace without price and grace without cost, instead of offering costly grace, which calls us to follow Jesus Christ.

When synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire in 1938, Bonhoeffer told the Church: “Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.” In his Bible, he underlined two passages in the Psalms that read: “They are burning the houses of God in the land and: No prophet speaks any longer.” He marked the date in his Bible and wrote later: “The church was silent when she should have cried out.”

When World War II broke out, he became involved in the resistance, making contacts in Switzerland, Norway and Sweden. And yet he found time to write his book Ethics. His contacts with George Bell failed to stop Britain’s policy of obliteration bombing and demanding “unconditional surrender.” The German opposition was left without hope, and a disappointed Bell wrote his hymn Christ is the King (Hymn 86 in the Irish Church Hymnal):

Let Love’s unconquerable might
God’s people everywhere unite
In service to the Lord of Light. Alleluia.

In prison, Bonhoeffer worked on his Letters and Papers from Prison and wrote: “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed, who Christ really is, for us today ... We are moving to a completely religionless time ... if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that is already more or less the case .... what does that mean for Christianity? How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?”

The final chapter of his last, unfinished book begins: “The Church is only her true self when she exists for humanity .... She must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men, but helping and serving them. She must tell men, whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.”

He was hanged at Flossenburg at dawn on 9 April 1945. An oft-quoted line from The Cost of Discipleship foreshadowed his death: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” His last recorded words as he was led to the scaffold were a message for George Bell: “Tell him that for me this is the end, but also the beginning.”

It was not the end it was only the beginning. By the 1950s and the 1960s, he was the theologians’ theologian, and his influence was immeasurable. More recently he was “canonised” by having his statue placed on the west end of Westminster Abbey. In the past year he has been the subject of a new made-for-television movie in America. But what is his relevance today?

“Bonhoeffer is one of the great examples of moral courage in the face of conflict,” says Martin Doblmeier, director of Bonhoeffer, that new 90-minute film. “Many of the issues Bonhoeffer faced – the role of the church in the modern world, national loyalty and personal conscience, what the call to being a ‘peacemaker’ really means – are issues we continue to struggle with today.”

Firstly, I want to claim that Bonhoeffer reminds us that faith assumptions and presumptions are no substitute in the seminary and the theological college for intellectual rigour and questioning. Indeed, he shows us that this is a more effective way of building faith than by trying to impose our individual views on others, and impose them judgmentally.

Secondly, in this post-modern world, Bonhoeffer continues to challenge us when we find new ways to make our Christian faith subject to, and relevant to, the overarching fashionable political and social ideologies of our day. It may not be the so-called Fuhrer principle, but how often have the different brands of Christianity been called on in recent decades to justify the nation-state as it embarked on disastrous wars of pride, one after another, whether it was the Falklands War, or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or indeed whether it was Catholic Croats or Orthodox Serbs indulging in ethnic cleansing to create nation states with a single religious identity.

Thirdly, Bonhoeffer’s story of the church remaining silent when she should have spoken out as the synagogues were burned down in 1938 is a challenge to us today. The synagogues are not being burned down. But the stranger is not being welcomed, the refugee is being turned back, and many of our new immigrants are the victims of pernicious racism. The prisoners who are being tortured are being transported through Shannon Airport. Are we speaking out, speaking out now, before our silence becomes complicity in something even worse?

Fourthly, in his concern with growing secularisation, a concern so well articulated in his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer tells us we need to face up to the growing secularisation of society and of humanity. If he could see in the 1940s our need to speak about God in a secular way, how much more pressing is that need today? We are so obsessed with maintaining not so much our Church structures but our Church pomp and sense of self-importance, leaving us unable to reach out to a secular world with a “religionless Christianity”. We often use Christianity as a garment to cloak and protect us, rather than accepting Christ’s charge to go out into the world. How can we find the language that enables us to speak in a secular way about God, and how can we live up to our missionary charge in the world today by being able to present to postmodern humanity Jesus who is “the man for others”?

Fifth and finally, how as a Church can we resist the temptation to continue dispensing cheap grace? So often, success in the Church is measured by how well we fill the pews, and whether we send them out happy. But sometimes prophetic voices can be isolated and left speaking to empty pews. A congregation that goes out into the world feeling uncomfortable but challenged may be better prepared to take the light of Christ into the world of darkness. Dispensing cheap grace should never be the task of the truly prophetic priest.

It is not easy to rejoice in these challenges. But we can accept them as blessings, and must give thanks for prophetic life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr priest and prophet, born 100 years ago this weekend.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. A Year of Sermons in Saint Patrick’s, Dublin, is available from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Shop at €10.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Elegant Thessaloniki holds memories of war and occupation

Thessaloniki: the Paralia or seafront promenade is lined with cafes and shops

Patrick Comerford

Ninety years ago, on 14 December 1918, less than five weeks after the end of World War I, my father was born in Rathmines. He was the youngest son and last child born to my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford, and my grandmother, Bridget (née Lynders, of Portrane).

Within a few years, my grandfather died on 21 January 1921, in hospital, a sad and lonely man, suffering the terrible consequences of the malaria he had picked up in Thessaloniki at the height of World War I. He had been shipped to the Balkans in 1915 along with thousands of other men from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. But the hardships they suffered, and the incompetent bungling at the Gallipoli landings, meant death for many of those men.

After taking part in the wars and the battles in the Balkans, my grandfather was hit with malaria. He was shipped back to Ireland from Thessaloniki and was discharged on 3 May 1916, only three days after the Easter Rising ended in Dublin.

Malaria saved him from further action in World War I and probably saved his life, albeit briefly. His early homecoming was fortuitous for the Comerford family and for me … otherwise, my father would never have been born.

At the end of World War I, my grandfather was decorated with the three standard medals handed out to most soldiers. After his death, even those medals were lost, and his story was never told again in the family until I uncovered the details – accidentally and to my surprise – last year. I am sad that I never knew that story during my many working visits to Thessaloniki and during many holidays in Greece and Turkey. But then the stories of many Irish soldiers who fought in World War I have gone untold for the past 90 years.

Greece’s second capital

It is coincidental then that Thessaloniki has long been one of my favourite Greek cities. Like Milan, Cork, Kyoto, and many other cities, Thessaloniki exudes the casual but elegant confidence associated with second cities. It is a pleasant, relaxed but cultured city, with fine museums, universities and a rich architectural and historical heritage, and I have always enjoyed staying there.

Thessaloniki, also known as Thessalonica or Salonica, and as Selânik in Turkish, is the second city of Greece. Greeks often refer to it as the co-capital – it is traditional for Greek Prime Ministers to set out the government’s policies for the coming year at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair. But even in Byzantine times, from the reign of Justinian, the city was known as the co-queen of the Byzantine Empire.

Thessaloniki is rimmed around the Thermaic Gulf, and spreads along a distance of 17 km, with a population of about one million people. This is Greece’s second major economic, industrial, commercial and political centre, and its port is a key hub for the rest of the Balkans and south-east Europe.

Legend says Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BC by King Kassander of Macedon on the site of the ancient town of Thermai, and he named it after his wife Thessaloniki, a half-sister of Alexander the Great – Thessaloniki means the “victory of Thessalians.”

After falling to the Romans in 168 BC, Thessaloniki became an important hub on the Via Egnatia and the trade route between Europe and Asia. The Apostle Paul visited the city, and addressed his two Letters to the Thessalonians to the Church in Thessaloniki. When the Eastern and Western Empires were divided in 379, Thessaloniki assumed new importance on frontiers threatened by the invading Goths, and faced sieges, attacks and assaults by Ostrogoths, Avars, Slavs, Saracen pirates and Normans.

Turkish and Jewish arrivals

Thessaloniki passed out of Byzantine hands in 1204 when Constantinople was captured in the Fourth Crusade and became the capital of a Latin kingdom in which the Orthodox bishops, priests and liturgies were replaced by Catholic and Latin rites. The city was recovered by the Byzantines in 1224, but in 1423 they sold it to the Venetians, who continued to hold Thessaloniki until it was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1430.

The Turks turned the churches into mosques, and drove the city into sharp decline, but the city’s Muslim and Jewish population grew. In 1478, the city had 4,000 Muslims, 6,000 Greek Orthodox, a handful of Catholics, and a tiny, ancient Greek-speaking or Romaniote Jewish community. But Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella were warmly welcomed in Thessaloniki. The Jewish community grew rapidly, and by 1519 numbered over 15,500 or almost 55% of the city’s residents.

For at least two centuries, Thessaloniki was the largest Jewish city in the world, and was known as the “Mother of Israel.” Many non-Jewish people in Thessaloniki also spoke Ladino, the Romance language of the Sephardic community, and the city virtually ground to a stop on Saturdays. The city even had its own unique sect of Jews, Sabbateans or followers of Sabbatai Zvi, who converted to Islam and built their mosques in the style of synagogues.

With rapid economic growth from 1870, the population rose by 70% to 135,000 in 1917. New banks, hotels, theatres, warehouses and factories were built, the western districts, near the factories and industry, became the working class section, while the middle and upper classes gradually moved to the eastern suburbs. Members of the Jewish community in particular built elegant Renaissance-style and neo-classical villas and mansions that line Vassilis Olga Avenue.

War-time turmoil

During the First Balkan War, on 26 October (Greek style) 1912 – the feast-day of the city’s patron, Saint Dimitrios – the Ottoman general, Hassan Taxin Pasha, surrendered Thessaloniki to the Greek Army without resistance.

During World War I, a large allied force landed in Thessaloniki in 1915, making it the base for operations against pro-German Bulgaria. In 1916, pro-democracy Greek army officers loyal to the Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, set up a pro-Allied government in Thessaloniki, controlling northern Greece and the Aegean and opposing the pro-German royalist regime in Athens. Since then, Thessaloniki has been known as the “co-capital” of Greece.

About 300,000 allied soldiers were based in camps in the Thessaloniki area, including men like my grandfather and other members of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. A year after my grandfather was sent home, on 18 August 1917, tragedy struck Thessaloniki when most of the old town was destroyed in a devastating fire that started accidentally in a French camp, and swept mercilessly and uncontrollably through the city for 32 hours.

The great fire destroyed the historic centre and a large part of the city’s architectural heritage. It also dealt a heavy blow to the Jewish community and many Jews left for other parts of Europe, Turkey, the US and Alexandria in Egypt, where there was large Jewish and Greek-speaking communities.

After the fire, a new city was built on plans that included diagonal streets and monumental squares, and a street grid to channel traffic. The plan is impressive even by today’s standards. During this work, important Byzantine churches and landmarks were restored, as were the Ottoman mosques. The old Upper City became a heritage site, contemporary urban planning was balanced with tradition and history, and this vision plan continue to influence and shape planning decisions.

Refugees and deportations

Meanwhile, in the 1920s, 100,000 Greek refugees arrived in Thessaloniki and the surrounding area in 1923 after the Asia Minor catastrophe caused by the war between Greece and Turkey.

In the inter-war years, the Jewish population fell of Thessaloniki fell to 20%. Those Jews who remained saw themselves as both Greek and Jewish, and in 1926, the Greek Government re-emphasised that all citizens of Greece enjoyed equal rights. The historian Misha Glenny says these Greek Jews had not encountered “anti-Semitism in its North European form … The 20th century had witnessed the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment among Greeks ... but it attracted an insignificant minority.”

When the city was captured by German Nazis on 22 April 1941, the threat of deportation was repeatedly met with disbelief. But by the time the occupation ended on 30 October 1944, over 95% of the city’s Jewish population had been exterminated by the Nazis. Today, there are fewer than 1,000 Jews in Thessaloniki.

After World War II, Thessaloniki was quickly rebuilt. But 30 years ago, on 20 June 1978, the city was hit by a powerful earthquake, measuring 6.5. Several buildings were severely damaged, including important Byzantine monuments, and 40 people were crushed to death in one apartment block.

Spanning the centuries

Thessaloniki remains a beautiful and elegant city. Nikis Avenue, an attractive waterfront promenade, is lined with cafés, restaurants and shops. Aristotelous Square, leading up from Nikis Avenue on the waterfront, is bottle-shaped, funnelling into an avenue lined with tall archondika or former mansions that have been converted into shops and hotels. The old Modiano Market and the Jewish Museum are just a block away.

Despite sieges, fires and earthquakes, many Byzantine, Ottoman and Jewish buildings and monuments have survived, and the symbol of the city is White Tower, built by the Venetians and once used as an Ottomans prison. The Arch of Galerius is ornately decorated with reliefs representing the victories of Galerius over the Persians in 298.

The largest church in Greece, Aghios Dimitrios, stands above the Roman agora and forum. It has a labyrinthine crypt with catacombs and the cell where the city’s patron, Saint Dimitrios, was imprisoned. Aghia Sophia, the city’s cathedral until the 16th century, was modelled on the great Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. Aghios Georgios is an enormous circular church with a majestic dome and eight barrel-vaulted niches, built first as the mausoleum of Galerius.

The Upper Town or Ano Poli retains much of the city’s Ottoman heritage, with beautiful wooden houses with overhanging balconies and winding, stepped streets and alleys leading up to the Seven Tower Castle (Eptapyrgio) at the top of the city. Ano Poli has some old and important churches and monasteries in the city, including Vlatadon Monastery with its great library and frescoes, as well as the house where Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was born in 1880.

In the past few weeks, the 300,000 Irish men who fought and died in Greece, Turkey and elsewhere during World War I have been remembered with dignity in commemorative ceremonies and services, public debates, special programmes on RTÉ and at the launch of new books marking the ninetieth anniversary of the end that war. Up to 30,000 of those men died during the war. Many more, like my grandfather, died in the years that followed. His memory means Thessaloniki, the elegant second city of Greece, will have a new and deeper significance for me, when I return.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was published in the December 2008 editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe)

To listen to one of my favourite songs about Thessaloniki click on this link: or follow this link: