15 June 2013

‘To praise Eternity contained in Time and coloured glass’

‘To praise Eternity contained in Time and coloured glass’ – John Betjeman … a window in the Unitarian Church, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford,

Irish Times Memorial Service,
Dublin Unitarian Church,

11 a.m., 15 June 2013

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

Here we are again. Another year has come and gone, another year has passed. And we are back together again, like a family, remembering those who have died, but also saying hello to each other, and glad to find that so many of us are still alive.

Whether you are religious or not, this church has come to symbolise, for many of us, the cycle of life and death for staff members and former staff members of The Irish Times.

Year after year, some of us have come here and been surprised not only to hear the names of those who have died in the past year, but to look around us and see who is still alive, who is still hale and hearty.

This church, the Unitarian Church, with its beautiful Victorian stained-glass windows, is celebrating 150 years of being on Saint Stephen’s Green. And as this congregation welcomes us back year after year, we might identify with the words of the journalist and poet John Betjeman, when he talks about churches where

… … the clasped hands lying long
Recumbent on sepulchral slabs or effigied in brass
Buttress with prayer this vaulted roof so white and light and strong
And countless congregations as the generations pass
Join choir and great crowned organ case, in centuries of song
To praise Eternity contained in Time and coloured glass.

This morning, we are giving thanks for the lives of those described by Deaglan de Breadun in his ‘Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times on Tuesday as a “circle of friends,” and recalling “Eternity contained in Time and coloured glass.”

Each year, as the names are read – especially the names of those who have died in the past year – each of us twinges, and each of us smiles. We share, paradoxically, both pain and joy. And, sometimes, there is a silent moment of guilt, regret or sorrow as we hear the name of someone and recall moments of being rude or dismissive, abrasive or unthinking, and regret we no longer have a chance to remedy that.

Tomorrow’s Gospel reading is a story that reminds me of that way of behaving (Luke 7: 36 to 8: 3). In this story in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is invited to dinner in the house of a comfortable and well-known religious leader, Simon the Pharisee.

Simon is delighted to have a celebrity guest at dinner. But that’s all he sees Jesus as – a celebrity. And so Simon forgets his manners. He may have been hoping to get some vicarious celebrity status from his dinner guest. But we all do that. Journalists are good to the point of indulgence at name-dropping when it comes to writing memoirs.

Simon is so eager to impress the neighbours that he forgets to treat Jesus like a guest, as another fellow human being, to extend the normal courtesies of welcome and hospitality.

But I can understand Simon at this point, I can see myself there.

What is less forgivable is Simon’s attitude to the woman who sneaks into the house, and washes Jesus’ feet and anoints him. She is a well-known woman about town and someone Simon is unlikely to forget.

But, while Simon is glad to be on first-name terms with Jesus, this woman is left nameless in this story. Like so many people on the margins, she is stripped of her first name – just like the Widow of Nain in last Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 7: 11-17), or the Centurion from Capernaum and his slave the week before (Luke 7: 1b-10).

It happens throughout the Gospels: the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syro-Phoenician Woman and her daughter – even the rich man who keeps Lazarus at the gate becomes marginalised himself, and in the process loses his personal name.

Depriving people of their name, imposing anonymity on them, marginalises and dehumanises them.

We can do little about the way we have mistreated those who are dead. But giving them back their names this morning restores their humanity, gives them back that great “by-line” in life.

What can we do about the past? What can we do about the way we have marginalised others in the past, reduced their humanity, deprived them of the great “by-lines” of life?

The first thing you can do is forgive yourself. Be good to yourself.

Secondly, I can decide how I am going to treat the rest of us. We are remembering the dead this morning – but we are among the living. And the best way we can pay tribute to the dead, is to honour the living.

Let us not marginalise each other, let us not make each other nameless. Let us not deprive each other of the true by-line that matters, our shared dignity in our common humanity … while we are still alive.

It is in the way we behave today that we catch a glimpse of what eternity may be like, that we can, in the words of John Betjeman, “praise Eternity contained in Time and coloured glass.”


Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, an Assistant Adjunct Professor, Trinity College Dublin, and a former Foreign Desk Editor of ‘The Irish Times.’ This address was given at an Irish Times memorial service in the Unitarian Church, Dublin, on 15 June 2013.

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