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.