Sunday, 17 January 2010

Savouring every moment of a sun-kissed afternoon

It was like an early Spring day on the beach in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

It was only three walks since I had a walk on a beach … but it seemed like ages.

There was no opportunity for a beach walk while I was on holiday in Orlando. Even when I got to the east coast of Florida, I found there was no access the beaches I could see from the Kennedy Space Center.

Those beach walks are so important for my feeling of well-being, and helping me to get some fresh air through my lungs to ease some of the symptoms of sarcoidosis.

And so, having worked through the weekend, I was delighted that this was a bright sunny Sunday.

After preaching at the Sung Eucharist in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and light snack with students and other faculty members, it was an opportune time to head out to Skerries.

As I approached Skerries from Rush, the sun was shining on the water, the sky was clear and blue, the sea was calm, and the islands off the coast appeared to be basking in what looked like an early Spring afternoon.

After such a terrible winter, it seems everyone in Skerries appreciated the arrival of bright sunshine and the dramatic rise in temperature. The footpath beside the beach and the low dunes along South Strand main beach was packed with families strolling in the crisp, bright air.

The tide was out, and along the shoreline even the birds appeared to have been lulled into the false impression the Spring was just around the corner.

Up on Red Island and around the Martello Tower, couples and families were thronging the footpaths, and the playground was full of children.

Skerries has always been a paradise for bikers, and back on Harbour Road, the harbour-side street outside Joe May’s was clogged with bikes this afternoon.

Afternoon sunshine sparkles on the waters in Skerries Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

From the Harbour, I turned back in behind the sailing club and the sea scouts to have one more walk along the South Strand and to savour every moment of this sun-kissed afternoon.

Skerries South Beach ... savouring every moment of a sun-kissed afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I stopped off in Gerry’s to buy the Sunday papers. I’ve said this before, and this is still is one of the best wine shops in Dublin. I picked up three bottles for the coming week, and then headed across Strand Street to the Olive.

Saint Patrick’s goat

Skerries Book Shop ... worth exploring (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

A few doors down the street from the Olive are the charming Carnegie Library, which is one of the architectural features of Skerries; Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church; and the Skerries Book Shop, which I hope to explore soon.

Part of the Skerries legend is the story of how Saint Patrick was expelled from Wicklow and settled on one of the small islands of the Skerries coast. The saint brought a goat with him. But one day, while he was on a missionary journey, the people of Skerries rowed out to Saint Patrick’s Island, stole the saint’s goat, killed it, cooked it and feasted on it.

When he returned and found his goat missing, Saint Patrick confronted the people of Skerries on Red Island. When they denied stealing his goat, they found they could only bleat, and their voices returned only when they told the truth and confessed their sin.

Saint Patrick and his goat ... reunited on the wall of Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Parish Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In 1989, the 50th anniversary of the building of the present Saint Patrick’s Church, a bronze goat’s head was commissioned and mounted on the church wall. The inscription on the plaque reads: Quid nostrum fuit reddituum est propter deum et necessarios amicos MCMLXXXIX – “That which was ours is restored on account of God and for necessary friendship 1989.”

And so Saint Patrick got his goat back.

Dining al fresco

Back at the Olive, my favourite café in Fingal County, I sat down to a pleasant antipasto plate and coffee. They’ve been without water in Skerries for most of the past week. But they still know how to make a good double espresso at the Olive.

Not only had I managed to have my first walk on a beach this year, but this afternoon I also sat out and had an open-air meal for this first time this year.

The sun was setting, and it was dusky as the street lights came on Strand Street. There was a slim crescent moon to the south as I headed back out through Holmpatrick and Loughshinny to Rush, watched the lights come on in Portrane and Donabate, and then onto the M50 and home.

It’s good to feel that normal life is returning to this part of Ireland. And that’s good for my wellbeing too. I may have sarcoidosis, but walks on the beach in Skerries ensure sarcoidosis will never have me. And sure ... isn’t there a grand stretch in evenings already?

Love must be dynamic, it can never be static

The Wedding at Cana ... a modern icon

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 17 January 2010: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

11.45 p.m.: The Eucharist, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Isaiah 62: 1-5; Psalm 36: 5-10; I Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11

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

We are still in the Season of Epiphany. In some places there may still be some snow on the ground, but the trees, the cards and the decorations are down for some time now.

In some parishes, there is a tradition of keeping the crib in the Church until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation, which often marks the end of the Epiphany season.

Three Gospel stories in particular are associated with Epiphany.

The first, and the most popular must be the story of the wise men bringing their three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. With these gifts, they acknowledge Christ as three-fold prophet, priest and king.

In the diversity they have acquired in popular culture as the three kings they also symbolise the nations acknowledging Christ as the King and Saviour of the World, and not just fulfilling promises for one people alone.

Some of these concepts – such as the kings of the world acknowledging Christ’s glory – are reflected in this morning’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah, alongside Isaiah’s wedding image, which is at the heart of our Gospel reading – but let me come to that in a moment in or two.

The second Epiphany-time story is the Baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan. Having been acknowledged by the nations as priest, prophet and king, Christ is now recognised publicly for who he is by God the Father and the Holy Spirit in that Trinitarian moment at the waters.

And again, those waters of promise, those waters of life, ripple though our Psalm for this morning.

The Wedding Feast of Cana in a mural in the Episcopal Cathedral of the Holy Ttinity, Port-au-Prince, which was destroyed in the earthquake in Haiti last week

The third popular Epiphany story is the Wedding Feast of Cana. In this Epiphany moment, Jesus – who has been recognised by the nations, and by God, by heaven and by earth – is now recognised for who is by his own family, by his disciples and by his own people.

He is Lord and Saviour now, according to heaven and earth, and is seen as such by those who dwell in heaven and on earth.

Clifford Longley, the former Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Times (London), is now a columnist in The Tablet. Last weekend, the headline on his column read: “I’m not alone in finding the Church’s reliance on miracles strains credibility.”

Of course, he was talking not about Gospel stories, but about the Vatican’s reliance on miracle claims in the process of deciding who to recognise or not recognise as a saint. But sometimes it takes a miracle for us to face up to reality. And, whatever a person’s individual opinion may be about miracles, I think most people find the story of the Wedding at Cana a captivating one.

I think we have all been to weddings. We all enjoy weddings – not just the sacred part in the church, when the wedding vows are exchanged, but all the secular parts of a wedding too: the romance, the dressing up, reconnecting with old friends and making new friends, the food, the drink, the dancing, the dash of perhaps being in another place, even a strange place – and, for those who are single, the folk-promise that going to a wedding can be the making of another.

Weddings are also the promise of miracle: for there is nothing more miraculous than life and love.

If you can’t believe in water turning into wine, then you have to be filled with wonder and awe at how life is created time and time again, every day, across the years, across the centuries and the ages. And you have to wonder at the miracle of love, how people go on accepting each other unconditionally, to the point that the circumstances are created for life itself to be created.

It is the miracle of life and love that God asks us, invites us, creates us, to be his partners in creation.

And – while most people, when they read our Gospel story for this morning, think first about the story of water turned into wine – there is another miracle in this story too that reflects that miracle of life and love, relationships and creation.

The wedding takes place “on the third day” – so we are already invited as readers to expect new life and new promise.

The wedding – like weddings I’ve enjoyed in Greece – probably lasted for three days, which emphasises that sense of anticipation and promise. And, you may not have noticed this, the job title for the chief steward or toast master is ἀρχιτρίκλινος (architríklinos) – the master of the three couches, the three resting places: do you see how our expectations are being heightened?

The Wedding at Cana ... another modern icon

After at least three days in Cana everyone heads home a different person. Everyone has been transformed. Verse 12, the verse immediately after this reading, says:

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

Everyone goes home a new person, a person he or she had not been before those wedding vows were exchanged.

One woman heads off with her husband as a new wife. But she is also as a new sister-in-law, a new daughter-in-law, perhaps even a new step-mother. Another woman goes home as a new mother-in-law, and so on.

Among the men there is a new husband, but also a new son-in-law, a new father-in-law, someone who had never before been a brother-in-law … and so on.

And those relationships are dynamic; they are not static. The new sister-in-law is about to become a new aunt, the new brother-in-law an uncle, the new mother-in-law and father-in-law hope to become grandparents for the first time.

And so a wedding never ends when the guests go home. As dynamic relationships they demand and create action and response.

And the relationships never end even when the marriage ends. Even if the couple who were married at Cana were divorced many years later, their parents-in-law remained grandparents to any of the children born to the man and woman.

A man and woman can divorce each other, but they can’t divorce their children from their uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents.

And when relationships are good, when they are dynamic rather than static, when they are blessed and loving, when there is unconditional acceptance, then they become a reflection of, a sacrament of, God’s love for us.

To be healthy, emotional individuals, we need a variety of healthy and wholesome relationships.

Not everyone has a happy, lasting, exclusive and intimate loving relationship with one other person. But we are certainly healthier and holier people when the relationships we have are healthy, wholesome and loving.

When I have been a good son or father, a good brother or husband, a good nephew, uncle or cousin, and – of course – when I have been a good friend too, then I hope I have reflected God’s love for those who glimpse it, God’s love for them in relationship, God’s dynamic love for them expressed by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And when I have failed in those relationships – as a father, as a brother, as a husband, as a nephew, as an uncle, as a cousin, as a friend – then it is not God who has failed, but I who have fallen short of others being able to have a glimpse, to grasp, God’s love for them and for us, a dynamic love that is always truly about relationship.

For God not only loves us, but God also wants us to enjoy that love, to return that love, and to love one another. As Saint John the Divine tells the Church in Ephesus: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another … if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (I John 4: 11-12).

And love respects difference and variety, sees them as gifts rather than challenges or confrontations.

If Christ loves the Church as his bride, then our diversity and variety in gifts in ministry and service are gifts that we bring to the royal wedding.

If weddings idealise love, they also give a real and creative expression to the love of God. The wedding image so lovingly called on by Christ in his teaching, is a much-loved one in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Exchanging the στέφανα or wedding crowns as the Gospel story of the Wedding at Cana is read

At those three-day Greek weddings I referred to, the real moment when the two pledge their troth is not when they exchange rings or bands – that takes place at the betrothal – but when the priest exchanges the wedding crowns, the στέφανα (stephana), on the heads of the bride and groom as this morning’s Gospel story is read.

This ancient custom finds a resonance in our reading from the Prophet Isaiah, for to this day the στέφανα of the bride and groom are crowns of beauty and royal diadems.

The image Christ draws on of the royal wedding that seals our covenant with God, when Christ is the true bridegroom and the Church is the bride, is no marriage of convenience, it is a real marriage of true love, as our portion of Psalm 36 tells us this morning.

And at the feast God promises abundance – an abundance to drink in terms of our physical needs, an abundance of justice in terms of our social needs, an abundance of faithfulness in terms of our spiritual needs.

We are invited to the banquet this morning as we once were and commissioned to leave as new people, in new relationships, overflowing beyond the brim with the love of God, expressed in the bread and wine, with hope for the future and the promises of the heavenly banquet.

Rejoice in your variety of gifts in ministry and service. Delight in the new relationships God constantly offers us. Transform all your relationships from being static to being dynamic. Move on from the sentimentality of Christmas to the new promises and hope of Easter. And celebrate the banquet frequently and often with joy, for Christ is for each of us the living bread and the true vine.

And so may all our thoughts, words and deeds be the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the institute chapel on Sunday 17 January 2010 at the end of a residential weekend for NSM and part-time MTh students.

Earthquake destroys cathedral and unique artistic legacy

The remains of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Port-au-Prince (Photograph: Philipe Qualo/Mark Harris/Preludium)

Patrick Comerford

The death toll in Haiti continues to rise and could pass 200,000. This morning, at the Sung Eucharist in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, prayers are being said for the people of Haiti ands the collection is going to the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal Fund, which has launched a special appeal for Haiti.

Over the last two days, I have heard that the Episcopal or Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Port-au-Prince and the bishop’s residence have been destroyed by the earthquake. Reports say Bishop Zache Duracin has survived, but the Roman Catholic archbishop has been killed.

The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is the largest diocese in The Episcopal Church (TEC). There are 180,000 communicants in 98 congregations scattered throughout Haiti, but with only 30 priests. Until last week, most of these missions included primary schools, and many had medical facilities. And, until last week, the five cathedral clergy, under the leadership of Bishop Zache, ran a varied programme of activities, including an active parish council; associations for young people, men, women, and children; choirs; and scouts.

The Convent of the Sisters of Saint Margaret stood in the cathedral grounds. Since 1927, the sisters have helped in the church’s work with women and children. Their work has included Holy Trinity School, Saint Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children, Foyer Nòtre Dame for elderly women, and rural work at Maison Saint Paul, Matthieu.

Holy Trinity School, beside the cathedral, was originally founded as a school for girls in 1913. Until last week, there are 1,200 boys and girls at the school. There was also a trade school with 800 students and a music school. The school music programme, which began in 1970, included a philharmonic orchestra and a boys’ choir, with frequent concerts in Salle Sainte Cecile at the school.

Saint Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children, started in 1945, was caring for 1,500 children a month in the school section and in the specialised medical, orthopaedic and neurological clinics. There were surgical facilities one day a week. Music, art, and literature were included along with the academic curriculum. There were boarding places for 200 children.

College Saint Pierre, the church’s secondary school in Port-au-Prince, stood at the south-east corner of the Champs-de-Mars. It opened in 1957 and had 700 students until last week.

The Episcopal Church also ran Holy Cross Hospital in Leogane, which had assumed responsibility for all health care in its region through a network of village health workers, midwives, and mobile clinics. But Leogane was at the epicentre of the earthquake last week.

And so, you can see, the mission of preaching the Good News about Christ and showing God’s love through service to the Haitian was at the heart of the work of the Diocese of Haiti.

Haitian art

Holy Trinity Cathedral before the earthquake (Photograph: Caminante)

Holy Trinity Cathedral was a grey stone structure, simple and unimposing. But inside the church was breath-taking and deeply spiritual. The cathedral was built in the 1920s. The cornerstone was laid in November 1924, and the cathedral was dedicated in January, 1929.

The High Altar and apse murals in Holy Trinity Cathedral, which had been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The murals in the cathedral were painted under the direction of DeWitt Peters and Selden Rodman of Centre d’Art, Port-au-Prince. The murals in the apse were finished in March 1950. The murals in the transepts were completed in April 1951. The Rieger organ, the gift of an American donor, was installed in 1961. They were painted by Haitian artists in the 1950s to depict Biblical and church stories from the perspective of Haitian artists.

The ruins of Holy Trinity Cathedral … with a glimpse of one of the lost murals

These paintings in the classic Haitian “primitive” style made the cathedral a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The school and the diocese have taken an important role in preserving and developing Haiti’s artistic heritage. A museum, across the street from the school, housed a permanent collection of Haitian art. Now that unique artistic heritage appears to have been lost for ever.

The Wedding at Cana … a mural from Holy Trinity Cathedral, Haiti

Missing sisters

Meanwhile, Anglican nuns in Boston are waiting anxiously for news about three of their nuns who were living in of Port-au-Prince.

“We have three sisters in Haiti and we have been trying all night to get through … We hope and pray that they're safe. One fears for the worst. However, we’re just going to have to wait it out,” Sister Adele Marie Ryan, assistant superior of the Sisters of Saint Margaret, said ate last week.

Sister Marie Margaret Fenelon, Sister Marjorie Raphael Wysong and Sister Marie Therese Milien were living in a convent on the grounds of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. The sisters have been running a home for elderly people and worked among poor people throughout the Diocese of Haiti. They were also involved in training seminarians and in pastoral work at two schools the order founded, the Saint Vincent School for the Handicapped and the Holy Trinity School, which are in the same neighbourhood.

Les Soeurs de Ste Marguerite at Holy Trinity Cathedral at work before the earthquake

The Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal, the Church’s World Aid and Development Programme, is donating an initial €20,000 towards the emergency relief effort. The funds will be sent through Christian Aid, which has partners working in Haiti.

For some information on Haiti and also Christian Aid’s work in Haiti: Or you can visit the Haiti Earthquake Appeal site to donate directly, or donate directly to the work in Haiti of Episcopal Relief and Development through go to their website. The instructions are easy to follow and the links are easy.

Do keep everyone in Haiti in your prayers.

A Prayer for Haiti (from the Christian Aid website):

Loving God of creation,
at this time of devastation
we hold before you the people of Haiti.

When the damage is unimaginable,
and the suffering seems overwhelming,
remind us that every person affected
is loved, honoured and precious in your sight.

We remember all those who have been hurt;
all who have lost their homes, livelihoods and loved ones.

Work through us to bring healing
to broken and distorted lives,
peace to those who have been thrown into despair,
light to those in darkness,
and hope to those who fear.

We ask this in the name of Jesus
in whom all life and grace is found. Amen.

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