Saturday, 31 October 2009

Transylvanians sink their teeth into Dracula's lucrative legacy

Bran Castle towers above Bran village and is better known as Dracula’s Castle

Letter from

Patrick Comerford

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, according to Tom Stoppard. But so too are Rosenau, Kronstadt, Honigburg, Prejmer and Torzburg. The former Saxon names on the old maps of Transylvania have long since disappeared and these pretty town and villages on the southern slopes of the Carpatians have been known for a long time by their Romanian names – Rasnov, Brasov, Bran, Harman Tratlau and Bran.

If anyone in Brasov harbours any lingering regrets that the city is no longer known as Kronstadt, no-one wants to return to the brief interlude of post-war madness when the place was given the blood-chilling name of Stalingrad (Orasul Stalin).

Brasov is now the most-visited city of Romania, with its charm and popularity leading one guidebook to describe it as “the Prague of Romania, the Krakow of Transylvania.” With its cobbled streets, castellated towers and ornate churches and townhouses, it is no wonder that the legend grew up that when the Pied Piper charmed the children away from Hamelin, they emerged from the Carpathian Mountains in the town square of Brasov in 1284.

The legend may have been a way of explaining the migration of German-speaking Saxon settlers to this part of Transylvania. It was they who made Brasov the home of some of the best craftsmen, jewellers, and traders in Transylvania. After Ceausescu was toppled, an estimated 130,000 “Saxons” left Romania for Germany, leaving behind a small minority to look after a rich architectural legacy of fortified churches and mediaeval houses. In recent years, these “Saxons” have begun to trickle back to their ancestral homes in the region they once knew as Siebenburgen, and the centuries-old Lutheran churches have become popular venues for fashionable German weddings.

Meanwhile, the people of this region are happy to put the memories of Stalin and Ceausescu into the history books. Instead they are making a tidy tourist industry out of another ruler with a reputation for torture and mass murder – Vlad Tepes, better known to the rest of us, thanks to Dublin-born Bram Stoker, as Dracula.

But there is a remote and blood-curdling link between Stalin and Dracula in Brasov. Ceausescu had the word “Stalin” carved out in the trees of Mount Tampa, looking down on the city. It was close to this gory tribute that Brasov’s original defensive fortress was first built. When the Wallachian prince, Vlad Tepes, attacked Brasov in 1458-1460, he dismantled the citadel on Mount Tampa and 40 merchants were hauled up the slope and impaled on top of the mountain.

It was Vlad’s revenge for a city law that had prevented Romanians from entering the Saxon walled city of Kronstadt. Bram Stoker believed Vlad’s moniker was derived from the Romanian word “draco,” meaning “devil,” although it is more likely he was known as Dracula, or “Son of the Dragon,” because his father, Vlad III, was proud of being made a Knight of the Dragon by the Emperor Sigsimund in 1431.

Vlad Tepes was never a vampire, but he was certainly ruthless and cruel in his bloodletting as he pursued his campaign to rid the Romanian principalities of Saxons, Turks and Greeks. He decapitated his enemies or buried them alive if he had not subjected them to his favourite punishment of impalement, driving a stake carefully through the victim’s anus until it emerged just below the shoulder without piercing any vital organs. Victims were then left writhing in agony before their captor, who watched and ate as they took at least 48 hours to die.

Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler is seen by many Romanians today as an early forerunner of Romanian nationalism. As the story is told and retold, it is often forgotten that he ruled Wallachia and not neighbouring Transylvania. Vlad was never the torturer of Torzburg, but Bram Stoker’s novel has allowed Transylvania to capitalise on popular Western images of Dracula, and the village of Bran 28 km south of Brasov, has prospered by convincing tourists that Bran Castle is Dracula’s Castle.

The castle, perched atop a 60 metre peak, towers above the village, and with its Gothic turrets, tiered towers, and labyrinthine secret passages, it sometimes looks the part. There is a remote possibility that Vlad might have attacked the castle in 1460; then he again, he might have spent a night or two here as fled a Turkish onslaught in 1462. But “might” never makes history, and in reality Bran Castle, is another part of Transylvania’s Saxon legacy, built in 1382 as Tortzburg and one of the defensive fortresses guarding Siebenburgen against the Turks.

Despite countless horror movies, Bran Castle had a more romantic association with Queen Marie, who lived here from 1920. She made a dramatic appearance at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, declaring: “Romania needs a face, and I have come to show mine.” She rode unattended through the streets, showering her people with red roses at carnival time, and once declared: “My love for my country Romania is my religion.”

Bran Castle remained a royal residence until 1947. But royalty and romance are less attractive to tourists than any tentative link with Dracula. As we passed through King Ferdinand’s bedroom, a child looked on the four-poster bed in awe and asked: “Did Dracula sleep in that?” “No, silly,” her doting father replied. “He slept in a coffin in the crypt.”

Down in the village, the tourists generally ignore the beautiful, open-air Village Museum and head for the shops selling Hallowe’en-style trinkets and Dracula masks or to the bars that advertise themselves as “Haunted Castle” and “Skeleton’s Tavern.” We left before dark.

This Letter from Transylvania was first published in The Irish Times on 31 October 2005

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The spiritual dimension of life outside the Church:

Spirituality and the search for meaning in contemporary, secular and post-modern society

Willow Creek Community Church: a survey last year concluded that spiritual growth doesn’t happen just by becoming more-and-more dependent on elaborate church programmes

Patrick Comerford


There was a lot of reaction and a lot of conversation in wider church circles recently about a report by the Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.

This is one of the biggest “mega-churches” in the United States. The average attendance at each of its three weekend services is said to be 20,000, and the church is listed as one of the most influential in America. It measures up to all the American standards of success: attendance, marketing, growth, expansion, image, branding, brand-recognition, building programmes …

However, there was a lot of reaction and a lot of conversation in wider church circles following the publication of a report and survey by Willow Creek Community Church of the members of its own congregations, as well as people in congregations of a wide range of other evangelical churches in the US.

This survey and report are said to have caused a paradigm shift at Willow Creek. Until then, Bill Hybels and the other church leaders had assumed that the more people got involved in church activities, the more spiritual growth they would experience. For many Church leaders there is an equation that more engagement with church and church activities equals more spiritual growth.

However, this survey found that among the people who go to church at Willow Creek the equation between greater engagement in church activities and personal spiritual growth only works for those people who are relatively new to Christianity.

On the other hand, the closer members of the congregation feel to God, and the further along they are in their knowledge of Christianity, the more they feel that the church is not serving them adequately.

Many people work on the assumption that the more they get involved in Church activities – worship, community events, synods, the vestry, committees – the more they’ll grow spirituality.

But this survey challenges that equation. People don’t feel more peace, more insight, and a closer relationship with God, simply by attending or taking part in more-and-more church activities several times a week.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming more-and-more dependent on elaborate church programmes. Rather, it comes about through the age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, fasting, study, retreats, and working at relationships – the sort of spiritual disciplines Paddy was talking about in chapel the Monday before last. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

So what is the solution for people who want to grow in faith, but who are finding that more time at church is just not doing it for them?

The two principal pastors at Willow Creek, Bill Hybels and Greg Hawkins, were forced to grapple with the same questions. And initially they offered at least two ideas.

1, The first is that church-goers have to let go of the idea that church is their sole source of spiritual sustenance.

2, The second and related idea is that church-goers need more tools to integrate spiritual practice and reflection into their lives outside the church.

But the report and survey leave many other questions that need to be faced:

● How can we continue to grow in faith even after we have a strong knowledge of our tradition and a sense of relationship with the divine?

● How can people of faith seek spiritual sustenance outside the Church, while still maintaining a sense of connection to the community?

● To what extent can church-goers expect a church to fulfil their spiritual needs?

● To what extent can a parish expect those who come to church to be continually and meaningfully engaged with the congregation?

The search for spirituality outside the Church

The British Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, recently argued that the search for meaning must begin outside the self.

We only have to consider the number of do-it-yourself programmes on psychotherapy and self-help that people follow to help them find a meaning in life that is beyond their own personal, temporal existence. Or think about the number of people who find identity in the football clubs or the teams they support, their identity with a political cause or party, their regional identity.

Many people find meaning for their existence through the arts, through music, through literature, through poetry and through the theatre. Think of the number of people who find meaning, community and support through walking groups, in nature, or in photography.

One of the false presumptions in all religions is that the search for spirituality and the search for meaning can only be authentic when it is a religious quest. In reality, many people who live secular lives, with very few religious points, have a deeply spiritual quest, and know that they are on their own searches for meaning.

The search for the meaning of life is the age-old search, and it has no less meaning for people who are atheists, agnostics, or humanists. We live in a society that until the present economic crisis allowed economists, bankers and shopping centres to dictate our values, without taking account of our emotions or what matters in life. Everyone can be involved in seeking meaning in life and the meaningful life is not the same as the happy life.

Research shows that a majority of people in Britain, for example, say they have had significant spiritual experiences during their lives.

These experiences include:

● They sensed a benevolent patterning in events – life was not random.

● They had an experience of prayers being answered.

● They had an experience or awareness of evil.

● There were moments when they felt aware of God’s presence – whatever they may have meant by God.

● They were aware of the sacred in nature.

The great majority of these people surveyed by the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre had no contact with church. And they preferred to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious.

In Australia, a survey has found that while 80% of Australians say they believe in God or in a higher being, only 20% attend church at least monthly. Yet, a survey has found that two-thirds of Australians feel that a spiritual life is important. Those respondents sought meaning and a sense of peace and well-being in their lives through their relationships, family, work, nature and music.

What is spirituality?

If spirituality is about core meaning, deepest life meaning, hope and connectedness, then the search for meaning is common quest for all humanity, and not confined to those who are labelled as religious.

And the search for meaning, connectedness and hope becomes more significant as people grow older people and face the possibility of frailty, disability and failing health.

Spiritual care is about helping people in their search for hope and meaning, but not just as they face issues such as grief, loss and uncertainty. Depression can often be a sign of a loss of meaning and hope.

For everyone, life is a “spiritual journey,” with challenges that continue right into the later years of life. It is a journey that searches to find meaning in one’s life and, therefore, reason for continued life and hope, living life to the full. Even as they grow older and face illness, disability, uncertainty and the inevitability of death, people find hope and to flourish.

Spirituality is about core meaning and connectedness, and it is from this that we respond to all of life. Anger, hate, love, forgiveness and hope come from this core. For many of the people we meet in ministry, spirituality may be expressed in a relationship with God or a higher being. But for others it may be expressed through family and friends, nature, and or the environment.

Although for people who have a religious faith, their religious life is part of their spirituality, when we talk about spirituality, we must be careful not to talk specifically or exclusively about being religious.

The spiritual realm is deeply related to hope and is the spark that enlivens human beings. Essential elements of spirituality revolve around a relationship with self, others and God, a sense of meaning and purpose, hope, connectedness and beliefs.

Spirituality lies at the core of each person’s being, an essential dimension which brings meaning to life. It is constituted not only by religious practices, but needs to be understood more broadly, as relationship with God, however God or ultimate meaning is perceived by the person, and in relationship with other people.

Yet, religious people often fail to recognise or accept that many people have a spiritual life without identifying themselves with a Church or having tangible religious commitments.

I imagine our culture is more open to expressions of spirituality than we are aware of in the Churches or are open to when we limit religious commitment to church attendance.

Spirituality in unexpected places

David Runcorn suggests these trends should make us aware of the following:

1, Being human is being spiritual. Life is spiritually porous, and to be spiritual does not necessarily mean being religious. Being spiritual is part of being human.

2, The spiritual seeks us, even when we do not seek it, and we cannot manage or programme it.

3, Faith and spiritual understanding keep appearing in places we least expect it. This is the Gospel story too; we only have to think of the unexpected faith of the centurion (Matthew 8: 5-13), the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7: 25-30), or the tax collector in contrast with the Pharisee (Luke 18: 9-14). In an unexpected insight into the spiritual life of people on the margins, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of them (Matthew 21: 31).

How then can we help people to work with this reality, the reality that they are having spiritual experiences and are living spiritual lives even when they are on the margins of or outside the formal structures of the Church?

How do we encourage them without threatening them, and without killing what is spiritual within them?

How do we make sure that they allow their spirituality to grow without being killed off by meaningless New Age spirituality or completely secular models of the spiritual quest?

Viktor Frankl ... wrote about the spiritual search for meaning in ways that respected religion without identifying with one particular religious expression

The search for meaning: an example from the story of Viktor Frankl

In the course of his own research, Dr Jonathan Sacks says, he rediscovered the work of the late Viktor Frankl, who tried to talk about the spiritual search for meaning within the categories of psychotherapy and in ways that respected religion without identifying with one particular religious expression.

For many people, Viktor Frankl discovered a set of truths about the human condition that he stated very clearly, and the circumstances in which he did so are utterly extraordinary.

Frankl survived three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps during World War II. But if survival in itself is something of a miracle under these conditions, Frankl did more than survive. He helped others survive. On the basis of his experiences during the Holocaust he founded a new school of psychotherapy — he called it Logotherapy — whose central idea is summed up in the title of his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946).

According to a survey by the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search For Meaning is one of “the ten most influential books” in the United States.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl chronicles his experiences as an inmate in concentration camps and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live.

According to Frankl, the book intends to answer the question: “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”

Part One constitutes Frankl’s analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his theory of logotherapy.

Frankl identifies three psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to one degree or another:

1, Shock during the initial admission phase to the camp.

2, Apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself/herself or others to survive.

3, Reactions of depersonalisation, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment after being liberated.

Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp's inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even a God, who would expect not to be disappointed.

Frankl concludes from his experience that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his/her life, but also from the freedom of choice he/she always has, even when faced with severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his/her spiritual self relies on having a faith in the future, but once a prisoner lost that faith, the person is doomed.

He also concludes that there are only two types of people, decent people and indecent people. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were “decent” Nazi camp guards and “indecent” prisoners, most notably the capo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.

His concluding passage in Part One describes the psychological reaction of the inmates to their liberation. He recounts a decent friend who became immediately obsessed with dispensing the same violence in judgment of his abusers that they had inflicted on him.

In their first foray outside their former prison, the prisoners realised that they could not comprehend pleasure. Flowers, sudden kindness by their former guards, and the reality of the freedom they had dreamed about for years were all surreal, and in their depersonalisation they were unable to grasp them.

Even when he or she returned to “normal” life, a prisoner experienced bitterness. They felt that others were superficial and did not comprehend what they had gone through. Then they faced disillusionment when they realised that their new-found freedom did not mean the end of unhappiness. As time passed, however, the prisoner’s experience in a concentration camp finally became nothing more than a nightmare.

Frankl’s discoveries

Frank’s insights can be summarised as two key discoveries. His first discovery was that in Auschwitz you needed a reason to carry on living. If you lost that, you lost the will to live, and if you lost that will to live, you died.

The conditions in the camp were designed to break not just the body, but also the spirit. They were so dehumanising that they turned the prisoners into the walking dead.

But it was the second discovery that changed Frankl’s life with the force of revelation. The Nazis had robbed the prisoners of every vestige of humanity. They had robbed them of their possessions, their clothes, their hair, even their names. Instead they were given numbers, tattooed on their arms. But Frankl realised that there was one thing that remained that they could not take away – the freedom to choose how to respond. That one slender opening of hope in the walls of despair was all that remained, and it was enough.

Frankl saw that I have to redefine my situation if I am to stay sane. And so he persuaded himself that he was not a prisoner in a concentration camp but a psychotherapist taking part in an experiment.

This allowed him to salvage a vestige of freedom and dignity. He had found a purpose in life. He now knew that his task was to do all he could to rescue his fellow prisoners from despair. He did so by helping them to find a reason to live, a task not yet completed, work still to be done.

For one prisoner, it was completing a series of travel guides. For another prisoner, it was rejoining a child in Canada who needed him.

That sense of a mission not yet fulfilled gave many people the strength to carry on. Frankl was fond of quoting Nietzsche's remark that those who have a Why can withstand almost any How.

He tells the story of one young woman in the camp who was about to die. She was unbelievably cheerful and she explained this cheerfulness in the following way. Until her imprisonment, she had never thought about matters of the spirit. But in Auschwitz she had nothing except a tiny window through which she could see a branch of a chestnut tree on which there were two blossoms.

That branch seemed to speak to her: “I am here – I am life, eternal life.”

And she was there to experience that.

Frankl discovered that to find meaning in life we must ask not what do I need from life, but what does life need from me?

Each of us is here for a purpose, a task, and I need to accept that only I can fulfil that purpose or task that is there for me. To find meaning is to find that task.

The spiritual in Frankl’s work

There is something deeply spiritual about Frankl’s work. The self finds itself by attending to something beyond the self. Our reason to be comes in the form of that call, that summons, that vocation, that mission, that voice of the beyond-within.

Religious people call this the voice of God. But Frankl points out that you do not have to be religious to hear it.

Frankl’s writings are an antidote to today’s materialists who would reduce the human condition to biological imperatives and the human person to no more than a handful of dust.

It was his gift to be able to find, and in some cases to help create, epiphanies in the heart of darkness, fragments of Heaven even at the gates of Hell.

Finding spiritual meaning

The central core of spirituality is what a person perceives as ultimate meaning in life. Transcendence is the ability to triumph over the psychosocial, physical and spiritual challenges, moving from provisional to final life meanings, finding intimacy, and finding hope. And so continued spiritual growth and development continues until the end of life.

What brings greatest meaning to each individual is the starting point for that person. It is from this point that he or she responds to life. For example, if the person thinks of God as judgemental, then guilt may be a central feature of the person’s life, and he/she may not be able to feel hope. If core meaning comes through relationship with loved ones, it is important to recognise this, especially if there has been a loss of relationship through death or separation. Meaning is at the centre of what it is to be human, and loss of meaning can be an important factor in grief and depression and in spiritual care and spiritual growth.

The response to meaning involves reaching out from my depth to otherness and to others. If art, music or the environment is a central source of meaning to me, then I will respond to meaning through this. If God is central in meaning to me, then worship, prayer, reading of sacred scriptures or meditation may be my means of response.

Self-transcendence – the move from self-centredness to other-centred-ness – involves spiritual changes, and is a reality for people regardless of their religious and spiritual background. However, we know that not everyone can or will progress in life along a continuum towards self-transcendence. While some seem at peace and express a deep sense of joy in their lives, others experience despair. A sense of despair may lead to failure to thrive. One aspect of failure to thrive may be a lack of nourishment of the soul, or lack of love and spiritual care.


Although we live in a largely secular society, spiritual care should not be seen as an “optional extra” for anyone. The search for meaning in later life becomes more real for many people as they get older, and this search is essentially a spiritual search, with questions of meaning, transcendence and hope becoming important. The spiritual quest does not cease and is not confined to those we regard as or who consider themselves as being religious.

Reading and references

J. Bellamy, A. Black, K. Castle K, et al, Why people don’t go to church (Adelaide: Openbook, 2002).
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Washington: Washington Square Press, 1984, first published 1946).
P. Hughes, A. Black, “Managing the diversity of implicit religions in Australian society,” in G. Bouma (ed), Managing religious diversity: from threat to promise (Sydney: Australian Association for the Study of Religions, 1999).
Elizabeth B MacKinlay and Corinne Trevitt, “Spiritual care and ageing in a secular society,” Medical Journal of Australia 2007; 186 (10 Suppl): S74-S76, available online at
David Runcorn, Spirituality Workbook (London: SPCK, 2006).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture/seminar in the Year III course, Spirituality for Today, on Thursday 29 October 2009.

Quotations from Viktor Frank’s Man’s Search for Meaning:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

“Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how’.”

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

“We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a value; and (3) by suffering.”

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

“Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.”

“Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.” (Cf. Song of Solomon 8: 6).

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Anglicans and the baptism of children

The Baptismal Font at the west end of Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

Opening Prayer:

Lord of all eternity,
you opened heaven’s gate and revealed yourself as Father
by the voice that called Jesus your beloved Son,
baptizing him, in the power of the spirit;
reveal yourself to us now, to claim us as your children,
and so complete the heavenly work of our rebirth
in the waters of your new creation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 392.

For the past few weeks we have been looking at the opening chapters of the Gospel according to Saint John, and we have seen how two of the major narratives in these opening chapters have sacramental resonances – the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan by John the Baptist; and Wedding Feast of Cana.

These two sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist are central to the life of the Church and, indeed, are constitutive of the Church.

From the 16th to 19th centuries, the 39 Articles were the norm for Anglican teaching.

Article 25 teaches that there are two “Sacraments ordained of Christ” – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper – along with five other rites that are “commonly called Sacraments.” Of course the difference is obvious: we can go through life as members of the Church without ever being ordained or married, but not without being baptised or taking part in the Eucharist.

Article 27, “Of Baptism,” tells us that it is by Baptism that we are “grafted into the Church,” that we are adopted by God as his own children.

In the past we have tended to think of the sacraments as rites or rituals that are dispensed by the Church, that are performed, delivered and even defined by the Church. But an interesting insight of the modern liturgical movement is that we ought to approach this the other way around. In other words, it is not so much that we as the Church make the sacraments, but rather that the sacraments make or constitutethe Church.

According to this way of thinking, it is not because we are the Church that we baptise, but because we are baptised we are the Church. And similarly, it is not because we are the Church that we celebrate the Eucharist. But that we are the Church because we celebrate the Eucharist:

We say: “We being many are one body for we all share in the one bread.” It is the one bread that makes us one body. Similarly, it is our baptism that makes us, that constitutes the church, rather than it being the Church that makes baptism.

In the past, many of the discussions about who to baptise or at what age someone should be baptised have centred around the individual’s ability to consciously ask for the benefits of baptism. But is this not an argument for salvation by works? If I say the right words, do the right things, then I can be baptised?

But baptism is never dependent on our worthiness – whether by prayer, age, lifestyle, or tests of commitment.

Is any one of us worthy of the bountiful outpouring of God’s grace? And so, then it would be a very small church indeed. And if not, then what gives us the right to decide who should and should not be baptised, or when.

Baptism is not so much about a commitment to or maturing in faith, nor is it even about the forgiveness of sins, but about incorporation into the Body of Christ.

Secondly, we have also concentrated our discussions of baptism on the individual rather than collectively. I suppose this is a post-Renaissance elevation of the individual over the collective.

But the New Testament provides examples of both individuals and groups being baptised: the Great Commission is to being the Gospel to all nations and to baptise them (Matthew 28: 19).

When Peter calls people to baptism, is both a collective and individual call (Acts 2: 37-39, reminding those he addresses of “the promise … for you, for your children and for all …”

Both individuals and households are invited to be baptised, often with the minimal amount of instruction. Individuals include the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8: 26-39); Paul (9: 18) Groups include the crowd on the first Pentecost (Acts 2: 38); the family of Cornelius (Acts 10: 47-48); Lydia and her household (Acts 16: 11-15); Paul’s jailer and his household (Acts 16: 31); households and many others in Corinth (Acts 18: 1-8); and 12 fomer disciples of John in Ephesus (Acts 19: 1-5).

The baptistery in Saint John’s Basilica in Ephesus still retains its cruciform shape and symbolism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Sometimes, baptism in New Testament terms, as an entry into the covenant is compared with circumcision (see Genesis 17: 9-14; Acts 2: 39; Acts 16: 31; I Corinthians 7: 14). But entry into a covenant with God also comes through entering the ark and passing through the waters of the flood, or for the people who cross through the waters of Red Sea into the wilderness in Exodus, a comparison – images that are also drawn on in the New Testament (see I Peter 2: 9, and especially I Peter 3: 20-21; see also The Book of Common Prayer, p. 346).

At Baptism, a person is initiated into the Christian faith and becomes a member of the Church. The sacrament, therefore, not only receives individuals into the household of God, allowing them to receive the grace of the other sacraments, but also constitutes and defines the Church.

As Richard Hooker (1554-1600) defined it, a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Therefore, a sacrament has the effect of conveying sanctification on the individual taking part in or receiving the sacramental action. But many Anglicans are now wrestling with questions about the revision of initiation rites and the place of children within the ecclesial community of faith.

Kurt Stasiak argues that a coherent theology of adoption might be the best way to reassert the value and importance of the practice of baptising infants.

The 1972 Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) has proved to be a watershed in baptismal praxis, affecting not only adults but infants and young children. However, Stasiak has taken issue with Aidan Kavanagh’s influential thesis that the adult ordo must set the norm for the Church’s baptismal praxis.

Stasiak’s “theology of childhood” reminds us that the child not only learns passively from adults but is an important teacher of adults too. He suggests the concept of adoption as an appropriate paradigm from which to approach questions relating to infant baptism, and in making this argument he draws on the Pauline concept of adoption.

One of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husbands had himself adopted by an ageing German artistocrat when he was 37 and she was 82 so that he could change his name and call himself Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt. And he and Zsa Zsa Gabor have adopted countless adult men who want to use this phoney title. We find this amusing because we think of adoption only in terms of children. But we are all God’s children by adoption, and the language of adoption in baptism is particularly appropriate whern it comes to children.

The Church is God’s child by adoption and grace, and Stasiak presents a challenge to the Church to see itself as “God’s once and future child; to rediscover within herself the child-like qualities which clearly mark those to whom Gods kingdom belongs.”

In the New Testament, we are presented with the greatest collective understanding of adoption when we are told read that it is God’s plan to unite all things in heaven and earth to himself through his Son Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1: 10), and this is sealed in our baptism (see Ephesians 1: 13).

In the Church, we are sisters and brothers with all the other members of God’s family (I Corinthians 12: 12-13). This new relationship is open to all.

At the Reformation, Anglicans retained the pattern in the Western Church of baptising infants, with some modifications. As a result, the standard Anglican pattern of Christian initiation until recently has been one in which people have been baptised as infants on the understanding that they will then be brought up as Christians, receive instruction in the Christian faith, confess the faith for themselves when they are confirmed in their early teens and then be admitted to Holy Communion (see The Book of Common Prayer, p. 351).

In canon law, everyone resident in a parish is entitled to ask for their child to be baptised. It is only the sponsors or godparents who must be baptised Christians, and of these only two need be members of the Church of Ireland (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 352; Canon 26.4). There ought to be no such thing as private baptisms, baptism should be in public in the Church, preferably during the main Sunday service, and the font should be visible to all present (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 352).

There are four reasons why as Anglicans we have retained the practice of infant baptism.

1, infant baptism as a practice goes back to the very earliest days of the Church and therefore something that we are not free to discard.

2, we teach that God’s merciful love or grace always precedes our human response and enables it. Personal confession of faith following on from and responding to the grace of God received in infant baptism is consistent with this fact.

3, In the Gospels, Christ welcomes and blesses infants brought to him (see Mark 10: 13-15) and in infant baptism he continues to do this today.

4, The children of believers are part of God’s family and therefore should have the sign of belonging to the family just as Jewish boys in the Old Testament had the sign of circumcision (see Genesis 17: 9-14; Acts 2: 39; Acts 16: 31; I Corinthians 7: 14).

However, the traditional Anglican pattern of initiation is changing in a number of ways.

In some dioceses, there are provisions, with the approval of the bishop, for children who have not been confirmed to receive Holy Communion after appropriate instruction, provided this is in the context of a programme of continuing nurture leading to confirmation.

An increasing numbers of people who have been baptised as infants are not being confirmed as teenagers but are being confirmed later as adults, as part of a journey to Christian faith or as part of a return to it.

Increasing numbers of people are not being baptised as infants, but are being baptised when they come to faith when they are older. In this case provision is made for a return to the older Western pattern with baptism, confirmation and receiving the Eucharist taking place in the same service.

So now we are experiencing a number of different patterns of Christian initiation among Anglicans.

It may be that in the future, without increasing secularisation, that adult baptism may become the norm within the Church. But in the meantime, what is the appropriate pastoral response to people who come to mature adult faith long after baptism, or even long after baptism and confirmation, and who wish to have a public affirmation of this within the Church?

What do we do about people who have been baptised as infants, have fallen away from the practice of Christianity in their late teens or as young adults, and who ten return to Christianity and want to claim Church membership for themselves?

If we have been incorporated into the Body of Christ, how can we divide the body once again by denying a past baptism?

And why do we appear to elevate Confirmation above Baptism, making a two-tier membership of the Church: those who are baptised, but cannot receive Communion; and those who are Confirmed and can receive Communion? Why should Confirmation, and not Baptism, be the sacrament that confers full membership of the Church, the Body of Christ?

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland provides an order for Receiving into the Congregation (pp 377-381), and for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows (pp 398-401). Both – especially the Renewal of Baptismal Vows – can be adapted for use in appropriate parish settings. At baptisms, I like everyone to take the opportunity to be reminded of their own baptism promises, and to renew those pledges.

The Methodist Covenant Service at the beginning of each year also offers a prayer that is suitable for adaptation for public occasions like this, and that can be used publicly:

Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult.
Some bring honour, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.


The Book of Common Prayer, The Church of Ireland, 2004.

Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism (New York: Pueblo, 1978).
Harold Miller, The Desire of Our Soul (Dublin: Columba Press, 2002004).
Kurt Stasiak, Return to Grace: A Theology for Infant Baptism (Collegeville: Pueblo, 1996).
Ross Thompson, The Sacraments (London: SCM Press, 2006).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a tutorial with B.Th. and M.Th. students on Wednesday 28 October 2009.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Walks along the beach at Kilmuckridge

Autumn ripples on the shore at Morriscastle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

During my few days back in Co Wexford over the bank holiday weekend, I had plenty of opportunities for long walks on the beach at Morriscastle, near the pretty village of Kilmuckridge.

Kilmuckridge, near the Wexford coast, 22 km south of Gorey, is a popular place for weekend visitors and holidaymakers. But this is not the origianl Kilmuckridge: the present village was originally known as The Ford, while the Roman Catholic parish, which dates from 1796, is know as Litter (Leitir, a hillside).

The original village of Kilmuckridge lies a mile or so south, and was clustered around the site of the present Church of Ireland parish church. The Church historian, JB Leslie, suggests that the Irish name, Cill Mhucraise, may mean the “Church of the Pig Ridge.”

Kilmuckridge Parish Church ... on the site on the first Christian settlements in Kilmuckridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The Church of Ireland church in Kilmuckridge may be on the site of a much earlier Christian settlement, as an early high cross near here was identified in the last century. The church marks the location of the original village of Kilmuckridge, and there has been a church here since at least 1615, when it was reported that the church here was in “good condition.”

The Grogan family – which was so intimately involved in the affairs of the United Irishmen during the events surrounding the 1798 rising in Co Wexford – claimed the patronage of Kilmuckridge.

On the way to Kilmuckridge from Ferns on Sunday morning, I stopped off at Kyle Glebe, on the outskirts of Oulart Village. This once elegant house is now crumbling. It stands in Gertie Rath’s farmyard, and has interesting associations with Kilmuckridge and the Comerford family dating from those events in 1798.

Kyle Glebe ... this once elegant but now crumbling house has interesting associations with the Comerford family and the 1798 Rising (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2009)

James Comerford (?ca 1763-1798) was one of the first people killed during the 1798 Rising. He one of the four Protestants killed in the attack on Kyle Glebe, along with Samuel Judd, Thomas Earl and Joseph Aston after the Rector of Kilmuckridge, the Revd Robert Burrowes, was murdered on the lawn in front of the house prior to the Battle of Oulart Hill on Sunday 27 May 1798.

Musgrave indicates that James Comerford was a parishioner of Burrowes, but the local historian Brian Cleary states he was also a Yeoman

James Comerford was killed that morning in Kyle Glebe, but his widow Elizabeth and their five children who were at Kyle survived. They were probably taken with the Burrowes family to Castle Annesley in Kilmuckridge. Sally Clifford was a niece of Robert Burrowes and Castle Annesley was then the Clifford family home. From Castle Annesley, the Clifford and Comerford families were brought to Wexford Town.

The present Church of Ireland church in Kilmuckridge was built in 1815, probably on the site of early churches. The parish was later amalgamated with neighbouring Kilnamanagh, and is now part of the Ardamine grouping of parishes, with the Revd Canon Bob Gray as Rector.

The name of Kilmuckridge was transferred to neighbouring Ford when the post office was moved many decades ago. And the location of the post office gave the most wonderful name to any chip shop in Ireland – Oifig an Chip. Unfortunately, that name has been lost too, and the chip shop is now called Fusciardi’s.

The Kilmuckridge Memorial Hall (KMH) is host each year to the Kilmuckridge Drama Festival, a celebration of the performing arts, with drama groups from all over Ireland taking part.

The sandy beach at Morriscastle has boosted the appeal of the Kilmuckridge area (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Nearby, the resort of Morriscastle – as its name suggests – was once the site of a mediaeval Norman castle, said to have been built by the O Morchoe or Murphy family. Today, Kilmuckridge and Morriscastle form a rich and exciting area to explore with a wealth of historical and natural interest. The beach at Morriscastle, which has been awarded the Green Coast Beaches award, is host to many rare flora and fauna, and is a national heritage site.

The popularity of Kilmuckridge as a tourist resort and the excellent beach and fishing waters at Morriscastle have brought a growth in tourist facilities, along with new holiday homes and mobile-home parks, and the rate of growth is a divisive issue among local people.

The ruins of Castle Annesley are barely visible in a field behind the buildings of a local farmyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

I was delighted with the hospitality I was offered at Oatfields in Morriscastle, across the road from the ruins of Castle Annesley, which are barely visible in a field behind the buildings of a local farmyard.

There are 20 or more wind mills on the wind farm at Morriscastle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Over the weekend, I took a number of brisk walks along the beach at Morriscastle. On Sunday afternoon, I walked along the beach to the dunes just below the wind farm, with its 20 or more wind mills. Turning back along the sandy stretch and facing into the sun, it was hard to believe that it is late autumn, and not the end of summer.

I had forgotten to take my medication with me, my lungs were finding it tough going, my neck is swollen again and my legs were finding the sand a bit demanding underfoot. But while I have sarcoidosis, sarcoidosis does not have me, and I bathed in the bright blessings of that glorious afternoon sun.

Although it’s late October, there was a few families on the beach, including one playing with a kite, and two brave visitors even ventured into the sea in kayaks.

Later in the evening, I was in Enniscorthy for dinner in Via Veneto in Weafer Street (, which may be the most authentic Italian restaurant in Ireland.

On Monday morning, I walked back to the beach at Morriscastle for another brisk walk. Sarcoidosis is not going to stop me from enjoying beach walks in the best autumn weather we’ve had in Ireland for years.

A pair of swans flew overhead just as I bumped into my friend and colleague, the Revd Lyn Rogers and her husband Geoff, were walking their dog on the beach. Lyn has moved from Ferns parish to New Ross, and recently invited me to preach in Old Ross.

After scaling the dunes to look at the wind farm, I strolled along the banks of a brook and then walked back to Oatfields. I was surprised along that road how many blackberries in the hedgerows and ditches of Co Wexford are still ripe for picking and are still tasty, yet it’s almost a month since Michaelmas. Autumn had not gone … yet.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Sunday morning in Ferns Cathedral

Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, on Sunday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

This was the late autumn holiday weekend here. After clearing out a few bookshelves and deciding how to pass on some old books – many of them gathering dust for almost 40 years – I headed off to Co Wexford for the rest of the weekend.

It is almost 35 years since I moved from Wexford Town in December 1974, leaving the staff of the Wexford People group of newspapers, where I had been a staff journalist, to join The Irish Times.

For the first few years, I found it difficult to adjust from being a big fish in a small pond to being a minnow in an ocean. I still return to Wexford a few times a year, and if home is the county you want to win the next All-Ireland hurling final, then Wexford still has a hold on my psyche and my understanding of self.

I was staying in Morriscastle, near Kilmuckridge, and on Sunday morning [25 October] I went to church in Saint Edan’s Cathedral in Ferns.

In the Irish understanding of geography, Ferns may be a town. But with a population of about 900 it is more like a village … it is certainly not a cathedral city.

Ferns lies between Gorey (18 km north) and Enniscorthy (11 km south). But traffic on the Gorey by-pass heading towards Enniscorthy, Wexford and New Ross is funnelled straight into Ferns, which could do with its own by-pass so visitors could truly appreciate the historical sites, including the cathedral, the castle, the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, and Saint Mogue’s Well.

Ferns (Fearna, “place of the alder trees,” also Fearna Mór Maedhóg) dates back to the sixth century, when a monastery was founded here by Saint Maedoc-Edan (Mogue) of Clonmore, also known as Saint Aidan (Aed) or Saint Edan, who was the first Bishop of Ferns.

Edan or Aidan was a disciple of Saint David, the Welsh patron saint, who died in his arms. He became Bishop of Ferns in 598, a year after Saint Augustine was sent to England as Archbishop of Canterbury, and an inscription on the cathedral wall says he died on 31 January 632.

Ferns once ranked with Clonmacnoise, Clonfert and Glendalough for its learning, and there are several high crosses and parts of crosses in the cemetery beside the cathedral.

Across the road from the cathedral and Saint Mogue’s Cottage, Saint Mogue’s Well was dedicated to Saint Aidan by Saint Moling (died 697), the founder of the monastery at Saint Mullins on the Barrow River, although the entrance to the well is more recent, having been erected in 1847. Saint Peter’s Church nearby has a Romanesque window in the south wall and the two Gothic lancets in the east wall. However, the church may not have been built until the 16th century, and the windows may have been taken from the mediaeval church at nearby Clone.

Ferns was pillaged and burned by the Vikings and the monks were robbed by Viking raiders on several occasions throughout the ninth and the tenth centuries. When the Kings of Leinster established their seat to Ferns, the town became the capital of their Kingdom of Leinster. In 1158, Dermot Mac Murrough founded Saint Mary’s Augustinian Abbey in Ferns. This is the same Dermot Mac Murrough who as King of Leinster invited the Anglo-Normans to Ireland in 1169.

The cross that is said mark Dermot Mac Murrough’s burial place in the grounds of Ferns Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

When Dermot Mac Murrough died in 1171, he was buried in the grounds of the cathedral and the abbey, and part of a cross shaft with fret pattern decoration at the west end of the cathedral is said to mark his grave.

Ferns Castle, an Anglo-Norman fortress, was built in the 13th century by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke. It was long the residence of the Bishops of Ferns, but has been in ruins since 1649 and only half the castle still stands today.

Bishop John of St John … the first English-born Bishop of Ferns, he built the cathedral in the grounds of the monastery (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Saint Edan’s Cathedral, also dating from the 13th-century, was built in the monastery grounds by John of St John (1223-1253), the first English-born Bishop of Ferns, who died in 1243 AD, and Saint Edan (Aidan, or Mogue) is said to be buried beneath the cathedral. The original plan was for a cathedral on a scale similar to that of Saint Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny, and Ferns Cathedral originally had an aisled nave, transepts, a central tower, and a long chancel with aisles for almost half its length.

Various Bishops of Ferns tried to move the see to either New Ross or, less frequently, to Wexford, but they were constantly resisted by the dean and chapter. Edmond Comerford – who was both Bishop of Ferns and Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral until his death 500 years ago on Easter Day 1509 [see Comerford Profiles 1: Edmund Comerford (d. 1509): the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns] – probably spent little time in Ferns: by then, the bishops lived at Fethard Castle and Mountgarret Castle, both close to New Ross, although Edmond probably continued to live at Saint John’s in Kilkenny.

Saint Mary’s Abbey was suppressed in 1539 and its property reverted to the crown. Ferns Cathedral was burned by the O’Byrnes in the 1560s or 1570s and was rebuilt in 1577. But that rebuilding was said to be “parsimonious and destructive,” and by 1589 the church was ruined and decayed and the dean and chapter had fled.

In 1600, the impoverished Diocese of Ferns was amalgamated with the neighbouring Diocese of Leighlin. But the cathedral was still in ruins in 1611, and was only re-roofed in 1672, and the tower rebuilt in 1761. Restoration work in the late 19th and early 20th century included a new pitch-pine roof, building a new chancel arch, and laying a new tiled floor in the chancel. The chapter stalls at the west end of the cathedral, underneath the gallery, were moved to the chapter room, and new chapter stalls, originally from Saint Canice’s in Kilkenny, were placed in the chancel.

The Bishop’s Throne commemorates Bishop William Pakenham Walsh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The Bishop’s Throne in the chancel commemorates Bishop William Pakenham Walsh (1878-1897), whose portrait hung over my desk in Overseas House when I worked for the Church Mission Society Ireland (2002-2006).

The ruins to the east of the cathedral give some idea of the original length and size of Saint Edan’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The ruined walls to the east of the cathedral may be part of the original cathedral built by Bishop John of St John. However, Saint Edan’s Cathedral today is a small building, half the length of the original structure, and more the size of a comfortable parish church than that of the grand cathedral once planned.

The congregation and the Eucharist on Sunday morning had all the dignity, simplicity and warmth that should be hallmarks of Anglicanism. My friend the Dean of Ferns, the Very Revd Leslie Forrest, invited me to read the Gospel and to assist with the Holy Communion. Afterwards, I went back with some parishioners to Fiona Forrest’s new bookshop for coffee, before heading off to Kilmuckridge for a walk on the beach at Morriscastle.

But more about that tomorrow, and more about Ferns Cathedral later.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Being brothers (and sisters) of the Lord

Saint James the Brother of the Lord … icon written by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG, for Saint James Episcopal Church, Parkton, Maryland dedicated 26 October 2008

Patrick Comerford

23 October 2009: Isaiah 49: 1-6; Psalm 1; Acts 15: 12-22; Mark 3: 31-35.

Collect: Lord God of peace: Grant that after the example of your servant, James the brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are caught up in hatred or enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This morning we commemorate one of the key figures in the New Testament, Saint James the Brother of the Lord, who is described in the New Testament as a “brother of the Lord” and in the Liturgy of Saint James as “the brother of God” (Iάκωβος ο Αδελφόθεος, Jácobos Adelphótheos).

The relationship of James and Jesus is difficult to unravel for those who believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions say he was the half-brother or step-brother of Jesus and that Joseph already had children – that James was already a boy when Jesus was born (see Matthew 13: 55). The Gospels name the brothers of Jesus as James, Jude, Simon and Joses or Joseph (Matthew 13: 55; Mark 6: 3; see also Galatians 1: 19). Even Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (20.9.1) describes James as “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ.”

Some would say that James could have been a nephew of Joseph, that cousins could have been called “brothers” and “sisters” in the Aramaic spoke by Jesus, and that the Greek words adelphos and adelphe were not restricted to their literal meaning of a full brother or sister.

Whichever opinion you accept, this James is the James who is called James the Less (Mark 15: 4) to distinguish him from James, the son of Zebedee, who we encountered with John in our Gospel reading for Sunday last (see ); or from James the Great, and who is also called James the Just because of his great holiness and righteousness.

We identify today’s James with the author of the Epistle of James. The Apostle Paul names him as one of the witnesses to the Risen Christ (I Corinthians 15: 3–8), and describes James, alongside Peter and John, as a pillar of the early Church (Galatians 2: 9).

The Letter of James can be compared with some of the wonderful Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew Scriptures, with for example, its words of wisdom on true worship (James 1: 19-20), on discrimination and respect for the poor (2: 1-13), on the false dichotomy of faith and works (2: 14-26), on truth and careful speech (3: 1-12), godliness and worldliness (4: 1 to 5:6), on putting love at the heart of all relationships in the Christian community … and so on.

They are words of wisdom that we can all take to heart in a community such as this. How we speak about one another, how we respect one another, how we hold up one another, how we love each other even in spite of our failings towards one another.

We are to value one another, but not because of wealth or status or intellect; we are to listen to one another, and to be slow to speak and equally slow to anger; we are to bridle our tongues and not to speak loosely about one another. We are not just called to be Christians, but we must do Christianity too.

When we have difficulties, are hurt or tugging against one another in any Christian community – whether it is here, in our families, in your future parishes or dioceses – then the words of James are a wise reminder of how we can how that our Christian faith is not just a matter of being but also doing.

The Acts of the Apostles is silent about James after the year 60. However, according to Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (20: 9), “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” met his death in the year 62, when he was condemned “on the charge of breaking the law.” He was thrown from the wall of the Temple on the day of the Passover and was stoned. As he prayed for his slayers, his head was crushed by a wooden club wielded by a scribe.

How many of us would like to die like this? How many of us would aspire to being pillars of the Church? How many of us would like to be so close to Jesus that we could be called brothers or sisters of the Lord, still more “the brother of God” (Iάκωβος ο Αδελφόθεος, Jákobos Adelphótheos).

But to be a real brother of Christ, to be a real brother of God, is to be brothers and sisters to one another in Christ.

This morning we give thanks for James who was an early disciple and apostle, a witness to the Resurrection, a reconciler and a mediator in the early Church, a pillar of the Church, the author of a New Testament epistle, an early martyr, and a wise counsellor.

Post Communion Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you that after your Resurrection you appeared to James, and endowed him with gifts of leadership for your Church. May we, who have known you now in the breaking of the bread, be people of prayer and reconciliation. We ask it for your love’s sake. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the Institute Chapel on 23 October 2009

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Writers and Spirituality (1): Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer ... links spirituality and discipleship through his ideas of discipleship as a life for others

Patrick Comerford

On Tuesday morning in chapel, one of the hymns we sang was Father, Lord of all creation (Church Hymnal, 318) by Bishop Stewart Cross (1928-1989), a former student at Trinity College Dublin.

In second verse, he draws on images that were popular at the time the hymn was written in 1964 – images that Bishop John Robinson had drawn from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, such as Jesus Christ the man for others:

Jesus Christ, the Man for Others
we, your people, make our prayer
give us grace to love as sisters
all whose burdens we can share.
Where your name binds us together
you, Lord Christ, will surely be;
where no selfishness can sever
there your love may others see.

For Bonhoeffer, Christ is the man for others, and “Christ takes hold of a man at the centre of his life.”

Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was as a pastor and theologian of great intellect and spirituality, who lived as he preached. He was known for his involvement in and commitment to the early ecumenical movement, but is remembered most of all for his resistance to the Nazis. This led to his imprisonment and his eventual martyrdom in 1945.

The way in which he lived out his life of discipleship, to the point of suffering and martyrdom, has great influenced and inspired Christians across broad denomination affiliations and ideologies, including people such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu amd Martin Luther King.

Most studies of Bonhoeffer tend to emphasise his life and death. But his theology and his spiritual writings have been very influential too, even though the interpretations of his thinking are often based on speculations and projections.

Because his theology is often unsystematic and fragmentary because of his early death at the age of 39, it has subject to diverse and often contradictory interpretations. For example, his Christo-centric approach appeals to conservatives, while his commitment to social justice appeals to liberals.

But central to Bonhoeffer’s theology is Christ, in whom God and the world are reconciled. For Bonhoeffer, God is a suffering God, whose manifestation is found in this-worldliness.

For Bonhoeffer, the Incarnation means we can no longer speak of God and the world “in terms of two spheres.”

He stressed personal and collective piety and revived the idea of the imitation of Christ. He argued that Christians should not retreat from the world, but that we have a duty to act within it.

He believed that two elements were constitutive of faith: the implementation of justice and the acceptance of divine suffering.

He insisted that the Church, like Christians, “had to share in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world” if the Church is to be a true church of Christ.

In his prison letters, Bonhoeffer raises tantalising questions about the role of Christianity and the Church in a “world come of age,” where people no longer need a metaphysical God as a stop-gap to human limitations.

He spoke about the emergence of a “religionless Christianity,” where God would be unclouded from the metaphysical constructions of the last 1,900 years.

Bonhoeffer was influenced by Karl Barth’s distinction between faith and religion, and had a critical view of the phenomenon of religion, asserting that revelation abolished religion – which he called the “garment” of faith.

Bonhoeffer was strongly critical of the Church for its failure to deal with the evils of racism. For as long as he was able, he circulated letters aimed at maintaining the spiritual life of his former students during the Church’s struggle against Nazism and during World War II.

During his two years in prison, he continued writing and those letters have had a profound influence since then on theology in Europe, America and the Third World.

Bonhoeffer’s teaching on prayer, the religious life, the role of the Christian and the Christian community in the world are bound up with his theological understanding of Christ and of the Church. In this teaching, Bonhoeffer tried to work out a range of ethical attitudes to replace the “ethics” of earlier times.

In his lectures on Christology (English ed, 1966), he defined his view of the place of Christ in the Christian experience. These lectures dealt with Christ as the centre of human experience, by whom alone that experience can be understood; the centre of human history, by whom alone that history can be interpreted; and the centre of nature, whose meaning is found in Christ alone.

These lectures also dealt with the real presence of Christ in the word, the sacrament and the community.

The Cost of Discipleship (English ed, 1948), which is Bonhoeffer’s best-known book, begins: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.” That was a sharp warning to his own church, the Confessing Church, which was engaged in bitter conflict with the state church.

The book, first published in 1937 as Nachfolge (Discipleship), is a classic exposition of what it means to follow Christ in a modern world beset by a dangerous, oppressive and criminal government. At its centre stands his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, with Christ’s challenge to his followers, and Bonhoeffer's thoughts on how the life of discipleship is to be continued in all ages.

He presents the Sermon on the Mount not as an idealised picture of what perfect Christians might one day become but as the charter of the Christian life to be lived here and now.

As the basis of that Charter, he takes the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3-10) as the description of disciples of Christ:

They are the poor … They have no security, no possessions to call their own, not even a foot of earth to call their home, no earthly society to claim their absolute allegiance. Nay, more , more, they have no spiritual power, experience or knowledge to afford them consolation or security. For his sake they have lost all. In following him, they lost even their own selves, and everything that could make them rich. Now they are poor – so inexperienced, so stupid, that they have no other hope but him that called the. (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 97.)

Life Together (English ed, 1954) was written in 1937 with the forced closure of the Confessing Church’s seminary at Finkenwalde. This book contains Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about the nature of Christian community based on the common life that he and his ordinands experienced at the seminary.

He describes the privileges of community life, not as the wish dream of an ideal, but as a divine reality. Christ is present in such a community by the love its members share for one another.

He advocates a disciplined and regular reading of the Bible as a means of holding the community together. In this Bonhoeffer was strongly influenced by his experiences of the Anglican religious communities in Kelham (Society of the Sacred Mission) and Mirfield (Community of the Reurrection), where the disciplined use of the Psalms in worship made a lasting impression on him.

He challenged his fellow Lutherans by suggesting the formation of monastic-like communities and by suggesting confession before Holy Communion, saying that after confessing to one another and receiving forgiveness, the “day of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion of joy for the Christian community.”

His Prayerbook of the Bible is a classic of Christian spirituality. In this theological interpretation of the Psalms, Bonhoeffer describes the moods of a person’s relationship with God and also the turns of love and heartbreak, of joy and sorrow, that are themselves the Christian community’s path to God.

Before his arrest, Bonhoeffer reflected on his efforts to resist Hitler’s reign of terror. His Letters and Papers from Prison (English ed 1953/1971) were written during his two years in prison. It is in these that we find the germs of many of Bonhoeffer’s ideas, including “religion-less Christianity,” “man come of age,” and “secular holiness.” He argues for the autonomy of humanity which in its maturity must learn to “live in the world as though there were no God”:

Anxious souls will ask what room there is now left for God … And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi dues non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! … God would have us know that we live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15: 34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us … Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.

Human maturity brings with it the need to learn to be human and to be responsible, not to be dependent on being rescued by God from the consequences of our own mistakes.

Bonhoeffer taught that God needs humanity as the instrument for accomplishing his renewal of the world.

And he asks whether he and his friends failed in the face of evil in the world?

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by man storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness? – (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, London: SCM Press, pp 16-17.)

The agony of those last days in prison brought inward turmoil for Bonhoeffer. He heard the footsteps of his fiancée dying away with no prospect of seeing her again; he caught the sadness of Moses watching his people entering the Promised Land without him – an experience shared 20 or 25 years later by Martin Luther King. He questioned his own identity.

But all this resulted in memorable poetry and prayer. He described how this inner conflict tore him apart in a poem that reaches its climax in a prayer of affirmation and belief:

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, London: SCM Press, p 348.)

Closing Prayer:

With every power for good to stay and guide us,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
We’ll live these days with you in thought beside us,
and pass with you into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;
the long days of our sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learnt from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate as thine

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, December 1944, Letters and Papers from Prison, London: SCM Press, p 400.)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar in the course ‘Spirituality for Today (TH 3029) with Year III B.Th. students on Thursday 22 October 2009.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Me, me, please pick me, I want the glory

The King of Kings and Great High Priest ... an icon from Mount Athos on the wall of my study

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 21 October 2009, 5 p.m.: The Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Collect and Readings for the 19th Sunday after Trinity: Job 38: 1-7; Psalm 104: 1-10, 26, 37c; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45.

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

I have five or six icons on the wall of my study above my desk. They have been hung in random fashion without any particular order. But they represent different phases and aspects of my ministry.

There is a treasured copy of Andrei Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham, the Old Testament Trinity, which was given to me by one of my former lecturers … There the Trinity is prefigured or represented by the angels, with Christ seated at the table, with the Father and the Holy Spirit on each side of him.

There is an icon of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of the institute in Cambridge where I have studied over the last two years … and of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, where I stayed while working on a project on Christian-Muslim dialogue.

And so on.

And then there is an icon from Mount Athos of Christ, the King of Kings and the Great High Priest, who I hope sets my pattern – who should set the pattern for each and every one of us – in our ordained ministry.

In this icon, Christ is wearing the robes, the crown or mitre, and the stole (ὠμοφόριον, omophorion) decorated with crosses of a bishop vested for the Divine Liturgy. Christ, the Great High Priest of his Church on earth, holds an open New Testament in his left hand and his right hand is raised in blessing.

We are told in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the verses immediately before this evening’s reading: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4: 14-16).

Christ comes into the world as the King of Kings and as the Great High Priest.
But he comes not as the sort of king that we would expect a king to be, nor as a great high priest full of pomp and self-importance.

When you have been ordained as priests for a few years, when you have served your first curacy and come to move to your first or second parish as rector, you will be in danger of slipping into habits that you do not realise have been formed slowly and invisibly.

You will be the centre of attention. Nominators who want to attract you to their parish will tell you how wonderful and how talented you are; people will praise your sermons and how well you perform at Christmas and Easter, at baptisms, weddings and funerals.

You may delight in being at the centre of attention; your photographs will appear in the Church of Ireland Gazette beside bishops and in the local newspaper beside mayors and celebrities. You may be interviewed on television and write books that received critical acclaim.

And all in a very good cause, no doubt.

But once you are on a career path, you will be in danger of forgetting that priesthood is not a professional option, you will be in danger of forgetting the first reasons why you started to explore the idea of ordained ministry.

I hope at least one of you, if not more, will become a bishop in my lifetime … but a bishop who will serve the Church, and not a bishop for the reasons some mothers would like their son or daughter to be a bishop.

There is an apocryphal story in this diocese of a new curate in a parish who was asked by the rector’s wife to go around the table at a pensioners’ coffee morning and make sure that people had their cups topped up.

“But,” he protested, “I’m here to talk to people. I’m not here to wait on tables. What do you think I was ordained for?”

What indeed did he think he was ordained for, if not to wait on tables? The Greek word for deacon (διάκονος) means precisely that: someone who waits on tables, and not the head waiter or master of ceremonies either.

The foundation of all ordained ministry is our diaconate. We are called first and foremost to serve. And when we serve the people, when in obedience we meet them in their suffering, then we can hear their cries and their prayers and truly serve them in the services of the Church and in the Divine Liturgy (see Hebrews 5: 1-10).

It was in humbling himself as a servant that Christ truly became the role model for all deacons, priests and bishops.

Did James and John think opting to follow Jesus, becoming disciples, was a good career move?

Whenever I read this evening’s Gospel story (Mark 10: 35-45), I think back to my childhood days. I remember all those preparations for football matches, as we lined up to pick sides. And how we all wanted to be among the first to be picked for a team.

Everyone wanted to be picked first, everyone wanted to line up there beside one of the two captains, no-one wanted to be picked last, even when there were enough places for everyone to get a game.

I can still see them: 9- or 10-year-old boys, jumping up and down on the grass, waving our hands or pointing at our chests, and pleading: “Me, me, please pick me, I’m your friend.”

Me, me, please pick me. And then when we were picked how we wanted the glory. Slow at passing the ball, in case I might not score the goal. Better to lose that ball in a tackle than to pass it to someone else and risk someone else scoring the winning goal.

And that’s who James and John remind me of: wanting to be picked first, wanting to be the first to line up beside the team captain, being glory seekers rather than tram players.

No wonder the other ten were upset when they heard this. But they were upset, not because they wanted to take on the servant model of priesthood and ministry. They were upset not because James and John hadn’t yet grasped the point of it all. They were upset because they might have been counted out, because they might have missed out being on the first team, on the first XI.

And their upset actually turns to anger. Not the sort of candidates you’d like to meet at a selection conference.

And what did James and John want in reality? They wanted that one would sit on Christ’s right hand and the other on his left.

Now, even that might not have been too bad an ambition. The man who stood at the right hand of the Emperor in the Byzantine court was the Emperor’s voice. What he said was the emperor’s word. And so, in the creed, when we declare our belief that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, we mean not that there is some heavenly couch on which all three are seated, comfy and cosy, as if waiting to watch their favourite television sit-com.

When we say that Christ “is seated at the right hand of the Father,” we mean that Christ is the Word of God. In some way, I suppose, this is what Andrei Rublev was trying to convey in his icon of the Visitation of Abraham, his icon of the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament.

In Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, the Christ-figure is wearing a simple deacon’s stole, and is seated with the Father and the Holy Spirit to his lifet and to his right

In that icon, the Father and the Spirit are seated to the right and left of the Son. Indeed, in that icon, Christ is wearing not the elaborate high-priestly stole of a bishop, but the simple stole of a deacon at the table.

For James and John to want to be seated at the right and left of Christ in his glory – not when they were sitting down to a snack, or travelling on the bus, or even at the Last Supper, but in his glory (see verse 37) – they were was expressing an ambition to take the place of, to replace God.

But to be like God means to take on Christ’s humility, as we are reminded in our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews this evening.

We are made in the image and likeness of God, and then God asks us, invites us to return to that image and likeness when Christ comes in our image and likeness – not as a Byzantine emperor or Roman tyrant, but just as one of us.

Are we willing to be like him in our ministry?

Christ asks us that this evening. Are we willing to drink the cup that he drinks, or to be baptised with his baptism (see verses 38 and 40)?

Of course James and John were. See how this hot-headed pair, the sons of Zebedee, went on to serve the community of the baptised and the community that shared in the one bread and the one cup, the community that is the Church, the community that in baptism and in the shared meal is the Body of Christ.

James – not James the Brother of the Lord, whom we remember on Friday next – but James the Great was executed by the sword and became one of the first Christian martyrs (see Acts 12: 1-12).

John too lived a life of service to the Church: he was exiled on Patmos, and although he died in old age in Ephesus, there were numerous attempts to make him a martyr. And, of course, he gave his name to in the Johannine writings in the New Testament.

Martyrdom comes in many forms. In essence the word means witness. But the first step in martyrdom is dying to self, to self-ambition, to self-seeking, to self-serving. Your life must be a life that is testimony to your most cherished beliefs, testimony to Christ himself.

We love our titles in Anglicanism – canon, archdeacon, prebendary, dean – and stand firmly on our dignity, and even on our dignitaries if they get in our way. But you are not entering a career with good prospects. There is nothing wrong with any one of you wanting to be a bishop. There is something wrong if you are here seeing that as a career goal.

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 45).

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the Glory of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the community Eucharist in the institute chapel on Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Saint John’s Gospel (3): John 2: 1-12

Patrick Comerford

1 Καὶ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ γάμος ἐγένετο ἐν Κανὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ ἦν ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐκεῖ: 2 ἐκλήθη δὲ καὶ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν γάμον. 3καὶ ὑστερήσαντος οἴνου λέγει ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πρὸς αὐτόν, Οἶνον οὐκ ἔχουσιν. 4 [καὶ] λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; οὔπω ἥκει ἡ ὥρα μου. 5 λέγει ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ τοῖς διακόνοις, Ο τι ἂν λέγῃ ὑμῖν ποιήσατε. 6 ἦσαν δὲ ἐκεῖ λίθιναι ὑδρίαι ἓξ κατὰ τὸν καθαρισμὸν τῶν Ἰουδαίων κείμεναι, χωροῦσαι ἀνὰ μετρητὰς δύο ἢ τρεῖς. 7 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Γεμίσατε τὰς ὑδρίας ὕδατος. καὶ ἐγέμισαν αὐτὰς ἕως ἄνω. 8 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἀντλήσατε νῦν καὶ φέρετε τῷ ἀρχιτρικλίνῳ: οἱ δὲ ἤνεγκαν. 9 ὡς δὲ ἐγεύσατο ὁ ἀρχιτρίκλινος τὸ ὕδωρ οἶνον γεγενημένον, καὶ οὐκ ᾔδει πόθεν ἐστίν, οἱ δὲ διάκονοι ᾔδεισαν οἱ ἠντληκότες τὸ ὕδωρ, φωνεῖ τὸν νυμφίον ὁ ἀρχιτρίκλινος 10 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Πᾶς ἄνθρωπος πρῶτον τὸν καλὸν οἶνον τίθησιν, καὶ ὅταν μεθυσθῶσιν τὸν ἐλάσσω: σὺ τετήρηκας τὸν καλὸν οἶνον ἕως ἄρτι. 11 Ταύτην ἐποίησεν ἀρχὴν τῶν σημείων ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν Κανὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἐφανέρωσεν τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ.

12 Μετὰ τοῦτο κατέβη εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ αὐτὸς καὶ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ [αὐτοῦ] καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐκεῖ ἔμειναν οὐ πολλὰς ἡμέρας.

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4 And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5 His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6 Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there for a few days.

The Seventh Day

During the past two weeks, we have been looking at how Chapter 1 of Saint John’s Gospel is introducing us to a new creation, a new creation that is in Christ. After looking at the Prologue, we turned last week to the first six days in the new creation, and now we have come to Day Seven.

What did God do on the Seventh Day in the account of creation in the Book Genesis? God rested. And now that we have arrived at Day Seven in the opening week of Saint John’s Gospel, we come to the Day that Christ rests with his disciples, and to a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, which is the completion of God’s creation. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19: 9).

Seven has a symbolic meaning or significance in this Gospel. This is the first of the seven miraculous signs by which John attests to Christ’s divine status. This Gospel is structured around these signs, and the word used by John is unique. He uses the Greek word σημεῖον (semeion, “sign” or ἔργον meaning “work”), instead of the term the Synoptic writers normally use for miracle, δύναμις (dynamis, meaning act of power).

This is the first of the Seven Signs, which are:

1. Turning water into wine (2: 1-12);
2. Healing the royal official’s son (4: 46-54), also at Cana;
3. Healing the paralysed man at Bethesda (5: 1-9);
4. Feeding the 5,000 (6: 1-14);
5. Walking on water (6: 15-24);
6. Healing the blind man (9: 1-7);
7. The raising of Lazarus (11: 17-45).

These are completed then by the Greatest Sign, the Resurrection (see 2:18-22).

The seven signs are interspersed with long dialogues and discourses, including the seven “I AM” sayings. In these discourses, Jesus identifies himself with symbols of major significance. There are seven “I AM” statements:

1. I AM the Bread of Life (6: 35);
2. I AM the Light of the World (8: 12);
3. I AM the door of the sheep (10: 7);
4. I AM the Good Shepherd (10: 11);
5. I AM the Resurrection and the Life (11: 25);
6. I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14: 6);
7. I AM the True Vine (15: 1).

In addition, there are Seven Witnesses:

1. John the Baptist (1: 34);
2. Nathaniel (1: 49);
3. Peter (6: 69);
4. Christ (10: 36) – the Central and Greatest witness;
5. Martha (11: 27);
6. Thomas (20: 28);
7. John the Beloved Disciple (20: 31).

And so the first of the seven signs comes on the seventh of the seven days that introduce the Gospel.

The significance of Cana

Last week, we saw how Christ promised the new disciples that he would show them his glory … this morning we see that promise fulfilled in the first sign, at the wedding in Cana.

Last week I also said that the image of the Lamb of God in this Gospel was like a triptych, with the two Johns – John the Baptist at the beginning of the Gospel, and John the Beloved Disciple at the end – as witnesses to who the Lamb of God is. In a similar way, Galilee acts as a geographical enclosure for Christ’s disclosure: Galilee is the first place to behold Christ’s glory, as we see in this story; and Galilee will be the last place to behold his glory, as we will see with the post-Resurrection stories in Chapter 21, and there too we also come across Cana and Nathanael.

Summary of story

While Christ is attending the wedding in Cana with his disciples, the hosts run out of wine. The mother of Jesus tells him: “They have no more wine.” And Jesus replies: “Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.”

His mother then says to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (2: 5).

Jesus orders the servants to fill the empty containers with water and to draw out some and take it to the chief waiter. After tasting the water that had become wine, and not knowing what Christ has done, he remarks to the bridegroom that he has departed from the custom of serving the best wine first by serving it last (verses 6-10). John then tells us: “This was the first miracle of Jesus and it was performed to reveal his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (verse 11).

This miracle is not mentioned in any of the other three Gospels, although it has parallels with the parable of the New Wine and Old Wineskins.

In the Old Testament, we read promises that there will be an abundance of wine in the time of the Messiah (Genesis 27: 27-28; 49: 10-12; Amos 9: 13-14), especially at the wedding feasts (see Isaiah 62: 4-5). The wine in this story represents the overflowing and abundant blessings of God coming to fruition.

Verse 1:

On the third day: this is not to distract us from the significance of this being the seventh day, but remember that Christ rose on the Third Day. We are to read this story with the benefit of the hindsight of Resurrection faith.

I had a cousin-by-marriage who delighted in the spoiling prank of going down the queues outside the cinemas in Oxford when Love Story with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw was first showing in 1970 and saying to each person in turn: “She dies in the end.” But you cannot spoil the reader of the Fourth Gospel by telling him or her: “He dies in the end.” That is not the end, and this first sign prepares us, in a way, for the greatest of all signs, beyond the seventh sign.

Cana was a small village about 12 km north-west of Nazareth.

“… and the mother of Jesus was there.” Mary is never named in this Gospel.

Verse 2:

Jesus and his disciples have been invited, together. We don’t know who the bride and groom were. But at weddings new families are formed. No-one is ever the same again. Brothers become brothers-in-law, sisters become sisters-in-law, mothers become mothers-in-law. New families, new bonds of kinship are created. I wonder who was seated with the groom’s family, and who with the bride’s family. Perhaps they were all related in some distant way.

Christ’s arrival shows us that we are all part of God’s family. As the Caroline Divine Lancelot Andrewes puts it, Jesus became our half brother in his fleshly birth to Mary, and adopted us to the Father, and full brotherhood, in his resurrection!

Verse 3:

Note that Mary does not make a request here – she simply observes or passes comment on a matter of fact in her conversation with her son. They have no wine. She is not asking for a miracle.

Verse 4:

It sounds at first as though Jesus is being dismissive, almost as if he is telling his mother to go away and to not bother him. But when Jesus calls his mother “Woman” it is not a dismissive or derogatory term, but a term of great respect, as it is again at the Crucifixion, when he says: “Woman, here is your son” (see 19: 26).

Nevertheless, the hour of his self-disclosure was determined not by Mary’s desire but by God. And that hour, ultimately, is the only other time when John mentions Mary, when Christ is on the Cross.

As we have been comparing these seven days with the first seven days in Genesis, then we can compare the role of the woman in the garden (Eve), who is the man’s companion, with the role of the woman at the wedding feast. Once again, there is the balance between eating and drinking, between being sent out into the world, and being called back to the fullness of the heavenly banquet.

Verse 5:

There is a resigned tone to Mary’s voice. She accepts whatever her Son may say, even if it is not going to turn out to be what she expected. What did she expect? What did she know at this stage? What did she think her Son could say or would do? Notice the connection made here between saying and doing, just as this Gospel also makes the connection between seeing and believing.

Verse 6:

The six stone jars contained water for rites of purification. These were ceremonial rites, not hygienic rites. But each jar contained 20 or 30 gallons, so we’re talking about 180 gallons of wine – roughly speaking, in today’s terms, 1,091 bottles of wine. And because the wine was so good (see 9-10) in those days it would then have water added to it, and this may have double the amount – so perhaps up to 1,500 or 2,000 bottles of wine by today’s reckoning. It was enough to ensure they partied for days, and weddings in the Eastern Mediterranean do go on for days.

Verse 7:

Jesus says … and they do. Why do you think the servants obeyed Mary and then obeyed Jesus? And why wasn’t the steward in control of what was going on at this stage? Was he hiding in embarrassment? Had he headed off to buy some more wine? Had that been a failed venture, like the disciple failed to come back with food when they were sent to Sychar (see Chapter 4)?

Verse 8:

The steward (ἀρχιτρίκλινος, architriklinos) was the superintendent of the dining room, a table master. He was different from the toast-master, who was one of the guests selected by lot to prescribe to the rest the mode of drinking. The table-master was to place in order the tables and the couches, arrange the courses, taste the food and wine beforehand, and so on.

Notice the role of similar people in other Gospel stories. Here and in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22: 2-14), the attendants have the role of διάκονος (deacon), a waiter, one who executes the commands of another, especially of the master or the architriklinos. The word for the unjust steward (Luke 16: 1-8) is οἰκονόμος (oykonomos), the manager of a household or of household affairs who was free-born or a freed-man who was delegated oversight. We can see here the parallels with the ministry of bishop and priest and of deacon later in the New Testament. Who does the steward at Cana have parallels with?

Verse 9:

As I was preparing these notes, I just thought about those words from the Psalmist: O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him (Psalm 34: 8).

Verse 10:

See how the steward shifts responsibility to the bridegroom. But the truth is that the good wine has been kept until now. Now the best of God’s promises are about to be fulfilled.

Verse 11:

The miracles were not wonders to astound but were signs pointing to Christ’s glory and God’s presence in him. This is the first of the signs. For the second sign see 4: 46-54.

Verse 12:

When the wedding is over, Jesus heads back to Capernaum, which was on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. He goes there with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples. New relationships have been formed. Some of them go back as new brothers-in-law, perhaps one of the them was a new father-in-law. Christ calls us into new relationships, with him, with God the Father, and with one another. And in those new relationships, there are new expectations.

Next: The cleansing of the Temple (John 2: 13-25).

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 with B.Th. and M.Th. students on 21 October 2009.