Wednesday, 29 April 2009

‘I am the bread of life’

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

5 p.m.: The Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Acts 8: 1b-8; Psalm 66: 1-6; John 6: 35-40

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

‘I am the bread of life ... I have come down from heaven.”

As you are all preparing for end-of-year exams, I am sure none of you is going to be tricked by the apocryphal story of a trick exam question asking students outline the institution narrative in the Fourth Gospel, and to draw comparisons with the institution narratives in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Pauline account.

It is not that there is no institution narrative in Saint John’s Gospel, but that the whole Gospel itself can be read through the prism of understanding the Eucharistic.

And the Johannine writings are, in part, attempting to address the divisions within the Church among those who should be united around one bread and one table, forming one body.

There is a hint of those divisions to come within the Johannine community in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this evening, as Barnabas Philip goes out to preach to the Samaritans, who are excluded from the covenant community, from the community of faith, who were regarded as worse than Gentiles.

There were those who argued that to be a true member of the Church, of the community of faith, one had first to become a Jew, a member of the first community of faith.

The Hellenised Jews and those of Gentile origin in what we now know as western Turkey and Greece often felt they were being looked down on, that they were being excluded from first class membership of the community of faith.

And, as all outsiders would, when they read Chapter 6 of Saint John’s Gospel, they would have identified with the people who had followed Jesus out from the city into the wilderness or to the mountain top.

They would have identified readily with those who had gone to the margins for their faith, to follow Christ.

But, of course, the covenant with Israel was also sealed with a marginalised people, a people who had been forced out, who had crossed the water and gone out into the wilderness so that they could worship God. And that covenant is sealed on the mountain top when Moses comes face-to-face with God on Mount Sinai.

The people who have crossed the water, gone out into the wilderness, to meet and listen to Jesus on the mountain top – they too are being nourished with the bread of life, with manna in the wilderness, and being invited into a covenantal relationship with God.

When others try to marginalise us, when others seek to exclude us, when we feel we are in the wilderness, when we feel counted out because others seek to form an exclusive and closed group, Christ breaks through those barriers, and seeks to count us in, to offer us a place among God’s covenant people, and to invite us to eat with him at the heavenly banquet.

And now, may all our thought, words, and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Eucharist on 29 April 2009.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Practical Liturgy (2): Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer

Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are part of the daily cycle of offices in cathedrals and churches throughout the Anglican Communion (Lichfield Cathedral, Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Purpose and aims:

1, To become familiar with the texts, structures and purposes of these two offices.

2, To discuss experiences of leading these offices in a parish setting.

1, Introduction:

Long before ordination, many of you will have experiences of leading both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in parishes as readers, either as diocesan readers or as parish readers.

These two services can be found in two forms in the Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp 78-153.

Inevitably, they have become the normal services in Church of Ireland parish churches throughout the island, on Sundays and on weekdays.

The expectation of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (right) was that the Holy Communion or the Eucharist would be celebrated in every parish church on a Sunday morning.

The Book of Common Prayer (2004) states that Holy Communion is celebrated in the Church of Ireland every Sunday and on Christmas Day, Easter Day and the Day pf Pentecost “in every cathedral and every parish church unless the ordinary shall otherwise direct” (p. 18) and on the other prinhcipal holy days (apart from Good Friday) that Holy Communion is celebrated in every cathedral “and in each parish church or in a church within a parochial union or group of parishes” (p. 18).

However, the grouping of churches in parochial groups and unions means (unfortunately) that Morning Prayer has become the normal Sunday morning experience of most people in Church of Ireland parishes.

Meanwhile, as Sunday evening church-going declines, fewer and fewer people are familiar with or retain an appreciation for the particular beauty of traditional Evening Prayer.

Regrettably too, few churches use either order for Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer “daily throughout the year” … although this is the expectation in the Book of Common Prayer.

You will notice that there are two different orders for these offices. But they also have different titles.

Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1 are described as “The Order for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer Daily throughout the year.”

Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2 are described as: “An Order for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer Daily throughout the year.”

These offices have other names:

• Mattins or Matins for Morning Prayer;

• Evensong for Evening Prayer.

These traditional Anglican names are used especially for choral or sung services.

Choral Evensong is a particularly beautiful work of art. It is broadcast twice weekly on BBC Radio 3 – live at 4 p.m. on Wednesday and repeated at 4 p.m. Sunday. Last Wednesday evening (22 April), and again this evening (26 April), Choral Evensong comes from Worcester Cathedral. This service was first broadcast on Thursday 7 October 1926 live from Westminster Abbey and since then has been broadcast weekly on BBC Radio, making Choral Evensong one of the longest-running radio programmes.

You can experience Choral Evensong regularly in Ireland in cathedrals such as Christ Church, Dublin, and Saint Patrick’s, Dublin, and in the Chapel in Trinity College Dublin. I have had particularly moving experiences of Choral Evensong in recent months in Lichfield Cathedral, Saint Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and some Cambridge colleges.

Those names, Matins and Evensong, which have become such an accepted and received part of Anglican liturgical culture, are ancient titles dating back to the monastic offices that were used for the two services in 1549 Book of Common Prayer.

Those titles changed by Thomas Cranmer with the publication of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, which was never authorised for use in the Church of Ireland.

Essentially, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer – whatever we may call them – are the offices of daily prayer, to be used daily throughout the year.

They are not designed as the principal Sunday service, and never were intended to be.

Their origins are to be found in the ancient monastic offices used by the monks at different times of the day. These are: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, None, Vespers and Compline.

It was generally accepted in monastic thinking that regular times of prayer lead to a life where prayer is a constant part of our relationship with God.

Cranmer brought these offices together, so there that there was one simple office for the morning and one simple office for the evening.

He also planned and structured those offices so the people would be instructed by the word of God. For example, the clergy were obliged to say both offices, openly or privately, and to toll the church bell before doing so.

Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1:

In the Book of Common Prayer (2004), Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1 are the 1662 rite in virtually every respect, with a history that goes back to Cranmer’s original order (1552), and retaining most of the traditional language.

Originally they were printed as two separate rites. They were first integrated in the Alternative Prayer Book (1984), but now, before the Canticles, we are invited to turn to page 93 for Evening Prayer if we are not continuing with Morning Prayer.

Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2:

Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2 have a shared beginning too. Then after the Confession and Absolution we are invited to turn to page 109 for Evening Prayer, if we are not using Morning Prayer.

An abbreviated form of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer can be found on pp 136-138.

Common to both services:

What is common to both offices, to both Morning Prayer and to Evening Prayer?

Although they described as “Prayer”, they are centred upon the reading of Scripture, through the Psalms, the Canticles, the Readings, and even with the versicles and responses.

The different parts:

There are no section headings in Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1, unlike Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2.

But it is important to know and identify these sections, so that we can understand the movement that is taking place:

There are four essential ingredients:

1, The Gathering of God’s People

2, Proclaiming and Receiving the Word:

3, The Prayers of the People

4, Going out as God’s People.

1, The Gathering of God’s People

1, The Greeting:

The Greeting is more obvious in Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2, where we begin by saying: “The Lord be with you …“ (Ruth 2: 4).

2, A sentence of scripture:

We then have a sentence of scripture (pp 78-82), although the provision within Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1 is for a sentence as the opening greeting. These sentences fall into three different groupings:

• General, focusing on the nature of worship
• Seasonal, related to particular time.
• Penitential.

Get to know the difference, and if you are choosing another sentence try to ensure that it is not your favourite verse but one that sets the tone.

Also try to learn a variety of these sentences off by heart.

3, Opening hymn:

Where do you place the opening hymn for this office? Do you use it as a processional hymn? Or do you announce it first?

Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2 get this right, placing the first hymn after the opening greeting and sentences.

Choosing the first hymn needs time and careful attention. This sets the tone for the service and its theme, and so should be related to the readings, the prayers and the sermon or address.

4, The Exhortation:

The Exhortation is not a prayer, and is not addressed to God. In Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1, the Exhortation opens with the words: “Dearly beloved …”

In Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2, it begins: “Beloved in Christ …”

The Exhortation could be compared with setting out an agenda before a meeting. It tells people why we are here and what we are going to do, it prepares us for the task ahead.

5, The Confession:

The confession is preceded by an invitation which is issued first.

In Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1, this confession was not provided in the earlier 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and was introduced by Cranmer in 1552.

The General Confession has resonances of both Romans 7: 8-25 and of the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15). It was probably written by Cranmer, drawing on the wording for the confession in the Strasbourg liturgy.

Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2 provide for a time of silence for reflection, personal confession.

Absolution is a vital step after confession. It is not just about pardon and absolution, but about having a penitent heart, about the power of the Holy Spirit, and about the grace to live holy lives.

A declaratory ‘prayer’ is then pronounced by the priest in the name of God but directed at people.

6, The Lord’s Prayer:

Note the different places for the Lord’s Prayer. In Morning Prayer 1, the Lord’s Prayer follows the absolution. This was the original beginning of the office. However, in a service that combined Morning Prayer, the Liturgy and Holy Communion, which is how Cranmer imagined the parish church worshipping on a Sunday morning, the Lord’s Prayer could have been used five times. Now the only provision is for using the Lord’s Prayer twice.

In this place, the Lord’s Prayer is an introduction to praise. So, when it is provided as an introduction to praise, Cranmer adds the doxology: “… for thine is kingdom, the power and the glory ...”

But at other times, when the Lord’s Prayer is used as introduction to prayer and penitence, Cranmer omits the doxology.

2, Proclaiming and Receiving the Word:

1, Opening Canticles:

I hope we have an opportunity to look at the Canticles separately, in all their richness, at another stage. But here we should note the different canticles used in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

Most from the canticles are from Scripture, either the Old Testament or the New Testament. But some are from the Apocrypha, and others, such as Hail gladdening light or Te Deum, are hymns.

The canticles are used in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer as a preparation for hearing God’s word, as a response to hearing God’s word, and as a way of using God’s word to praise God.

The word canticle is of Latin derivation, and simply means a song. Most of the canticles are known to this day by their Latin name (although Morning Prayer 2/Evening Prayer 2 attempts to give them simple English names: Venite as Psalm 95; Jubilate as Psalm 100; Benedictus as the Song of Zechariah; Magnificat as The Song of the Blessed Virgin Mary; Nunc Dimittis as The Song of Simeon; Etc. – although Te Deum remains Te Deum)

In the Book of Common Prayer, the canticles are pointed (the little red marks) for Anglican chant. Does this distract you?

Apart from traditional Anglican chant, they can be sung in a variety of other ways. Become familiar with the variations on the canticles in the hymn book.

Traditionally we use different canticles for the different offices. For example, we associate Morning Prayer with Venite and Jubilate, and Evening Prayer especially with the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, but also with A Song of the Light, Deus Misereatur (Psalm 67) and Ecce Nunc.

The Easter Anthems is used for both offices.

The canticles set the scene for hearing God’s word. Look at Venite (pp. 87-88, 103): It calls us to sing out to the Lord, to come before his presence, to praise him with psalms, to acknowledge him as our Lord God and King and Creator, to entrust everything to his care, to worship him, to bow down and kneel (and here it says nothing about the Anglican crouch), to hear his voice, to be contrite and to confess, to admit our sins, and then, in the doxology, to give praise to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Does this set the agenda for Morning Prayer?

A Song of the Light is presented with a new introduction, but is an old Greek song, dating from the third century, Phos Hilarion, and speaks beautifully and poetically of lighting the evening lamps when the dark is closing.

The different versions of Phos Hilarion include Hail gladdening light (Irish Church Hymnal, 699) and Light of the world (Irish Church Hymnal, 702).

2, The first reading:

The first reading now comes here in Evening Prayer. This is one of the changes in the traditional language version. In 1926, the opening canticle was followed by Psalm or Psalms. Now the Psalm or Psalms come after the first reading in both versions of Morning Prayer.

You may ask why this is so? This is because the new lectionary uses the Psalm as a response to the first reading, normally an Old Testament reading.

Some clergy complain that three readings are too much for a morning service. What do you think?

3, The Psalms:

We no longer catalogue the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer by using day numbers (see the Book of Common Prayer 1926).

The original numbering derived from Cranmer’s pattern, which expected that we would the Psalter through each month. This approach to Psalmody, which we have adapted, is part of the Anglican legacy received from the monastic offices and tradition. Benedict wanted the Psalms read through in a week, and the Ceilí Dé monks expected to read them through each day. So the Psalms became the heart of daily worship.

But how do you use the Psalms? Do you sing them? According to which traditional method? Do you read them? By verse or by half-verse? Are you familiar with modern settings for the psalms? Or do you ignore them altogether and replace them with hymns?

4, The Readings after the Psalm(s):

At Morning Prayer, these are the second reading and the Gospel reading. In Evening Prayer, this is where we have both readings.

We should note how the readings are introduced. Order 2 suggests: “A reading from … chapter … beginning at verse …”

But how do you conclude the readings?

Which version of the Bible should be used for Scripture readings? Any translation approved by the House of Bishops can be used. What about other versions?

5, The second and third canticles:

At Morning Prayer, the second canticle can be one of Te Deum, Benedicite, Urbs, Laudate, or other canticles on pp 117-135, except the Benedictus. The third canticle is the Benedictus, the Jubilate, or any New Testament canticle provided on pp 117-135.

At Evening Prayer, the second canticle is Magnificat, Cantate Domino, or any New Testament canticle on pp 117-135. The third canticle is Nunc Dimitis, Deus Misereatur, or any New Testament canticle on pp 117-135.

Why are they here?

The major canticles are three from Saint Luke’s Gospel. They look back and forward at the work of salvation.

But the canticles can also be used thematically. For example, you could chose canticles to reflect harvest, or particular days in the Christian year – what a great day Saint Luke’s day is for being creative in using the canticles.

6, The sermon:

Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer were essentially daily services, so originally there was no provision for a sermon.

It is only in over the course of history that these daily offices history became the regular, normative Sunday service, without the Eucharist or Holy Communion, and so the need arose to provide an appropriate place for the sermon.

The offices had normally ended with the grace. Now there was a need for another hymn before the sermon and another hymn after the sermon.

In other churches, such as the Methodists and the Presbyterians, there was an accepted practice of having the sermon at the end of the Sunday service, and this place became traditional in the Church of Ireland. And so, Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1 retain this traditional place.

But Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2 correctly reposition the sermon within the context of proclaiming and receiving God’s word, and before the Apostles’ Creed, giving the sermon a place that is similar to the place it has in the Holy Communion. In the sermon, the Word of God is broken open.

7, The Apostles’ Creed:

The Apostles’ Creed is an integral part of Sunday offices in the Anglican tradition. But in the daily offices it may be said in Morning Prayer 2 and by tradition is not used in the chapel here in the evening.

The truth is that historically the Apostles’ Creed was not part of the offices of the Church until the Reformation. Of course, it was not written by the apostles, and its adoption in the Western church dates from about 1000 AD, when it was used simply as a baptismal confession of faith.

3, The Prayers of the People:

1, The Prayers of the People

The Prayers of the People may take several different forms, including:

• The Kyries

• The Lesser Litany

“The Litany may be used in Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer after the Apostles’ Creed as The Prayers of the People when it should conclude with the Collect of the Day and the Lord’s Prayer” (p.175).

2, The Lord’s Prayer:

The Lord’s Prayer is then said without the doxology in form 1, but with it in form 2. What is the reason for this difference? Because this is the only place the Lord’s Prayer is used in Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2.

Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2 provide two versions of the Lord’s Prayer.

The modern version is from the English Language Liturgical Commission, except for the clause “and lead us not into temptation” which replaces the agreed phrase, ‘’save us from the time of trial.”

3, The Versicles and Responses:

The roots and origins of the Versicles and Responses are to be found in the Sarum Breviary, and are taken from Scripture: Psalm 85: 7; I Samuel 10: 24; Psalm 20: 9; Psalm 132: 9; Psalm 28: 9.

They are followed by prayers for rulers, the clergy and people, the collect for peace, and the collect for grace.

In Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2, the versicles and responses are not mandatory (see p. 113), but they can be used as a framework for intercession at this point.

4, The Collects:

The provision is for three collects in Order 1, and at least two collects in Order 2, beginning with Collect of the Day.

We should note that the description “Collect of” relates to a particular occasion, while the phrase “Collect for” relates to a subject. So, it is not the not collect of purity, and they are not the Collect for the Conversion of Saint Paul or the Collect for the Circumcision of Christ … although I have heard both being used; indeed, I have heard people pray for the Conversion of Saint Paul and for the Circumcision of Christ.

We all would do well to memorise some of the better-known and well-loved collects used at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (see pp. 114-115), as they are useful, for example, when asked for an extemporary prayer or opening and closing prayers at parish events.

Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 2 then provide an option for having the sermon either here or after the occasional prayers (see p. 97).

5, The Occasional Prayers:

Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1 provide a collection of occasional prayers to be used on particular occasions (pp 97-100), including prayers for the monarch and the royal family or the president, for parliament or the Oireachtas, and for the clergy and the people, as well as a prayer marked as “A General Thanksgiving” but usually known as “the” general thanksgiving.

In addition, there is the provision of Daily Prayers for Weekdays (pp. 139-144) – and note that these do not include Sundays – and “Some Prayers and Thanksgiving” which had been included in previous editions of the Book of Common Prayer or in the Alternative Prayer Book (1984). These are valuable resources when planning Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, but are often neglected or forgotten because of their place in the book

Instead, these prayers are often substituted by prayers written by the person reading the service. But if you are going to do this, it is worth remembering to watch the movement in any prayers you write. And remember too that many people will be able to recite from memory, and remember with affection, the words of both the General Thanksgiving and the Prayer of Saint John Chrysostom.

Although the Book of Common Prayer says that these prayers “always conclude” with A Prayer of Saint Chrysostom and the Grace,” this prayer is seldom used, although it roots lie in recognising in prayer how we are dependent on God.

If the sermon is preached at this place, rather than between the collects and the occasional prayers, it may interrupt the flow towards a conclusion and people going out as God’s people.

4, Going out as God’s people:

But in sending them out as God’s people, how do we conclude Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer?

In Morning Prayer 1 and Evening Prayer 1, the office always concludes with the grace (see the rubric on p. 97 and the words on p. 100). There is no provision for a blessing or dismissal.

The options for Morning Prayer 2 and Evening Prayer 2 allow for greater flexibility, and for a blessing.

How do you end Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer? How do you being it to a close appropriately, prayerfully and with dignity.

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, these services always ended with the grace. But since then, we have inserted the sermon on Sundays, and added other things too. Tradition and needs made innovative provision before the grace for an offertory hymn, a place for parish notices and announcements, a blessing, a dismissal and a recessional hymn.

We have lengthened and extended everything just at a time when people might be leaving, they should be going out. It is good advice to remember to try to make it simple at this point. It will be appreciated.

For discussion:

How do you prepare for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer?

How do you find Morning Prayer works compared with (a) The Holy Communion (b) A Service of the Word?

Where do you lead Morning Prayer from? In your parish, does the rector traditionally go to the altar for accepting the collection? How do you robe?

Who reads the lessons?

How do you select the hymns?

How do you use the selection of canticles available?

Do you have a blessing at the end?

How do you use Morning Prayer on a morning when you also have a celebration of the Eucharist/Holy Communion?

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 Non-Stipendiary Ministry course on Sunday 26 April 2009.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Saint Mark the Evangelist

Patrick Comerford

Acts 15: 35-41; Ephesians 4: 7-16; Psalm: 119: 9-16; Mark 13: 5-13

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

We are still in the Easter season, and Saint Mark’s Gospel offers us one of the most challenging readings on the Resurrection.

Today (25 April) we remember and celebrate the life of Saint Mark the Evangelist (Μάρκος).

According to later Egyptian traditions, the Gospel writer was born in Pentapolis in North Africa.

Other traditions say Saint Mark was one of the servants who poured out the water at the Wedding Feast in Cana (John 2: 1-11), one of the seventy sent out by Christ (Luke 10: 1), the man who carried water to the house where the Last Supper took place (Mark 14: 13), the young man who ran away naked when Christ was arrested (Mark 14: 51-52), the one who hosted the disciples in his house after the death of Jesus, and the owner of the house where the Risen Jesus Christ appeared (John 20).

Later he was at the heart of a disagreement between the Apostle Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, and so he went with his cousin Barnabas to Cyprus (Acts 15: 5-13). Yet in later life he was sent by Paul to Colossae (Colossians 4: 10, 14) and worked with him in Rome (Philemon 24; II Timothy 4:11). Tradition says he then returned to his native Pentapolis, and from there made his way to Alexandria.

In Alexandria, the people strongly resented his efforts to turn them away from the worship of their traditional Egyptian gods. In the year AD 68, they tied him to horses and dragged him through the streets until he was dead.

Today, Saint Mark is revered as the founder of the See of Alexandria, the seat of both the Coptic Pope and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.

Saint Mark’s successors have included many of the great fathers of the church, including Saint Athanasios. I suppose, in some ways, we could call him the founder of Christianity in Africa. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria has survived through generations of persecution, while the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the fastest growing missionary Church in Africa.

In the year 828, Saint Mark’s body was stolen from the Patriarchal Church in Alexandria by two Venetian merchants and was taken in a pork barrel to Venice, where Saint Mark’s Basilica was to house the relics and Saint Mark was to be proclaimed the patron saint of the Serene Republic.

Although Coptic Christians say they managed to hold on to the head of Saint Mark, which is kept in Saint Mark’s Patriarchal Cathedral in Alexandria, a mosaic on the façade of Saint Mark’s in Venice shows the sailors covering the body with layers of pork, knowing Muslims would not touch pork and so their theft would go undetected.

When Saint Mark’s Basilica was being rebuilt in Venice in 1063, they could not find the stolen body. However, tradition says that over a generation later, in 1094, the saint himself revealed the location of his body by sticking his arm out through a pillar. The new-found body was then placed in a new sarcophagus in the basilica.

Nevertheless, the missing bodies of saints and where they are kept are far less important than the lessons we can learn from the lives of saints such as Mark.

Although Saint Mark was not an apostle, one of the 12, he is an important figure in the passing on the apostolic faith.

There are more Christians today in Egypt than there are in Ireland. Egypt’s 7 million Christians are a witness to how Christian faith can survive flourish through all the difficulties of history. The survival of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the missionary successes of the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria should inspire and give hope to the whole Church.

Saint Mark bridges the gap between Eastern and Western Christianity too. Venetians wanted his body as much as Romans wanted to monopolise the Apostle Peter. Mark reminds us that our Christian faith must not to be limited to its European cultural expressions. African expressions of Christianity are not exotic or different, they are authentic and apostolic.

I have been to both Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice and to Saint Mark’s Patriarchal Cathedral in Alexandria. I have gazed in wonder both at those mosaics in Venice, and at the vacant place kept in waiting in Alexandria for the return of their founding, patron saint. But as I looked at them I also recalled that empty tomb that is described at the end of Saint Mark’s Gospel. The living body is more important than the dead body.

This morning in our Eucharist, as we remember Saint Mark, may we be strengthened in our faith in the Risen Christ, and rejoice in the Body of Christ, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the early morning Eucharist on Saint Mark’s Day, 25 April 2009.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Spiritual Journey: reading for priestly ministry

Sailing to Ithaka ... has the journey finished, or does the journey continue?

Patrick Comerford

Opening poem:


Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μεν' η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,
αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.

Να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωϊά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστησι, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους,
να σταματήσεις σ' εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν' αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ' έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά,
σε πόλεις Αιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ' τους σπουδασμένους.

Πάντα στον νου σου νάχεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί ειν' ο προορισμός σου.
Αλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξείδι διόλου.
Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει
και γέρος πια ν' αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στο δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ'έδωσε τ' ωραίο ταξείδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θάβγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δε σε γέλασε.
Έτσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες οι Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν.

Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
may there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Constantine Cavafy (translated Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

You have come to the end of the journey. This is our last lecture in your three years here.

For most of you, I hope, the journey has been worthwhile. You know the date of your ordination, you know which parish and diocese you’re going to, and I hope you know which house you’re going to live in.

But I hope the journey of the past three years has been worth it in itself, has its own value, has its own intrinsic value, not in terms of meeting essay deadlines or getting exam marks you have worked hard for, but in terms of the journey itself … your spiritual and ministerial formation.

I hope that none of you thought you had arrived once you passed in through the doors here in September 2006. I hope you have found new spiritual depths, new spiritual breadth, new spiritual insights, and new spiritual challenges.

Those challenges will, perhaps, face no greater challenge than the one described to me recently by one bishop as “the law of supply and demand – they demand and we supply.”

Remember that when your being presented for ordination to the priesthood, you are charged with being – in the traditional words of the ordinal – stewards, watchmen, messengers and shepherds. You are to be servants and shepherds among God’s people, you are to proclaim the Word of the Lord, you are to baptise and catechize, you are to preside at the celebration of the Holy Communion, you are to lead God’s people in prayer and in worship, to teach and to encourage them, to minister to the sick and to prepare the dying for death.

If your priestly ministry is going to be truly spirit-filled, grace filled, and Christ-focussed, and giving priorities to the ministry and mission of the Church, then you must be aware of the pitfalls of conforming to the expectations of those who demand and who put pressure on you to supply, even when those demands are far down the list of priestly priorities.

As one rector reminded me shortly before my ordination, sometimes, sometimes, the most urgent demands are not the most important one.

And if you are not to fall into the trap of merely meeting other people’s expectations, then you need to pay attention to your own lifestyle and personal discipline, which is something that can never be legislated for in codes of practice or in regulations about clerical discipline, and are certainly never understood when it comes to the demands that can be made by a parish or a select vestry.

Keep before you always the priority of prayer: corporate prayer and private prayer. Remember the value of setting aside times of prayer, and of being faithful in the regularity of prayer.

When it becomes difficult to pray, because of demands or because of spiritual problems, you will realise the richness of the forms of prayer and the times of prayer provided in the Book of Common Prayer.

In ministry, we need to be sensitive to the prayer methods and needs of other people

At the same time, be sensitive to other people’s methods and needs in prayer. Because they are your parishioners never means that they share your priorities, comforts, or even discomforts in prayer and in the spiritual life.

Be regular in attending and in celebrating the Eucharist. Take this holy sacrament to your comfort.

Remember to take at least one retreat a year. Just like a puppy is not only for Christmas, retreats are not just for the days or day before your ordination.

Find opportunities and occasions for pilgrimage.

Constantly, throughout every day, find times of quiet.

Be graceful in receiving and grateful for the ministry of oversight. Your relationship with your rector, your fellow priests, your archdeacon and your bishop will be important, not just in terms of line-management, but in terms of spiritual discipline. None of us is a priest alone, we all share in a collegial ministry, and each of us is facilitating the priesthood of the whole royal people of God.

Remember you are holding an office in the Church of God, not in employment, seeking a career path. Your ministry is one of vocation and calling, not defined in terms of contract

Be wise when it comes to confidentiality, how you use money, in attendi8ng to personal care, and be balanced when it comes to availability.

Be open to the richness and gifts in other spiritual traditions – within Anglicanism, within Christianity, and even outside Christianity: on this course, we have looked at what we can learn from contemporary Jewish and Islamic spirituality.

Remember in your ministry and mission also that awareness means critical awareness, and be vigilant when it comes to spiritual bullying, elitism, and abuse.

Enjoy reading, constantly and daily. Karl Barth says we should get into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. But also read poetry, fiction and drama, listen to good music, enjoy the arts, be conversationally familiar with soap operas, television drama and what’s happening in sport.

Beware of your own spiritual weaknesses and temptations. Is it spiritual pride? Is it ambition? Is it lust? Is it spiritual smugness? It may be something that you are least willing to admit, most of all admit to yourself.

Classical books of spirituality: an introduction

The Bible ... to be read in prayer, not just in study, in meditation, or for mining for ideas for a good sermon

Some weeks ago, some of you asked before this module ended that I should recommend just a few books in the field of spirituality that I would regard as essential reading.

The Bible: Yes, continue to read it after you leave here. You will constantly find in it fresh insights and hear God speaking to you and to the Church. Use in the Bible in prayer, not just in study, in meditation, or for mining for ideas for a good sermon.

The Book of Common Prayer: read it, not just to prepare services. Read it morning, noon and night. Lex orandi, lex credendi. In it you will find a rich treasure trove of Church of Ireland, Anglican and Christian tradition. When you cannot pray, you will find the Church is praying for you. When you want to pray, don’t just pray according to your own whims, for your own pleasure and satisfaction.

Some others books to start collecting include:

Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth (eds), Early Christian Writings (London: Penguin Classics, 1987 ed).

This selection of writings from the Apostolic Fathers provides deep insights into the spirituality of the infant church. It includes the Didache, the First Letter of Clement of Rome, the letters of Barnabas and Polycarp and the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch, including his moving appeal to the Romans that they grant him a martyr’s death. The blood of the martyrs was truly the seed of the early Church.

Benedicta Ward (ed), The Desert Father: Sayings of the Early Church Fathers (London: Penguin, 2003).

The Desert Fathers provided the inspiration for Christian spirituality throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. These men and women, who first embraced solitude in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, were seldom clerics, theologians or academics. Often they were uneducated peasants, shepherds, travelling traders, former slaves and penitent prostitutes. But they attracted so many followers that it was said they turned the desert into a city.

From the 4th century on, the reflections and sayings of the Desert Fathers were brought together and widely circulated. They are powerful and moving when it comes to their depth of religious conviction and whole-hearted – even joyful – commitment to poverty, simplicity and humility.

Their sayings directly influenced the Rule of Saint Benedict, and set the pattern for the Western monastic tradition.

Sister Benedicta Ward is an Anglican nun, a member of the community of the Sisters of the Love of God, and a member of the Faculty of Theology in Oxford, where she teaches the history of Christian spirituality. In this edited collection, she makes the most influential collection of the sayings of the Desert Fathers freshly accessible. She organises the collection around important themes, including: charity, fortitude, lust, patience, prayer, self-control and visions.

The Rule of Benedict:

The Rule of Saint Benedict has strongly influenced Western monasticism and Western spirituality, and has particular resonances for Anglicans. Three modern explications of the Rule of Saint Benedict, from an Anglican perspective, are:

Andrew Clitherow, Desire, Love and the Rule of St Benedict (London: SPCK, 2008).

Esther de Waal, Seeking God: the Way of St Benedict (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1984, &c).

Esther de Waal, A life-giving way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (London: Mowbray, 1995).

Esther de Waal, who has taught in Cambridge, Nottingham and Oxford, is the wife of a former Dean of Canterbury. In 1982, she started “Benedictine Experience,” which brought groups to live in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, spending ten days together as they followed the balanced Benedictine life of study, worship and work.

In Seeking God – the Way of St Benedict, she shows how the rule is practical and totally relevant for today. She shows how the rule can guide us towards a growth into wholeness, a balance in every aspect of our being – body, mind and spirit – through which we can become truly human and truly one with God.

Canon Andrew Clitherow, who has been involved in ministerial training in the Diocese of Blackburn, draws on the Rule with a down-to-earth approach to help his readers to be “in Christ” in a changing Church and a changing society. In his introduction, he says: “We cannot expect our pursuit of radical love to make any significant difference to our lives when we understand it in terms of good manners or being personable with others. For divine love works at the heart of life and in human beings it challenges us to recognize and come to terms with ways in which our natural desires either conflict or co-operate with the love of God.”

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (London: Penguin Classics, 1998, eds Elizabeth Spearing and A.C. Spearing).

Julian of Norwich (ca 1342 – post 1416) was the first woman writer in the English language, yet we know very little about her – not even her original name, her date of birth, or the date of her death. In 1373, at a time of great illness when she thought she was dying, she prayed for a greater understanding of Christ’s passion, and received an extraordinary series of “showings,” visions or revelations from God, beginning when her parish priest held up a crucifix before her and she saw blood trickling down Christ’s face.

Through these “showing,” Mother Julian experienced a revelation of Christ’s suffering with extraordinary intensity, but also received assurance of God’s unwavering love for humanity and God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness.

Julian, who speaks of God as our mother as well as our father, is both a mystic and a remarkable theologian who is owned throughout the Anglican tradition. Her writings are among the most original works of mediaeval mysticism and have had a lasting influence on Christian thought – there are resonances of her thoughts in the works of modern literary figures such as T.S. Eliot.

She lived out her later life as an anchoress in the Church of Saint Julian in Norwich – hence her name – and became well-known as a spiritual adviser.

Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (London: Penguin Classic, 1952 &c, ed Leo Sherley-Price).

Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), who was Sub-Prior of Mount Saint Agnes, wrote several devotional works, but The Imitation of Christ has remained a classic for over five centuries, and is well-loved in all Christian traditions.

Although Thomas spent almost 70 years in the reclusive atmosphere of a monastery, in his writings he demonstrated a deep understanding of the human nature, and his writings have appealed to readers of every age and every generation.

The Imitation of Christ is a passionate celebration of God and God’s love, mercy and holiness. With great personal conviction, he points out our reliance on God and on the words of Christ, and the futility of life without faith.

The poetry and hymns of George Herbert:

George Herbert (1593-1633), a Welsh poet, orator and priest, and was an MP before being ordained priest in his late 30s.He spent the rest of his life as a rector of the little parish of Saint Andrew Bemerton, near Salisbury, near Wiltshire. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need.

Throughout his life he wrote religious poems characterised by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets. He is best remembered as a poet and for his hymns, especially for The Temple. His hymns in the Irish Church Hymnal include King of glory, King of peace (358); Let all the world in every corner sing (360), from The Temple; Teach me, my God and King (601); and Come, my way, my truth, my life (610).

A good introduction to the spirituality of George Herbert is found in Philip Sheldrake, Love Took My Hand (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000).

Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living Holy Dying:

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) achieved fame as an author during the Cromwellian era. He is sometimes known as the “Shakespeare of Divines” for his poetic style of expression, and he was often presented as a model of prose writing.

Taylor was educated at Cambridge before becoming a chaplain to Charles I. During the Civil War, he lived and after the restoration was appointed Bishop of Down and Connor in the Church of Ireland and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dublin.

Holy Living and Holy Dying is the collective title of two books by Jeremy Taylor, first published as The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living (1650) and The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651). These two books represent one of the high points of English prose during the early Stuart period.

Holy Living is designed to instruct the reader in living a virtuous life, increasing personal piety, and avoiding temptations. Holy Dying is meant to instruct the reader in the “means and instruments” of preparing for a blessed death. Each book contains discussions of theology, moral instruction, and model prayers requesting divine assistance in achieving them.

Holy Living is largely concerned with questions of practical morality, of a type that have hardly changed from the 1600s to today. Holy Dying, occasioned by the death of Lady Carbery, exercise Taylor’s gift for poetic prose is exercised to its fullest effect:

“But so have I seen a Rose newly springing from the clefts of its hood, and at first it was fair as the Morning, and full with the dew of Heaven, as a Lamb’s fleece; but when a ruder breath had forced open its virgin modesty, and dismantled its too youthful and unripe retirements, it began to put on a darknesse, and to decline its softnesse, and the symptomes of a sickly age; it bowed the head, and broke its stalk, and at night having lost some of its leaves, and all of its beauty, it fell into the portion of weeds and outworn faces.”

Taylor’s work was later admired by John Wesley for its devotional quality; and by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey and Edmund Gosse for its literary qualities.

William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728; modern versions include Vintage, 2002, Vintage Spiritual Classics series):

The 18th-century Nonjuring Anglican priest and spiritual writer William Law (1686-1761) strongly influenced the theology of John and Charles Wesley, and few writers of the time have had as great an influence on the religious spirit of their time. William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life is one of the most important devotional works written in post-Reformation England. Law criticised pious hypocrisy and the corruption of the Church, and offered a challenging insistence on Christian living. His prose is fresh and vivid as he illustrates the holy Christian life as one lived wholly for God. His thoughts on prayer, personal holiness and service to the poor have real contemporary relevance.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM Press, 1959/1978).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, writer and martyr. His role in the Confessing Church and in the German Resistance led to his execution.

Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1937, is a classic of Christian thought. It is centred around an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, in which the writer spells out what he believes it means to follow Christ along the path of costly discipleship.

One of the most important parts of the book deals with the distinction which Bonhoeffer makes between “cheap” grace and “costly” grace. For Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” In other words, cheap grace preaches the Gospel in words such as: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship.

In contrast to this is costly grace: “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’.”

Bonhoeffer foresaw the collapse of the organised church as the inevitable consequence of making grace available to all at too low a cost. The Church gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. We gave “that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving … But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.”

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1998 50th anniversary edition):

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, but was also known as a poet, political and social activist, as the author of numerous works on spirituality. He wrote more than 60 books, and scores of essays and reviews. He was involved in dialogues with Asian spiritual leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Japanese Zen master DT Suzuki. He died in 1968 of accidental electrocution while he was at an international monastic conference in Bangkok.

Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain is his autobiography, written five years after he entered Gethsemani Abbey. The title is borrowed from the mountain of Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and when the book was first published it was an immediate sensation. The original hardcover edition eventually sold over 600,000 copies, and paperback sales exceed one million. The book is remains in print, and has been translated into more than 15 languages.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton is struggling to answer a spiritual call. The worldly influences of his earlier years have been compared with the story of Saint Augustine’s conversion described in The Confessions.

Merton’s Augustinian candour regarding his previous indulgence in alcohol and casual sex caused a censor from his Cistercian Order to delay publication until the controversial passages were toned down. But The Seven Storey Mountain struck a nerve amidst a society longing for renewed personal meaning and direction in the aftermath of World War II, and at a time when global annihilation was increasingly imaginable due to the nuclear arms race.

The Seven Storey Mountain has been included in most of the lists of the best 50 or 100 books of the 20th century, and has served as a powerful recruitment tool for vocations to the priesthood and to monastic life. The Seven Storey Mountain closes by admonishing the reader to “learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today (London: SPCK, 1972/1992):

Michael Ramsey’s The Christian Priest Today is a reworking of talks he gave to ordinands in the 1960s and 1970s. Michael Ramsey, who was Archbishop of Canterbury, credited Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx as particularly valuable theological mentors, along with Henry Chadwick, Richard Baxter and P.T. Forsyth.. This book is designed to hearten “priests and would-be priests [today who are] as devoted and as intelligent as at any time in history” and to help them understand their calling.

He discusses the tensions that exist for priests: the tension between this-worldliness and other-worldliness; the problem between varying kinds and tempers of biblical interpretation; the difficulty of maintaining a balance between traditions and modernity.

His lectures are short and practical – how to preach God today; how to preach Jesus today; the priest and politics; the priest as a person of prayer. The provide sharp insights into key issues of concern to the priest, who is very easily distracted by the day-to-day cares of a parish or by the rush of doing a “real” job while we are trying to provide pastoral care.

Archbishop Ramsey warns against a clerical hubris that seems to permeate the clergy of many churches, and urges the humility that is ever-present in the gospel messages, especially the gospel of ordination. “By your humility, you will prove that the authority entrusted to you is really Christ’s ... Everyone possessing authority is liable to become bossy and overbearing … Everyone possessing privilege and security is liable to a subtle worldly enjoyment.”

Ramsey ends on a note of hope, community, and inclusiveness. The priest, in the church and outside it, is called to empower all people. But he also recaptures a sense of the priesthood of all believers and makes it whole and important to the life of the church.

John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God (London: SCM, 1972), by a former general secretary of SCM and Bishop of Winchester, is one of the modern classics of Anglican spirituality.

George Appleton, The Practice of Prayer (Oxford: Mowbray, 1979/1980). A short book by a former Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, but an effective way of rethinking our priorities in prayer.

Some other helpful books each of you should consider having a copy of:

David Runcorn, Spirituality Workbook (London: SPCK, 2006).

Martin Dudley and Virginia Rounding, The Parish Survival Book (London: SPCK, 2004).

Roslaind Brown, Christopher Cocksworth, Being a Priest Today (Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2002).

Some anthologies, guidebooks and directories that you might like as ordination presents or at other stages include:

Richard H. Schmidt, Glorious Companions: five centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002).

C. Jones, G. Wainwright, E. Yarnold (eds), The Study of Spirituality (London: SPCK, 1986/2004).

Gordon Maunsell, English Spirituality – from earliest times to 1700 (London: SPCK, 2001/2008).

Gordon Wakefield (ed), The SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (London: SCM, 1983/2003).

Finally, as you got out, could I leave you with the words of a poem by Roslaind Brown:

Go at the call of God,
the call to follow on,
to leave security behind
and go where Christ has gone.
Go in the name of God,
the name of Christ you bear;
take up your cross, it’s victims love
with all the world to share.

Go in the love of God,
explore its depth and height.
Held fast by love that cares, that heals,
in love walk in the light.
Go in the strength of God,
in weakness prove God true.
The strength that dares to love and serve
God will pour out in you.

Go with the saints of God,
our common life upbuild,
that daily as we walk God’s way
we may with love be filled.
O God, to you we come,
your love alone to know,
your name to own, your strength to prove,
and at your call to go.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These lecture notes were prepared for a Year III class on Spirituality on 22 April 2008.

For C.P.Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca,” recited by Sir Sean Connery and with music specially composed by Vangelis visit:

The Book of Revelation (5): Revelation 3

The Light of the World by Holman Hunt, inspired by the words in the Letter to Laodicea: Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me (Revelation 3: 20)

Patrick Comerford

The seven letters to the Churches of Asia continue in Chapter 3, with three further letters to the churches in Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Well-known and popular images from the letters in this chapter include the pillars of the Church in Phildelphia, the luke-warm faith of the Church in Laodiecea, which is neither hot nor cold, and the image of Christ knocking at the door which inspired Holman Hunts famous paintings of The Light of the World, now in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and Keble College, Oxford.

3: 1-6, The Letter to Sardis:

1 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Σάρδεσιν ἐκκλησίας γράψον:

Τάδε λέγει ὁ ἔχων τὰ ἑπτὰ πνεύματα τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἑπτὰ ἀστέρας: Οἶδά σου τὰ ἔργα, ὅτι ὄνομα ἔχεις ὅτι ζῇς, καὶ νεκρὸς εἶ. 2 γίνου γρηγορῶν, καὶ στήρισον τὰ λοιπὰ ἃ ἔμελλον ἀποθανεῖν, οὐ γὰρ εὕρηκά σου τὰ ἔργα πεπληρωμένα ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ μου: 3 μνημόνευε οὖν πῶς εἴληφας καὶ ἤκουσας, καὶ τήρει, καὶ μετανόησον. ἐὰν οὖν μὴ γρηγορήσῃς, ἥξω ὡς κλέπτης, καὶ οὐ μὴ γνῷς ποίαν ὥραν ἥξω ἐπὶ σέ. 4 ἀλλὰ ἔχεις ὀλίγα ὀνόματα ἐν Σάρδεσιν ἃ οὐκ ἐμόλυναν τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτῶν, καὶ περιπατήσουσιν μετ' ἐμοῦ ἐν λευκοῖς, ὅτι ἄξιοί εἰσιν. 5 ὁ νικῶν οὕτως περιβαλεῖται ἐν ἱματίοις λευκοῖς, καὶ οὐ μὴ ἐξαλείψω τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐκ τῆς βίβλου τῆς ζωῆς, καὶ ὁμολογήσω τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐνώπιον τοῦ πατρός μου καὶ ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀγγέλων αὐτοῦ. 6 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις.

1 ‘And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:

‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is at the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 Yet you have still a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’

Classical and Biblical Sardis:

The ruins of the synagogue in Sardis ... evidence of a strong and long-surviving Jewish community in the city

The fifth letter is addressed to the Church in Sardis, or Sardes (Σάρδεις), modern Sartmustafa in the Manisa province of Turkey.

Sardis stood in the middle of the Hermus Valley, about 4 km south of the Hermus. Today, the village of Sart is close to the main road from Izmir to Ankara, about 72 km from Izmir (Smyrna). It was an important city because of its military strength, its place on an important highway leading from the interior to the Aegean coast, and its position commanding the wide and fertile plain of the Hermus.

The earliest reference to Sardis is by Aeschylus in The Persians (472 BC). In the Persian era, it was captured from the fabulously wealthy and greedy King Croesus by Cyrus the Great, whose consequent wealth is referred to in Isaiah 45: 3. Sardis then became the end station for the Persian Royal Road which began in Persepolis. During the Ionian Revolt, the Athenians burnt the city, and Sardis finally surrendered to Alexander the Great in 334 BC.

At the time Revelation was written, Sardis was a city known for its luxury and licentiousness. It was centre of the imperial cult and had a great temple dedicated to Artemis, built along similar lines to the temple in Ephesus. It remained one of the great cities of western Asia Minor until the later Byzantine period.

By the 19th century, Sardis was in ruins. The remains at Sardis include the bath-gymnasium complex, the synagogue and Byzantine shops. The recent discovery of the large synagogue in Sardis has reversed previous assumptions about Judaism in the later Roman Empire, and provides evidence for the continued vitality of Jewish communities in Asia Minor into the third or fourth century at a time when many scholars previously assumed that Christianity had eclipsed Judaism. The name Sardis may have been the origin of the word Sephardic, which describes many Jewish communities of Oriental and Mediterranean origin.

Verses 1 and 2:

The Church in Sardis is addressed by Christ as the one who has the seven spirits and the seven stars of God. The letter implies that the people of Sardis were notoriously soft and faint-hearted. They appear to be alive but may as well be dead, appear to be awake but are asleep. The church exists only in name and not in deed.

Verse 3:

The image of being the unsuspecting and unprepared victim of a cunning thief is particularly apt for Sardis: the city was twice captured, first by Cyrus and then Antiochus III because no guard was posted above the steep slopes. The Church in Sardis is now in danger of finding what it has being stolen.

Verse 4:

Yet, there is a faithful remnant within the Church, who have not soiled their clothes.

Verse 5:

White robes are the robes of baptism and the robes of pure worship. The Letter says that Christ will grant to those who are pure in this world a white robe and walk with Christ. The white robes or garments point to the resurrected body.

The book of life is the register of God containing the names of the redeemed (see Exodus 32: 32; Psalm 69: 28; Daniel 12: 1; Malachi 3: 16).

3: 7-13, The Letter to Philadelphia:

7 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Φιλαδελφείᾳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον:

Τάδε λέγει ὁ ἅγιος, ὁ ἀληθινός,
ὁ ἔχων τὴν κλεῖν Δαυίδ,
ὁ ἀνοίγων καὶ οὐδεὶς κλείσει,
καὶ κλείων καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀνοίγει:

8 Οἶδά σου τὰ ἔργα ἰδοὺ δέδωκα ἐνώπιόν σου θύραν ἠνεῳγμένην, ἣν οὐδεὶς δύναται κλεῖσαι αὐτήν ὅτι μικρὰν ἔχεις δύναμιν, καὶ ἐτήρησάς μου τὸν λόγον, καὶ οὐκ ἠρνήσω τὸ ὄνομά μου. 9 ἰδοὺ διδῶ ἐκ τῆς συναγωγῆς τοῦ Σατανᾶ, τῶν λεγόντων ἑαυτοὺς Ἰουδαίους εἶναι, καὶ οὐκ εἰσὶν ἀλλὰ ψεύδονται: ἰδοὺ ποιήσω αὐτοὺς ἵνα ἥξουσιν καὶ προσκυνήσουσιν ἐνώπιον τῶν ποδῶν σου, καὶ γνῶσιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἠγάπησά σε. 10 ὅτι ἐτήρησας τὸν λόγον τῆς ὑπομονῆς μου, κἀγώ σε τηρήσω ἐκ τῆς ὥρας τοῦ πειρασμοῦ τῆς μελλούσης ἔρχεσθαι ἐπὶ τῆς οἰκουμένης ὅλης πειράσαι τοὺς κατοικοῦντας ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς. 11 ἔρχομαι ταχύ: κράτει ὃ ἔχεις, ἵνα μηδεὶς λάβῃ τὸν στέφανόν σου. 12 ὁ νικῶν ποιήσω αὐτὸν στῦλον ἐν τῷ ναῷ τοῦ θεοῦ μου, καὶ ἔξω οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃ ἔτι, καὶ γράψω ἐπ' αὐτὸν τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ θεοῦ μου καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς πόλεως τοῦ θεοῦ μου, τῆς καινῆς Ἰερουσαλήμ, ἡ καταβαίνουσα ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ μου, καὶ τὸ ὄνομά μου τὸ καινόν. 13 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις.

7 ‘And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens:

8 ‘I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying – I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Classical and Biblical Philadelphia:

The pillars of the Byzantine Church of Saint John in Philadelphia frame the view towards a mosque in present-day Alaşehir

The sixth letter is addressed to the Church in Philadelphia, a small town in Lydia. Several ancient cities bore the name of Philadelphia, but the city named as the sixth-city church in the Book of Revelation is present-day Alaşehir. This Philadelphia (Φιλαδέλφεια) is also located in Manisa province. It lies in the valley of the Kuzuçay, at the foot of the Bozdağ or Mount Tmolus, about 105 km from Smyrna.

Philadelphia was established in 189 BC by King Eumenes of Pergamon, who named it so because of his love for his brother, who succeeded him as Attalos II.

This region still produces some of the best grapes and wine in Turkey, and as a centre of vine-growing wine-making, Philadelphia was a centre for the worship of Dionysius (Bacchus), the god of wine and merry-making. Under Roman rule, the city was in the administrative district of Sardis.

When the city suffered badly in an earthquake in AD 17, the Emperor Tiberius relieved it from having to pay taxes. It was renamed Neo Caesarea and became a centre of the imperial cult. It remained an important centre in the early Christian and Byzantine times. In the sixth century, prosperous Philadelphia was known as “little Athens” because of its festivals and temples, which indicates the city was not entirely converted to Christianity. Ammia, the Montanist prophetess, was from Philadelphia. The domed Basilica of Saint John was built around the year 600. Its remains are the principal archaeological attraction there today, and include three of the six original pillars, with some barely visible 11th century painting; a fourth pillar is half-buried in the soil.

In the 14th century, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople made Philadelphia the metropolis of Lydia by, a status it still holds. Philadelphia was the last Byzantine stronghold in inner Asia Minor. Its Greek population fled the town during World War I. Today it is known as Alaşehir.

The Letter:

This letter gives the impression that the Church of Philadelphia was small in numbers, or poor, or both. But it has remained faithful, and has not denied Christ. In this letter Philadelphia, like Smyrna, receives no warning or condemnation. The Church has lived through difficult circumstances and is urged to hold fast in the face of further difficulties.

Verse 7:

The key of David is a symbol of authority and allows access to the king’s palace (see Isaiah 22: 15-22), but earlier in Revelation we have also encountered the keys of Hades and Death (1: 18) that give access to the eschatological kingdom.

Verse 8:

An open door symbolises opportunity.

Verse 9:

According to this letter, the Christians in Philadelphia were suffering persecution at the hands of the local Jews, who are called the “synagogue of Satan.” Once again, this is a difficult passage to deal with, and refers to clashes at the time rather than anything in the future – it cannot be applied to Jewish communities today.

Verse 12:

Those Christians in Philadelphia who are persistent in the faith and are victorious are to become the pillars of the temple of God. This means that the people themselves become the temple of God. The metaphor may refer to the pillars of Solomon’s Temple (see I Kings 7: 21 and II Chronicles 3: 17). But the city’s history of earthquakes may lie behind the reference to making this church a temple pillar, for permanency was of vital importance to the city’s residents.

These pillars are given new names – there is the name of God, the name of the city of God, Jerusalem, and the new name of the Lamb, Christ. Each of these promises point to a new and promised reality.

3: 14-22, The Letter to Laodicea:

14 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Λαοδικείᾳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ Ἀμήν, ὁ μάρτυς ὁ πιστὸς καὶ ἀληθινός, ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως τοῦ θεοῦ: 15 Οἶδά σου τὰ ἔργα, ὅτι οὔτε ψυχρὸς εἶ οὔτε ζεστός. ὄφελον ψυχρὸς ἦς ἢ ζεστός. 16 οὕτως, ὅτι χλιαρὸς εἶ καὶ οὔτε ζεστὸς οὔτε ψυχρός, μέλλω σε ἐμέσαι ἐκ τοῦ στόματός μου. 17 ὅτι λέγεις ὅτι Πλούσιός εἰμι καὶ πεπλούτηκα καὶ οὐδὲν χρείαν ἔχω, καὶ οὐκ οἶδας ὅτι σὺ εἶ ὁ ταλαίπωρος καὶ ἐλεεινὸς καὶ πτωχὸς καὶ τυφλὸς καὶ γυμνός, 18 συμβουλεύω σοι ἀγοράσαι παρ' ἐμοῦ χρυσίον πεπυρωμένον ἐκ πυρὸς ἵνα πλουτήσῃς, καὶ ἱμάτια λευκὰ ἵνα περιβάλῃ καὶ μὴ φανερωθῇ ἡ αἰσχύνη τῆς γυμνότητός σου, καὶ κολλ[ο]ύριον ἐγχρῖσαι τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς σου ἵνα βλέπῃς. 19 ἐγὼ ὅσους ἐὰν φιλῶ ἐλέγχω καὶ παιδεύω: ζήλευε οὖν καὶ μετανόησον. 20 ἰδοὺ ἕστηκα ἐπὶ τὴν θύραν καὶ κρούω: ἐάν τις ἀκούσῃ τῆς φωνῆς μου καὶ ἀνοίξῃ τὴν θύραν, [καὶ] εἰσελεύσομαι πρὸς αὐτὸν καὶ δειπνήσω μετ' αὐτοῦ καὶ αὐτὸς μετ' ἐμοῦ. 21 ὁ νικῶν δώσω αὐτῷ καθίσαι μετ' ἐμοῦ ἐν τῷ θρόνῳ μου, ὡς κἀγὼ ἐνίκησα καὶ ἐκάθισα μετὰ τοῦ πατρός μου ἐν τῷ θρόνῳ αὐτοῦ. 22 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις.

14 ‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:

15 ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’

Classical and Biblical Laodicea:

The hot water from Hierapolis became polluted and cooled as it flowed down through the calcified terraces on the slopes above Laodecia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2005)

The seventh and last letter is addressed to the Church in Laodicea, a proud and wealthy city near Colossae. Laodicea on the Lycus (Λαοδίκεια πρός τοῦ Λύκου), once known as Diospolis (the City of Zeus) and as Rhoas, lies about 160 km east of Ephesus. This ancient metropolis of Phrygia Pacatiana It was built on the River Lycus, 10 km south of Hierapolis, near the present village of Eskihisar in Asia Minor, by Antiochus II Theos ca 261-253 BC in honour of his wife Laodice.

At first, Laodicea had little importance, and in 188 BC it passed to the Kingdom of Pergamum. Under Roman rule, Laodicea prospered because of its advantageous position on a trade route and became an important and flourishing commercial city that minted its own coins and with its prosperity built on banking, money transactions and an extensive trade in black wool. It was also known as a centre for the arts, science and literature, and had a famed medical school. It was also a centre for the worship of Zeus, Aesculapius, Apollo and the imperial cult.

Antiochus the Great transported 2,000 Jewish families to Phrygia from Babylon, and so at the time the Book of Revelation was written Laodicea had a large Jewish community, which sent large donations each year to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Perhaps because of this large Jewish community, Laodicea became an early seat of Christianity with its own bishop. Laodicea is mentioned in passing in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, and the Church in Laodicea may have been founded by the Epaphras of Colossae, who shared the care of it with Nymphas, in whose house the Church assembled. Paul asks the Colossians to communicate to the Church of Laodicea the letter he sends them, and to read publicly a letter that should come to them from Laodicea – perhaps one he had written himself or was about to write, to the Laodiceans. In addition, some Greek manuscripts end I Timothy with the phrase: “Written at Laodicea, Metropolis of Phrygia Pacatiana.”

The Church in Laodicea survived its rebukes in this letter, and a famous Church council met there in the year 363.

The surviving archaeological ruins in Laodicea attest to its former greatness. They include the city’s stadium, gymnasium, and theatres, along with the remains of an aqueduct.

Verse 14:

The “Amen” is Christ himself.

Verses 15-16:

No other Church is rebuked as sternly and as harshly as the Church in Laodicea. The church is as unpalatable as the local water which has come from the hot springs in Hierapolis (Pamukkale), and has been cooled and polluted as it drips down through the encrusted, calcified terraces on the hillsides above Laodicea. This lukewarm water is now so polluted and so poisoned, it is better to spit it out.

Verse 17:

Although this is a rich, proud, boastful city, the people spiritually are quite the opposite.

Verse 18:

Those who have grown rich through banking and money-changing do not know the true value of real, refined, golden faith. They need to replace their black wool garments which are a sign of their prosperous trading with the white robes of baptism and true worship.

These people are also spiritually blind, and need fresh spiritual insight. Laodicea was famous at the time for the eye medicine produced locally from powdered Phrygian stone. There is a touch of irony here as the city that is famous for its eye medicine is home to Christians who are blind to their own condition.

Verse 20:

Christ stands at the door, knocking. This image has inspired Holman Hunt’s painting, “The Light of the World.” If we open door to Christ, then we can sit with him at the banquet, at the Eucharist.

Verse 21:

Although no other church among the seven is rebuked as harshly as the Church in Laodicea, nevertheless Christ says that those who are victorious will sit with him on the Throne of God.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible Study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 22 April 2009.

The Book of Revelation (4): Revelation 2

Patrick Comerford


Chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation contain the Seven Letters to the Churches in Asia Minor, which John has been told to commit to writing in the cave at the top of Patmos. These seven letters provided the basis for the daily Bible studies for the bishops at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury last summer.

These letters could be compared in an interesting way with Amos 1-2, with its seven stereotyped judgment oracles,.

In Revelation 2 and 3, each letter falls into a stereotyped pattern consisting of the same basic components. Each letter contains an address, a descriptive phrase referring to the Risen Lord, a commendation or a condemnation of the Church addressed in the Letter, and a concluding promise and exhortation to the faithful, with a reminder or message to be victorious as Christ is also always victorious.

The basic structure of each letter can be seen in this outline:

The charge to write: “To the angel of the church in … write:”

The identification of the sender: “These are the words of …”

A commendation or a condemnation: “I know …”

A pastoral admonition: “Remember …”, “Do not fear …”, “Repent …”, and so on.

A pastoral exhortation: “Let everyone who has an ear listen …”

A promise: “To everyone who conquers …”

In some letters, these components follow a different order, and in each case the message is directed towards the circumstances in a specific church. Those circumstances provide a form of poetic enclosure for each letter:

Churches 1 and 7, Ephesus and Laodicea, are in grave peril;

Churches 2 and 6, Smyrna and Philadelphia, are not censured for shortcomings;

Churches 3, 4 and 5, Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis, are middle of the road churches, neither bad nor good.

This literary device, this chiasm, draws attention to the real need for repentance in both Ephesus and Laodicea.

The poetic approach is emphasised with each church being attributed a virtue and a vice:

Ephesus: Vice, Contentiousness; Virtue, Love.

Smyrna: Vice, Fear; Virtue, Courage.

Pergamum: Vice, Doctrinal compromise; Virtue, Orthodoxy (correct belief).

Thyatira: Vice, Moral compromise; Virtue, Orthopraxis (correct behaviour).

Sardis: Vice, Over-confidence; Virtue, Vigilance.

Philadelphia: Vice, Lack of strength; Virtue, Endurance.

Laodicea: Vice, Indifference; Virtue, Zeal.

2: 1-7, The Letter to Ephesus:

1 Τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Ἐφέσῳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ κρατῶν τοὺς ἑπτὰ ἀστέρας ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ αὐτοῦ, ὁ περιπατῶν ἐν μέσῳ τῶν ἑπτὰ λυχνιῶν τῶν χρυσῶν:

2 Οἶδα τὰ ἔργα σου καὶ τὸν κόπον καὶ τὴν ὑπομονήν σου, καὶ ὅτι οὐ δύνῃ βαστάσαι κακούς, καὶ ἐπείρασας τοὺς λέγοντας ἑαυτοὺς ἀποστόλους καὶ οὐκ εἰσίν, καὶ εὗρες αὐτοὺς ψευδεῖς: 3 καὶ ὑπομονὴν ἔχεις, καὶ ἐβάστασας διὰ τὸ ὄνομά μου, καὶ οὐ κεκοπίακες. 4 ἀλλὰ ἔχω κατὰ σοῦ ὅτι τὴν ἀγάπην σου τὴν πρώτην ἀφῆκες. 5 μνημόνευε οὖν πόθεν πέπτωκας, καὶ μετανόησον καὶ τὰ πρῶτα ἔργα ποίησον: εἰ δὲ μή, ἔρχομαί σοι καὶ κινήσω τὴν λυχνίαν σου ἐκ τοῦ τόπου αὐτῆς, ἐὰν μὴ μετανοήσῃς. 6 ἀλλὰ τοῦτο ἔχεις, ὅτι μισεῖς τὰ ἔργα τῶν Νικολαϊτῶν, ἃ κἀγὼ μισῶ. 7 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις. τῷ νικῶντι δώσω αὐτῷ φαγεῖν ἐκ τοῦ ξύλου τῆς ζωῆς, ὅ ἐστιν ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ τοῦ θεοῦ.

1 ‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:

2 ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’

Classical and Biblical Ephesus:

The Library of Celsus in Ephesus, one of the great libraries of the Classical wolrd (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first letter from Patmos is, appropriately, for the Church in Ephesus, for Ephesus (Ἔφεσος) was the most important city at the time in Asia Minor, boasting the title of Supreme Metropolis of Asia.

For centuries, Ephesus had been a centre for the worship of Artemis. The magnificent Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and its reputation and the cult at the sanctuary of Artemis brought visitors, trade and prosperity to Ephesus. It is said that on the ay Alexander the Great was born, a lunatic named Herostratus set fire to and destroyed the Temple of Artemis. Later Alexander offered to rebuild the temple, but the Ephesians declined his offer on the ground that it was inappropriate for one god to dedicate a temple to another.

The ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the classical world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals, moved the site of Ephesus when he rebuilt and refounded the city about the year 289 BC. By the beginning of the Christian era, Ephesus was a major centre of trade, industry and finance in the Eastern Mediterranean, with a population of 200,000 – neither Paris nor London reached this size until after the 15th century. It was home too to the Library of Celsus, one of the greatest libraries in the classical world.

When the Apostle Paul arrived in Ephesus about AD 53, on his return from his second missionary journey, the city had a Jewish population of about 10,000, making it the largest Jewish centre in western Anatolia. Paul worked with the Church in Ephesus for over two years, organising missionary activity into the hinterlands (see Acts 19: 8-10). He became embroiled in a dispute with the city’s traders and artisans, whose livelihood depended on selling small, souvenir-like statues of Artemis (Diana) in the Temple of Artemis (see Acts 19: 23–41). A riot ensued and Paul decided to leave.

Paul also wrote I Corinthians from Ephesus, perhaps from the “Paul Tower,” close to the harbour, where he was a prisoner for a time. Later, he wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians to the Christian community at Ephesus around 62 AD, while he was a prisoner in Rome.

Ephesus is particularly associated with Saint John the Divine. According to tradition, he lived above the city and above the Temple of Artemis on the hill of Ayasuluk – a modern Turkish name derived from the Greek Aghios Theologos (Holy Theologian). He is said to have written the Fourth Gospel there around 90 to 100 AD, to have died there at the age of 120, and to have been buried on the site of the later basilica in a grave that he had dug himself.

Two decades later, the Church at Ephesus was still important enough to be addressed by a letter written by Ignatius of Antioch in the early 2nd century AD, beginning: “Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia, deservedly most happy, being blessed in the greatness and fullness of God the Father, and predestined before the beginning of time, that it should be always for an enduring and unchangeable glory.”

Many of the ancient religious sites were destroyed after the Emperor Constantine’s conversion in the third century. Ephesus was sacked by the Goths in 262, but soon recovered and was the venue for the Third Ecumenical Council in the year 431, when the Nestorians were condemned. The Second Council of Ephesus in 449 came to be known to its opponents as the Robber Council of Ephesus.

The city was sacked again by the Sassanians in 614, and by the Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries. Meanwhile, as the centuries passed, the Cayster River continued to silt up, so that by the ninth century Ephesus was an inland city, with Phygela and Scala Nuova (the modern resort town of Kusadasi) serving as its harbours. Soon, the population began to move out of city onto the hill of neighbouring Ayasuluk, around the Basilica of Saint John, so that by the 15th century and the Turkish conquest, Ephesus had been abandoned.

Verse 1:

In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, John introduces Christ in the same way as he does in the introduction to the Book of Revelation: he is holding the seven starts, representing the seven angels of the seven churches, in his right hand, and walking among the seven golden lampstands, the symbol of the seven churches. The metaphor confirms that Christ is ever-present in each of the churches. In the New Testament, the disciples are often described as lights or lamps in the world. As the lamp on the candlestick lights up the surrounding darkness, so the disciples are to have an illuminating effect on all around them.

Verse 2:

The phrase, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance,” is repeated at the beginning of each of these letters and refers to the work and weariness in this world that will be over one day. Christ commends the Ephesian Christians for their zeal in the face of enemies and their faithful testing of those who claim they are apostles but are not and are false. In the past Paul had warned the elders of Ephesus about the danger of false teachers who would distort the truth (see Acts 20: 29-31), and Timothy too had to deal with false teachers in Ephesus (see I Timothy 1: 3-11, 4: 1-9, 6: 3-0).

Verses 3 and 4:

But despite their patient endurance, and their unwavering commitment, the Ephesians have lost that first spark of love that they had as young Christians. A lack of love is inconsistent with the truth of Christianity (see I John 3: 14).

Verse 5:

If they do not work at recovering that loving commitment, they are in danger of their light being quenched. But before the light goes out, they can repent and renew that flame of love.

Verse 6:

To hate evil is the Biblical counterpart of loving good. Whatever the failings of the Christians in Ephesus may have been, they are praised for resisting the heresies of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans denied the incarnation and victory of Christ, taught that what one did in the body made no difference at all because the body was mortal while the soul was immortal, and so they taught that they were free to eat food offered to idols and to practice immorality in the name of religion, both of which were real temptations in every-day Ephesus at the time.

Verse 7:

The letter to Ephesus ends with the promise that whoever shares with Christ as conquerors will eat of the tree of life that is in the paradise of God (see Genesis 2: 9 and Revelation 22: 1-2).

2: 8-11, The Letter to Smyrna:

8 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Σμύρνῃ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος, ὃς ἐγένετο νεκρὸς καὶ ἔζησεν:

9 Οἶδά σου τὴν θλῖψιν καὶ τὴν πτωχείαν, ἀλλὰ πλούσιος εἶ, καὶ τὴν βλασφημίαν ἐκ τῶν λεγόντων Ἰουδαίους εἶναι ἑαυτούς, καὶ οὐκ εἰσὶν ἀλλὰ συναγωγὴ τοῦ Σατανᾶ. 10 μηδὲν φοβοῦ ἃ μέλλεις πάσχειν. ἰδοὺ μέλλει βάλλειν ὁ διάβολος ἐξ ὑμῶν εἰς φυλακὴν ἵνα πειρασθῆτε, καὶ ἕξετε θλῖψιν ἡμερῶν δέκα. γίνου πιστὸς ἄχρι θανάτου, καὶ δώσω σοι τὸν στέφανον τῆς ζωῆς. 11 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις. ὁ νικῶν οὐ μὴ ἀδικηθῇ ἐκ τοῦ θανάτου τοῦ δευτέρου.

8 ‘And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:

9 ‘I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.’

Classical and Biblical Smyrna:

The ruins in the Agora are all that remain of classical Smyrna in Izmir today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The second letter in these chapters is addressed to the Church in Smyrna, known in modern Turkey as Izmir. Smyrna (Σμύρνη) probably dates back to the first half of the third millennium BC, and became one of the wealthiest cities in this part of the ancient and classical world. The Temple of Athena dated back to the seventh century BC. The city was subsequently relocated and rebuilt by Lysimachus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Alongside Ephesus, it became one of the most important coastal cities in Asia Minor. As one of the principal cities of Roman Asia, Smyrna vied with Ephesus and Pergamum for recognition as the “First City of Asia.”

Smyrna was a centre of the imperial cult, with a temple to the Emperor Augustus and his mother, and a temple to Tiberius, even though he had never been officially deified by the Roman senate.

There was a Christian church in Smyrna from a very early time, probably originating in the considerable Jewish colony. Saint Ignatius of Antioch visited Smyrna and later wrote letters to its bishop, Saint Polycarp. By the time Polycarp was bishop, Smyrna had a population of 100,000. Polycarp’s story provides the first authentic post-Biblical narrative of the martyrdom of a leading Christian. He is thought to have lived around 69-156 AD, and is said to have been converted by Saint John, who appointed him Bishop of Smyrna. He was arrested and was burned to death in the stadium in Smyrna.

Saint Irenaeus, who heard Polycarp as a boy, was probably a native of Smyrna. Polycrates recounts a succession of bishops, including Polycarp, and the church in Smyrna was one of only two that Tertullian acknowledged as having some form of apostolic succession.

After the Ottoman conquest, Greek influence remained so strong in the area that the Turks called the city “Smyrna of the infidels.” The Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922, which resulted in the deaths of countless Greeks and Armenians, is one of the early, horrific examples of attempted “ethnic cleansing” and genocide in 20th century Europe. Today, nothing survives from the Hellenistic city, and all that remains in Izmir of Roman Smyrna is the ruins of the Agora.

Verse 8:

The letter to Smyrna introduces Christ as the first and the last, the πρῶτος (protos) and the ἔσχατος (eschatos), who was dead and who came to life. Compare this to the description at the beginning and the end of this book of Christ as the alpha and the omega (1: 18 and 21: 6). The reference to one who was dead and who came to life is also appropriate in Smyrna, a city that had been destroyed by the Lydians and that lay in ruins until it was rebuilt by Lysimachus.

Verse 9:

This letter commends the Church in Smyrna for its perseverance in the face of affliction and poverty, with the Christians of Smyrna bravely hanging on to their faith despite severe affliction and persecution. Despite their poverty, the Christians of Smyrna are rich in things spiritual. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6: 20).

Do you find the expression “synagogue of Satan” to describe the non-Christian Jews of Smyrna shocking today?

Verse 10:

The description of the sufferings facing the Christians of Smyrna must have been read with greater poignancy after the martyrdom of Polycarp and other leaders. However, this persecution will not last long – ten days is used in apocalyptic literature to say that a period of testing or tribulation is going to be limited and not lengthy (see Daniel 1: 12). In John’s time, ten days was the length of two gladiatorial contests in the stadium.

The image of the “crown of life” may have been derived from the crown or wreath that was the most common symbol on coins in Smyrna and from the crown that athletes were rewarded with in the stadium.

Verse 11:

Christ tells the Church in Smyrna that he who conquers will not be harmed by the second death. Those who are baptised into Christ are already dead, for baptism is symbolic of the first death. After baptism, the second death is entry into eternal life and into the presence of God. Once again, a reference to victory has been disclosed.

2: 12-17, The Letter to Pergamum:

12 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Περγάμῳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ ἔχων τὴν ῥομφαίαν τὴν δίστομον τὴν ὀξεῖαν:

13 Οἶδα ποῦ κατοικεῖς, ὅπου ὁ θρόνος τοῦ Σατανᾶ, καὶ κρατεῖς τὸ ὄνομά μου, καὶ οὐκ ἠρνήσω τὴν πίστιν μου καὶ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις Ἀντιπᾶς ὁ μάρτυς μου ὁ πιστός μου, ὃς ἀπεκτάνθη παρ' ὑμῖν, ὅπου ὁ Σατανᾶς κατοικεῖ. 14 ἀλλ' ἔχω κατὰ σοῦ ὀλίγα, ὅτι ἔχεις ἐκεῖ κρατοῦντας τὴν διδαχὴν Βαλαάμ, ὃς ἐδίδασκεν τῷ Βαλὰκ βαλεῖν σκάνδαλον ἐνώπιον τῶν υἱῶν Ἰσραήλ, φαγεῖν εἰδωλόθυτα καὶ πορνεῦσαι: 15 οὕτως ἔχεις καὶ σὺ κρατοῦντας τὴν διδαχὴν [τῶν] Νικολαϊτῶν ὁμοίως. 16 μετανόησον οὖν: εἰ δὲ μή, ἔρχομαί σοι ταχύ, καὶ πολεμήσω μετ' αὐτῶν ἐν τῇ ῥομφαίᾳ τοῦ στόματός μου. 17 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις. τῷ νικῶντι δώσω αὐτῷ τοῦ μάννα τοῦ κεκρυμμένου, καὶ δώσω αὐτῷ ψῆφον λευκὴν καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν ψῆφον ὄνομα καινὸν γεγραμμένον ὃ οὐδεὶς οἶδεν εἰ μὴ ὁ λαμβάνων.

12 ‘And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:

13 ‘I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling-block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practise fornication. 15 So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

The Library of Pergamum rivalled those in Alexandria and Ephesus and was given to Cleopatra as a wedding present

Classical and Biblical Pergamum:

The third letter is sent to the Church in Pegamum. Pergamum, Pergamon, or Pérgamo (Πέργαμος) is an ancient Greek city about 105 km north of Ephesus, and is known today as Bergama. Pergamum’s wealth, library, temples and beauty were surpassed in the region only by those of Ephesus.

Pergamum’s library on the Acropolis was the second best in the ancient Greek civilisation. When the Ptolemies stopped exporting papyrus from Egypt, the Pergamenes invented a new substance to use in codices, called pergaminus or pergamena (parchment) after the city. This was made of fine calf skin, and was a predecessor of vellum. The library at Pergamom was said to have 200,000 scrolls, rivalling the libraries of Alexandria and Ephesus – Mark Antony later gave them to Cleopatra as a wedding present.

The Asklepion of Pergamum, after those of Kos and Epidavros, was the most important in the Roman world, and attracting pilgrims and people in search of healing from all over the known world. There, a live serpent was kept in a mystical chest as an object of veneration. The city was also a noted centre of idolatrous worship and of the Roman imperial cult. In John’s time, there was a statue of Caesar Augustus in the Temple of Athena on the summit of the acropolis, and the walls of the Great Altar were decorated with reliefs showing the battle between the Greek gods and the giants.

But the church was planted at an early stage in Pergamum, and the best-known surviving church building is the Church of Saint John.

Verse 12:

Christ is introduced to the Church of Pergamum as the one with the two-edged sword (see1: 16; see also Hebrews 4: 12, and Psalm 149: 6).

Verse 13:

The great altar to Zeus with its motifs, the statue of the divine Caesar and the veneration of the snake may all have inspired John to describe Pergamum as “Satan’s throne.” The Christians there are commended for holding fast to their faith, despite martyrdom and murder. Antipas, one of the Church leaders in Pergamum, was martyred by being roasted in a brazen bull for his refusal to take part in the imperial cult.

Verse 14:

However, it appears some Christians in Pergamum had been compromised by the imperial cult, described here the cult of Balaam, eating food sacrificed to idols and engaging in fornication. Balaam, a greedy false prophet, was asked to curse the Israelites, and induced them in engage in prostitution with Moabite women and to eat food sacrificed by their neighbours to their gods (see Numbers 22-25). In this instance, John may be referring to those who had taken part in the imperial cult. Participation in sacrifices to the emperor amounts to spiritual unfaithfulness and prostitution.

Verse 15:

The Church in Pergamum, like the Church of Ephesus, also suffered inroads from the Nicolaitans.

Verse 16:

Those who do not take the opportunity to abandon idolatry and heresy are warned of the consequences facing them.

Verse 17:

But those who listen and believe are promised the “hidden manna” which Christ gives to those who conquer with him. Manna sustained the children of Israel in the wilderness; now, in the wilderness of persecution, those who abandon idolatry and follow Christ are promised the hidden manna, which may refer to the Eucharistic banquet.

In the classical world, stones of various kinds served as tickets and admission passes. The white stone and the new name may refer to the believer’s baptismal name, written on a stone, which can be compared with a ticket or a right to enter into the higher heavens.

2: 18-29, The Letter to Thyatira:

18 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Θυατείροις ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, ὁ ἔχων τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ ὡς φλόγα πυρός, καὶ οἱ πόδες αὐτοῦ ὅμοιοι χαλκολιβάνῳ:

19 Οἶδά σου τὰ ἔργα καὶ τὴν ἀγάπην καὶ τὴν πίστιν καὶ τὴν διακονίαν καὶ τὴν ὑπομονήν σου, καὶ τὰ ἔργα σου τὰ ἔσχατα πλείονα τῶν πρώτων. 20 ἀλλὰ ἔχω κατὰ σοῦ ὅτι ἀφεῖς τὴν γυναῖκα Ἰεζάβελ, ἡ λέγουσα ἑαυτὴν προφῆτιν, καὶ διδάσκει καὶ πλανᾷ τοὺς ἐμοὺς δούλους πορνεῦσαι καὶ φαγεῖν εἰδωλόθυτα. 21 καὶ ἔδωκα αὐτῇ χρόνον ἵνα μετανοήσῃ, καὶ οὐ θέλει μετανοῆσαι ἐκ τῆς πορνείας αὐτῆς. 22 ἰδοὺ βάλλω αὐτὴν εἰς κλίνην, καὶ τοὺς μοιχεύοντας μετ' αὐτῆς εἰς θλῖψιν μεγάλην, ἐὰν μὴ μετανοήσωσιν ἐκ τῶν ἔργων αὐτῆς: 23 καὶ τὰ τέκνα αὐτῆς ἀποκτενῶ ἐν θανάτῳ: καὶ γνώσονται πᾶσαι αἱ ἐκκλησίαι ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἐραυνῶν νεφροὺς καὶ καρδίας, καὶ δώσω ὑμῖν ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὰ ἔργα ὑμῶν. 24 ὑμῖν δὲ λέγω τοῖς λοιποῖς τοῖς ἐν Θυατείροις, ὅσοι οὐκ ἔχουσιν τὴν διδαχὴν ταύτην, οἵτινες οὐκ ἔγνωσαν τὰ βαθέα τοῦ Σατανᾶ, ὡς λέγουσιν, οὐ βάλλω ἐφ' ὑμᾶς ἄλλο βάρος: 25 πλὴν ὃ ἔχετε κρατήσατε ἄχρι[ς] οὗ ἂν ἥξω. 26 καὶ ὁ νικῶν καὶ ὁ τηρῶν ἄχρι τέλους τὰ ἔργα μου,

δώσω αὐτῷ ἐξουσίαν ἐπὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν,
27 καὶ ποιμανεῖ αὐτοὺς ἐν ῥάβδῳ σιδηρᾷ,
ὡς τὰ σκεύη τὰ κεραμικὰ συντρίβεται,
28 ὡς κἀγὼ εἴληφα παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου, καὶ δώσω αὐτῷ τὸν ἀστέρα τὸν πρωϊνόν. 29 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις.

18 ‘And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:

19 ‘I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20 But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practise fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call “the deep things of Satan”, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; 25 only hold fast to what you have until I come. 26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,

I will give authority over the nations;
27 to rule them with an iron rod,
as when clay pots are shattered –

28 even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. 29 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Classical and Biblical Thyatira:

A mound with the ruins of Thyatira, the least-known and least-important of the seven Churches of Asia

The fourth letter is addressed to the Church in Thyatira (Θυάτειρα), and is the longest of the seven letters, although the city was the least-known and least-important of the seven cities. Thyatira, a Lydian city dating back to the seventh century BC, was a stronghold for Hellenistic Pergamum. It was known for its trade guilds, including bakers, potters, slave-dealers, bronze-smiths, wool workers, linen weavers and tanners, who sponsored periodic feasts in honour of their guilds’ own adopted idols. These rituals excluded Christians from the guilds and trades.

Lydia, one of Paul’s converts, was a rich woman who traded in purple cloth from Thyatira (see Acts 16: 11-16). The city fell to the Goths and later to the Arab invaders, but enjoyed a brief revival under the Byzantine Lascarids. But Thyatira was materially the most insignificant city among the seven churches addressed in these two chapters.

The Church of Thyatira survives today in so far as the tile of Archbishop of Thyatira was revived in 1922 by the Patriarch of Constantinople for the Exarch for Western and Central Europe. The Archbishop of Thyatira lives London and has pastoral responsibility for the Greek Orthodox Church in Britain and Ireland. Today, the Turkish city of Akhisar occupies the site of Thyatira.

Verse 18:

Christ is introduced to the Church of Thyatira as the Son of God, the only occasion on which this title is used in the Book of Revelation. He has eyes like a flame of fire (see 1: 14) and feet like burnished bronze (see 1: 15), the second image particularly appropriate in city where the bronze-makers were a powerful economic force.

Verse 19:

The Christians of Thyatira are commended for their love, faith, service and patient endurance. Love is the crowning virtue at the head of this list; faith is also alive; service is the diakonia of servant ministry.

Verse 20:

However, there is one major problem in the Church there. Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of King Ahab, worshipped Balaam, ate food offered to idols, and indulged in sexual immorality (see I Kings 16: 31, 19-19; II Kings 9). This links the problems in Thyatira with those in Pergamum.

The women singled out for condemnation may have been a priestess of the sibylline oracle, one of the female seers of the cult of Apollo, who claimed to prophesy in states of ecstasy. They were consulted not only by pagans but by some Jews too, and some Christians may have been consulting this woman too, or she may have been allowed to attend the Church in Thyatira.

The warning to the Church in Thyatira is direct and to the point.

Verse 26:

If the Christians of Thyatira can put all this behind them, then those who conquer will be given power to rule over the nations, which is symbolic of being in the Kingdom of God, which is possible to attain in this world.

Verse 28:

The image of the morning star or the planet Venus may refer to Christ. The rabbis applied the text in Numbers 24: 17, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel,” as applying to the Messiah. Christ is the messianic herald of the new world that is dawning.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible Study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 22 April 2009.