Thursday, 31 December 2009

The last beach walk of the year

Darkness closes in on New Year’s Eve on the beach in Bray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I had my last walk on a beach for the year 2009 in Bray, Co Wicklow, on New Year’s Eve. Surprisingly, there was no snow covering Bray Head or the Sugarloaf Mountain. But dusk was descending quickly in the afternoon as I finished lunch in Palazzo and walked across the Promenade and down onto the windswept beach.

A double espresso in Palazzo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

This is the worst winter in Ireland in my memory. The strong north arctic winds had swept in from the Irish Sea against the east coast and had scattered sand, pebbles and seaweed up onto the promenade walk from the beach.

Despite the chilling, biting temperatures, it was dry and it was impossible to resist a walk on the beach before darkness settled in. The strong wind was churning up the waves, and I couldn’t but feel sorry for the poor crews working on two ships I could glimpse out on the horizon.

A beautiful winter afternoon on the beach in Bray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Winter is not my favourite time of the year, but this beach walk was a beautiful and awe-filled way to end the year, and to look forward to 2010 … with many more beach walks on the horizon hopefully.

I have really appreciated my beach walks this year; they have helped me cope so well with sarcoidosis, so that while I may have sarcoidosis, sarcoidosis will never have me.

Happy New Year. May 2010 be full of blessings for you.

From Byzantium to beach walks: a year of hoping and coping

A year in Facebook status listings

Patrick Comerford

My year opened with a double-page feature on Byzantium in the Athens News, and closed with a guest column on my beach walks in Skerries in the Skerries News; it opened with heavy snow, and closed with heavy snow. The heavy snow and the floods this year were just some of the portents – alongside the failure of world leaders to reach an agreement on climate change at Copenhagen – that global warming threatens every one of us with disaster. In between, we had floods throughout Ireland. And the Murphy Report on clerical sexual abuse was one more sad episode in a year that has been a sad one for Ireland, politically, economically and socially.

At a political level, the Government has managed to punish the poor and those who are dependent on social welfare payments for the crimes of those who are responsible for the economic mess we are in. The punishment was instant and merciless for the poor, while those who became rich as they created these misfortunes have gone unpunished, without trial, and without any of us seeing justice being done.

Jurisprudence demands not only that justice is done, but that justice must be seen to be done. But we have yet to see any justice being done when it comes to dealing with irresponsible bankers and property speculators. The last decade has been known to many as the “Noughties” – but we all know too who the “Naughties” have been.

The money to recapitalise the banks has been delivered on demand, while the bankers continue to pay themselves massive bonuses with our taxes. Yet the Government is unable to find the wherewithall to raise the money needed for new school buildings, to keep hospital wards open, to maintain standards in dental care, health care and education, or to build the infrastructures this country needs if we are going to seize the opportunities that become available once the recession ends.

The ESRI says the recession should end by the second half of 2010. But as cabinet ministers tried to convince us a few weeks ago that we had turned the corner, I wondered – I just wondered – whether we had turned around that corner into a blind alley or a cul-de-sac.

It has been a disappointing year too for the social mix that was once Irish society. One report recently revealed that up to 50 per cent of our recent immigrants have left once again. I had hoped we were moving towards a society with a little more cultural and social diversity. But that hope has diminished in the last 12 months, and I harbour real fears that Irish society will become more racist if the current economic trends and consequent unemployment figures continue.

And yet I drew great encouragement from meeting so many of my old school friends from the class of 1969 at Gormanston 40 years after we sat the Leaving Certificate. If we are a good cross-section of Irish society in all the areas we work or in which we have commitments, then the future of Ireland is in safe and capable hands, in the hands of people I have confidence in and can trust.

And who could not have taken courage and inspiration from the Irish Triple Crown, Grand Slam and defeat of the world champions, South Africa, as well as the awesome performance by Leinster?

Internationally, there have been some glimmers of hope. The inauguration of President Barack Obama has allowed the world to breathe a deep sigh of relief. He has already delivered on his promises on reforming US healthcare policies, and while he has yet to deliver on his promise of nuclear disarmament and an end to the nuclear arms race, at least those promises are there and are alive.

He may not have earned his Nobel Peace Prize yet, but at least it represents the global sigh of relief that the Bush Administration is well and truly gone. The wars continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Iran and North Korea are no longer being marginalised as the axis of evil or being offered a clenched fist, and the Muslim world has been offered “a new beginning.”

While the news from the Middle East continued to be horrifying and depressing throughout the year, there were some tiny signs of hope too. The Irish aid convoy trying to reach the besieged Gaza Strip was one sign of how Irish people could respond to the situation there, and the irrepressible opposition protesters in Iran demonstrate a persistent courage that defies the stereotypical images of Iranians that were projected by the Bush Administration. They are not demanding much; indeed, their demands are quite conservative; but they are brave and courageous.

Living with sarcoidosis

In Quemerford in Calne, Wiltshire, a day after receiving confirmation of the diagnosis of sarcoidosis

During the year I have become all too familiar with my GP’s waiting room, and the consultants’ rooms, the coffee shops, the corridors and the wards of the Beacon Clinic, the Blackrock Clinic, Saint James’s Hospital, and the Adelaide and Meath Hospital in Tallaght. I have had tests, probes, consultations, explorations, scans, XRays, analyses, weekly injections and surgery.

Without going through all the boring details, the climax came with a ’phone call while I was in Bath confirming the diagnosis of sarcoidosis. The good news, I was told, is that I do not have lung cancer. That took me aback, but then I should have realised that they had to test me for that too.

Both sarcoidosis and my severe deficiency of Vitamin B12 leave me sapped of physical energy at the most unsuspecting and unexpected times. I have pains in my joints, particularly in my knees, fingers and wrists, my glands are swollen, I have a constant feeling of pins and needles under my feet, shortage of breath, a persistent dry cough, and many sleepless nights with sweats and cramps in my legs and feet.

A clear blue sky over the beach in Skerries ... my walks on the beach in Skerries have been a life-enhancing part of living with sarcoidosis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

But my spiritual, mental and intellectual health seem to be as good as ever, and in recent months I have been emotionally boosted by long and regular beach walks, particularly on the beaches of Fingal in North Co Dublin, including Malahide, Portmarnock, Donabate, Portrane, Rush, Loughshinny, and Skerries, as well as beaches in Laytown and Bettystown, Co Meath, in Bray, Co Wicklow, on Achill Island in Co Mayo, and in Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford. And it was so wonderful to walk on beaches in Turkey and Greece this summer too. If the year started with the Athens News and ended with the Skerries News, then those places also symbolise the breaks and the beach walks that have helped me to cope with sarcoidosis. As I have said throughout the year on this blog, I may have sarcoidosis, but sarcoidosis will never have me.

Travel at home and abroad

During the year, I travelled throughout Ireland for church-related events and work, staying in Sligo for the clergy conference, Armagh for the General Synod, and Cork during ordinations, as well as staying in Kilkenny and Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford, returning to Wexford, revisiting childhood memories in Lismore and Cappoquin in Co Waterford, spending a weekend in Galway before the floods, a day on Achill Island at a funeral, visiting Glendalough and Rathdrum in Co Wicklow, and attending ordinations in Dublin, Waterford, Kilmore, Co Cavan, and Castledermot, Co Kildare.

I had over half-a-dozen visits to England. I spent a weekend in Newcastle with my younger son on a trip primarily focussed on visiting Saint James’s Park, the home of Newcastle United. The Revd Christopher Woods invited me to Cambridge to preach at Candlemas in Christ’s College, Cambridge, and the Revd Alan McCormack invited me to preach in Saint Botolph’s Church in London.

Snow blankets the First Court in Christ’s College, Cambridge, in front of my rooms ... the year seemed to open with snow and to close with snow (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2009)

But heavy snow in February stopped me from getting from Cambridge to London, my flight from Stansted to Dublin was cancelled, and I was grateful to Christopher and to the porters at Christ’s College whose kindness and hospitality allowed me to stay on while I was booked onto another flight to Dublin from Birmingham. Eventually, the journey back to Dublin turned out to be almost as long and certainly as adventurous as my initially-planned stay in Cambridge.

I was back in Lichfield a few times during the year too, staying at both the Bogey Hole, Pauline Duval’s bijou guesthouse in Dam Street, and at Gill Jones’s house in the Cathedral Close.

In Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, I stayed at the High Leigh conference centre for the annual conference of USPG (Anglicans in World Mission – the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel). I also had a few days in July in the West Country, visiting Bath, Bristol and Chippenham, staying once again at the White Hart Inn in Calne, and spending some time in ancestral village Quemerford.

I was back in Cambridge in the summer too, staying at Sidney Sussex College during the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. This year’s theme was Love, and our lecturers included Bishop Kallistos Ware, Sister Magdalen, Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou), Professor Sebastian Brock, Professor David Frost, Dr Marcus Plested, Father Michael Harper, Dr Alexander Lingas, Father Alexander Tefft, Dr Christine Mangala Frost, and the Revd Professor Andrew Louth. The summer school also included a one-day retreat in the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon in Essex.

Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College, with the entrance to the chapel on the left and the entrance to H Staircase on the right ... my rooms were on the second floor, just above the end of the Virginia Creeper (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

It was good to meet so many old friends at the Cambridge Summer School. Paul Murphy, who had been a theology student with me at the Kimmage Mission Institute in Kimmage Manor in the mid-1980s, turned up for a few drinks in the Eagle, as we caught up on news of old friends, shared our experiences of sarcoidosis, and exchanged stories about our friend Breffni Walker, who died earlier this year. And there were other late nights in the Eagle too.

During the weekend before the summer school began, I attended Choral Evensong and the Sung Sunday Eucharist in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. This made it all the more difficult to hear the news about the circumstances of the death of the Dean of King’s, the Revd Ian Thompson.

At the end of the summer school, Frank Domoney, an old school friend from the Gormanston class of 1969 and who had turned up in February to hear me preach in Christ’s College, turned up once again in Sidney Sussex to bring me on a delightful tour of Saffron Walden, some of the pretty and charming villages around the area of East Anglia where he lives, and to see Audley End House.

I did a few other tourist things in Cambridge that I had never dared to do before, including taking a punt on the backs. Cambridge was marking the 800th anniversary of its foundation, but in Cambridge and Lichfield they were marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. In Cambridge, it was a matter of pride that Darwin had been an undergraduate at Christ’s, while in Lichfield I stay regularly in a house that looks on the gardens of Darwin House, where his grandfather Erasmus Darwin lived.

I returned to Lichfield a few times this year for my own personal retreat, spending time in prayer in the cathedral and in Saint John’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In Lichfield they were also marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson. Both anniversaries led to some of the radio interviews and programmes during the year.

Travel in Europe

I was in Madrid for the first time in late April and early May. The May Day march was colourful, and it was a delight to see so many older people that day wearing the Spanish republican flag as lapel pins. With hope, courage and endurance, they must have faced so many long, dark days under Franco and now they were showing pride in their hard-won freedom to express their political views.

There was a place for me in the sun in Samos this summer (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

At the end of summer, I was back in Turkey and Greece, staying in Kuşadasi on the western coast of Anatolia and visiting Samos in the Dodecanese islands, as well as visiting Ephesus and the mountain-side town of Sirince, from which the Greek-speaking population was deported en masse in 1922.

Ministry and mission

A year reflected in a collage of tagged photographs posted on Facebook

The new MTh course is now up-and-running in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, with 19 new full-time students and five part-time students on the course. In addition, there are eight students in Year III completing the BTh course and students in Year II and Year III of the distance learning NSM course leading to awards from Saint John’s College, Nottingham, and the Open University, and there are some additional students whose MA or PhD theses I have been asked to supervise. This year, we were also joined by two new staff members, Dr Katie Heffelfinger, as Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics, and the Revd Paddy McGlinchey as Lecturer in Missiology and Pastoral Studies.

It was a real pleasure throughout the year taking my turn the chapel in CITI and in Christ Church Cathedral, preaching and celebrating, and to take part in the CITI Ash Wednesday retreat in the Orlagh Retreat Centre and in the CITI carol service in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church, Cathal Brugha Street.

I was a visiting preacher in a number of churches during the year, including Rathfarnham Parish Church, Rathgar Methodist Church, Saint Columba’s, Swords, Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Saint John’s Church, Clondalkin, Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, Saint Michan’s Church in inner-city Dublin, Saint Patrick’s, Donabate, Saint John’s, Kilkenny, and Whitechurch Parish Church, and took part in services or spoke in parishes in Malahide, Rathfarnham, Saint Stephen’s, Mount Street, and in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns. I also preached at the service in Saint Mary’s Church, Old Ross, marking the tercentenary of the arrival of the Palatines in Co Wexford as refugees from Germany.

I led retreats or quiet days for the churches in Bray, Co Wicklow, at the Dominican Priory in Tallaght, and the Anglican Franciscan Third Order in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street. I took part in the God Friday service and the SIPTU memorial service in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green. And I was invited to read the Gospel at the funeral of the Revd Dr Breffni Walker in the Spiritan Church in Kimmage Manor.

Another dear friend who died during the year was Teresa Lawlor. She was only 50 and she had been a very talented musician who had a very diverse career that included being a harpist in Bunratty and working with two Nobel Peace Prize winners – Sean Mac Bride in Dublin and Mother Teresa in Calcutta. She was one of seven sisters, each as intelligent, challenging and thoughtful as the other.

After many years of working with the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, I stood down as chair earlier this year. But I remain on the MTh Management Committee, the BTh Co-ordinating Committee, the NSM Co-ordinating Committee, the General Synod, the Standing Committee and the Council for Christian Unity and Dialogue, as vice-chair and secretary of the Interfaith Working Group, on the chapter, board and music committee in Christ Church Cathedral, and on the board of USPG Ireland and the council of USPG in Britain. I also continue as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an honorary position held in the past by Sean Mac Bride and John de Courcy Ireland.

At the Hiroshima Day commmemoration service in Merrion Square, Dublin, on 6 August 2009

But another real commitment and pleasure is the annual sale during the August Bank Holiday weekend in Portrane, to raise funds for Hand-to-Heart, an Irish agency providing aid to parishes and projects in Romania and Albania. This sale is organised each year by my cousins Mary Lynders and her four daughters – if Carlsberg did sales teams they probably couldn’t do as well as these gifted and zealous women.

In my family, we also had a nephew’s wedding in Dalkey, and the baptism of my niece’s third child in Lucan.

If Carslberg did sales teams they couldn’t do one as good as my Lynders cousins in Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Culture and publications

Bath and Cambridge were among the cultural highlights of the year, along with the publication of my review of the Byzantium exhibition at Royal Academy in London in January. I was also involved in the programme for the major exhibition, Icons in Transformation, during the summer in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, with a lecture on the Cretan School of Icons and its contribution to Western Art. But another cultural highlight was Leonard Cohen’s return visit and concert in Dublin in July. During the year, I was also elected a Fellow of the Academy of Saint Cecilia (FASC).

There were radio and television interviews and broadcasts. I continue writing my monthly feature for the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory), as well as writing occasionally for The Irish Times and the Church of Ireland Gazette.

I was also asked to write this year for the Lichfield Blog and the Skerries News and had chapters published in the book China and the Irish, published by RTÉ in the Thomas Davis Lecture series, and a chapter in Celebrating the Oxford Movement, published by Affirming Catholicism Ireland. The Kilcronagahan Community Association published my story of a romantic affair between Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek writer, and Kathleen Forde, the daughter of a Church of Ireland rector, as A Romantic Myth? Kilcronagahan’s link to Zorba the Greek. And I am looking forward to a paper being published in the Field Day Review within the next few weeks on the life of Joseph Stock, who was Bishop of Killala in 1798 when French forces landed in Mayo and took him prisoner.

But one of the most interesting publications I was involved in this year was one I made no contribution at all. During one of my weeks as canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral, I stumbled by accident on the exhibition on The Irish House organised by the Dublin Civic Trust, including exhibited items of stucco art and sculpture by my great-great grandfather, James Comerford. My unbounded enthusiasm led to an invitation in December to launch a new publication in association with this exhibition. It was a wonderful tribute to my great-grandfather, and it was an appropriate start to the Christmas season.

At the CITI Carol Service in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s at the end of the year

I hope you had a blessed Christmas and that the new year ahead of us in 2010 is one filled with many blessings.

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

Monday, 28 December 2009

A visit to Lusk and a walk on the beach in Skerries

The moon above the beach in Skerries on Sunday afternoon ... these beach walks in Skerries are good for my physical well-being and my spiritual health (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2009)

Patrick Comerford

On Sunday morning, I was in Christ Church Cathedral for the Cathedral Eucharist. After all the wonderful services and liturgies in the lead-up to Christmas, this was a very quiet Eucharist, celebrated by the Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne.

Reserved ... just for me (Photograph: Patrick Cometrford, 2009)

Someone had placed a reserved sign for me on a cone in the parking place on the south side of the chapter house normally reserved for the canon-in-residence. But the canon-in-residence and preacher this Sunday was the Dean’s Vicar, Canon Mark Gardner, who is about to move to the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Group of Parishes.

The congregation was small and, because there was no choir, there was seating for everyone in the chapter stalls, while the clergy took our places in the sanctuary. After coffee in the crypt, I headed off to Skerries for lunch and a much-needed walk on the beach. But on the way I stopped for the first time in the village of Lusk, four miles north of Swords, to look at the former Church of Ireland parish church, which was closed exactly 50 years ago this week and which now houses Lusk Heritage Centre.

A towering church

The former Church of Ireland parish church towers like a mighty castle above the village of Lusk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The former parish church in Lusk towers like a mighty castle above the village, and the buildings on the site include 19th century church, the ancient round tower and a mediaeval belfry. Together, they form a unit, although they were built over a period of about 1400 years.

The round tower at Lusk is the only surviving building from a monastery founded about the year 450 by Saint Mac Cuillinn. The site is also associated with Saint Maurus. Saint Maculin is reputed to have either lived or been buried in a cave, which may explain the name Lusk, which is derived from the Gaelic word Lusca meaning a cave or underground chamber. The annals refer to the death in 497 of Saint Mac Cuillinn, who is described as both Abbot and Bishop of Lusk.

Cassan, a learned scribe who was known as the chronographer of Lusk, was the Abbot of Lusk when he died in 695. In 695 or 696 a grand synod was convened at Lusk by Saint Adamnanus, at which all the principal prelates of the Ireland were present.

Although the round tower is not the tallest in Ireland, it has eight storeys and a basement, which is more than any other round tower. But the size of the round towers did not defend Lusk against successive waves of attackers and invaders, both Irish and Viking.

The monastery was plundered and destroyed by the Vikings in 827, 835 and burned again in 856, when the monastery and town of Lusk were razed in a fire. Lusk was attacked by the neighbouring Irish in 1053, in 1089, the Irish burned down the church again with 180 people inside. In 1135, Lusk Abbey and town were burned and the surrounding countryside of Fingal was laid waste by Donal Mac Murrogh O Melaghlin in revenge for the murder of his brother, Prince Conor of Meath.

In mediaeval times, the parish consisted of a rectory and vicarage: the rectory was divided into two portions, one was held by the Archdeacon of Dublin by the Precentor of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, the other by the Treasurer of the cathedral, and each as Prebendary of Lusk, would appoint t their own Vicar of Lusk.

The mediaeval Prebendaries of Lusk probably never visited the parish, leaving the pastoral and liturgical work to their vicars. Those prebendaries of Lusk included Walter Scamel, who became Bishop of Salisbury in 1284, and James de Hispania (of Spain), a nephew of Queen of Eleanor of England.

Mediaeval embellishments

Because Lusk was plundered and burned so many times, the only remnant of the early monastic foundation is the Round Tower. The round tower is about 27 metres high and retains its original conical cap. There are nine storeys including the basement. The flat-headed doorway is now less than a metre above ground level.

The ancient Round Tower in Lusk is attached to a square tower built in the 15th or 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The Round Tower is attached to a square tower built in the 15th or 16th century with three matching round towers at its corners. This belfry is thought to date from about 1500. The round tower was cleverly incorporated into the design of the belfry with three corner turrets and the round tower making the fourth. Although built against the round tower, it is obvious that the round tower and the belfry are separate from each other.

As the belfry was being built, the Precentor of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Canon Thomas Rochfort, took an unusually hands-on approach to his responsibilities as Rector of Lusk. In 1502, he donated a large alabaster high altar to the church, with three images – one of Christ, placed in the centre, with Saint Maculin of Lusk on his right and Saint Patrick on his left. The church also had an altar dedicated to Saint Catharine.

In front of the altar in the south aisle was the elaborate 16th century double effigy of Sir Christopher Barnewall and his wife Marion Sharl (1589). The other tombs in Lusk included James Bermingham (1527), with his effigy in chain armour, although these are now said to be in the belfry.

‘Decayed and ruinous’

At the Visitation of 1615, there were reports of the “Church and Chancel in good repair.” By 1630, however, Archbishop Lancelot Bulkeley reported that “the Church for the most part is decayed and ruinous, the Chancel is in remarkably good repair, and will be made better this summer.” In addition, he found that “all the parishioners were recusants, and none come to church except the Lord Chief Baron and his family, and a few more.”

By the 17th century, it appears the Precentor and the Treasurer were able to agree on appointing one and the same person as Vicar of Lusk, and the Vicars of Lusk were often also Vicars of Donabate or of Baldongan.

From 1780 to 1788, the Vicar of Lusk was Joseph Stock, who later played a key role in the 1798 Rising as the Bishop of Killala who was taken prisoner by the French troops who landed in Co Mayo.

While Stock was Vicar, the antiquarian and writer Austin Cooper visited Lusk in 1783 and noted that the round tower was in good condition, although it had no floors or ladders at that time. However, Cooper also noted that the church was too large for the tiny congregation in Lusk.

Inside, two long aisles were separated by a series of seven pointed arches. But these arches were later filled up with masonry, and the eastern portion of the south aisle was the only part used for services, while almost all the windows in the rest of the church were closed up, leaving the whole of the north aisle in almost total darkness. Cooper said the north aisle “was a waste, only used as a burial place in the same manner as the churchyard; consequently it is all rubbish, bones, skulls, etc., the church is only preserved entire by a good roof covering the whole.”

Literary connections

The Echlin tomb, with an epitaph borrowed from Alexander Pope, stood inside the walls of the older, larger church in Lusk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

You can estimate how large the original monastic and mediaeval church was by standing at the graves in the churchyard of Sir Robert Echlin (1699-1757) of Kenure House, at nearby Rush, and his wife Elizabeth (1704-1782). The Echlins bought their estate from the Butlers of Ormond, and Sir Robert Echlin, who married Elizabeth Bellingham in 1727, settled in Kenure two years later in 1729. Robert died died in 1757, and his wife, Elizabeth died in 1782, a year before Cooper’s visit. Their grave was once inside the church but now stands outside in the churchyard.

Elizabeth Echlin was an important 18th-century literary figure in Ireland. She was the correspondent of Samuel Richardson and the author of an alternative ending to Richardson’s Clarissa (1757-1748). Her husband’s epitaph, which she composed in 1759, reads:

Here rests an honest Man without pretence,
Blest with plain Reason and with sober Sense,
Calmly he look’d on either Life and here
Saw nothing to regret or there to fear.
From Natures temp’rate feast rose satisfyd
Thank’d Heav’n that he lived, and that he dy’d.

The lines of this epitaph were appropriated by Lady Echlin from two of Alexander Pope’s best epitaphs, the first two lines from that on a Mr Corbett, and the last four from that of a Mr Elijah Fenton.

The end of a church

In the great storm of 1839, the roof described by Cooper was blown off the church, and the church became a gaping ruin. On 8 December 1845, parishioners of Lusk were ordered to go to church in Balrothery Church because Lusk Church was in ruins.

However, after a gap of about eight years, the church was pulled down, and a smaller church in the Gothic or early English style was built in 1847 against the east wall of the belfry as the new parish church, using materials from the ancient abbey church. During building, workers found the coffin plate of Roman Patrick Russell, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin during the reign of James II.

The new church was licensed for public worship on 13 October 1847, and two years later the canons of Saint Patrick’s transferred their incomes from the parish to the Vicar of Lusk.

The floors and ladders in the round tower were fitted in the 1860s, along with a wooden and cement roof by the Revd Dr William Reeves, who was Vicar of Lusk from 1857 to 1865. He also filled up a breach in the second storey that led to the square mediaeval bell tower, and possibly another at the level of the belfry battlements. Reeves was a much-published church historian and later became Dean of Armagh and Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore.

Kenure or Rush was joined to Lusk in 1894, and they were united with Donabate in 1946. However, Kenure was transferred to Holmpatrick and Balbriggan, and Lusk Church was finally closed after Divine Service fifty years ago on the last Sunday in December, 1959.

The church now houses the Lusk Heritage Centre, and the belfry houses an exhibition on mediaeval churches of North County Dublin. The key to the round tower is held nearby, and I must try to see inside both the church and the towers some day.

Lunch and a beach walk

Pasta Pizza ... lunch on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

As I headed on to Skerries, it was only 1.30, but the half moon had already risen and was high above the islands off the coast. My favourite café in Skerries, the Olive, was closed, and instead I had lunch in Pasta Pizza on Strand Street.

Then it was time for that much-longed-for beach walk. The centre of Skerries may still have been snoozing off the effects of Christmas shopping, eating and drinking, but a lot of people were on the beach walking off those effects and clearing their heads.

The beach was dry, the sand was compact, the sky was as blue as a summer’s day, and a half-moon was clearly visible on Sunday afternoon in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Despite the cold, wet weather we’ve been having for a long time, I have never seen the beach in Skerries as dry as it was yesterday afternoon, and the sand was firm and tightly packed. In crisp clear light, the islands were cut out in cardboard-like relief, and from Red Island it was possible to see as far as the Mountains of Mourne.

The setting sun casting its light across Skerries Harbour late on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Then it was back around the Lifeboat station to the Harbour, along by the north strand, where the setting sun was casting a golden-brown hue on everything, and on to the Obelisk and into Strand Street to pick up the papers in Gerry’s and a few bottles of wine to bring to last night’s party in the Poultons.

The rising moon could be glimpsed through the trees behind and behind the spire of Holmpatrick Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

As I was leaving Skerries, I could glimpse the rising moon behind the spire of Holmpatrick Church, while from the churchyard the windmills were clearly visible even though dusk was settling. I headed back along the coast to Rush, back into Lusk, and through Donabate onto M50 and home before heading off once again in the evening to the Rectory in Killiney.

These beach walks in Skerries are good for my physical well-being and my spiritual health. Over the past weeks, the effects of sarcoidosis on my joints have left me with pains and cramps in my legs at night, and I often wake short of breath. But I still know in Skerries that sarcoidosis can never deprive me of the pleasures of life. I may have sarcoidosis, but sarcoidosis will never have me.

The windmills in Skerries seen from Holmpatrick churchyard as dusk was settling (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)>br />

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Please call this Saint Stephen’s Day

An icon of Saint Stephen, the first deacon and the martyr

Patrick Comerford

I find it hard to call today “Boxing Day.” I suppose for many Dubliners, this day is always going to be “Stevenses Day.” But for me, 26 December is always going to be Saint Stephen’s Day.

Stephen is a family name: my grandfather, father, eldest brother and a nephew were baptised Stephen. But my reasons for insisting on retaining the name of Saint Stephen’s Day is not some quirky genealogical sentimentality or some displaced filial loyalty.

It is theologically important to remind ourselves on the day after Christmas Day of the important link between the Incarnation and bearing witness to the Resurrection faith.

Saint Stephen the Deacon is the Protomartyr of Christianity. The Greek word name Στέφανος means “crown” or “wreath” and the Acts of the Apostles tell is that Saint Stephen earned his crown at his martyrdom when he was stoned to death around the year AD 34 or 35 by an angry mob encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, the future Apostle Paul.

Stephen was the first of the seven deacons chosen in the Apostolic Church in Jerusalem. While he was on trial, Saint Stephen experienced a theophany: But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ (Acts 7: 55-56).

The Lion’s Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem is also known as Saint Stephen’s Gate because of the tradition that Saint Stephen was stoned there. In AD 415, a church was built Saint Stephen’s honour in Jerusalem to hold his relics. The relics were later moved to Constantinople. Today, those relics are said to be buried under the altar of the Church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome.

The “Feast of Stephen” is inextricably linked with Christmas through the English carol Good King Wenceslas. Although today is a public holiday in the United Kingdom as Boxing Day. But as Saint Stephen’s Day, today is still a public holiday in Ireland and many other countries, including Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, and parts of France, the Philippines and Spain.

In the Orthodox Church, Saint Stephen’s Day is celebrated on 27 December, and is known the “Third Day of the Nativity.”

The interior of Saint Stephen’s Church, Mount Street Crescent, Dublin

Saint Stephen’s Church in Mount Street Crescent, Dublin – popularly known as the “Pepper Canister Church” – is one of the last churches built in the classical style in Dublin. Saint Stephen’s, which opened in 1824, was designed by John Bowden and Joseph Welland. The tower and portico were modelled on three elegant monuments in Athens: the Erechtheum on the Acropolis (the portico), the Tower of the Winds (the campanile), and the Monument of Lysicrates (the cupola). But the Victorian apse, which was added in 1852, owes its inspiration to the Oxford Movement.

But the most impressive church I have visited that is named after the first martyr is the Stephansdom, the Cathedral of Saint Stephen, in Vienna, which dates back to 1147.

A memorial tablet recalls Mozart’s relationship with the cathedral. This was his parish church when he lived at the “Figaro House” and he was married there and two of his children were baptised there. He was named an adjunct music director there shortly before his death, and his funeral was held in the Chapel of the Cross in the cathedral in 1791.

The Stephansdom has 23 bells, and it is said Beethoven realised the full extent of his deafness when he saw birds flying from the bell tower and realised he could not hear the bells toll.

A few years ago, I also visited Saint Stephen’s House, the theological college in Oxford popularly known as “Staggers,” which is firmly rooted in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, maintaining high standards of liturgy and intellectual rigour.

Saint Stephen’s House was founded in 1876 by leading Anglo-Catholics members of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, including Edward King, then Regius professor of Pastoral Theology at Oxford and later Bishop of Lincoln.

King was one of the outstandingly holy men of his time. Other founding figures included Henry Scott Holland, one of the leading figures in the development of the Christian social teaching of the time. It was he who suggested the name of the house.

Saint Stephen’s has moved since its foundation, and is now located at Iffley Road in East Oxford in the former monastery of the Cowley Fathers, where it is said Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to return to Germany where he met with martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom illustrates how none of this architecture or grandeur, and the extension to the Christmas holiday provided by this saint’s day would have any meaning today without the faithful witness of Saint Stephen, the first deacon and first martyr, who links our faith in the Incarnation with our faith in the Resurrection.

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

Friday, 25 December 2009

Happy Christmas to you all

Patrick Comerford

Last night I was in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, for the Midnight Eucharist. The Archbishop of Dublin presided, the Dean preached, and I was of the cathedral priests assisting in administering Holy Communion. In the chapter room, we were all delighted to hear Canon Katharin Poulton has been appointed Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.

This morning, at 11.15 a.m., I am celebrating the Christmas Eucharist in Whitechurch Parish (Church of Ireland), Rathfarnham, Dublin, at 11.15 a.m.

Our opening hymn is Good Christians all, rejoice (Church Hymnal 159) by John Mason Neale, who also wrote O come, O come Emmanuel:

Good Christians all, rejoice
with heart and soul and voice;
give ye heed to what we say;
Jesus Christ is born today;
ox and ass before him bow,
and he is in the manger now.
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

Good Christians all, rejoice
with heart and soul, and voice;
now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this;
he has opened heaven’s door,
and all are blessed evermore.
Christ was born for this!
Christ was born for this!

Good Christians all, rejoice
with heart and soul and voice;
now ye need not fear the grave:
Jesus Christ was born to save:
calls you one, and calls you all,
to gain his everlasting hall.
Christ was born to save!
Christ was born to save!

The Collect of the Day

Almighty God,
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer

God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
May the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord. Amen.

Happy Christmas to you all!

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

Thursday, 24 December 2009

The message of Saint Nicholas

Patrick Browne’s photograph on the front-page of The Irish Times shows the Nativity scene in a stain glass window in Saint Augustine’s Church, New Ross, Co Wexford

In today’s edition [24 December 2009], The Irish Times marks Christmas Eve with this editorial on page 19:

The Night before Christmas

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.
And Mama in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

Those opening lines of Clement Clarke Moore’s much-loved poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas will have joy-filled resonances throughout Ireland tonight as children head to bed in happy anticipation of a visit from Santa Claus. And parents will be hoping that these children sleep well and safe – and that when they wake it will be to the joys of Christmas and its true message.

Since it was first published in 1823, Moore’s poem has shaped many of our images of Santa Claus: his appearance, the night of his visit, his means of transport, the number and names of his reindeer, his landing on roofs, and how he climbs down chimneys with toys to fill stockings by the fire. Moore was a professor of biblical studies, a classical scholar and the son of an Episcopalian bishop. And so there is no accident in the way he transformed Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Byzantine bishop, into Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas was one of the fathers of the Council of Nicaea, where he defended traditional Christian doctrine. But as myths developed around his life, he became a secret giver of gifts, putting coins in the shoes of poor children. One story tells how a butcher lured three children into his house, slaughtered them and planned to sell them as meat pies. When Nicholas heard of the ghoulish crime, he prayed and raised the three boys back to life. Another tradition tells how three poor girls were left without a dowry and faced being sold into prostitution. After dark, Nicholas went to their house and threw three purses filled with gold, one for each, down the chimney.

Victorian writers built on those mediaeval myths, transforming Nicholas from a saintly bishop to a roly-poly gift-giver. But the metamorphosis of the generous bishop into the commercially lucrative Santa Claus should not detract from the lessons to be learned from the myths about Saint Nicholas as the bishop who cared for the poor and who was the defender and rescuer of children endangered by poverty, degradation, exploitation and abuse.

In the light of recent events – including the resignation ysterday of a second Catholic bishop – the legacy of Saint Nicholas also provides a timely example. On this Christmas Eve, Nicholas reminds us that the care of children and their protection from abuse and exploitation is not an extra in the ministry of a bishop. It must be at its very heart. When all bishops live up to this responsibility, in word and in action, then we can echo the original final line in Moore’s poem: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

The Night before Christmas

Clement Clarke Moore

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes – how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Losing the battle against sarcoidosis

David McClendon ... lost the battle against Sarcoidosis this month at 44

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this week, I was saddened to read in The Guardian of the death the American journalist, academic and blogger, David McClendon, who has died aged 44.

For 15 years, David has been living with sarcoidosis (Boeck’s disease), although the Guardian said he had only been diagnosed with sarcoidosis in March – four months before I received confirmation of the same autoimmune condition.

David was the associate editor of the Chi-Town Daily News, an online Chicago newspaper, and taught journalism at Loyola University. After his diagnosis, he left his job and in July moved back to his parents' home in New Jersey to recuperate.

David gave a courageous account on his blog of his struggle to live with sarcoidosis, and wrote: “Disease will not define me. How I handle it will define me. I will fight it and win.”

He had written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Journal News, New York, and the New Haven Register before moving to Michigan. As a journalist, his friends said, he lived by the maxim that I have often said both journalists and priests should live by – we should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

On his blog, he wrote: “I believe in the human body’s ability to heal and my ability to overcome.” However, his heart gave out and he collapsed in the grocery store while buying milk.

He said constantly that this “disease will not define me. How I handle it will define me. I will fight it and win. Defeat is not [an] option … I am also a fighter trying to kick the ass of sarcoidosis, which affects my heart and lungs … I’m writing about my plan to get the disease under control. I can see the goal and I want to achieve it. It may take a while, but I will win the fight. I will keep on top of this until it is controlled.”

David knew he was not alone. He had a great family, great friends and he felt a kinship with everyone battling sarcoidosis: “Because of them, I say I am lucky and blessed. I will put a face on it because I can and others cannot. I can move and will keep on doing what I do until I cannot do it any more. I also look forward to learning how people with sarc and other diseases cope and overcome. We'll also have a little fun along the way. “

But after living for 15 years with Sarcoidosis, David lost his brave but humorous battle against this autoimmune disease that sees the body’s defences attack the vital organs, including lungs, kidneys and heart, and that causes scarring and the scar tissues clump together.

David has left his own account of living and struggling with Sarcoidosis on his blog:

Like David, I too have sarcoidosis. But as I say time and time again, sarcoidosis will never have me.

Monday, 21 December 2009

There is no Christmas faith without faith in the Resurrection

Saint Thomas the Apostle in a stained-glass window

Patrick Comerford

Today, the singing of O Antiphons was interrupted, and there was no provision for singing an O Aniphon on 21 December, which had once been the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle.

Yesterday, the traditional antiphon for 20 December was:

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.

(based on John 8: 12; Hebrews 1: 3; Malachi 4: 2; Luke 1: 79):

O Dayspring, splendour of eternal light,
and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death

And the traditional antiphon for tomorrow (22 December) is:

O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti
(based on Romans 15: 12; Ephesians 2: 14, 20; Genesis 2: 7):

O longed-for King of the nations,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save us, whom you formed from the dust.

Between the two days, there was once a major feast day as the Church commemorated Saint Thomas. This commemoration was moved long ago to 3 July in the Western calendars. But I suppose Thomas sat appropriately between an antiphon that looked to the Orient and one that proclaimed Christ as King of the Nations, for tradition says that Thomas may have been the only one among the Twelve to travel beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel, travelling through Persia and to India.

Thomas is named “Thomas, also called the Twin (Didymus).” But the name “Thomas” comes from the Aramaic word for twin, T'oma (תאומא), so there is a tautological wordplay going on here.

Syrian tradition says the apostle’s full name was Judas Thomas, or Jude Thomas, but who was his twin brother (or sister)?

The Temple of Apollo in Didyma ... one of the most important shrines and temples in the classical world to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have often visited Didyma on the southern Anatolian coast. There the Didymaion was one of the most important shrines and temples in the classical world to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. Apollo was the sun-god, the sun of Zeus; he was the patron of shepherds and the guardian of truth, and in Greek and Roman mythology he died and rose again.

Is the story of Thomas’s doubts an invitation to the followers of the cult of Apollo to turn to Christ, the true Son of God the Father, who is the Good Shepherd, who is the way the truth and the light, who has died and who is truly risen?

Thomas appears in a few passages in the Fourth Gospel. In John 11: 16, when Lazarus dies, the disciples resist Christ’s decision to return to Judea, where there had been attempt to stone Jesus. But Jesus is determined, and Thomas says bravely: “Let us also go, that we might die with him.”

Thomas also speaks at the Last Supper (John 14: 5). When Christ assures his disciples that they know where he is going, Thomas protests that they do not know at all. Jesus replies to this and to Philip’s requests with a detailed exposition of his relationship to God the Father.

Thomas is best known for doubting the reports of Christ’s resurrection when he first heard them. Yet he proclaimed “My Lord and my God” when he saw the Risen Christ (John 20: 28).

Although 21 December was the original feast day for Saint Thomas, this was moved in the Roman Calendar to accommodate Saint Peter Canisius, who died on 21 December, and in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars Thomas is now honoured on 3 July, the day on which his relics are said to have been moved from Mylapore, near Madras, on the coast of India, to Edessa in Mesopotamia. After a short stay on the Greek island of Chios, the relics were moved in September 1258 to the West, and are said now rest to be in Ortona in Italy.

In the Orthodox Churches, he is remembered each year on Saint Thomas Sunday, or the Sunday after Easter, and on 6 October.

But recalling that there is no O Antiphon for today is also a reminder of how we should always remember that Christmas points to Easter. It reminds us that the incarnation is not just a nice occasion for a winter festival and giving thanks after the Winter Solstice that the sun is returning and the days lengthening. It reminds us that Christmas Day has no meaning without Good Friday and Easter Day. Christmas faith is only meaningful when it is faith in the Resurrection.

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

Saturday, 19 December 2009

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 and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first posted on 20 December 2008

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Remembering the Palatines 300 years later

Saint Mary’s Church, Old Ross, Co Wexford

Patrick Comerford

Three months ago, on 9 September I was asked to preach at the service in Saint Mary’s Church, Old Ross, Co Wexford, marking the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the Palatines in Ireland from Germany in Ireland.

Last night [17 December 2009], RTÉ Nationwide included scenes from this service in their magazine programme, with a clip from their interview with me almost at the end of this item:,null,228

For my sermon on that evening go to:

Remembering the Palatines of Co Wexford

O come, O come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel … the Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, was bought for 20 guineas in 1783 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

At the Choral Eucharist in the Institute Chapel yesterday evening – our last before the Christmas holiday – we sang as our recessionary hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel.

The version we sang from the Irish Church Hymnal (Hymn 135) is an adaptation of John Mason Neale’s mid-19th century interpretation of the Latin text, Veni, veni, Emmanuel.

This is a metrical version of a collation of various Advent Antiphons, the acrostic O Antiphons, which may date from at least the eighth century, and certainly from the 12th century. The traditional music associated with this hymn may come from a 15th century processional sung by French Franciscan nuns, but may even have its origins in eighth century Gregorian chant.

For some, this is one of the most solemn Advent hymns. But Advent is not meant to be a penitential season like Lent; rather, it is supposed to be a season of preparation and anticipation, reflection and hope. As Percy Dearmer wrote: “The tendency of the present day to make another Lent of Advent is much to be deprecated. The O Sapientia [the first of O Antiphons] in our Kalendar and the use of Sequences in the old English books may remind us of the spirit of joyful expectation which is the liturgical characteristic of Advent.”

In Advent, as in Lent, Gloria in Excelsis is not said or sung at the Eucharist, including Sunday Eucharists, not for penitential reasons but because it echoes the message of the angels to the shepherds and is held back until Christmas Day.

The refrain in this hymn is based on the prophecy in Isaiah 7: 14, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” According to Matthew 1: 23, this promise is fulfilled at the incarnation of Christ in Bethlehem.

The Advent Antiphons

The origins of the Advent Antiphons can be traced to the practice in the mediaeval church of singing a special antiphon before and after the canticles, including Nunc Dimittis and Magnificat, at the evening office of Vespers in order to emphasise a particular point. For example, in the service of Compline, Nunc Dimittis has this antiphon: “Preserve us, O Lord, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace” (Book of Commons Prayer 2004, p. 158).

In the days leading up the Christmas, there was a series of seven special antiphons. One was to be sung daily, and in the original Latin each antiphon began with a long-drawn-out “O” – symbolising the longing for the coming of the Messiah.

Each of the seven stanzas addressed the Messiah by one of his titles, each one praising the coming of the Saviour by a different name, and closing with petitions appropriate to the title. In their original order, the “Greater” Antiphons and “The Seven Os” are:

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter,
suavierque disponens omnia:
veni ad docedum nos viam prudentia.

(based on Sirach 24: 3; Wisdom 8:1):

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
ordering all things well:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
ei in Sinai legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

(Exodus 3: 2-6, 6: 6, 19 ff):

O Lord, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes depreca buntur;
veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardere.

(Isaiah 11: 10, 52: 15; Romans 15: 11-12):

O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people,
before whom kings shall shut their mouths
and the nations shall seek:
Come and deliver us, and do not delay.

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel:
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

(Isaiah 22: 2, 42: 7; Jeremiah 51: 19; Revelation 3: 7):

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel,
who opens and no-one can shut,
who shuts and non-one can open:
Come and bring the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.

(John 8: 12; Hebrews 1: 3; Malachi 4: 2; Luke 1: 79):

O Dayspring, splendour of eternal light,
and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death

O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti

(Romans 15: 12; Ephesians 2: 14, 20; Genesis 2: 7):

O longed-for King of the nations,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save us, whom you formed from the dust.

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
expectatio gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.

(Isaiah 7: 14, 33: 22; Matthew 1: 23; Genesis 49: 10):

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver,
the desire of all nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World from the cover of last night’s order of service … “O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no-one can shut, who shuts and non-one can open”

These seven antiphons were originally sung before and after Magnificat in this period, the Octave before Christmas, from 16 to 23 December. Omitting Saint Thomas’s Day (21 December), these seven days are also known as the Greater Ferias. Of course, there was no provision for 24 December because the Vespers of Christmas Eve are those for the Christmas Vigil.

However, some service books contained eight antiphons, the Sarum Breviary had nine antiphons, and in some traditions there were even as many as 12 antiphons.

One verse was sung or chanted each evening, but they were never sung together as a single hymn, as we sing them today.

The origin of the antiphons

The Advent Antiphons date back at least to the reign of Charlemagne (771-814). The 439 lines of the English poem Christ, by Cynewulf (ca 800), have been described as a loose translation and elaboration of the Antiphons. One source even claims that Boethius (ca 480-524) referred to them, which would suggest they were in use in the fifth or sixth century.

The “O Antiphons” were used so much throughout the monasteries of Europe that the phrases, “Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common sayings.

At least two — and up to five — additional verses were later added to the original seven. However, it is clear that the original seven were designed as a group, since their initial letters, ignoring the “O” that precedes each line, spell out the reverse acrostic “sarcore” – “ero cras,” that is, “I shall be [with you] tomorrow.”

In the 12th century, an unknown poet put five of the verses together to form the verses of a single hymn, with the refrain: “Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel” (“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel is born for thee, Israel”). There was no refrain in the original Latin chant.

After the Reformations, the antiphons were recited from 17 December through to 23 December, so that, despite Cranmer’s proposal to remove the Antiphons from public worship, from 1604 on the entry in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England for yesterday (16 December) and in the calendar in Common Worship for today (17 December) both contain the exclamation: “O Sapientia,” and in the Book of Common Prayer 16 December is listed as a black letter holy day.

I wonder when and why it was deleted from the Calendar in the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of Ireland. It may be a somewhat mysterious calendar entry for some, yet it echoes across the gulf of the Reformations from a tradition going back perhaps to the eighth century or earlier, back to the tradition of the “Great O Antiphons.”

The earliest known metrical form of the “O Antiphons” is a Latin version in an Appendix of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, published in Cologne in 1710.

There was a widespread Roman Catholic practice of singing two sequential verses each week in Advent, beginning with the First Sunday of Advent (verses 1 and 2), followed by verses 3 and 4 on the Second Sunday of Advent, and verses 5 and 6 on the Third Sunday of Advent. Then finally, on Sunday next, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, verses 1 and 7 are sung.

However, let us listen to Sinead O’Connor and the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey singing Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. (Biscantorat (2004) Track 3.)

An Anglican hymn

The first English translation of Veni, veni, Emmanuel, was made by John Henry Newman in 1836. Some years later, the Revd John Mason Neale (1818-1866), a Victorian authority on mediaeval liturgy and hymnody, published the five Latin metrical stanzas in his Hymni Ecclesiae in 1851. Neale’s English translation was published that year in his Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, with the opening line: “Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel.”

A slightly revised version was also published in 1854 by Neale and the Revd Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), an English priest who helped revive an Anglican interest in plainsong or Gregorian chant, in The Hymnal Noted.

Seven years later, in 1861, it was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern, but with the more familiar opening words: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – and with the note: “Altered by the Compilers.”

But the hymn was based on only five of the original antiphons, sung in the following way:

1, O Sapientia (O Wisdom), omitted.
2, O Adonai (O Lord), Verse 5.
3, O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), Verse 2.
4, O Clavis David (O Key of David), Verse 4.
5, O Oriens (O Dayspring), Verse 3.
6, O Rex gentium (O longed-for King), omitted.
7, O Emmanuel (O Emmanuel), Verse 1.

The version in Irish Church Hymnal

John Mason Neale’s hymn could never be a complete reflection of the “Great Os” as his stanzas are based on only five of the original seven antiphons.

The compilers of the 1940 Hymnal of ECUSA, in an effort to rectify this shortcoming, produced two new stanzas based on the missing antiphons. Rejoice and Sing (1991) improved on the two additional American stanzas and added a useful footnote on the history of the “Great Os.” This is the version that was adopted by the Hymnal Revision Committee of the Church of Ireland, and it has been published in the Irish Church Hymnal (2000), along with the footnote from Rejoice and Sing.

At one stage, the Hymnal Revision Committee considered moving the stanza “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” which is the first verse but the final antiphon, and to restore to its rightful place at the end of the hymn. However, the committee members realised that the hymn is so well known with this as its opening that it would be unwise to go ahead with the idea. Instead, they made it an optional stanza at the end of the hymn.

The mystery of the tune

The origins of the well-known tune we used last night are shrouded in mystery and doubt.

According to Henry Jenner (1848-1934), his father Bishop Henry Lascelles Jenner (1820-1898), the controversial first Bishop of Dunedin, found the tune in a manuscript in a library in Lisbon in 1853 and gave a copy to John Mason Neale. In 1881, however, Helmore said his source was a French missal in a library in Lisbon and that he had given a copy to Neale.

Subsequent searches in the library failed to find either the manuscript or the missal. And so, it was asked whether Helmore himself composed the melody, and it was even suggested that he may have constructed it from a number of plainsong phrases.

Dr Mary Berry who died last year … she unearthed the original tune of O come, O come, Emmanuel

Then, in 1966, the tune was found in a manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris by Dr Mary Berry (1917-2008) of Cambridge, who found it in a 15th century processional used by a French community of Franciscan nuns.

There are other variations when it comes to the rhythm of the music. Many performances pause after “Emmanuel” in both the verse and the chorus, or they extend the final syllable through a similar count. Often however, performances omit these pauses to emphasise the meaning of the chorus: “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.”

If a pause is included, the meaning may be confused, as an audible comma is perceived between “Emmanuel” and “shall come to thee...,” changing the grammatical subject of the sentence from Israel to Emmanuel. Rushing the first and final lines to omit the pause produces a greater sense of movement, contrasting with the unhurried pace of the remainder of the song.

Using the Advent Antiphons liturgically

The Promise of His Glory (pp 114-116) suggests an interesting way of using the Advent Antiphons within a Service of Hope and Expectation (pp 112-119), in which all seven antiphons are said or sung, each followed by a short Bible reading and the appropriate verse of the hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”

I plan to use an adaptation this service in the chapel this evening, in place of Choral Evensong.

Last year in the Church Times (12 December 2008), the Revd Dr Fraser Watts discussed how at Saint Edward’s, Cambridge, they have been using a version of this for some years. The main Sunday Eucharist in Saint Edward’s is at 5 p.m., when it is already dark at this time of the year.

They begin with a candle-lit procession, singing the antiphons at various stations in the church, each followed by a Bible reading. A verse of the hymn is then sung as they move on to the next station. Often they have used just the five antiphons that have corresponding verses in the original version of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” by John Mason Neale.

The procession moves from west to east in the church, singing the antiphons in different places: “O key of David” at the West Door, “O King of the nations” at the font, “O Wisdom” at the lectern, “O morning star” at the Advent candle, and “O Emmanuel” at the sanctuary.

Two years ago in Saint Edward’s, they used all seven Advent Antiphons, including a sonnet linked to each and written by the late Malcolm Guite, and they divided the antiphons between processions on two successive Sundays in the Advent season.


The O Antiphons have been described as “a unique work of art and a special ornament of the pre-Christmas liturgy, filled with the Spirit of the Word of God.” It is said that they “create a poetry that fills the liturgy with its splendour,” and that their imagery displays “a magnificent command of the Bible’s wealth of motifs.”

Consider how you may use them as we have them in the hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel, in your ministry and in your parishes to add a spiritual depth to these last days before Christmas, in contrast to the banal ways in which Christmas carols are now used commercially in Advent, and even before it.

O come, O come, Emmanuel (Hymn 135):

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear:

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, thou Wisdom from above,
who ord’rest all things through thy love;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go:

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times didst give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe:

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave:

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery:

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight:

O come, Desire of Nations, bring
all peoples to their Saviour King;
thou Corner-stone, who makest one,
complete in us thy work begun:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.


Edward Darling and Donald Davison, Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba, 2005).
Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).
William Marshall, O come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent Antiphons (Dublin: Columba/APCK, 1993).
The Promise of His Glory (London: Church House Publishing/Mowbray, 1991).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing (London: SPCK, 2008).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on the Year III BTh course, ‘Spirituality for Today,’ on 17 December 2009.