Friday, 31 December 2010

A year that was more than bailouts and being impoverished by bankers

Bless us O Lord, in our coming in and in our going out ... a sign for the old year and the new year in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

The year opened with the disaster created by the earthquake in Haiti, leaving almost a quarter of a million people dead and over a million people homeless. By the end of the year, the plight of the people in Haiti had not improved. Despite pledges and promises from the international community, the despair of Haitians continues to deteriorate, compounded by a deadly outbreak of cholera and internal political upheavals.

Other international disasters, including the floods in Pakistan which affected a staggering 20 million people, and the BP-induced disaster that turned the Gulf of Mexico into a Black Sea, make our own climate problems in Ireland at the end of the year seem quite trivial by comparison.

This was the year of bailouts for Greece and Ireland; it was the year of Wikileaks; the year of miners’ recues in Chile and mining disasters in China and New Zealand; the year of the World Cup in South Africa, and the year Lansdowne Road reopened on 14 May as the Aviva Stadium – although I can never see myself calling it anything other than Lansdowne Road. It was the year of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in Burma and the year of David Cameron’s election victory in Britain. And, sadly, this may also have been the year that marked the last stage of the disappearance of Christians from Iraq – they have suffered more since the US invasion in 2003 than they have suffered in 2000 years of existence as heirs to the great, Biblical Chaldean people.

If Iceland had its financial woes last year, then it gave us all travel woes this year, with flight disruptions across Europe as drifting volcanic ash caused the biggest disruption of air travel since 11 September 2001. Little did we realise there would be travel disruptions of almost equal dimensions once again at the end of the year.

In Ireland, we began the year with a banking crisis and ended the year with the whole country on the brink of bankruptcy. Bankers and developers have brought this country to the brink, and our politicians have left us peering over the precipice rather than rescuing us. The response on the streets of Dublin has been mild compared with the protests and strikes in Greece. But the Irish voters have an opportunity to give their verdict at an early general election in the New Year. But can anything be rescued? Will anything change?

I almost wish that Bertie Ahern would stand in the presidential election too, if only for the voters to tell him what we think of his stewardship of the talents of this nation while he was Finance Minister and Taoiseach.

Not all doom and gloom

The sage on stage ... Leonard Cohen at Lissadell House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Of course, it was not all doom and gloom over the past 12 months. For me, the cultural highlights of the year included Leonard Cohen’s open-air concert in summer rain at Lissadell House in Co Sligo, Sting’s concert in the O2 in Dublin, the wonderful music produced in Christ Church Cathedral and in the chapel at CITI throughout the year, the singing of excerpts from Handel’s Messiah by the choirs of Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s, some live music in both Greece and Turkey, visiting Pugin’s churches throughout Ireland and the English Midlands, visiting the National Gallery in Dublin with students, and re-reading the poems of T.S. Eliot, especially East Coker. I made three attempts to start reading Victoria Hislop’s The Island. On the first attempt, I left the book at home as I left on holiday; on the second attempt, I left the book behind on a plane; on the third attempt ... well there is no excuse, I must resolve to finish it soon.

J.D. Salinger, who died on 27 January, will be remembered by most as the author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951). But we should remember too that the use of the Jesus Prayer according to the tradition of the Philokalia, became familiar to many in the west in the 1960s through Salinger’s novel, Franney and Zooey (1961), where Franny is introduced to the Jesus Prayer through her reading of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim.

The death of Gerry Ryan, despite the circumstances, came as a shock in April. He interviewed me once about mail-order and fake degrees. I felt sorry too for poor Melanie Verwoerd, who once preached at a ‘Discovery’ service.

With Melanie Verwoerd (centre), when she preached at a ‘Discovery’ service, and the Very Revd Katharine Poulton (left), who became Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, this year

I remain President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and in that capacity welcomed a visiting group of hibakusha, Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Dublin. As President of Irish CND, I was also invited to speak at protests in Dublin following Israeli attacks on the humanitarian flotilla to Gaza, including an Irish-owned ship. When I blogged about this, when I supported a resolution at the USPG conference on this act of piracy, and when photographs and reports of these protests appeared on a number of websites, I was deluged with a storm of hate messages by email, and found I had constantly to delete offensive and racist comments from my blog and my Facebook page.

To condemn Israeli military actions is not to be anti-Israeli; to criticise current excessive military expressions of Zionism is not to condone Islamic militancy; to understand the plight of besieged Palestinian mothers and children is not to be anti-Semitic. But for saying this I can expect the usual critics to bombard me once again with their messages of blinkered intolerance and blind hatred.

The end of an era

2010 ... a year in retrospect

Academically, this year saw the end of an era at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. We had the last examinations and the final conferrings for the BTh course, and the NSM course is also coming to an end. This year, we had our Ash Wednesday retreat by the sea in Donabate, where there was plenty of time for beach walks and silent reflection, and ending with a celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate.

Visiting preachers and lecturers at the institute in the past year included Bishop Chad Gandiya of Harare, who spoke eloquently and movingly of the current situation in Zimbabwe; the Revd Paul Bogle, then senior student, who recalled his summer placement in the Diocese of Swaziland; Canon Pete Wilcox of Lichfield Cathedral, who preached at Candlemas; and his wife, the writer Catherine Fox, who spoke about the author as theologian. Other visitors to the institute during the year included Bishop Tim Thornton of Truro, Bishop John Ford of Plymouth, and Archdeacon Roger Bush of Cornwall.

I was a panellist at the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on 1 and 2 September. The conference programme included visits to the Irish Islamic Centre and mosque in Clonskeagh, and the Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure. Twice I brought groups of MTh and NSM students to the mosque in Clonskeagh this year, and the conference has strengthened the place interfaith dialogue as an important part of the agenda of the Church of Ireland and as an integral part of the life of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

In ministry, I continue to be involved on a week-by-week basis in the liturgy and ministry of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. It is a privilege to sit in the chapter stalls week-after-week, listening to such a talented and gifted choir. I continue to serve too on the cathedral board, on the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, on Standing Committee, on the boards or councils of USPG (Anglicans in World Mission) in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and in Britain, and as secretary of the Church of Ireland’s Interfaith Working Group.

Without parochial responsibilities, I am often called on to serve in other churches. It has been a particular pleasure this year to celebrate the Eucharist and to preach in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Holmpatrick Church, Skerries, Kenure Church, Rush, Co Dublin, Holy Trinity, Rathmines, Saint John’s, Sandymount, Saint Bartholomew’s, Ballsbridge, and Saint Columba’s, Swords. I was also asked to take part in a memorial service in the Unitarian Church in Dublin, honouring deceased members of the staff of The Irish Times.

I chose ‘Mission: the common ground for ecumenism’ as my theme for the annual ecumenical lecture in Saint Patrick’s College, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, which I delivered in February, and spoke to Rotary Club of Dublin Fingal about the history of the Church of Ireland north Co Dublin..

2010 ... through the prism of Facebook

Publishing and broadcasting

In her new book this year, The Things I’ve seen: nine lives of a foreign correspondent (Dublin: Liberties Press), Lara Marlowe, the Washington correspondent of The Irish Times, says she has had “five fine foreign editors at The Irish Times,” who, she says, “have been the umbilical cord that tied me to the paper, providing moral support guidance and a degree of freedom that few publications grant their journalists.”

And she then recalls: “In January 1988, Patrick Comerford commissioned ‘Going West in Beirut’, the first article I published in The Irish Times.” This essay, dated 9 January 1988, is reprinted in her book.

My own publications this year included a photograph and short essay on the ‘Memorial plaque to … Henry Wallop …’, (eds), Enniscorthy, A History, edited by Colm Tóibín and Celestine Rafferty nad launched in Enniscorthy at the end of November; a Chinese translation of ‘Heroism and Zeal: Pioneers of the Irish Christian Missions to China,’ which I co-authored with Dr Richard O’Leary of QUB, and which has been published as Chapter 7 in the Mandarin translation of Chapter 7 in Jerusha McCormack (ed), China and the Irish, edited by Jerusha McCormack, and published this year in Beijing by the People’s Publishing House; and ‘Bishop Joseph Stock (ca 1740-1813) and the Clergy of the Diocese of Killala and Achonry during the 1798 Rising’ in Victory or Glorious Defeat?: Biographies of Participants in the Great Rebellion of 1798, edited by Sheila Mulloy and launched in Castlebar in June.

And there were photographs from Saint Edan’s Cathedral in Ferns, Co Wexford, published in a Dutch academic journal on mediaeval history, a photograph of Sir Richard Church’s grave in Athens, published on Wikipedia, and architectural photographs of houses and buildings in Lichfield, Tamworth, Comberford, Calne and Quemerford published on the British Listed Buildings collection.

I continue to write my monthly columns in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory), features and analysis for the Church of Ireland Gazette, the occasional commentary for The Irish Times, and wrote a book review for the Irish Catholic.

In August, I took part in the popular BBC television genealogy programme, Who Do You Think You Are?, introducing the actress Dervla Kirwan to the story of her great-grandfather Henry Kahn. On Saint Patrick’s Day, I led Choral Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 17 March and repeated on Sunday 21 March. I have also been a panellist once again on Talking History on Newstalk 106, when I discussed the Reformation in January and Thomas More in June.

Beach walks and travel

Walks on the beach have been good for my sense of well-being (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Walks on the beach: at Lissadell, in Co Sligo; Kilmore, Kilmuckridge, Morriscastle and Courtown in Co Wexford, Kilcoole, Greystones and Bray in Co Wicklow, Dalkey and Sandymount on the south side of Dublin, Bull Island, Portmarnock, Malahide, Donabate, Portrane, Rush, Loughshinny, Skerries and Balbriggan in north Dublin, and Laytown, Bettystown and Mornington, Co Meath.

Outside Ireland, there were beach walks too in Crete, Samos and Turkey, but I never got to walk on the beach in Florida during a week’s holiday there.

My foreign travel this year began with a week’s holiday in Orlando at the beginning of the year. The welcome in Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral was warm and embracing, and the Sunday Eucharist there was a model of what cathedral liturgy should be like.

A week in Crete included strolls on the beach too (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I was delighted to get back to Greece twice this year: in July, I was back in Crete after an absence of almost ten years. I spent a week on the island, where my younger son was working in the village of Piskopiano, outside Hersonnisos. During that week, I travelled to Aghios Nikolaos, spent a day on Spinalonga, had a day in Iraklion, and had a rewarding return visit to Rethymnon, where I spent many fulfilling summer and autumn weeks, often for weeks on end, in the 1980s and 1990s.

I was back in Greece the following month, when I visited Sámos in August, visiting both Vathý and Pythagóreio, and climbing down into the Efpalínio Tunnel, a marvel of ancient engineering that dates from the 6th century BC, when Sámos was ruled by Polycrates. During his reign, two groups working under the engineer Efpalinos dug a tunnel through Mount Kastro to supply fresh water to the island’s ancient capital.

In August, I also spent a week in Turkey, staying in the Palmin Sunset Plaza in Kuşadasi and also visiting Ephesus and Seljuk. It was Ramadan at the time, and it was a tough time for the waiters and bar staff in hotels and restaurants in Turkey. But the improved state of Turkey’s relations with neighbouring Greece only goes a small way towards explaining a new openness to Muslim-Christian dialogue in Turkey, and I went home with a surprising and generous gift of a copy of an icon of Christ Pantocrator from a young student working in the resort as a waiter.

The Cathedral Close, Lichfield ... I had two return visits to Lichfield during the year (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2010)

In England, I stayed twice in Lichfield: in March, when I was privileged to take part in a candlelight tour of Lichfield Cathedral, and again in June. I am sorry to see the Revd Canon Roger Williams is retiring as Master of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, on 13 February next. He has always made me welcome, knowing that the chapel there played an important part in the formation and development of my own adult Christian faith. Last year, he invited me to speak in the chapel of Saint John’s about Jeremy Taylor, and this year he provided valuable advice about Pugin’s churches and his contemporaries in rural Staffordshire.

I was back in England in June for the annual residential conference and council meeting of USPG in Swanwick, Derbyshire, when I gave two papers on ‘Spirituality and Mission.’ This was probably the last year for the council to meet in the Hayes Conference Centre, with all future council meetings taking place in High Leigh, outside Hoddesdon. Derbyshire in a beautiful part of England, and I shall miss Swanwick, where I first attended a conference almost 35 years ago in 1976. But then, I suppose, High Leigh has the advantage of being close to Cambridge.

Participants in the IOCS Summer School in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this afternoon

During the summer, I also spent a weekend at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and I was back in Cambridge in July for a week’s study at Sidney Sussex College and the annual summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge. This summer school focuses on patristics, and this year’s theme was “Passion: Human and Divine.” There were lectures by Dr Sebastian Brock, Dr Christine Mangala Frost, Professor David Frost, the Revd Professor Andrew Louth, Dr Marcus Plested and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, and the programme also included visits to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist and to the Parker Library in Corpus Christi College.

Pursuing Pugin

Saint Mary’s Church, Tagoat, is the last of Pugin’s churches in Co Wexford and many regard it as his most important parish church in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

During those visits to England, I visited a number of churches designed by or associated with AWN Pugin, the architect who was more responsible than any other for the Gothic revival in the 19th century. These churches include Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, Pugin’s churches in Cheadle, Solihull and Uttoxeter, the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was involved in the restoration and redecoration in the mid-19th century, Ely Cathedral, where the Lantern inspired his work on the chapel at the Loreto Convent in Rathfarnham, and the Cambridgeshire village, Longstanton, where Saint Michael’s is one of the few surviving thatched churches in England and influenced Pugin’s church designs for his church in Barntown.

I continued to pursuit of Pugin in Ireland too, visiting and photographing Saint Mary’s Church, Killarney, Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Saint Michael’s, Gorey, the chapel at Saint Peter’s College, Wexford, his churches in Bree, Barntown and Tagoat, in Co Wexford, his convents in Killarney and Birr, Co Offaly, and Adare, Co Limerick, where he worked on the restoration of the local parish church and on the remodelling of Adare Manor.

My travels around Ireland also brought me to Kilkenny for the installation of the new Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, the Very Revd Katharine Poulton, and to Old Leighlin, Co Carlow, for the installation of the new Dean of Saint Laserian’s Cathedral, the Very Revd Tom Gordon, a former colleague on the staff of the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Kataharine invited me back to preach at her first cathedral harvest service in Saint Canice’s. Kilkenny remains my favourite city in Ireland, and at times I think you might have to peel me out of it.

I paid a return visit to my old school in Gormanston, toured the Blessington Lakes in Co Wicklow and the Lakes of Killarney in Co Kerry, was in Castlebar for a book launch, and accidentally found myself with a delightful albeit unplanned morning in Dundalk, Co Louth. There were visits too to Bunclody and Templeshanbo, important places on the Comerford ancestral trail in Co Wexford.

Courage in life and death

A return visit to Millstreet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

After many years of absence, I also briefly visited Millstreet, my mother’s home village in north Co Cork. This is a charming village, and I regret that I never got to know it properly. I’m very aware of my family history on the Comerford and Lynders sides of the family, but know little about the stories of the Murphy and Crowley families in Millstreet.

There have been family baptisms, weddings and funerals, including the baptism of a cousin’s child in Donabate, continuing into another generation a long family association with that parish, and the death of my foster mother, Peggy Kerr.

This year saw the deaths of some clerical colleagues in the Church of Ireland, including the the Revd Professor Eric Woodhouse, former Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin, the Revd Wilbert Gourley, Rector of Zion Parish, Rathgar, Father John McKay, former Vicar of Saint Bartholomew’s, Ballsbridge, Archdeacon Donald Keegan, former Archdeacon of Killaloe and Rector of Birr, Co Offaly, the Revd Alan Matchett, Rector of Adare, Co Limerick, the Revd Douglas Slator, who in retirement gave faithful service to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the Revd Cecil Kerr, who had been instrumental in the charismatic and renewal movements, as well as the death of the Revd Declan Deane, a Jesuit who had been one of my tutors at the Irish School of Ecumenics in the 1980s.

I only ever briefly met knew the Very Revd Colin Slee, but I was familiar with and appreciated his work as the Dean of Southwark Cathedral. He died a month before Christmas, on 25 November, and he is a great loss not just to the Church of England but to wider Anglicanism too.

He was courageous, outspoken and combative in his defence of the marginalised, the oppressed and the forgotten, but always an orthodox priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Although he was far from being pompous or solemn, he insisted on his cathedral clergy following the proper form in prayer and dress, and was critical of those clergy who spurn vestments, descend into praying vacuously, but try to claim that they and only they are truly orthodox.

He once said in typically robust and caustic style: “I insist the cathedral clergy wear black shirts because it is a statement of history and origin, a uniform deeply rooted in tradition and monastic antecedents ... [not] the floral extravaganzas more symptomatic of a photo-collage of the Chelsea Flower Show than the hard work of saving souls ... All that makes me ‘liberal,’ a moderniser. Then there are those who ... don’t wear clerical dress, so you don’t know who they are or what they represent ... all that makes them ‘conservative’.”

Snow, snow and sarcoidosis

Sunset at Skerries Harbour on an autumn evening this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The year ended with heavy snowfalls and water being cut off to most households throughout Ireland – we have a Minister for Transport who is quick to make media appearances when he feels compelled to defend his pension, but is retiring indeed when it comes to discussing how this country has been brought to a standstill. We have had the greatest precipitation imaginable in the past few weeks, yet somehow this is said to explain why domestic water has been cut in some places for 18 hours in every 24 ... although the Environment Minister was not to be heard explaining anything until late yesterday.

But our water problems in Ireland pale into insignificance as I read the words of Bishop Michael Burrows in the annual report of the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal Fund. He points out that one in eight of the world's population, 900 million people, do not have safe, clean, drinking water. As a consequence, a child dies every 20 seconds, and every day many African women and children must spend up to four hours every day carrying water that may already be unsafe.

On occasions, the December snows have meant having to sleep overnight at work, or being housebound for a day or two. The last time I was trapped by snow was in Cambridge almost two years ago, after the Revd Christopher Woods had invited me to preach at Candlemas in Christ’s College. I hope I am not trapped by snow again in Cambridge when I return to preach in the chapel in Sidney Sussex in a few weeks’ time.

Snow in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Meanwhile, my personal health remains stable .and unchanged. I continue to have regular hospital visits for tests and consultations, and to see my consultant and GP on a regular basis about my Sarcoidosis and my Vitamin B12 deficiency. Being stable means nothing has changed; I still have a persistent cough, pains in my joints and uncomfortable swelling in my neck, and a constant sensation of “pins-and-needles” under my feet.

This has prevented me from attending as many ordinations I would have liked to be at this year. But my faith, the constant love and support I receive from family, friends and colleagues, and my regular beach walks keep my spirits up.

And so, all in all, it has been a good year. This year marked the tenth anniversary of my ordination as deacon. I hope to be in good spirits – perhaps even better spirits – next year as I celebrate the tenth anniversary of my ordination as priest.

A toast to 2010 as the year comes to a close (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Seven swans-a-swimming on the Seventh Day of Christmas

On the Seventh Day of Christmas ... seven swans-a-swimming on the Grand Canal at Harold’s Cross earlier this week on Saint Stephen’s Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Seventh Day of Christmas, 31 December, and I realise that the end of the year falls in the middle of Christmastide, even though it has no particular connection with the Feast. How wonderful that in the Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today, the opening verses of Saint John’s Gospel remind us of true beginnings and true endings.

In mediaeval and early modern Europe, the New Year began on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation – hearing the beginning of the salvation story at the beginning of the year also seems very appropriate.

On 31 December, the calendar of the Episcopal Church (TEC) recalls Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1891), Bishop in the Niger Territories and the first black African bishop in the Anglican Communion – another new beginning to celebrate.

In the Orthodox tradition, the Afterfeast of the Nativity – similar to the Western Octave – continues until 31 December, which is known as the ἀπόδοσις (Apodosis) or “leave-taking” of the Nativity.

The Swan ... once claimed to be the oldest pub in Lichfield, but has since been turned into a restaurant and apartments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The seventh verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
seven swans-a-swimming,
six geese-a-laying,
five golden rings,
four Colly birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.


The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the seven swans-a-swimming as figurative representations of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.

The Church of Ireland Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: I John 2: 18-21; Psalm 96: 1-2, 11-13; John 1: 1-18.

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

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Six geese-a-laying on the Sixth Day of Christmas

On the Sixth Day of Christmas ... six geese-a-laying ; geese on the banks of the Cam behind King's College, Cambridge (Photograph: Tenaya Hurst)

Patrick Comerford

The Sixth Day of Christmas, 30 December, is a quiet day in the Church calendar, without commemorations, although the Episcopal Church (TEC) recalls Frances Joseph-Gaudet (1934), the Educator and Prison Reformer, on this day.

I was late sending out Christmas cards this year. If mine arrives today I hope you are reminded that Christmas continues for twelve days; if it does not arrive, please forgive me. For many people, the next two days may be quite busy with lots of guests, and preparations for ringing in the New Year. Perhaps today is a good day to begin preparing for the New Year, to begin making resolutions that have a truly spiritual and Christian intent.

The sixth verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...

Six geese-a-laying,
five golden rings,
four colly birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.


The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the six geese a-laying as figurative representations of the six days of Creation (see Genesis 1).

The Church of Ireland Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: I John 2: 12-17; Psalm 96: 7-10; Luke 2: 36-40.

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

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Sea views and a late lunch in Bray

The Beach House restaurant in Bray offers stunning sea views

Patrick Comerford

I visited my GP this morning for my regular B12 injection, to hear the results of recent hospital tests, and for my latest discussion about my Sarcoidosis. It looks like I need more tests for my cholesterol levels and my liver. And by the time we had got through all that the full morning was over ... indeed, it was early afternoon by the time I got out.

Thank goodness it was not a normal working day. I hardly realised it was going to take that long. Otherwise I might have taken my laptop and camera and tried to do some work in the waiting room.

Now that it was coming up to 3 p.m., what could I do?

I picked up The Irish Times and the Guardian and two of us headed across to Bray, thinking I might have a late lunch in Palazzo on Strand Road and a walk on the beach.

Palazzo, one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Ireland, is run by the Divito and Borza families. These two Italian families originate in the province of Frosinone, in the Valle di Comino, near Monte Cassino, and they have been in the restaurant business in Ireland since the 1940s.

However, Palazzo was closed when I got to Bray. Disappointed, I headed across the street to the Beach House restaurant, behind Sea Life and facing directly out onto the seafront in Bray. My disappointment was quickly dissipated.

When this was the Barracuda it was a steak and seafood restaurant that never appealed to me as a vegetarian. So this was my first time in the Beach House, and I was taken aback by the location. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer stunning views of Bray Head and the Irish Sea. The dining areas are divided into three levels to take maximum advantage of the sea views.

Looking out on the sea, dusk was falling quickly, but there were pink streaks in the eastern sky, reflecting the sunset, and there was a twinkle in the waters bating gently against the pebble shore. So many families were out a strolling, it was as though we are all rejoicing that the Arctic weather has passed and the snows have melted.

The whole restaurant exudes modern Mediterranean elegance in its design – and there are private dining areas designed to look like private summer beach huts.

Despite the elegance, the menu offers simple, locally sourced, bistro style food at reasonable prices. I was only there for a light lunch and a double espresso, but I’m tempted to return.

Opening hours for the next few days are: today (29 December), 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; tomorrow (Thursday, 30 December), 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; New Year’s Eve (Friday), New Year’s Day (Saturday), and Sunday 2 January: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The Beach House is easily accessible with ample car parking and is only three minutes’ walk from the Bray Dart station.

After lunch, I headed for a walk along the Promenade, as far as Bray Head and back again. It was too dark to go down onto the beach, but this was the next best thing to a beach walk that I have had for the past few days, and like all beach walks it lifted my spirits, and made me feel good no matter how much my Sarcoidosis may make me feel uncomfortable.

Some homeless people, taking advantage of the dry evening air, had hung their blankets and sleeping bags out to dry.

I can complain about the water supplies being cut off throughout Ireland due to poor management on the part of local and national government. But I can barely imagine how rough the past few weeks have been for these homeless people. I suppose I really have very little to complain about, and a lot to be thankful for.

Five golden rings on the Fifth Day of Christmas

On the Fifth Day of Christmas: five golden rings

Patrick Comerford

The Fifth Day of Christmas, 29 December, is the Feast of Saint Thomas Becket in many parts of the Anglican Communion. In 1170, on the Fifth Day of Christmas, four knights from the court of King Henry II burst into Canterbury Cathedral as the archbishop was on his way to Vespers. Inside the cloister door, they murdered Thomas Becket, whose defence of the rights of the Church had angered his one-time friend, the king. Within three years, Thomas was canonised, and the shrine of Saint Thomas of Canterbury would become one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims.

In his play, Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot reconstructs from historical sources the archbishop’s final sermon, preached in Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas Day. It is a remarkable meditation on the meaning of Christmas, martyrdom, and the true meaning of “peace on earth.”

In the Orthodox tradition, this day is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which was observed yesterday in the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions.

The fifth verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
five golden rings,
four colly birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.


The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the five golden rings as figurative representations of the Torah or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The Church of Ireland Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: I John 2: 7-11; Psalm 96: 1-9; Luke 2: 23-35.

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

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Four colly birds on the Fourth Day of Christmas

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Domenico Ghirlandaio: the fresco is part of a series of panels in the Cappella Tornabuoni in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, dating from 1486-1490

Patrick Comerford

The Fourth Day of Christmas, 28 December, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the Book of Common Prayer, and is known in some places as “Childermass.” The story of the Holy Innocents is one of the most poignant stories in the Bible: “Rachel weeping for her children ... because they are no more.”

I had lost my innocence by late teens: by 19, I was trying to break out as freelance journalist in England with the Lichfield Mercury, wondering whether I should give up the “day job” as a trainee chartered surveyor; by the age of 20 I had my own flat in Wexford, where I was working as a staff journalist with the Wexford People. I remember one Christmas in Wexford in those days of the 1970s how Maurice Sinnott suggested that this day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, would be a good day for the Churches to recall the victims of war, particularly the children who had been killed by the Hiroshima bomb.

Holy Innocents’ Day is the traditional day for the installation of a Boy Bishop in some English cathedrals. This is a day when children could have pre-eminence in family life, leading the family prayers, making decisions about family activities for the day, having the place of honour at meals, and so on.

Oscar Schindler famously said: “Whoever saves the life of one saves the entire world.” He was referring to a well-known teaching in the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4: 8, 37a). It is a teaching that has inspired the inscription on medals awarded to the Righteous Gentiles, those brave people who risked their own lives to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust: “Whoever saves a single soul, it is as if he had saved the whole world.”

The obvious deduction from that, of course, is: Whoever destroys the innocence of one child, it is as if he has destroyed the innocence of all children, as if he has destroyed the childhood of everyone. It is for this reason that Jesus reserves his most severe and most frightening warning and rebuke for those sort of people (see Mark 9: 42; Luke 17: 2).

This is an appropriate day to remember those children whose innocence has been destroyed by people working in the Church.

But this is a good day too to give thanks for the children in our lives, whether in our own families or in the larger family of the Church. And it is a good day to revive the ancient custom of parents blessing their children at the end of the day as part of their nightly prayers.

On the Fourth Day of Christmas ... four colly birds

The fourth verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
four colly birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.


Colly birds were blackbirds, but the Christian interpretation of this song often describes them as “calling birds” so that they come to represent the Four Evangelists or the Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: Jeremiah 31: 15-17; Psalm 124; I Corinthians 1: 26-29; Matthew 2: 13-18.

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

Monday, 27 December 2010

Three French hens on the Third Day of Christmas

On the Third Day of Christmas ... three French hens

Patrick Comerford

The Third Day of Christmas, 27 December, is marked in some parts of the Roman Catholic tradition as the Feast of the Holy Family, but it is the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist in the Book of Common Prayer throughout the Anglican Communion. This is the second of three Prayer Book Holy Days immediately following Christmas Day.

Traditionally, in the Western church, the third and final Masses of Christmas, the “Mass of the Day,” has as its Gospel the beginning of Saint John’s Gospel, which proclaims the mystery of the Word made flesh. Throughout the 12 Days of Christmas this year, the readings for the Eucharist in the daily lectionary of the Church of Ireland take us gently through the First Letter of Saint John, and time and again call us back to reading the Gospel according to Saint John.

“Little children, love one another” ... Saint John on his death-bed, from the Saint John window in Chartres Cathedral.

Jerome, in his commentary on Galatians 6 (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that John the Evangelist continued preaching even when he was in his 90s and was so enfeebled with old age that they had to carry him into the Church on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to preach or to deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, week-by-week, even when the ageing John was on his deathbed. Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.

Every week the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?”

And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.” If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one: “Little children, love one another.”

As far as John is concerned, if you have put your trust in Christ, then there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in this letter, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

According to ancient tradition, Saint John was once given a cup of poisoned wine, but drank it with no ill effect. A chalice with a serpent signifying the powerless poison is one of his symbols. In spite of exile and attempts to kill him, Saint John lived to a great old age. The image of Saint John with the poisoned chalice is still seen above the main gate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (right, photograph: Patrick Comerford).

There is a custom in some places of blessing wine on this day, Saint John’s Day, and drinking a toast to the love of God and to the saint. Today is a good day to spend some time reading and meditating on the opening words of his Gospel, John 1: 1-14, or to begin reading the Letters of Saint John..

In the Orthodox tradition, this third day of Christmas is known also the feast day of the Protodeacon and Protomartyr Saint Stephen.

The third verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, begins to show some metrical variance:

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
three French hens,
two turtle doves,
and a partridge in a pear tree.


The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the three French hens as figurative representations of the three theological virtues – faith, hope and love (see I Corinthians 13: 13). Others say they represent the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or the three gifts of the Wise Men, gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: Exodus 33: 7-11a; Psalm 117; I John 1; John 21: 19b-25.

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

Sunday, 26 December 2010

I’m not dreaming of a White Christmas, ever again

Snow at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

I’m not dreaming of a White Christmas – no, not ever, never.

South Dublin has been covered in snow for most of December, and I have never, ever, lived in a place so cold, so shiverringly cold.

When people bemoan about how inappropriate it must be to sing winter carols in places such as Australia, South Africa and Argentina, they can forget it. I’m not listening.

I don’t mean to be the Christmas Grinch this year. But this is the coldest winter in my memory. No-one can imagine how much I am now looking forward to some Mediterranean sunshine in 2011.

Temperatures rose to 5C at some points today – that’s a rise of 15 to 17 degrees or more above the coldest parts of the last few weeks.

Yes, the thaw is showing its first signs today. But even daytime has been a nightmare over the last few weeks, hoping not to slip, slide, fall, or break a limb; digging out a parking space in front of the house, only to find someone else slides into it; trying to book a taxi only to be told no taxis are available – despite the constant complaint by taxi drivers that there are too many taxis on the streets of Dublin these days.

But I had deep sympathy for the taxi driver who brought me home from Christ Church Cathedral after the Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve: as we inched slowly up along Firhouse Road, his window was banged repeatedly by young louts who shouted out racist comments, so much for peace on earth, goodwill to all ...

That Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve was the last one for Archbishop John Neill as Archbishop of Dublin. How sorely he is going to be missed when he retires at the end of next month.

On Christmas Day, returning home from Christmas dinner in my sister-in-law’s house in Clontarf was another precarious adventure, and one I would like not to repeat.

Snow in Glenvara Park, Knocklyon, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

It was obvious as I headed out of Glenvara Park this morning [26 September] that the thaw had started, even though the whole area was still covered in a white blanket of snow.

Compared with the large congregations in the weeks before Christmas, we were a faithful few this morning, less than two dozen. The congregation fitted comfortable into the chapter and choir stalls, and in his sermon former Precentor and Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College, the Revd Dr Adrian Empey, recalled Saint Stephen and how important it is to remember the martyrs at Christmas-tide.

Of course, the incarnation is God’s witness to us in Christ; the martyrs are our witness to God in Christ. Christmas is about God coming among us; the martyrs remind us of our need to be with God.

Swans on the Grand Canal at Harold’s Cross early this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

On the way home, a large collection of swans had gathered on the Grand Canal underneath and beside the bridge at Harold’s Cross. Seven swans-a-swimming? There must have been seventy swans-a-swimming at lunchtime today. Some were even standing on the canal’s frozen water, all were only too eager to be fed bread by thoughtful passers-by.

I’ve been frozen this winter in Dublin. But I’ve been fed spiritually this Christmas. And I’m looking forward to the New Year – but with a little less cold and snow, please.

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

Two turtle doves on the Second Day of Christmas

On the Second Day of Christmas ... two turtle doves


Patrick Comerford

Today is 26 December, Saint Stephen’s Day and the Second Day of Christmas. In many places, this day is also known as Boxing Day, for on this day Christmas boxes to service workers, such as postal workers and trades people. It is a holiday in several countries, and whatever the explanation for the name “Boxing Day,” it is a reminder that this is a day to be generous to those who are less fortunate than we are. The day after Christmas Day is a particularly good day to put the spirit of giving into practice.

Giving is so appropriate, for this day celebrates the first person to give his life for Christ, Saint Stephen, who was also one of the first deacons ordained to serve the poor.

Some years ago, (Bishop) Michael Burrows argued persuasively in the General Synod of the Church of Ireland that when 26 December falls on a Sunday our priority should be to observe this day as Saint Stephen’s Day rather than as the First Sunday of Christmas, for there is a close link between witnessing to the Incarnate Christ and the suffering of the Martyrs.

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

Another saint closely associated with this day is Saint Wenceslas of Bohemia whose charity to the poor on Saint Stephen’s Day is remembered in John Mason Neale’s well-loved carol.

In the Orthodox tradition, the second day of Christmas is known as the “Synaxis of the Theotokos,” and commemorates the role of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation. In other years in the Orthodox tradition, the Sunday after the Nativity has its own liturgical commemoration in honour of “The Righteous Ones”: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, and James the Brother of the Lord.

The second verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
two turtle doves,
and a partridge in a pear tree.


The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the two turtle doves as figurative representations of the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The Lectionary provides two sets of readings for the Eucharist today:

The First Sunday of Christmas: Isaiah 63: 7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews2: 10-18; Matthew 2: 13-23.

Saint Stephen: II Chronicles 24: 20-22; Psalm 119: 161-168; Acts 7: 51-60; Matthew 10: 17-22.

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

Saturday, 25 December 2010

A partridge in a pear tree on the first day of Christmas

Love came down at Christmas … an icon of the Nativity of Christ

Patrick Comerford

Despite the heavy snow that has blanketed much of northern Europe, there has been a shopping frenzy almost everywhere for the past two weeks. And for the past two weeks we have been constantly told when Christmas begins … when you send the Christmas cards … when you start shopping in one or other shopping centre … when you buy a particular brand of clothes or food … when Santa arrives in his grotty grotto … or when the sales start in the high street shops.

Most of us have been singing Christmas carols rather than Advent carols for the past few weeks – even in our churches.

I imagine with all this misappropriation of the meaning of times and seasons, if I were to ask most people which are the 12 days of Christmas they would probably answer 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25 December.

But today, 25 December, is the First Day of Christmas, not the Twelfth Day of Christmas. This is Christmas Day. The festival and the festivities begin today. Christmastide has arrived.

In mediaeval England, the 12 Days of Christmas marked a period of continuous feasting and merry-making that reached its climax on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas Season. Often, a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the revels.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is 5 January, and our celebrations of Christmas traditionally end on the Twelfth Night, which is then followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. The Twelve Days of Christmas are a festive period linking together these two Great Feasts of the Nativity and Theophany, so that one celebration leads into another.

In the Orthodox tradition, the 12 Days of Christmas are observed as a fast-free period of celebration, although for those Orthodox Churches following the Julian calendar Christmas Day falls on 7 January and for the Armenian churches Christmas is celebrated on 6 January. In the Orthodox tradition, then, the Nativity of Christ is a three-day celebration, recalling not only the Birth of Christ, but also his adoration by the Shepherds of Bethlehem and the arrival of the Magi.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is a traditional Christmas song that counts out a series of increasingly generous gifts given by the singer’s “true love” on each of the 12 Days of Christmas.

The song may have French origins, but it was first published in England in 1780. It may have its beginnings in a Twelfth Night “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake. The player who erred at the end then had to pay a forfeit, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet.

The earliest well-known version of the music of the song was recorded by English scholar James O. Halliwell in 1842. However, the early 20th century arrangement by the English composer Frederic Austen has since become the standard.

If my true love followed through with the 12 Days of Christmas, I would end up with 224 birds in all: 12 partridges, 22 turtle doves, 30 French hens, 36 colly (or calling) birds, 40 gold rings (pheasants), 42 geese and 42 swans.

Since 1984, the cumulative costs of the items mentioned in the song have been used as a tongue-in-cheek economic indicator, a custom began with and is maintained by PNC Bank. Two pricing charts are drawn up, referred to as the Christmas Price Index and The True Cost of Christmas. The former is an index of the current costs of one set of each of the gifts given sent by the True Love to the singer of the song; the latter is the cumulative cost of all the gifts with the repetitions listed in the song. Of course, the people mentioned in the song are hired, not bought. The original cost of all goods and services at Christmas 1984 was $12,623.10. The total costs of all goods and services according to the Christmas Price Index this year (2010) is $23,439.

One explanation of the song suggests that the gift on each day represents the food or sport for each month of the year and the lines that survive today are merely an irreligious travesty.

However, another explanation suggests that the lyrics were written as a catechism song to help young people learn their faith, at a time when celebrations of Christmas were discouraged, frowned on, or prohibited, during the Cromwellian era (1649-1660), or when Roman Catholics suffered under penal laws.

But this attempt to antedate a relatively modern song is without foundation, but all the truths affirmed in this interpretation are common to Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and are shared too by the traditions that developed out of the Cromwellian era, including the Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists.

Snow on snow … Lichfield Cathedral seen from the gardens of Darwin House this week by Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield

The first verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ...
a partridge in a pear tree.


Christian interpretations of this song often see the partridge in a pear tree as a figurative representation of Christ on the Cross, so that God, in his infinite love, sent on Christmas Day the gift of Christ the Saviour. As the poet Christina Rossetti wrote, “Love came down at Christmas” (Church Hymnal, Church of Ireland, 2000, # 170):

Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas:
star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
love incarnate, love divine;
worship we our Jesus:
but wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token;
love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
love for plea and gift and sign.


A mother partridge feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13: 34).

Three sets of lectionary readings are provided for the Eucharist today:

Set 1, Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14 (15-20).

Set 2, Isaiah 62: 6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3: 4-7; Luke 2: (1-7), 8-20.

Set 3, Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1: 1-4 (5-12); John 1: 1-14 (15-18).

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

Friday, 24 December 2010

The story of Christmas

The Nativity depicted in a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

This morning’s edition of The Irish Times carries the following main editorial comment:

The story of Christmas

THE MAIN Christian Churches share a common lectionary, and so share the same Scripture readings in church, week by week. Since the end of November, Christians around the world have been preparing for Christmas throughout Advent with readings from the first Gospel, according to Saint Matthew.

Saint Matthew’s account of the first Christmas is unique. There is no Christmas story in the Gospels according to Saint Mark and Saint John. And, unlike Saint Luke, whose Nativity account is being read in churches tomorrow, Saint Matthew has no Annunciation, no Visitation, no census that forces Joseph and Mary to move from Nazareth, and no shepherds on wintry hills who hear the angels singing. Saint Matthew has the story of the Magi, wise men who visit from the East, but his narrative lacks the romance found in Saint Luke’s account. Matthew’s story-telling is both brutal and direct: he tells of Herod’s slaughter of innocent children and of the forced exile of a young couple and their infant who seek refuge in Egypt.

Matthew makes a silent hero of Joseph. Like his Old Testament counterpart, the Joseph of Saint Matthew’s Gospel is a dreamer who goes into exile in Egypt. At first reading, he appears to have only a walk-on part – not the sort of role children vie for in school nativity plays. Joseph has no words to say; he remains silent throughout the first Gospel. But Joseph is no idle dreamer: he is both a dreamer and a doer. He dreams, he hears, he reflects ... and he acts. He is a man of vision and a man of action.

In a world that is sometimes brutal and harsh, it is appropriate to remember this Christmas that the cold and the snow isolate the elderly and the vulnerable; that the present economic crisis poses its greatest threats to young mothers and children living in poverty; that this country is in danger of becoming a place that is cold and unwelcoming to those forced into exile or seeking refuge.

Christina Rossetti’s well-loved carol In the Bleak Midwinter is appropriate in this bleak, snow-blanketed island this Christmas:

In the bleak mid-winter
frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak mid-winter
long ago.


Her carol reminds us that Christmas is less about what we can buy and hope to be given, and more about love incarnate:

What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give him,
give my heart.


The Joseph of Saint Matthew’s Gospel acts not out of self-interest but in the interests of his wife and her child. His dreams and his actions save the day. In this snow-covered land, even if winter is made more bleak by our economic crisis, we should celebrate that we continue to have dreamers who dream and whose visions may lead to action and take us out of our plight. It is they who keep alive the promise and the hope of a bright future for all, particularly for the young, the unemployed, the elderly, the vulnerable and the marginalised.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

23 December: O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God ... candles light up the chapter and choir stalls in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

The “O Antiphons” are Magnificat antiphons traditionally sung at Evensong or Vespers during the seven days of Advent preceding Christmas Eve, from 17 to 23 December.

Advent is primarily a season of preparation, not of penitence, it is a time of reflection and hope, anticipation and joyful expectation. The canticle Gloria in Excelsis is not said or sung at the Sunday Eucharist in Advent, not because of any penitential expectations for this season but, because it echoes the message of the angels to the shepherds it is held back until Christmas.

Each of the Great “O Antiphons”, beginning with a long, drawn-out “O,” refers to Christ by one of his attributes found in Scripture, calls on him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a rich tapestry of scriptural titles and images that describe his saving work, and ends with a short prayer based on the salutation of the day.

They are:

17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom);
18 December: O Adonai (O Lord);
19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse);
20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David);
21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring);
22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations);
23 December: O Emmanuel (O God is with us)

In the Church of England, these “O Antiphons” have traditionally been used as antiphons before and after the canticle Magnificat at Evensong during this period.

Although they are not printed in the Book of Common Prayer, they have long been part of secondary Anglican sources, including hymns. They have a place in contemporary liturgical documents throughout the Anglican Communion, including Common Worship (the Church of England).

The popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Veni Emmanuel, see Irish Church Hymnal, No 135) is a lyrical paraphrase of these antiphons.

The first letters of the titles taken in reverse order form a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras,” which translates as “Tomorrow, I will come,” reflecting the theme of the antiphons.

The origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known, they have been part of Western liturgical tradition since the very early Church. They have been known in an early form since the sixth century, by the eighth century they were in use in liturgical celebrations in Rome, and were found in many breviaries between the eighth and 16th centuries.

The memory of the ‘O Antiphons’ was retained after the Reformation in the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, which listed O Sapientia on 16 December as a black letter holy day from 1604.

The “O Antiphons” were first translated from Latin into English by John Henry Newman.

In medieval Benedictine monasteries, the monks arranged the “O Antiphons” with a definite purpose. If we start with the last title and takes the initial letter of each – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – they form the Latin words ero cras, meaning: “Tomorrow, I will come.”

As only one “O Antiphon” was sung each day, the full text of the acrostic was not revealed until the last day (23 December), when it would be interpreted as Christ’s answer to the prayer at the end of each antiphon.

Although the antiphons and their respective dates shown are recognised throughout most of Western Christianity, an alternative medieval practice arose in England, in the Sarum rite of Salisbury Cathedral, moving all of the antiphons forward by one day, so that they began on 16 December. An additional eighth antiphon, O Virgo virginum (O Virgin of Virgins), was then added on 23 December, so that the acrostic became Vero cras, “truly, tomorrow”:

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.


O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

This version of the “O Antiphons” was used in the Church of England until modern times, and is the version found in traditional Church of England liturgical sources, including the English Hymnal and the New English Hymnal.

More recently, however, the Church of England has stepped back from this medieval practice and returned to the more universal norm. The calendar in Common Worship now provides for the seven-fold version of the “O Antiphons,” and not the eight-fold version.

An updated, inclusive-language version of Newman’s translation of the “O Antiphons” is published in the Franciscan Office Book, Celebrating Common Prayer (p. 347).

Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ, and the “O Antiphons” bring intensity to our Advent preparation, and bring it to a joyful conclusion.

The “O Antiphons” come at the end of Advent to tie together the prophetic hopes of a people who have waited not for just three or four weeks for the coming of the Lord, but for whole centuries.

The “O Antiphons” tell us to be patient just a little while longer, and they describe the wonders in store with the coming of Christ.

Each of the “O Antiphons” has a two-fold purpose. First, each one is a title for the coming messiah. Secondly, each one refers to a prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah.

23 December, O Emmanuel (O God is with us):

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


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

c.f. Isaiah 7: 14.

Isaiah prophesied:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (Isaiah 7: 14).

Emmanuel means “God is with us.”

Times and Seasons suggests the following readings may be used at Evening Prayer on this evening: Psalm 80; Isaiah 7: 10-15; Matthew 1: 18-23.

Additional reading and resources:

Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).

Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008, Alcuin Liturgy Guides # 5).

William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent Antiphons (Dublin: Columba Press/APCK, 1993).

Times and Seasons (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

22 December: O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium ... Christ in Majesty depicted in John Piper’s window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield

Patrick Comerford

The “O Antiphons” are Magnificat antiphons traditionally sung at Evensong or Vespers during the seven days of Advent preceding Christmas Eve, from 17 to 23 December.

Advent is primarily a season of preparation, not of penitence, it is a time of reflection and hope, anticipation and joyful expectation. The canticle Gloria in Excelsis is not said or sung at the Sunday Eucharist in Advent, not because of any penitential expectations for this season but, because it echoes the message of the angels to the shepherds it is held back until Christmas.

Each of the Great “O Antiphons”, beginning with a long, drawn-out “O,” refers to Christ by one of his attributes found in Scripture, calls on him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a rich tapestry of scriptural titles and images that describe his saving work, and ends with a short prayer based on the salutation of the day.

They are:

17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom);
18 December: O Adonai (O Lord);
19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse);
20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David);
21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring);
22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations);
23 December: O Emmanuel (O God is with us)

In the Church of England, these “O Antiphons” have traditionally been used as antiphons before and after the canticle Magnificat at Evensong during this period.

Although they are not printed in the Book of Common Prayer, they have long been part of secondary Anglican sources, including hymns. They have a place in contemporary liturgical documents throughout the Anglican Communion, including Common Worship (the Church of England).

The popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Veni Emmanuel, see Irish Church Hymnal, No 135) is a lyrical paraphrase of these antiphons.

The first letters of the titles taken in reverse order form a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras,” which translates as “Tomorrow, I will come,” reflecting the theme of the antiphons.

The origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known, they have been part of Western liturgical tradition since the very early Church. They have been known in an early form since the sixth century, by the eighth century they were in use in liturgical celebrations in Rome, and were found in many breviaries between the eighth and 16th centuries.

The memory of the ‘O Antiphons’ was retained after the Reformation in the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, which listed O Sapientia on 16 December as a black letter holy day from 1604.

The “O Antiphons” were first translated from Latin into English by John Henry Newman.

In medieval Benedictine monasteries, the monks arranged the “O Antiphons” with a definite purpose. If we start with the last title and takes the initial letter of each – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – they form the Latin words ero cras, meaning: “Tomorrow, I will come.”

As only one “O Antiphon” was sung each day, the full text of the acrostic was not revealed until the last day (23 December), when it would be interpreted as Christ’s answer to the prayer at the end of each antiphon.

Although the antiphons and their respective dates shown are recognised throughout most of Western Christianity, an alternative medieval practice arose in England, in the Sarum rite of Salisbury Cathedral, moving all of the antiphons forward by one day, so that they began on 16 December. An additional eighth antiphon, O Virgo virginum (O Virgin of Virgins), was then added on 23 December, so that the acrostic became Vero cras, “truly, tomorrow”:

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.


O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

This version of the “O Antiphons” was used in the Church of England until modern times, and is the version found in traditional Church of England liturgical sources, including the English Hymnal and the New English Hymnal.

More recently, however, the Church of England has stepped back from this medieval practice and returned to the more universal norm. The calendar in Common Worship now provides for the seven-fold version of the “O Antiphons,” and not the eight-fold version.

An updated, inclusive-language version of Newman’s translation of the “O Antiphons” is published in the Franciscan Office Book, Celebrating Common Prayer (p. 347).

Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ, and the “O Antiphons” bring intensity to our Advent preparation, and bring it to a joyful conclusion.

The “O Antiphons” come at the end of Advent to tie together the prophetic hopes of a people who have waited not for just three or four weeks for the coming of the Lord, but for whole centuries.

The “O Antiphons” tell us to be patient just a little while longer, and they describe the wonders in store with the coming of Christ.

Each of the “O Antiphons” has a two-fold purpose. First, each one is a title for the coming messiah. Secondly, each one refers to a prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah.

22 December, O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations):

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


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

c.f. Genesis 2: 7; Isaiah 28: 16; Romans 15: 12; Ephesians 2: 14.

Isaiah prophesied:

For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9: 6).

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2: 4).

Times and Seasons suggests the following readings may be used at Evening Prayer on this evening: Psalm 118; Jeremiah 30: 7-11a; Acts 4: 1-12.

Additional reading and resources:

Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).

Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008, Alcuin Liturgy Guides # 5).

William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent Antiphons (Dublin: Columba Press/APCK, 1993).

Times and Seasons (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

21 December: O Oriens

Morning blue skies and blue waters in Donabate ... O Dayspring, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

The “O Antiphons” are Magnificat antiphons traditionally sung at Evensong or Vespers during the seven days of Advent preceding Christmas Eve, from 17 to 23 December.

Advent is primarily a season of preparation, not of penitence, it is a time of reflection and hope, anticipation and joyful expectation. The canticle Gloria in Excelsis is not said or sung at the Sunday Eucharist in Advent, not because of any penitential expectations for this season but, because it echoes the message of the angels to the shepherds it is held back until Christmas.

Each of the Great “O Antiphons”, beginning with a long, drawn-out “O,” refers to Christ by one of his attributes found in Scripture, calls on him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a rich tapestry of scriptural titles and images that describe his saving work, and ends with a short prayer based on the salutation of the day.

They are:

17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom);
18 December: O Adonai (O Lord);
19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse);
20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David);
21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring);
22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations);
23 December: O Emmanuel (O God is with us)

In the Church of England, these “O Antiphons” have traditionally been used as antiphons before and after the canticle Magnificat at Evensong during this period.

Although they are not printed in the Book of Common Prayer, they have long been part of secondary Anglican sources, including hymns. They have a place in contemporary liturgical documents throughout the Anglican Communion, including Common Worship (the Church of England).

The popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Veni Emmanuel, see Irish Church Hymnal, No 135) is a lyrical paraphrase of these antiphons.

The first letters of the titles taken in reverse order form a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras,” which translates as “Tomorrow, I will come,” reflecting the theme of the antiphons.

The origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known, they have been part of Western liturgical tradition since the very early Church. They have been known in an early form since the sixth century, by the eighth century they were in use in liturgical celebrations in Rome, and were found in many breviaries between the eighth and 16th centuries.

The memory of the ‘O Antiphons’ was retained after the Reformation in the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, which listed O Sapientia on 16 December as a black letter holy day from 1604.

The “O Antiphons” were first translated from Latin into English by John Henry Newman.

In medieval Benedictine monasteries, the monks arranged the “O Antiphons” with a definite purpose. If we start with the last title and takes the initial letter of each – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – they form the Latin words ero cras, meaning: “Tomorrow, I will come.”

As only one “O Antiphon” was sung each day, the full text of the acrostic was not revealed until the last day (23 December), when it would be interpreted as Christ’s answer to the prayer at the end of each antiphon.

Although the antiphons and their respective dates shown are recognised throughout most of Western Christianity, an alternative medieval practice arose in England, in the Sarum rite of Salisbury Cathedral, moving all of the antiphons forward by one day, so that they began on 16 December. An additional eighth antiphon, O Virgo virginum (O Virgin of Virgins), was then added on 23 December, so that the acrostic became Vero cras, “truly, tomorrow”:

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.


O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

This version of the “O Antiphons” was used in the Church of England until modern times, and is the version found in traditional Church of England liturgical sources, including the English Hymnal and the New English Hymnal.

More recently, however, the Church of England has stepped back from this medieval practice and returned to the more universal norm. The calendar in Common Worship now provides for the seven-fold version of the “O Antiphons,” and not the eight-fold version.

An updated, inclusive-language version of Newman’s translation of the “O Antiphons” is published in the Franciscan Office Book, Celebrating Common Prayer (p. 347).

Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ, and the “O Antiphons” bring intensity to our Advent preparation, and bring it to a joyful conclusion.

The “O Antiphons” come at the end of Advent to tie together the prophetic hopes of a people who have waited not for just three or four weeks for the coming of the Lord, but for whole centuries.

The “O Antiphons” tell us to be patient just a little while longer, and they describe the wonders in store with the coming of Christ.

Each of the “O Antiphons” has a two-fold purpose. First, each one is a title for the coming messiah. Secondly, each one refers to a prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah.

21 December, O Oriens (O Dayspring):

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


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

c.f. Malachi 4: 2; Luke 1: 79; John 8: 12; Hebrews 1: 3.

“O Dayspring” or “O Rising Sun” are better translations of the original Latin, but the poetic “O Morning Star” is preferred in many other versions.

Isaiah prophesied:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined (Isaiah 9: 2).

Times and Seasons suggests the following readings may be used at Evening Prayer on this evening: Psalm 27; Numbers 24: 15b-19; Revelation 22: 10-21.

Additional reading and resources:

Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).

Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008, Alcuin Liturgy Guides # 5).

William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent Antiphons (Dublin: Columba Press/APCK, 1993).

Times and Seasons (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute