Sunday, 18 April 2010

Walking the beaches and harbours of Skerries and Balbriggan

Cleaning up on the beach in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

It was a long working weekend. The students on the NSM course, leading to Non-Stipendiary Ministry, and on the part-time MTh course, were in for the weekend, and Sunday morning was a real joy, preaching at the Sung Eucharist.

After a Sunday buffet lunch, I headed off to Skerries for a walk on the beach. And this was a wonderful afternoon for a walk on the beach. Although we had the first cloud for days, the sea was calm, with the waves merely lapping and kissing the beach, in contrast to the strong rollers that I saw coming into the shore in Bray on Thursday afternoon.

The water was clear and clean and a few sailing boats and trawlers could be seen out on the sea. But the main activity was on the beach, where scores of people had volunteered for the beach cleaning afternoon.

This was an inspired initiative, sponsored by the Skerries News but with whole-hearted support from the community. Families – adults and children – took part enthusiastically, not only on the sandy beaches, but on the rocks, up around Red Island, in the Harbour, and north on the shore out towards Balbriggan.

Around the rocks on Red Island, the water was so clean and clear, seals were bobbing up and down in the water, a few teenagers were daring to put their lower limbs into the sea water.

A low-flying plane over Red Island in Skerries ... the only plane in Irish airspace this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

And as the clouds began to break up and the sky began to turn to blue, I wondered was I only person in my circle who managed to catch a plane in Dublin this weekend?

Not that I caught I flight … but I managed to catch a photograph of a low-flying plane hovering over Red Island. I wondered was this one of the few planes that managed to take to the air in northern Europe this weekend.

Out on the rocks, a heron was safely browsing and searching in the clear sea water. Back on the pier in the harbour, the same heron flew overhead, and landed on one of the trawlers that was there for the weekend. Within seconds, a second heron had joined the harbour fleet, waiting for food and fish.

The trawlers in Skerries Harbour this afternoon were a reminder of this morning’s Gospel reading (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

As a I looked at the trawlers – out in the safe, calm waters or ties up in the harbour – I thought once again of this morning’s Gospel reading and how the disciples caught nothing in their nets until they listened to Christ, and then caught more than they could have ever imagined.

Cleaning up the beaches of Skerries brought out a strong community feeling this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2010)

I returned to the beach, where it was a surprise and a real delight to meet Facebook friends Emily and David Diebold. They have been the main movers and shakers behind the Skerries News for some years. Because of the clear vision of people like Emily and David, the beaches in Skerries and the waters around it are clear and clean … and because of them, there is a strong sense of community in Skerries too.

After picking up the Sunday papers in Gerry’s, I dropped into my favourite café in Skerries, the Olive, for the best espresso in Ireland and a small snack. And then it was on to Balbriggan. I went to school close by in Gormanston. But I haven’t stopped in Balbriggan for a few years ... not since I preached in Saint George’s Church a few years ago.

John Macneill described the Balbriggan viaduct as the single most important piece of work on the Dublin-Drogheda railway line (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

This afternoon as I stood before it I was stunned by the majesty and beauty of the Balbriggan Viaduct, which was built in 1844. Sir John Macneill, who designed this marvellous work of engineering, described the viaduct as the single most important piece of work on the Dublin-Drogheda railway line. It has 11 bridges, and needed special permission from the British Admiralty for its construction because it involved considerable land reclamation: at the time, the water in the harbour at Balbriggan went back as far as the junction of High Street and Quay Street.

Macneill made such an impact on Irish life at the time that he was knighted on the platform of Amiens Street Station by the Viceroy, Earl de Grey, on 24 May 1844, prior to the departure of the first Dublin to Drogheda train.

The Victorian lifeboat station beneath the railway viaduct in Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Underneath the viaduct, the Victorian lifeboat station, with its half-hipped roof, is an impressive building despite abject neglect. Surely it must have great potential.

Clear blue skies over the beach in Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I walked onto the beach, and had my second beach walk of the day. And then I found myself walking the two piers of Balbriggan Harbour.

The Georgian lighthouse at the end of the pier in Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The harbour dates back to 1763, when a new pier was built by the local landlord, George Hamilton of Hampton Hall, known locally as Baron Hamilton. The second pier forming an inner harbour was built between 1826 and 1829, with some of the costs being funded by the Marquess of Lansdowne and by Hamilton’s son, the Revd George Hamilton, who was the proprietor of the village and keeper of lighthouse– an interesting pursuit for a priest of the Church of Ireland.

A lighthouse like this in Chania or Rethymnon in Crete would be a tourist attraction. On islands like Zakytnhos or Kephallonia it would be a boutique hotel or a restaurant. Why is a charming feature like this, with a captivating legacy, left without function or attention?

Looking back at the beach in Balbriggan from the lighthouse at the end of the pier (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

After walking across the viaduct – an experience I had never expected – and walking along the pebbly shore to the south of the harbour, I climbed up the hill to Saint George’s Square, and turned back into Church Street to visit Saint George’s, the Church of Ireland parish church in Balbriggan, which dates from 1813, when the Revd George Hamilton – the lighthouse keeper – granted land to build a church and provided funds to pay for a curate.

The tower, and a curious inscription above the door of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

When the church building was completed in 1816 it was described as “a handsome edifice with a square embattled tower.” However, the church accidentally burned down in 1835, and another new church was built in the 1830s.

A sad piece of graffiti on the east wall of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

As I walked around Saint George’s and the churchyard, the Enterprise express between Belfast and Dublin raced past. The grass had been cut, and the church looked loved and cared for. But it was sad to see some of the window panes in the church were broken, there was graffiti on the frame of the church door and on the east wall of the church. Beside the sealed-up entrance to the Hamilton vault, one slogan declares: “God hates us all.” The debris in the churchyard included a discarded fire extinguisher.

A church like this in the heart of a town like this must have a message to the teenagers who were hanging around on the railway line beside it, in the street in front of it, and in the park beside it.

Three searching questions about fame, heaven and success

The Lamb of God on the throne a ceiling fresco in a monastery in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 18 April 2010: The Third Sunday of Easter

Sung Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Acts 9: 1-6; Psalm 30; Revelation 5: 11-14; John 21: 1-19


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

I want to ask each of us three questions:

1, What is your idea of fame?

When I was a child, just as I was about to become a teenager, I became a keen autograph collector.

My uncle, who was my godfather, bought me an autograph book as a present, and I set about eagerly seeking the autographs of great footballers, pop singers, movie stars – and my first girlfriend and my school friends – in the early 1960s.

The pop stars stopped being No 1 hits just as my taste in music matured. The footballers aged as I became more interested in rugby and cricket. The movie stars’ fame faded as my interests shifted to literature and poetry. My first girlfriend lost interest in me. And I moved town, changed schools in my teens, lost touch with so many of those childhood friends, and I lost that autograph book at the same time.

But I do remember basking in the light of Bobbie Charlton and Brendan Bowyer for a few weeks in my old schoolyard. I suppose I thought of it as a sort of vicarious fame.

And I don’t suppose we stop behaving like that as adults with our own adult versions of autograph-hunting: asking authors to sign books … as if they had given them to us personally; standing in for photographs with the good and the great … not that visitors looking at our photographs at home could ever imagine I am a personal friend of so many Popes or Patriarchs, Poets or Presidents.

When you’re ordained, you will have plenty of photo opportunities that day: photographs with your ordaining bishop … photographs with an archbishop, perhaps.

I still treasure photographs from the days I was ordained deacon and priest. But who will you want to be photographed with, and who will want to be photographed with you?

I remember an escapade from my early 20s where some friends – rising to the challenge of a dare – crashed a wedding. The ushers asked: “Bride’s side or groom’s side?” And the reply was: “Who do you think we look like?”

Who do you think you’ll look most like in your ordination photographs?

The Apostle Paul describes Christ as the image of the invisible God (II Corinthians 4: 4; Colossians 1: 15; c.f. John 1: 18, 12: 45, 14: 9; Hebrews 1: 3). He is an icon or an image of God, and we are called to be an image of Christ.

These words are recalled at the laying on of hands at the ordination of deacons, priests and bishops, when the ordaining bishop speaks of Christ as the image of the Father’s eternal and invisible glory [Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp. 559, 568, 570, 579, 581].

At your ordination you are called to be an image of Christ. You will be asked at your ordination as priests to always set the Good Shepherd before you as the pattern of your calling [Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 565] and to pray and seek to grow into the likeness of Christ [Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 566]. Indeed, the Orthodox tradition speaks of the priest as an icon of Christ.

When people look at you will they see the image of Christ, the likeness of the Lamb, an image of the Good Shepherd?

Will they see Christ’s signature or autograph written across everything you think, say and do?

Will you be happy to give up your own ideas of fame, and instead to call people to be fans of Christ, his autograph-hunters, people who want to bask in his glory?

2, What’s your idea of heaven?

The Adoration of the Lamb from the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck … see Revelation 5: 11-14

There are places I go to regularly, that are part of my life story, and that I often think give me a little glimpse of what heaven must be like: the road out from Cappoquin towards the Vee, past my grandmother’s farm; the Cathedral Close in Lichfield, under a star-filled night sky in summer; the banks of the Slaney, between Bunclody and Enniscorthy, or further down as the river flows into Wexford Harbour; the beaches of Skerries and Portrane; the road from Iraklion to Rethymnon in Crete, facing the sun as it sets in the Mediterranean.

But what’s your idea of heaven? … Fishing, Golf, Horses?

Some rectors think a day playing golf is a taste of heaven.

And then, the story is told of one rector who called his horse “Parish Rounds.” When his bishop or archdeacon phoned looking for him, his wife could always say truthfully, “He’s out and about on his Parish Rounds.”

For others, you can’t find them on a day like those days we had last week. A sign outside might as well say: “Gone fishing.”

But is your vision of heaven a selfish one or one that offers hope for others, one that calls others in?

Is it one that invites others to the Heavenly Banquet with the Lamb on his throne, that challenges you to make disciples of all nations, to draw to him myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, so that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea can say Amen to this (Revelation 5: 11-14) … is that what you can call heaven?

3, What do you mean by success?

The disciples that Sunday morning aren’t very successful, are they? (John 21: 3). So unsuccessful are they that they are willing to take advice from someone they don’t even recognise (verse 4 ff).

The disciples are at the Sea of Galilee or Sea of Tiberias, back at their old jobs as fishermen. Not just the inner cabinet of Peter, James and John, but Thomas, who had initially doubted the stories of the Resurrection (see John 20: 24-29), Nathanael, who once wondered whether anything good could come from Nazareth (see John 1: 46), and two others who are unnamed … how about that for fame, lasting recognition and success?

They’re back on the same shore where there was once so many fish, so much bread left over after feeding the multitude, that they filled 12 baskets (John 6: 1-13). There’s not so much fish around this time, at first. But then John tells us that after Jesus arrives 153 fish were caught that morning (verse 11).

This number is probably a symbol meaning a complete number. The number 153 is divisible by the sum of its own digits, and it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of cubes of its digits, since 153 = 13 + 53 + 33. Aristotle is said to have taught that there were 153 different species of fish in the Mediterranean.

Whatever they say, the disciples must have thought they had managed the perfect catch that morning.

But the perfect catch was Jesus. When they came ashore once again he invites them to share bread and fish, to dine with the Risen Lord (21: 12-13).

To eat with the Risen Lord and to invite others to the Heavenly Banquet, so that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea can say Amen before the Throne of God … now that’s what I call success (Revelation 5: 11-14).

Christ’s three questions

On the shore after daybreak, Christ breaks bread with the disciples and asks three searching questions of Peter

Those are my three questions. But Jesus has three questions that he puts to Peter this morning. They appear a little confused or repetitive in most English translations, but the difference is clear in the original Greek.

In his first two questions to Peter, Christ uses the verb ἀγαπάω (agapáo).

CS Lewis talks in one of his books of The Four Loves:

The first, στοργή (storgé), is the affection of familiarity; the second is φιλία (philía), the strong bond between close friends; the third, ἔρως (eros), he identifies not with eroticism but with the word we use when we say we are in love with someone; and the fourth love is ἀγάπη (agápe), the love that takes no account of my own interests, that loves no matter what happens – it is the greatest of loves, it reflects the love of God.

Perhaps, the first time, Christ asks: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than you and your friends love one another but the way God loves you?” (John 21: 15).

But Peter is either evasive or misses the point, and answers with a different verb: φιλέω (phileo): “I’m fond of you, I like you like a brother, I agree with you. I’m OK, you’re OK” (verse 15).

“OK,” says Christ, “feed the little ones the Good Shepherd welcomes into the fold” (verse 15).

Then a second time, we can imagine him asking more simply: “Simon son of John, do you love me the way God loves you?” (verse 16).

But Peter once again misses the point, and answers with the verb φιλέω (phileo): “I’m fond of you, I like you like a brother, I agree with you. I’m OK, you’re OK” (verse 16).

“OK,” says Jesus, “look after those in the flock the Good Shepherd tends” (verse 16).

But then he asks a third question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (verse 17).

Our English translations say Peter was upset, felt hurt, when Jesus asked him a third time. We might be tempted to think it’s because he was asked the same question repetitively, three times, that his answer wasn’t listened to the first or second time round.

But this third time, Jesus asks a different question, using Peter’s verb φιλέω (phileo), as if to ask: “OK Peter, do you love me as your brother?” (verse 17).

This time around, Peter replies using the same word Jesus uses in his third question. But, more importantly, he confesses Jesus as Lord (verse 17), as Lord of everything. This confession of faith comes the third time round from the disciple who earlier denied Jesus three times (see chapter 18). And Christ then asks him to feed the whole flock, all the sheep of the Good Shepherd, lambs, ewes, lost ones, found ones, the whole lot (21: 17).

The disciples don’t recognise Jesus as he stands on the beach just after daybreak (verse 4). Paul fails to recognise Christ – even when he falls from his horse he calls out: “Who are you?” (Acts 9: 5). But despite their initial blindness, their initial failings, their initial denials, God continues to call them.

And so too with us. God calls us in all our unworthiness to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, to feed his sheep, not just the little ones, not just the big ones.

Do you love him enough, as he loves you, to see this as enough fame to bask in?

Do you love him enough to see this as how to decide whether your ministry is successful?

Do you love him enough to see this as the benchmark against which you mark how you relate to the myriads and myriads, the thousands and thousands, to all living life?

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

The Lamb of God … a stained glass window in a church in Cambridge

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 Sung Eucharist in the institute chapel on Sunday 18 April 2010