Looking down on the city of Thessaloniki and out to the Thermaic Gulf ... and recalling my grandfather’s days here during World War I (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The Second Sunday before Advent,
Sunday 13 November 2011 (Remembrance Sunday)
11.30 a.m., The Eucharist
Judges 4: 1-7; Psalm 123; I Thessalonians 5: 1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I missed being here for our previous residential weekend because I had a prior commitment to preaching in Liverpool Cathedral, and earlier I had spent a week in Thessaloniki.
I love Greece, and often get there twice a year – sometimes more.
Thessaloniki has long been a favourite place of mine. But there were special family reasons too for being there last month.
One sunny afternoon, I climbed up through the narrow back streets, cobbled alleyways and steep steps that lead up to the old city, or Ano Poli (Άνω Πόλης) and the Kastra or Castle and the Byzantine Walls that mark out the top of the hills overlooking the city. There you can see the monastery of Aghios Pavlos (Άγιος Παύλος) hanging precariously over a cliff edge, almost as though it were about to fall down on the city.
It is a demanding climb for those who walk it rather than taking the easy option of a taxi. But it is a climb that is worth it, for this is truly picture-postcard Greece, with hanging balconies, houses painted in bright primary colours, and tiny cafés.
As the city fell away beneath my gaze, and the view of the Thermaic Gulf spread out below, I thought of my grandfather, who had been brought there with his regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, having barely survived the disasters at Gallipoli and Suvla Bay in 1915.
As the Turkish gunners looked down at those poor young, frightened soldiers being landed on the beaches below them, did they think, with their 20th century equivalents of chariots and troops, that those innocent Irish soldiers had been given into their hands, like a scene from our reading this morning from the Book of Judges? (see Judges 4: 7).
Only three years beforehand, Thessaloniki had been liberated and incorporated into the modern Greek state.
Stephen Edward Comerford and Bridget Lynders on their wedding day, 7 February 1905, in Donabate
As I made my way up above that city, I wondered: was my grandfather, Stephen Comerford, housed in a makeshift camp on these slopes and hills I was climbing?
He must have prayed so often that bitter winter for his wife, Bridget (Lynders), my grandmother, and his sons and daughters left at home in Ireland. Did he imagine he would ever see them again?
He was then 46 or 47 years old. As he watched his comrades die from the wounds they received in Balkan battles, from the bitter cold of winter and from the frostbite – many of them young enough to be his sons, perhaps encouraging them, building them up (I Thessalonians 5: 12) – how could he imagine he would ever have another son?
Were his wife and children praying in Ranelagh for his safe homecoming?
His parents were long dead. But were my grandmother’s parents, Patrick and Margaret Lynders, praying in Portrane for their son-in-law’s safe homecoming?
On my way up, I was conscious of his presence on those slopes in Thessaloniki, and imagined the prayers he prayed as I stopped at a church here, a monastery there.
On those slopes, did my grandfather lift up his eyes towards those monasteries and churches, towards God enthroned in the heavens, praying that he would “have mercy upon us ... for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of the arrogant, and of the contempt of the proud” (Psalm 123: 1-5)?
I was heading up those hills and slopes to the Monastery of Vlatádon – the Holy, Royal, Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Vlatádon (Η Μονή Βλατάδων) – and for the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, which is part of the monastery complex.
The church in the monastery dates back to the 14th century, but is said to stand on the point where the Apostle Paul preached to the people of Thessaloniki. There are beautiful views across the city, and there are dozens of friendly peacocks – bred by the monks because the peacock was traditionally seen as a sign of the resurrection.
Once again, I prayed in thanks that my grandfather had returned alive from this city – otherwise, my father would not have been conceived, and I would not have been born.
The people of Thessaloniki, the Thessalonians, who Saint Paul preached to on those cliff edges, are the same people who received his two Letters to the Thessalonians. Over the past few weeks in our lectionary readings, we have been reading from I Thessalonians. Those readings come to a conclusion this week, but they only began the Sunday after I was in Thessaloniki, the Sunday of that last residential weekend I missed.
Saint Paul, in our reading this morning, repeats a common experience that when people just come to the point of thinking they have peace and security, sudden destruction comes upon them, and there is no escape (I Thessalonians 5: 3).
Having been sent into Serbia, Grandfather Stephen returned to Thessaloniki, and suffered – like so many in the Thermaic Gulf in those days – an attack of malaria, perhaps as he fell asleep on those slopes.
He was sent home, and would die – not from heroic action or war wounds – but from the onset of madness that then inevitably followed malaria, and was buried in the small Church of Ireland churchyard in Portrane.
Were those men who were disgorged heartlessly onto the beaches of Gallipoli and Suvla Bay, in fives and twos and ones – were they wasted talents, misspent by capricious and careless generals who never answered for the talents that had been entrusted to them?
Certainly, as I look at my grandfather’s grave, I think those generals literally and truly went and hid in the ground the talents entrusted to them (see Matthew 25: 25).
Did those men who were left to die of frostbite on the hills of Thessaloniki or to contract malaria from the waters in the gulf below, feel it was they and not their generals who had been thrown into the outer darkness, where they found there was weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25: 30)?
The Monastery of Vlatádon .. a quiet and undisturbed corner in the hills above Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
As I left the Monastery of Vlatádon, I was still thinking of my grandfather’s time in Thessaloniki almost a century ago. I never knew him; he died when my father was only two.
But I reminded myself that had he not survived his time there, my father would never have been born. And so I cannot be angry, I cannot even be upset. “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thessalonians 5: 9).
The malaria my grandfather contracted in Thessaloniki eventually killed him. But it was because of this malaria that he was sent back to Dublin. And it is because of that, I know, I am alive today.
I have much to be sad about in that city, but I have much to be thankful for too. This city is part of my life and part of my story, and this is my Thessaloniki too.
The peacocks in Vlatádon ... bred by the monks as a sign of the Resurrection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
As I walked back down to the city from Vlatádon, I reminded myself of the friendly peacocks in the monastery courtyard – the peacocks bred by the monks as signs of the resurrection.
In war or peace, in prosperity or adversity, no matter how others see us or how they treat us, we can be assured of how God sees us, and how God treats us.
“When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them ... and there will be no escape” (I Thessalonians 5: 3) … Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki, a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
And I was reminded too that on the Sunday I was missing here that you were reading that opening passage from Saint Paul’s first Letter to the Thessalonians, in which he commends the people of Thessaloniki for their resurrection faith and tells them not to be afraid. He rejoices that they have become imitators of the Lord, “for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy ... and ... you turned to God ... to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (I Thessalonians 1: 7-10).
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, 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 13 November 2011.
whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil
and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life:
Grant that we, having this hope,
may purify ourselves even as he is pure;
that when he shall appear in power and great glory,
we may be made like him
in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Post Communion Prayer
in this holy sacrament you give substance to our hope.
Bring us at the last to that pure life for which we long,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.