Saturday, 15 October 2011

A weekend in Liverpool

Liverpool Cathedral, north elevation (Photograph: Andrew Dunn/Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Liverpool this weekend, to preach tomorrow morning at the Judges’ Service in Liverpool Cathedral, at the invitation of Dean Justin Welby, who is to be consecrated Bishop of Durham later this month. It is a busy weekend. Apart from the Judges’ Service at 10.30 tomorrow, I am a guest this evening at the Judges’ Dinner in the Sir Giles Gilbert Scott Rooms (formerly the Western Rooms) in Liverpool Cathedral, and at a lunch tomorrow hosted by the High Sheriff of Merseyside, Professor Helen Carty, at the Artists’ Club in Liverpool.

I was supposed to be here earlier this year to speak at the Annual Conference of Affirming Catholicism in Liverpool Hope University and Liverpool Cathedral, but the venue was later switched to Westminster.

For many, Liverpool is the city of Anfield (Liverpool) and Goodison Park (Everton), of the Beatles, the Cavern Club and the Mersey Beat, the city of Aintree and the Grand National, the city of Scousers, the Liverbirds and Brookside.

But this is also the city of the Tate Liverpool, of the Walker Art Gallery, of Saint George’s Hall – the first European offering of neoclassical architecture – and thiswas also the European Capital of Culture three years ago, and in 2004 the whole of the waterfront and the docks was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

There are more listed buildings in Liverpool than in any other English city, apart from London. And among these is Liverpool Cathedral, which stands on Saint James’s Mount.

There are two cathedrals in Liverpool: the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King is about half a mile north. Once nick-named “Paddy’s Wigwam,” it was designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd. But the original plan was by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who is buried in the crypt. The two cathedrals are linked by Hope Street, named after William Hope, a local merchant whose house stood on the site now occupied by the Philharmonic Hall and named long before the cathedrals were built.

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral is the largest cathedral in the Church of England, and the longest and fifth largest in the world: the external length, including the Lady Chapel, is 189 metres (620 ft), while its internal length is 146 metres (479 ftThe belltower is the largest and one of the tallest, in the world, and houses the world’s highest (67 m) and heaviest (31 short tons) ringing peal of bells.

This is only the third Anglican cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation –Saint Paul’s Cathedral was rebuilt by Christopher Wren in London in 1666 after the Great Fire, and Truro Cathedral was built in the 19th century. Although Liverpool Cathedral is dedicated to Christ and the Blessed Virgin, its official name is the Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool. But it is known to one and all simply as Liverpool Cathedral.

The magnificent central space of the cathedral stretches east from the bridge towards the choir and the high altar. The central space dominates the view of the cathedral and its enormity gives an impression of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s vision of our relationship with God. This central space has witnessed a variety of services, occasions and events over the years with congregations up to 2,000 in number experiencing tremendous fulfilment, delight, enjoyment and deep spirituality, in an variety of worship and celebration services, special events and exhibitions.

When John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) became the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880 on the recommendation of Benjamin Disraeli, his new diocese had no cathedral. Saint Peter’s Parish Church served as a “pro-cathedral,” but it was too small for major church events, and the Rector of Liverpool at the time described it as “ugly and hideous.”

An Act of Parliament in 1885 authorised building a cathedral on the site of Saint John’s Church, beside Saint George’s Hall. But the site was unsuitable for the proposed building and the scheme was abandoned.

Bishop Francis Chavasse (1846-1928), a former principal of Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, succeeded as the second Bishop of Liverpool in 1900 and immediately revived the project to build a cathedral in the face of opposition from some evangelical clergy, who argued there was no need for such expense.

Although Chavasse was an Evangelical too, he envisaged a cathedral as “a visible witness to God in the midst of a great city.” The site at Saint John’s site was abandoned, and a new site was chosen at Saint James’s Mount.

Half a century ago, the cathedral historian Vere Cotton wrote that, “with the exception of Durham, no English cathedral is so well placed to be seen to advantage both from a distance and from its immediate vicinity. That such a site, convenient to yet withdrawn from the centre of the city … dominating the city and clearly visible from the river, should have been available is not the least of the many strokes of good fortune which have marked the history of the cathedral.”

The Liverpool Cathedral Act (1902) allowed the diocese to buy the site, but once the cathedral was open Saint Peter’s Church was to be demolished and the site sold to endow the new cathedral chapter.

The stipulations for the cathedral design insisted in must be in the Gothic style. Robert Gladstone, a member of the committee involved in selecting the architect for the project, said at the time: “There could be no question that Gothic architecture produced a more devotional effect upon the mind than any other which human skill had invented.” Pugin would have been delighted.

But the stipulation stirred controversy, and Reginald Blomfield and others protested, describing the Gothic style as a “worn-out flirtation in antiquarianism, now relegated to the limbo of art delusions.” Eventually it was agreed the assessors would also consider “designs of a Renaissance or classical character.”

There was further controversy when the commission went to 22-year-old Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960). He was from a distinguished line of architects that stretched back for generations. His grandfather, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), was inspired by Pugin to join the Gothic Revival, designed the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford and the Midland Grand Hotel at Saint Pancras in London, and his many restorations included Lichfield Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral and Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth. His father, George Gilbert Scott (1839-1897), was a leading exponent of the Gothic Revival, known for many buildings in Cambridge colleges.

But young Giles Gilbert Scott he was still in articles with only the design of a pipe-rack to his credit. His selection became even more contentious when it was revealed that Scott was a Roman Catholic. Scott was placed under the direct supervision of his father’s close friend, GF Bodley, work began without delay, and the foundation stone was laid by King Edward VII in 1904. At the end of the great open-air service, the choir of a thousand voices sang the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah.

However, Bodley’s collaboration with the young Scott became fractious, especially after two cathedral commissions in the US made Bodley’s absences from Liverpool frequent. Scott was on the point of resigning when Bodley died suddenly in 1907. Free of Bodley and growing in confidence, Scott submitted an entirely new design for the main body of the cathedral, which was approved in 1910.

Liverpool Cathedral ... the High Altar and East Window (Photograph: Wikipedia)

The cathedral was built mainly of sandstone quarried – well, the Beatles did fist call themselves The Quarrymen. The Lady Chapel, originally intended to be called the Morning Chapel, was consecrated by Bishop Chavasse on Saint Peter’s Day, 29 June 1910 – a date chosen to honour the pro-cathedral, now about to be demolished.

It seems the richness of the décor of the Lady Chapel dismayed some of Liverpool’s evangelical clergy, upset that were presented with “a feminised building which lacked reference to the ‘manly’ and ‘muscular Christian’ thinking which had emerged in reaction to the earlier feminisation of religion.” To many, the new cathedral seemed to be too Anglo-Catholic in design.

Work was severely limited during World War I, but the first section of the main body of the cathedral was complete by 1924, including the chancel, the ambulatory, the chapter house and the vestries. On 19 July 1924, the 20th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone, the cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Chavasse in the presence of King George V.

In October 1931, Frederick William Dwelly became the first Dean of Liverpool, a position he held until his retirement in 1955. Once again, Scott revised his plans, this time for the tower, the under-tower and the central transept, hoping to complete the cathedral by 1940. However, work was interrupted during World War II, and the building was damaged by German bombs. Nevertheless, the central section was completed by 1941 and was handed over to the Dean and Chapter. Scott laid the last stone of the last pinnacle in 1942, but work did not resume until 1948 and the bomb damage, particularly to the Lady Chapel, was not fully repaired until 1955.

When Scott died in 1960, the first bay of the nave was nearly complete, and it was handed over to the Dean and Chapter in 1961. Scott was succeeded as architect by Frederick Thomas, who designed for the west front, where the crowning glory is the Benedicite Window, designed by Carl Edwards and covering 1,600 sq. ft.

The building was finally completed in 1978, and a service of thanksgiving and dedication that October was attended by Queen Elizabeth II and with the Roman Catholic Archbishop Derek Worlock playing a major part.

More recently, Dean Rupert Hoare introduced a new constitution and statutes for the cathedral. The chapter was clear that entrance charges should not be introduced for visitors, and tried to make the building more accessible to a wide variety of worshippers, the diocese, the city, other organisations, visitors and tourists.

The cathedral celebrated its centenary in 2004, and today it is pivotal to the spiritual needs and the worship life of Liverpool, echoing the history of this great city.

Today, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott is also remembered as the designer of the red telephone box, the now defunct Battersea Power Station, and the Bankside Power Station in London, now the Tate Modern. But his other works include the Memorial Court (1923-1934) at Clare College, Cambridge, and the University Library on West Road, Cambridge, much criticised for looking more like a “crematorium or a power station.”

Although he never saw the final consecration of his cathedral, Scott can be seen in Liverpool Cathedral today in the bottom left of the Layman’s Window, wearing a blue coat.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

‘… hang all the law and the prophets’?

Bishop Charles Gore’s statue outside Birmingham Cathedral … “… Hang all the law and the prophets”? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday week, 23 October 2011, is the Fifth Sunday before Advent. The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary, and as set out in the Church of Ireland Directory, that Sunday are: Deuteronomy 34: 1-12; Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2: 1-8; and Matthew 22: 34-36.

These notes are to help us to prepare for preaching on the Gospel reading that Sunday.

Matthew 22: 34-46

34 Οἱ δὲ Φαρισαῖοι ἀκούσαντες ὅτι ἐφίμωσεν τοὺς Σαδδουκαίους συνήχθησαν ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό. 35 καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν εἷς ἐξ αὐτῶν [νομικὸς] πειράζων αὐτόν, 36 Διδάσκαλε, ποία ἐντολὴ μεγάλη ἐν τῷ νόμῳ; 37 ὁ δὲ ἔφη αὐτῷ, Ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ καρδίᾳ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου: 38 αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μεγάλη καὶ πρώτη ἐντολή. 39 δευτέρα δὲ ὁμοία αὐτῇ, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. 40 ἐν ταύταις ταῖς δυσὶν ἐντολαῖς ὅλος ὁ νόμος κρέμαται καὶ οἱ προφῆται.

41 Συνηγμένων δὲ τῶν Φαρισαίων ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς 42 λέγων, Τί ὑμῖν δοκεῖ περὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ; τίνος υἱός ἐστιν; λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Τοῦ Δαυίδ. 43 λέγει αὐτοῖς, Πῶς οὖν Δαυὶδ ἐν πνεύματι καλεῖ αὐτὸν κύριον λέγων,

44 Εἶπεν κύριος τῷ κυρίῳ μου,
Κάθου ἐκ δεξιῶν μου
ἕως ἂν θῶ τοὺς ἐχθρούς σου
ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν σου;

45 εἰ οὖν Δαυὶδ καλεῖ αὐτὸν κύριον, πῶς υἱὸς αὐτοῦ ἐστιν; 46 καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐδύνατο ἀποκριθῆναι αὐτῷ λόγον, οὐδὲ ἐτόλμησέν τις ἀπ' ἐκείνης τῆς ἡμέρας ἐπερωτῆσαι αὐτὸν οὐκέτι.

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’.”?

If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.


The story is told that when Charles Gore – founder of the Community of the Resurrection, the first Bishop of Birmingham, and the Editor of Lux Mundi – loved to play a particular prank on friends and acquaintances.

As a canon of Westminster Abbey, he enjoyed showing visitors the tomb of his ancestor, the Earl of Kerry, with an inscription that ends with the words (in double quotation marks): “Hang all the law and the prophets.”

On closer inspection, he would point out, the words are preceded by “... ever studious to fulfil those two great commandments on which he had been taught by his divine Master ...”

Some notes and comments:

The Sadducees believed that human life ended with our physical death. Some of them have argued with Jesus, and have tried to show him, by quoting from the Torah or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, what they see as the absurdity of belief in the Resurrection.

Christ has told them that they neither understand the “power of God” (verse 29), to transform us into a new way of being alive when risen. Nor have they understood the purpose of the Scriptures.

The Pharisees now “test” (verse 35) Christ by asking him a question that was often debated at the time (verse 36): of the 613 laws in the Torah, which is most important?

The first part of Christ’s answer would not have surprised them.

However, the second part of his answer, his understanding that a “second” commandment (verse 39) is of equal weight (“like it”) would have surprised them, for it was considered not be important.

Here Christ is citing Leviticus 19: 18, which says: “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” And he says this commandment is of equal importance with the first.

Yet, as Daniel Harrington says in his commentary on this Gospel (p. 315), and as Sarah Dylan Breuer writes in the agreement with him, “there is no hint in the Bible of the modern psychological emphasis on the need for self-esteem and the idea that one must love oneself before loving others.” She says self-esteem is a fine and people have benefited a great deal from the insights of modern psychology. But these interior emotional states were not a focus in first-century Mediterranean cultures.

The earliest Christian commentary on this text after the Gospels is James 2: 1-17, which may be a major help in discussing this.

When Christ says “love your neighbour as yourself,” he is essentially saying, “treat all those around you as you would your own flesh and blood” – as sisters and brothers in one family, deserving of equal honour and special care.

It is worth noticing that in that passage, James treats “faith” and “love” almost as synonyms.

Developing a right relationship of actively loving God and our fellow humans provides the key to understanding the Scriptures and to our faith.

The Pharisees regarded themselves as the experts in Biblical interpretation. But Christ now asks them some questions (verse 42).

At the time, the general understanding and expectation among people was for a political “Messiah” who was descended from David, “the son of David”.

At the time it was also thought the David was inspired by the Spirit to write the Psalms. But in verses 43-44, Christ asks: “How is ... that David” refers to “him” (the Messiah) as “Lord” (overlord), in writing “The Lord” God (Yahweh) “said to my Lord” (in other words, David’s overlord, whom Christ present in this dialogue as the Messiah) “sit ...”

So (verse 45), how can the Messiah be both David’s son and his overlord?

While in English and Greek, the word “Lord” (κύριος, kurios) occurs twice, Christ may have quoted Psalm 110: 1 in Hebrew; there the words are different. He was probably not unique in taking “my Lord” there to be the Messiah, for a political Messiah would defeat his “enemies”.

And so the Pharisees too are shown not to understand the Scriptures.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Saturday 15 October 2011.

Finding poetic inspiration on a street corner in Thessaloniki

A grieving mother weeps over the slain body of Tasos Tousis, on the corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street 75 years ago ... the photograph from Thessaloniki moved Yannis Ritsos to write his poem ‘Epitaphios’

Patrick Comerford

Thessaloniki is a city of sculptures, from the proud statue of Alexander the Great near the White Tower at the east end of the city to the moving monument on Elephtheria Square near the western end of Nikis Avenue, recalling the deportation of Thessaloniki’s Jews to the death camps in 1943.

On my final day in Thessaloniki, I visited some more Byzantine churches and monasteries, visited the Rotunda (the Church of Aghios Georgios), which had been built as the mausoleum of Gelarius, peered into the archaeological dig and walked around the remains of the Palace of Galerius on Navarinou Square, and climbed the White Tower at the eastern end of the promenade, now the symbol of Thessaloniki and the Museum of the History of Thessaloniki.

Protesting strikers marching through Mitropoleos Street in central Thessaloniki on Friday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As I walked back up trough Aristotelous Square, hundreds of striking workers were marching with banners along Mitropoleos Street, chanting slogans and blowing whistles. These protests are part of daily life in Greece today, as the government spending cuts bite deep and more and more public service workers lose their jobs.

But Thessaloniki has always been a city of protests, and there was one last monument I wanted to see before catching a flight later yesterday [Friday]. At the corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street, a busy junction just a few blocks from my hotel, by the Thessaloniki Workers’ Centre erected a monument in 1997 to remember the murder of Tasos Tousis in 1936.

That murder, and the mother’s grief it caused, instantly became the inspiration for one of the most moving poems in modern Greek literature – Epitaphios by Yiannis Ritsos.

The corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street is a busy junction ... even the Hamza Bey Mosque has been sealed off by corrugated hoarding as work on the new Metro line continues (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Sadly, I failed to find this monument yesterday [Friday, 14 October 2011]. Most of the junction has been dug up and fenced off as tunnelling and construction work continues for a new Metro line. Even the Hamza Bey Mosque on this corner – also known as Alkazar and dating from 1468 – has been surrounded by corrugated hoarding and blocked off from the public.

Hopefully, when the Metro line is finished and the new station at this junction is opened, this monument will be returned to remember that fatal incident three quarters of a century ago.

On 9 May 1936, thousands of workers, students, shopkeepers and tobacco farmers took to the streets of Thessaloniki. In the clashes with police that followed, 10 to 20 people lay dead on the streets and a further 300 were wounded.

The protests were sparked after the Greek general election that year resulted in a deadlock between the conservatives led by Panagis Tsaldaris, and the liberals led by Themistoklis Sofoulis. The Communist Party, with 15 seats and the support of the Agrarian Party, supported Sofoulis. But King George II, distrusting both liberals and communists, appointed Kostantinos Demertzis as the caretaker prime minister. But when Demertz died unexpectedly, instead of turning to Sofoulis the king appointed the Minister of War, General Ioannis Metaxas, who moved immediately against the trade union movement.

On 29 April, the Panhellenic Tobacco Workers’ Federation called a general strike, demanding the lowest daily wages be raised to 120 drachmas. Thessaloniki had a long history of trade union activism, and 12,000 tobacco workers took to the streets that day. Soon the protests spread to Volos, Serres, Drama and Kavala, and on 2 May, workers in many other Greek cities joined the strike.

The General Directorate of Northern Greece – now the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace – was the target of the protesters march in May 1936 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The strikes and protests reached a peak on 5 May, when paper mill workers, weavers, rubber workers, and cobblers in Thessaloniki joined the strike. On 8 May, 7,000 tobacco workers began marching on the General Directorate of Northern Greece (now the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace) on the hill at the top of Venizelou Street.

Mounted police and foot patrols began beating and shooting at the marchers. As news of the clashes spread through the city, many more people rushed to the support of strikers, who entrenched themselves behind hasty barricades. The authorities panicked and called in the army. After 3½ hours of clashes, the strikers and their supporters were forced to retreat. But that same night a host of other unions joined the cause.

By Saturday 9 May, the strike had become a general strike. Students, the owners of small businesses and shopkeepers joined the factory workers, so that about 25,000 people were on the streets. From dawn, the city was turned into a war zone with hand-to-hand skirmishes.

That morning, Tasos Tousis, who worked as a driver, was shot dead at the junction of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street. He was the first death in the protests. In the chilling moments that followed, a photographer captured the moment when the young man’s mother came across her son’s dead body on the street and fell to her knees.

An angry crowd gathered and placed his body on a makeshift bier made from a door. They began marching on up to the General Directorate. By now, the officials and civil servants had vacated the building, but it was defended by a large, well-armed police force. Church bells rang out as more and more people joined the crowd. Some of the police began shooting at random into the crowd, with more casualties. But the crowd refused to not scatter. Even a declaration of martial law had little effect.

Later that afternoon, the demonstrators regrouped at 5 p.m. at the street corner where Tousis was murdered, and trade unionists held the streets throughout the night.

The Army Corps C mustered all available resources near the city the next morning and swamped Thessaloniki, arresting anyone they thought looked remotely suspicious. But, despite martial law, the funerals of the victims went ahead. After the burials, there were more processions from the cemetery, near the present campus of the Aristotelian University campus, to the Vardaris district, a march of several kilometres.

Metaxas used the disturbances in Thessaloniki to stir fears of a communist revolt, and he abolished parliament on 4 August 1936. As Greece entered World War II, it was still ruled by the military dictatorship. The dragon’s teeth he had sown continued to grow in the bitter civil war that followed World War II and, in the 1960s and 1970s, under the colonels’ junta.

The corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street ... a busy junction today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Meanwhile, the left-wing daily newspaper Ritzospastis published a front-page photograph of the grieving mother dressed in black and weeping as she knelt over the body of her slain son, Tasos Tousis, on the corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street. Moved by this Pieta-like image, Yannis Ritsos, then aged 27, locked himself in his attic room and set to work immediately. In two days and two nights of intense creativity, he produced his greatest poem, Epitaphios.

“Epitaphios” is the name for the cloth that dresses the funeral bier of Christ in the Good Friday processions in Greek Orthodox churches.

In writing his poem, Ritsos was deeply influenced by the Good Friday liturgy, as well as the funeral speeches of Thucydides and Lysias. The Epitaphios Trinos is the lament chanted in Greek Orthodox churches on the evening of Good Friday. But Ritsos’s poem moves at the end from Crucifixion to Resurrection, and culminates in an abiding hope that grave injustices can be conquered.

At first, the bereft mother, like Mary with her crucified Son, grieves inconsolably. She extols her son’s virtues and recalls his gifts. She cannot understand why he died; nor can she understand his political convictions. But she gradually changes and begins to apply his local struggle to the universal struggle for social justice.

Her grief is sustained as she recalls how her son pointed to the beauties of nature and creation. She challenges the values of a society that claims to be Christian while killing those struggling for justice.

But darkness turns to light as the realisation unfolds that her son lives on in the lives of his comrades as they continue his struggle. At the end, her vision is of a future in which all shall be united in love. And in a stirring finale, she vows to take up her son’s struggle and to join his comrades in arms.

The Epitaphios in a church in central Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The first edition of this poem was published on 12 May 1936, with a dedication to the workers of Thessaloniki. A second edition, with a print-run of 10,000, outsold the works of Kostis Palamas, the father-figure of modern Greek patriotic poetry. Later, Ritsos was to become one of the most prolific poets of his time in Greece, with over 100 volumes of poems, dramatic works, essays, fiction and translations to his name, and he was nominated on 10 occasions for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Metaxas dictatorship moved quickly to ban Epitaphios and publicly burned the last 250 copies available in Athens in front of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. Epitaphios was not seen in print again until the 1950s, and in the years that followed Ritsos was held for four years in concentration camps and forced into internal exile.

The final definitive text of Epitaphios was published in 1956, and runs to 324 verses, divided into 20 parts or cantos, each with 16 verses in eight couplets, except for the last two, which run to 18 verses in nine couplets.

Robert Frost once said a true poem memorises itself, and so it could be said a true lyric sings itself and harks after a melody. Epitaphios is lyrical and Ritsos achieved that lyricism by grafting his earlier elegiac mode and his political fervour onto the rootstock of Greek folksong, the demotikó traghoúdi. He employed 15-syllable lines and rhymed couplets, reaching back into the popular and mythical past of a people continually invaded, cheated and plundered.

In 1958, he sent Epitaphios to the composer Mikis Theodorakis, who was then living in exile in Paris. Theodorakis, best known to many for his score for Zorba the Greek, set parts of the epic poem to music, employing the quintessential instrument of poor, urban Greeks, the bouzouki of rembetika, using rhythms drawn from the folk songs and folk music of different parts of Greece. At the time, the bouzouki was out of fashion among middle class Greeks, who associated it with brothels and hashish dens.

Ritsos was apprehensive when he heard that Epitaphios – with its sacred allegories drawing on the deeply religious emotions surrounding the Greek Orthodox ceremonies of Good Friday, including ta Aghia ton Aghion (“The Holy of Holies”) – was going to enter the music halls and the nightclubs of Greece. “I thought it would be sacrilege,” he said. “I was wrong.”

The setting by Theodorakis was soon recorded by other great performing artists of the day, and the poem quickly acquired a political career of its own, becoming the anthem of the Greek left.

Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki ... in 1963, central Thessaloniki again became the focus of events that brought new life to the epic poem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In 1963 – once again in May and once again in Thessaloniki – the young left-wing deputy Grigorios Lambrakis lay dying in hospital after a murderous assault that provided the dramatic story for the Costas Garvas movie, Z. Hundreds kept vigil in the streets and they were joined by Ritsos and Theodorakis as they sang Epitaphios in their martyr’s honour, vowing to ensure his struggle would live on.

After his funeral in Athens, the dirge was sung and sung again by the crowds in the streets, and graffiti began appearing on the walls: “Lambrakis Lives.” The events surrounding the assassination of Lambrakis and the subsequent efforts at a cover-up inspired the author Vassilis Vassilikos to write his thriller Z – pronounced in Greek the letter “Z” means: “He lives.”

When the colonels seized power in Greece in 1967, Ritsos was arrested yet again and sent into internal exile on the island of Samos. The poetry of Ritsos and the music of Theodorakis were banned, but Epitaphios was soon being presented at readings and concerts throughout Europe as a rallying poem and anthem of opposition to the junta. The political force of Epitaphios had acquired a new dimension directly from its lyricism and the new setting by Theodorakis.

The director Costas Garvas turned the book by Vassilos Vassilikos into a movie – although filming in Greece was impossible under the colonels and he had to make the movie in French in Algeria. Nut the colonels’ junta began to collapse with the student occupation of the Athens Polytechnic on 17 November 1973, and democracy was restored in Greece the following year.

Epitaphios still moves me every time I hear it. It is still a stirring musical and poetical reminder that death does not conquer all, that those who struggle against injustices and those who become the victims of violence and oppression do not necessarily die in vain, that death does not have the last word.

The story of the murdered young tobacco worker in Thessaloniki, and the story of the events recalled in Z are reminders that the demand for justice does not die when its advocates are beaten, silenced, murdered or die. Before I left Thessaloniki, I headed back up into the hills above the city yesterday, into the Old Town (Ano Poli), past the monasteries of Ossios David, Vlatadon and Aghios Pavlos, which appears to cling to the rocks as it hangs over a precipice, with pine forests behind.

And at Aghios Pavlos, I thought of the Epistle reading for tomorrow in the Revised Common Lectionary (I Thessalonians 1: 1-10), and how the Apostle Paul, in his opening greeting to the Church in Thessaloniki, tells the people of this city about the centrality of the Resurrection in Christian faith.

The strikes and protests in Greece continue to disrupt daily life. A flash protest by air traffic controllers in Athens delayed my connecting flight in Budapest by hours, so that I only got home in the early hours of this morning. But when the work on the new Metro line is completed, and when I am next in Thessaloniki, I hope to lay flowers at the reinstated monument to the memory of Tasos Tousis, on the corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street, and to remember those who struggle for workers’ rights, human dignity and democracy in Greece.

Weekend visit to Liverpool

The ‘Church of Ireland Notes’ in The Irish Times includes the following item:

Tomorrow ... in Liverpool Cathedral Canon Patrick Comerford will preach at the Annual Judges’ Service which marks the beginning if the Law Term. Canon Comerford, who is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy in CITI [the Church of Ireland Theological Institute,] has been invited to preach by Dean Justin Welby who will be consecrated as Bishop of Durham later this month.