Sunday, 13 December 2009

In search of Saint Patrick’s footprint in Skerries

Dusk in Skerries ... the strand, the sea and the sky all seemed to be reflecting a sandy-brown colour for the rest of this twilight-like afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, December 2009)

Patrick Comerford

We marked Gaudete Sunday in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning with the Collect, Readings and Post-Communion Prayer for the Third Sunday of Advent, and lighting the pink candle on the Advent Wreath.

The preacher was the former Vice-Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, the Revd Canon Dr Billy Marshall, and the celebrant was the Revd Canon Mark Gardner, Dean’s Vicar and Canon-Pastor of the cathedral, who is about to move to Saint Catherine’s and Saint James’s as Vicar early next month.

It had been a busy week before, with another injection for my B12 deficiency, a lengthy consultation with my GP on dealing with my sarcoidosis, a book launch in the Dublin Civic Trust, meetings, lectures, seminars, daily chapel services some sermons to work on and planning for some new publications, as well as out wonderful Advent Carol Service on Wednesday evening in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s.

And so, by Saturday I was feeling tired. Sarcoidosis is still sapping my energy, and so it was good that Saturday was an easy day – almost a lazy day – just writing Christmas cards and decorating the tree, but I still needed by weekend walk on a beach, and so early in the afternoon, I headed back out to Skerries on the north-east Dublin coast.

A week earlier, I had arrived for high tide on the beach on Sunday afternoon. This afternoon, the tide was out, and there were long sandy stretches on the beaches of Skerries. It has been dry and sunny, but cold, for the last few days, but winter has set in, and the sun seemed to be setting a little earlier than usual, bringing an early close to the day, so that the strand, the sea and the sky all seemed to be reflecting a sandy-brown colour for the rest of this twilight-like afternoon.

On the South Strand, the view out to the islands of Skerries, including Saint Patrick’s, Shenick, Colt Island and Rockabill, and back to Lambay off Rush and Portrane, was clear. The word Skerries comes from the Danish words skere, meaning rocks or a reef, and ey meaning an islet or small island. But the Book of Armagh, written about 800 AD, the islands off Skerries were once known as the “isles of the children of Cor.”

As I walked up to the steps behind the Martello Tower to Red Island, the Mountains of Mourne and then the Fingal coast up past Balbriggan came into sharp relief.

Recently I said I wanted to take another lo take a closer look at the links between Saint Patrick and Skerries – the Church of Ireland parish church is Holmpatrick, and the Roman Catholic parish church is Saint Patrick’s.

Local lore says that after Saint Patrick was expelled from Wicklow he moved to Saint Patrick’s Island off Skerries in 432 AD. Legend also says that one day, while Saint Patrick was on shore buying supplies, the people of Skerries rowed over to his island where he had a goat tied up for milk, stole it, took it back to the mainland and ate it. When he returned he was angry, and with one great step he bounded from his island to Red Island. There he questioned the local people, and when they denied their theft he took away their powers of speech. They could only bleat like goats, until they eventually admitted their crime.

It is said that on Red Island there is still a mark on the rock that is nothing less than Saint Patrick’s footprint.

Can you believe it? Well, I failed to see the saint’s footprint on Red Island this afternoon.

The tide was still out in the harbour (Photograph: Patrick Cometrford, 2009)

I walked on around Red Island, past the lifeboat station, down onto the harbour and the pier. The tide was still out, and a pair of seals were begging for fish from the few fishing boats that were tied up on.

From the harbour I walked back into Skerries for a late lunch in The Olive (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, December 2009)

Then it was back around the North Strand, past the sailing club, and down into Strand Street for a very late lunch in the Olive – a vegetarian antipasto plate that was imaginative in its presentation … and it was impossible to resist the temptation to buy two of their hampers as Christmas presents.

Outside, darkness had fallen. It was sad to hear that a question mark hangs over the future of the Red Bank. But it was good to see the trees on Strand Street festooned with Christmas lights, despite some earlier doubts about them this year. In Gerry’s, I picked up the Sunday papers, the Economist, and some of their excellent bargains in wine. I don’t know who the wine buyer in Gerry’s is, but he or she has a wonderful eye for Italian wines, and knows where to source them.

Then it was back along the coast towards Rush and into Lusk, out to Blake’s Cross and onto the M50.

My sarcoidosis means I’m still feeling a bit run down this evening. But fresh sea air, the beach walk, and the sharp, invigorating atmosphere along the coast of Skerries reassures me that while I may have sarcoidosis, sarcoidosis does not have me.

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico ... note the pink or rose-colured robes on the Angel Gabriel and on the Virgin Mary

Patrick Comerford


O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger to prepare your way before you: Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in your sight; for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.

Lectionary Readings

Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Psalm 146: 5-10; Philippians 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 7-18.

The Advent Wreath

For the past two weeks, the Advent wreath has been lighting each day at the offices and at the Liturgy. So far, we have lit two of the five candles – two of the purple or violet candles on the edge. But there is a change this week, for today is Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, when the pink or rose-coloured candle in the wreath is lit.

In churches with an Advent wreath, the rose-coloured candle is lit alongside the two violet (or blue) candles from the first two Sundays of Advent. Despite the otherwise sombre readings of Advent, the readings on the third Sunday emphasise the joyous anticipation of the Lord’s coming.

The Advent Wreath has five candles: three purple, one pink and one white. They are first lit on each of the Sundays of Advent and on Christmas Day as follows:

Advent 1: purple, for the patriarchs;

Advent 2: purple, for the prophets;

Advent 3: pink, for Saint John the Baptist;

Advent 4: purple, for the Virgin Mary;

Christmas Day: white, for Christ.

Once lit, they are each then lit again for the remaining Sundays, so that on Christmas Day they are all lit. Whether they are in a circular or stepped arrangement, the white candle should be the highest, central or most prominent candle in the arrangement. The three purple candles represent the generally penitential character of the Advent season. But the pink colour of the third candle indicates that the Third Sunday of Advent is a less solemn day.

On this Sunday, which is also known as Gaudete Sunday, rose-coloured vestments are worn instead of the Advent violet. In many parts of the Anglican Communion and in some Lutheran traditions, the colour may be Sarum blue instead. Some traditions say the custom of wearing rose-pink vestments on this Sunday – as on the fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) – comes from an old custom of the Popes distributing roses on these days.

Gaudete Sunday

The season of Advent began as a fast of 40 days in preparation for Christmas. But in the ninth century, the length of Advent was reduced to four weeks. This Sunday takes the name Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word Gaude, “Rejoice,” the first word in the traditional introit for this morning:

Rejoice in the Lord always.
Again I say, rejoice;
let your forbearance be known to all,
for the Lord is near at hand;
have no anxiety about anything,
but in all things, by prayer and supplication,
with thanksgiving,
let your requests be known to God

The spirit of the Liturgy all through Advent is one of expectation and preparation for the Christmas feast, as well as for the second coming of Christ. But on Gaudete Sunday, the penitential exercises suitable to the spirit of Advent are suspended, symbolising that joy and gladness in the promised redemption that should never be absent from our hearts.

On the middle or third Sunday of Advent – corresponding to Laetare or Mid-Lent Sunday – the organ and flowers, which had been forbidden during the rest of the season, were permitted once again. Rose-colored vestments were allowed instead of purple, the deacon and sub-deacon reassumed the dalmatic and tunicle, and cardinals wore rose-colour instead of purple.

Gaudete Sunday is also marked by a new Invitatory: the Church no longer invites us to prepare to greet “the Lord who is to come,” but calls us to worship and hail with joy “the Lord who is now nigh and close at hand” – a theme that is reflected in the Collect and Post-Communion Prayer for this day in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland, along with recalling Saint John the Baptist, another tradition of Gaudete Sunday.

For some families, this weekend is also traditionally the weekend for putting up the Christmas Tree.

Listening to a 1970s hit

In recent days, I have also been listening to the song Gaudete, usually sung on Gaudete Sunday. The Irish choral group Anúna sang Gaudete on their CDs Omnis (1996) and Celtic Origins (2007). But the version I have been listening to and listening to again this weekend became popular in the early 1970s. I was first introduced to English folk rock while I was in the English Midlands and writing for the Lichfield Mercury.

After Bob Johnson heard Gaudete at a folk carol service at his father-in-law’s church in Cambridge, Steeleye Span recorded Gaudete in 1972 on their album Below the Salt. The record sleeve notes said:

Mist takes the morning path to wreath the willows -
Rejoice, rejoice -
small birds sing as the early rising monk takes to his sandals -
Christ is born of the Virgin Mary -
cloistered, the Benedictine dawn threads timelessly the needle’s eye -

Steeleye Span was formed in 1969, and they often performed as the opening act for Jethro Tull. A year after recording Below the Salt, it came as a surprise to many when they had a Christmas hit single with Gaudete, when it made No 14 in the British charts in 1973.

This a capella motet, sung entirely in Latin, is neither representative of Steeleye Span’s repertoire nor of the album. Yet this was their first big breakthrough and it brought them onto Top of the Pops for the first time.

The reference in verse 3, which puzzled many fans at the time, is to the eastern gate of the city in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 44: 2). The gate is a traditional symbol of Mary as virgin.

Since the mid-1970s, despite the change in their line-up and the loss of names like Maddy Pryor and Gay and Terry Woods at different times, they often include Gaudete as a concert encore, and it was publised in 1992 in the New Oxford Book of Carols.

The original is at: But there are some more recent recordings at: and at:

I posted a link to one version on my Facebook page late on Friday night, and was surprised by the reaction. Let us rejoice in good memories, let us rejoice that Christmas is coming, and in the midst of the present gloom let us rejoice that the coming of Christ holds out the promise of hope, the promise of his Kingdom, that even in darkness the light of Christ shines on us all.

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete!

Tempus adest gratiæ
Hoc quod optabamus,
Carmina lætitiæ
Devote reddamus.

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete!

Deus homo factus est
Natura mirante,
Mundus renovatus est
A Christo regnante.

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete!

Ezechielis porta
Clausa pertransitur,
Unde lux est orta
Salus invenitur.

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete!

Ergo nostra contio
Psallat iam in lustro;
Benedicat Domino:
Salus Regi nostro.

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete.

Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!

The time of grace has come
that we have desired;
let us devoutly return
joyful verses.

Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!

God has become man,
and nature marvels;
the world has been renewed
by Christ who is King.

Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!

The closed gate of Ezekiel
has been passed through;
whence the light is born,
salvation is found.

Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!

Therefore let our gathering
now sing in brightness,
let it give praise to the Lord:
Greetings to our King.

Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!

Post Communion Prayer

Father, we give you thanks for these heavenly gifts. Kindle us with the fire of your Spirit that when Christ comes again we may shine as lights before his face; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

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