Sunday, 22 November 2009

Saint Cecilia’s Day in the Cathedral

Patrick Comerford (right) with the Dean ofChirst Church Cathedral, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, after the Sung Eucharist in the cathedral on the Feast of Christ the King

Patrick Comerford

We celebrated the Feast of Christ the King in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning. This is the last Sunday in the Christian calendar and the Church year. But 22 November is also the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint musicians and church music.

As canon-in-residence this week, I was back in Christ Church Cathedral this afternoon when her day was marked appropriately at Choral Evensong, which was sung by the cathedral choir, and for the presentation of certificates to musicians who are working on the diocesan music course.

The processional hymn was Sing praise to God who reigns above (Johann Schutz, translated by Frances Cox), our canticles were Cantate Domino to a setting by Claudio Monteverdi and Deus Misereatur to a setting by Mogens Pederson, and before the presentation of certificates a most wonderful anthem by the choir – the first movement of Come, ye Sons of Art, a birthday ode for Queen Mary (1694), with words by Nahum Tate and music by Henry Purcell:

Come, Ye Sons of Art, come away,
Tune all your voices and instruments play
To celebrate this triumphant day.

Sound the trumpet, till around
You make the list’ning shores rebound.
On the sprightly hautboy play;
All the instruments of joy,
That skilful numbers can employ,
To celebrate the glories of this day.


Our closing hymn was Henry Baker’s O praise ye the Lord! to Parry’s tune Laudate Domino.

Patron Saint of musicians

Saint Cecilia’s feast day on 22 November is common to the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican traditions in the Church, and – apart from the Blessed Virgin – she is one of seven women named in the Canon of the Roman Catholic Mass. She has been honoured as the patron saint of musicians and Church music because, according to legend, she sang to God as she was dying a martyr’s death.

It was long supposed that Cecilia was a noble woman from Rome. It was said that she was martyred ca 230, along with her husband Valerian, his brother Tiburtius, and a Roman soldier Maximus, under the Emperor Alexander Severus. However, it is more likely that she died in Sicily under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius between the year 176 and 180.

One legend says that her executioners at first tried to kill her by smothering her with steam. When this failed, they stabbed her three times, but she would not die until she received the sacrament of Holy Communion. Cecilia is said to have the survived another three days. In those last three days, she opened her eyes, gazed at her family and friends who crowded around her cell, closed them, and never opened them again.

Another legend says that she was crucified and beheaded and that at the same time she praised God, singing to him as she suffered her martyr’s death. It is because of this legend that she has become the patron saint of church musicians.

But by far the most gripping account of her life is in ‘The Second Nun’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There we are told Cecilia was ordered to be burnt to ashes in a bath of flame. She sat in the bath for a day and a night without even sweating. Finally an executioner delivered three strokes to her neck. Her wounds were bound up and she continued to preach and pray for three more days. Pope Urban then took her body and buried it at night.

Popular legend even says Saint Cecilia invented the organ. This belief seems to be derived from a misinterpretation of a sentence in her Acts: “Cantantibus organis in corde suo soli Domino decantabat.” While musical instruments were playing she was singing in her heart to God alone. The Latin “organum” also refers to the organ of speech and singing.

In Rome, the Church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere is reputedly built on the site of the house in which she lived. The original church in Trastevere was built in the fourth or fifth century. The church was rebuilt with much splendour by Pope Paschal I around the year 820, when her body was buried there.

The church was rebuilt once again in 1599, and her tomb is under the high altar. The church is near the Ripa Grande Quay, where the Ghetto was once located. It is the title church for a cardinal, and the present cardinal linked to the church is Cardinal Martini.

An academic choice and honour

Saint Cecilia’s memory has been kept alive by poets, writers, painters and musicians. The first recorded music festival in her honour was at Evreux in Normandy in 1570. When the Academy of Music was founded in Rome in 1584, Saint Cecilia was chosen as the patron of Church Music and 22 November was chosen as the date for her Patronal Festival.

Many composers since the late 17th century have honoured her memory, including Purcell, Handel, Blow, Clarke, Boyce, Greene, Wesley, Parry, Howells and Britten.

Earlier this year, I was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Saint Celicia, whose sphere of interest is early music, dating before 1825. The academy takes its name from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, which was in effect the musicians’ union in 17th century Rome and whose members included Corelli, Pasquini and Alessandro Scarlatti were members.

Dryden’s Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day, 1687:

But oh! what art can teach
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their Heav’nly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place;
Sequacious of the lyre.

But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her Organ vocal breath was given
An Angel heard and straight appear’d
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

As from the pow’r of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the bless’d above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.


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

The Kingship of Christ and the majesty of grieving mothers

Christ the King ... a modern American tapestry

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 22 November 2009: The Kingship of Christ (The Sunday before Advent)

11 a.m.: The Cathedral Eucharist, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1: 4b-8; John 18: 33-37


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

This morning’s Gospel reading may seem to be a little out of sequence for some. We are preparing for Christmas, you may think, not for Easter.

Already many of us have started sending our Christmas cards, and drawing up our lists for presents. Although there may be a sense of foreboding in advance of Christmas this year, nevertheless many are determined to enjoy it and celebrate it.

Despite that foreboding, it seems Christmas comes earlier and earlier each year, and this year has been no exception. I wonder to myself whether this is simply a sign that I am getting older. Is being grumpy about seemingly earlier-and-earlier Christmas trees and decorations and snowmen in the shops just part of the ageing process … like claiming that policemen or gardai appear increasingly to be younger than I am?

And yet, without being grumpy, I know that this year too families will feel inadequate, under the wrong sort of pressures, and express this by saying there are too many Christmas trees around, too many Christmas offers, too much pressure to shop and spend, when they don’t have the money, or the security to spend the money they have.

Putting the Christmas trees up too early, hanging up the lights and frosting the windows may not be helping to encourage a Christmas spirit. And too much of everything at this time means we forget what Advent is supposed to be about.

This Sunday marks the end of the Christian year, the Church year. And we appropriately mark this by crowning Christ as King. This helps us to focus from Sunday next on Advent, which is supposed to be a time and a season of preparation for the coming of Christ.

And he comes not just as a cute cuddly babe wrapped up in the manger and under the floodlights of a front window in a large shop in Grafton Street or the window of a leading brand shop in Dundrum.

We are also preparing for the coming of Christ as King. And so on this Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian calendar, the last Sunday of the Church year, we celebrate the Kingship of Christ.

But kingship is not a very good role model for those of us who live in a democratic society where we elect our governments and our heads of state. The models of kingship that we have in history or in contemporary society are not so good. Let me give three examples.

On our neighbouring island, we have a model of monarchy that paradoxically appears to be benign on one hand and on the other appears aloof and remote, at the very apex of a class system defined by birth, title and inherited privilege.

In other northern European countries, we have a model of monarchy that is represented in the media by figureheads portrayed as slightly daft do-gooders, riding around on bicycles in parks and by canals in ways that rob kingship of majesty, dignity and grace.

Or, look at two recently deposed emperors: in the case of Halie Selassie, there was a king who sat back in luxury as his people starved to death; in the Emperor Bokassa, we had a tyrant accused of eating his people and having them butchered at whim.

No wonder some American translations of the Psalms avoid the word king and talk about God as our governor.

But in this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ rejects all those dysfunctional models of majesty and kingship. He is not happy with Pilate trying to project onto him models of kingship that are taken from the haughty and the aloof, the daft and the barmy, or the despotic and the tyrannical.

As he is being tortured and crucified, his tormentors and detractors still try to project these models of kingship onto Christ as they whip him and beat him to humility, as they crown him with thorns and mock him, and finally as he is crucified for all the world to see.

What sort of a king did Pilate expect Christ to be? Indeed, what does majesty and graciousness mean for you today?

The sufferings and compassion of three mothers in recent months have illustrated for me how loving parents can be reflections of divine majesty and grace.

When her son Sebastian was murdered in Bray last August, Nuala Creane spoke movingly at his funeral as she told her story, telling all there that “my story, my God is the God of Small Things. I see God’s presence in the little details.”

“A well-sculpted eulogy, carved with all the beauty, precision, delicacy and impact of a Pieta being sculpted by a Michelangelo”

It was a beautiful and well-sculpted eulogy, carved with all the beauty, precision, delicacy and impact of a Pieta being sculpted by a Michelangelo. She spoke of how the God of Small Things had blessed her with a sunny child, “was saying, is saying, let the child inside each of us come to the surface and play.”

She understood generously and graciously, and with majesty, the grief of those who loved the young man who had killed her son and then killed himself, believing these young men “both played their parts in the unfolding of God’s divine plan.”

She spoke of the heartbreak and the choice that faces everyone confronted with the deepest personal tragedies, asking herself: “Do we continue to live in darkness, seeing only fear, anger, bitterness, resentment; blaming, bemoaning our loss, always looking backwards, blaming, blaming, blaming, or are we ready to transmute this negativity? We can rise to the challenge with unconditional love, knowing that we were born on to this earth to grow ... Our hearts are broken but maybe our hearts needed to be broken so that they could expand.”

Broken hearts, expanding hearts, rising to the challenge with unconditional love … this is how I hope I understand the majesty and the glory of Christ, at the best of times and at the worst of times.

Last month, when the Cork All-Star hurler Donal Óg Cusack published his biography, Come What May, his mother went on the Marian Finucane Show on RTÉ and spoke movingly about how “very difficult” it is for his father to accept that their son is gay.

Bonnie Cusack spoke honestly of how “very sorry” she feels for her husband who was finding the situation tough to deal with. But while her husband did not find their son’s decision to go public easy to accept, they both fully supported Donal Óg, and she proudly described her son’s courage as the “most important quality a man can have.”

Bonnie Cusack said she knew that her son was gay from the time he was aged about 16. But in the face of the discrimination and the taunts her son suffered at matches, despite the lost hopes for the future, of ever having a daughter-in-law, of ever having grandchildren, she is proud of her son and his courage. She loves him unconditionally.

And her dignity on the Marian Finucane Show was regal and majestic … a lesson for every mother on how to publicly show love for a son who has made a difficult yet public decision.

Then, at the end of last month, we had the tragic killing of an Irish backpacker in Australia, followed by the graceful, majestic, regal response of his compassionate and loving mother.

Gearóid Walsh (23) suffered severe head injuries and died in hospital in Sydney. He had been drinking in beachside bars and pubs before getting into an argument with someone else outside a kebab shop. Initially, he walked away, but then returned a moment later to continue the argument. He was punched once, stumbled, fell and hit his head on the ground.

His widowed mother, Tressa Walsh, flew out to Sydney immediately. Mrs Walsh was filled with emotion as she appealed for the man who hit her son to give himself up. And then she explained, with grace and majesty: “I’d really like to say that as a mother I really feel for this guy who got into a fight with Gearóid.”

She was holding back tears as she said: “I am heart-broken for him because we don’t blame him, we don’t want him to serve time in prison. I think he was just very, very unlucky. We don’t want him to torture himself over this. I don’t see this as a murder.”

She said her son was tall … “he had a long way to fall.”

In her love for her son, she had compassion and mercy for the man who subsequently handed himself into police in Sydney. And she could see how darkness can lead to light, bad things can be turned around to good, despair can lead to hope, for after she accepted that her son was being taken off life support, she also allowed his vital organs to help six Australians who might otherwise have died to live.

In our world today, refusing to seek revenge is seen as passive acceptance. We confuse seeking the best for ourselves and those we love with being insensitive to and trampling on the hurt and grief of others.

When Christ comes to us this Advent, as the poor suffer because of the recession, because of our failed economy, because of the cuts we are being prepared for in the looming budget … who will he identify with?

In his glory and his majesty, I expect he will understand those who suffer, those who grieve, those who forgive.

At his birth, he was born in a humble dwelling in Bethlehem, he showed how much he has in common with the poor who will suffer this Christmas.

At his death, he rejected the thrones and palaces of the Pilates and the Herods. As Michelangelo’s Pieta shows us, he had a more dignified throne.

And when he comes again at his Advent, his glory and his majesty is reflected in those who are filled with grief, with compassion, with love and with understanding.

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

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday 22 November 2009.