Friday, 25 March 2011

Kissed by God on a sun-filled day in Laytown and Bettystown

The tide was out at Laytown and the sun was shining warmly this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The clocks move forward an hour tomorrow night, and already there’s a promise in the air not only that Summer Time is arriving but that summer itself is on the way.

These last few days have been balmy in Dublin, with the temperatures in the mid to high teens. After celebrating the Eucharist to mark the Feast of the Annunciation this morning, two of us seized the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine and headed north to the beaches of Laytown and Bettystown in Co Meath.

The sun was warm, the tide was out and the sand was soft and golden under our feet as we walked along the beach from the shops at Laytown to the Bettystown.

The sand was soft and golden under our feet as we walked along the beach to the Bettystown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The full walk along the East Coast Slí na Slainte from Laytown, through Bettystown, to Mornington, is 5 km – or 10 km return. But we were pacing ourselves gently and we stopped at Bettystown for lunch at the Relish Café, a restaurant with the most delightful setting at Bayview, at the end of a terrace of houses atop a sandy bank looking straight over the beach and out to the sea.

I had a roasted Mediterranean vegetable basket on a bed Of Moroccan cous cous with melted goat’s cheese, sweet chilli and pesto dressing, my friend had a fish dish, we shared a bowl of stuffed olives, and there was fresh brown bread, garlic bread, and water.

Relish has been refurbished in recent weeks but has lost none of its charm and sense of intimacy. The colour schemes are Mediterranean, with bright blues and whites, the walls are decorated with beach scenes, including paintings of the Laytown races, a new bar has been created, and the views out the windows must the envy of any restaurateur.

We were glad we arrived early; the place was soon filling up. But on a day like this, it would have been impossible, anyway, to resist the temptation to take our coffee out onto the terrace and linger in the early afternoon sun for a little longer as we enjoyed the peace, the calm, and the gentle mixture of soft music in the background and the gentle waves below us.

Lingering in the early afternoon sun on the terrace at Relish in Bettystown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

I was reminded of a warm Sunday afternoon in Santorini, sitting in a terrace bar overlooking the sea, listening to Mozart and sipping wine … or was it just coffee. We promised ourselves once again to return to Relish for dinner some weekend evening – soon.

Walking back south along the beach to Laytown, the tide was slowly rolling back in. Brent geese gathered in small groups along the shore or top of sandbanks left like tiny islands by the incoming water. And in the sunshine on the walk back I felt I had been kissed by God this afternoon.

A pretty terrace of houses facing the beach at Laytown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

We could have retraced our steps quite pleasantly, but we had promised to get to Portrane before the end of the afternoon, and so headed south to Skerries. We had been in Skerries on Wednesday night for a Lenten talk in Holmpatrick Parish, and had taken a late night drive around the harbour. The lights around the harbour and the clear sky gave us a very different view of Skerries that evening. It seemed too late for a walk on the beach, but that sight on Wednesday night had brought me cheer and comfort after two days sick at home.

Acres and acres of daffodils in Gormanston ... on Daffodil Day (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From Laytown, we headed back through Julianstown, and stopped in wonder at Gormanston to gaze on a field of daffodils … acres and acres of daffodils – how appropriate on Daffodil Day, the main fundraising day for the Irish Cancer Society.

We headed on through Balbriggan and along the coast towards Skerries, stopping to admire the view from the northern approaches to Skerries across to Skerries Harbour. It was so tempting to stay and to linger.

Skerries Harbour, seen from the Balbriggan Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

We drove on through Rush, around Rogerstown Estuary, and through Donabate village to Portrane to visit my cousin Mary Lynders. And for an hour we sat in the sunshine at The Quay, just talking, enjoying the gentle sunshine, and looking out at the sea and the coast stretching from the Burrow back to Rush.

I had a bad reaction to my medication earlier this week; it was no fun being out of touch with friends, colleagues and students for two days. Today, however, I really enjoyed God’s creation for those precious hours today. My medication is working once again, and today I felt I had as much energy as I had long before sarcoidosis was diagnosed.

The Feast of the Annunciation is the promise of God coming among us and sharing our humanity. And that promise was alive today.

A challenging image of the Annunciation

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery, London

Patrick Comerford

25 March 2011: The Annunciation of Our Lord

8.15 a.m.: The Eucharist, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 40: 5-10; Hebrews 10: 4-10; Luke 1: 26-38.

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

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church. As the action initiating Christ’s Incarnation, this day is so important in Eastern theology that the only time the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated on Good Friday, or “Great and Holy Friday”, is if it falls on 25 March.

But we often miss out on the significance of this day for a number of reasons:

● It always falls in Lent;
● There is a cultural antipathy within most parts of the Church of Ireland (though not throughout the Anglican Communion) to marking calendar dates associated with the Virgin Mary;
● And many of us find it difficult to take on board the plaster statue image of Mary, in demure robes of white and blue, which run contrary to the strong Mary celebrated at Evensong in the canticle Magnificat, the strong Mary who stands by the Cross when most of the disciples have run away, the strong Mary of the Pieta.

We are all used to these images of Mary that lack challenge and message, images that have been inherited through Mediaeval and Renaissance art. But one of the most challenging presentations in art of the Annunciation is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery in London.

The poet, painter, and designer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of Victorian artists who wanted to emulate the richness and purity of the mediaeval period. The son of an exiled Italian patriot and scholar, he was a brother of the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1893), author of one of the greatest Christmas carols, In the bleak mid-winter.

This painting is one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and when it was first exhibited in 1850 it shocked and stirred controversy.

In this painting, Rossetti offers a radical reinterpretation of the Annunciation, rejecting the traditional representation of the Virgin Mary passively receiving the news. Instead, he seeks to give the picture a supernatural realism.

While the angel is announcing to the Virgin Mary that she is to give birth to the Christ Child, she appears to be recoiling, as if disturbed from sleep.

Although Rossetti relies on earlier traditions for many of the symbols he uses in this scene, his use of these symbols, his depiction of space, and most significantly his portrayal of the two figures represent significant departures from earlier tradition.

This painting is unusual in that the artist shows Mary in a state of fear – see how she cowers against the wall and casts her eyes down. This is a far cry from many depictions of the Annunciation where Mary is shown in a state of humble acceptance.

White is the dominant colour in the painting, relieved only by small areas of blue, red and yellow. This emphasises the quality of the Virgin Mary’s purity, and is reinforced by the lily embroidery – the same one the Virgin Mary is shown making in Rossetti’s painting of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, also on display in the Tate.

Early great paintings of this scene usually depict lilies, the symbol of the Mary’s purity, in a vase nearby the scene as the angel addresses the Virgin. Although Rossetti also uses lilies, he integrates them into both the action and the environment of the scene.

Notice how Gabriel holds out a stem with lilies, offering them to Mary and seemingly presenting her with an embodiment of the chastity and purity she is fated to continue throughout her life. An embroidery hangs at the end of the bed, which Mary is also working on in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. This plays a contextual role – this is a young girl’s bedroom, so we might expect to find her needlework in this space – as well as perhaps representing her active choice to live purely since she has chosen to embroider a lily.

Mary is not dressed in her traditional blue; instead she wears a simple white dress. Yet, Rossetti does not ignore the importance of blue as the colour associated with the Virgin Mary and heaven: he places a blue screen directly behind her, and looking through the window, the sky is a similar shade of blue, alluding to heaven.

Most Annunciation scenes have candles that have just blown out as a result of the entrance of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Rossetti paints a wall sconce with a hint of a flame – a different presentation of a usual symbol. He includes a dove, embodying the Holy Spirit, although in this case he has not drastically transformed a traditional symbol.

Rossetti’s imagined space shows great innovation. Compared to the traditional interiors, rich with elaborate floor tiles, stained glass, wooden furniture, rugs, pillows, and similar details, the Virgin’s bedroom in Rossetti’s painting is shockingly simple. White stone tiles cover the floor; the walls have white paint; the window has no panes; and the only object in the room that I have not mentioned already is a simple, low wooden bed with a white mat and pillow.

In traditional paintings, the room draws the viewer in and the eye is allowed to move through the scene to the back wall of the bedroom. But Rossetti places Mary in a room that is almost claustrophobically small. The use of perspective is unconvincing: Mary’s bed appears about to slide out of the painting and the floor on the left of the painting blends into the wall, furthering the effect of a steep plane.

For the view out the window at the back, Rossetti might have given the scene depth by allowing us to see a scene in the distance. Instead, he shows only blue sky and part of a tree.

Look too at the angel. Rather than a winged, long-haired boyish angel, Rossetti paints an androgynous Gabriel, without wings, his face only visible in highly shadowed profile, with the hints of yellow flames around his feet.

Mary sits on her bed and slouches against the wall. She is markedly adolescent with her beautiful young features, unbrushed straight hair, childishly skinny body, and the hesitance, fear and melancholy with which she responds to the Angel Gabriel’s news. Wisps of her messy, auburn hair spread around her neck, silhouetted against her white dress, reminiscent of a bloodshot eye or perhaps intentionally of Christ’s crown of thorns.

Rossetti has no use for the stiff, exaggerated poses of primitive Virgins. He seems most concerned with the sincere response of a young girl who has been given a burden that is both wonderful and laden with responsibility. And in this task, Rossetti thoroughly succeeds.

Mary is keenly aware of her position, and it is this self-awareness and terror that endows the painting with its power. This painting inspires the viewer to religious contemplation and prayer. But it also speaks strongly to universal issues of growth, responsibility and youthful vulnerability.

The traditional Troparion or Hymn of the Day for this day in Orthodox Church includes these words:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!”

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


Pour your grace into our hearts, Lord,
that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

God Most High,
whose handmaid bore the Word made flesh:
We thank you that in this sacrament of our redemption
you visit us with your Holy Spirit
and overshadow us by your power.
May we like Mary be joyful in our obedience,
and so bring forth the fruits of holiness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ have mercy.
Christ have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us is given:
and his name is called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 7)


You chose the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son
and so exalted humble and meek;
your angel hailed her as most highly favoured,
and with all generations we call her blessed.


Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the institute chapel on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 2011.