Sunday, 29 September 2013

Welcoming strangers and entertaining
angels without knowing it

The Congregation of All Angels, an icon by a nun from the Monastery of Saint Irene, in an exhibition in Rethymnon earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity [29 September 2013]. I am presiding at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 11 a.m., and the preacher is the Archdeacon of Glendalough, the Ven Ricky Rountree, Rector of Powerscourt and Kilbride, Co Wicklow.

The setting is Judith Bingham’s Missa Brevis ‘Awake My Soul’, and some of the hymns music this morning also recall that today is also the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, including the Processional Hymn, ‘Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels’ (tr Athelstan Riley), the Offertory Hymn, ‘Angel-voices ever singing’ (Francis Pott), and the Post-Communion Hymn, ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’ (Athelstan Riley).

The Gospel reading (Luke 16: 19-31) tells the story of Dives and Lazarus, and both the Epistle reading (I Timothy 6: 6-19) and this morning’s Gospel reading contain severe warnings about the dangers of enjoying wealth and riches without considering the needs of others.

The Apostle Paul is often misquoted as saying money is the root of all evil. But as our Epistle reading this morning reminds us, what he actually tells Timothy is that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and that, “in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Surprisingly, God is not named nor does God feature in this morning’s Gospel story. But then, there is one complete book in the Bible, Esther, in which there is no reference to God at all.

Most people will be surprised to learn too that Dives is not named in this Gospel story either, nor do we have names for any of his five brothers who are also mentioned.

Abraham is named; Moses is named; but the name Dives is one given to the rich man in popular Christian tradition – it is not there in Saint Luke’s telling of the story.

The loss of Dives’ humanity is symbolised by his loss of a personal name. I am baptised with a personal name, and so incorporated into the Body of Christ; that name is how I am known to God and to others – God calls me and you recognise me by my name. Without a name, can Dives remain in the image of God? Can he be called on by others as a fellow human being?

On the other hand, we seldom think of the significance of the name of name Lazarus. The original Hebrew name, Eleazar, means “the Lord is my help,” which is an interesting name when I consider that the rich man in his castle was certainly of no help to the poor man at his gate.

But wealth and poverty are not the only indicators of how we marginalise people, and leave them outside the gate, leave them outside our boundaries, leave them beyond the scope of our welcome.

Who is Lazarus to me today? Who do I exclude, who do I make a stranger at the gate?

We are told that when the poor man in the Gospel reading died, he “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”

The angels who come to welcome Lazarus into the heavenly home call to mind the advice: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13: 2).

An icon of Saint Michael in the Icon Exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon which continued until the beginning of this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

And, of course, those angels in both this morning’s Gospel reading and that passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews remind me that today [29 September] is also Michaelmas, the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, although its celebration is probably being transferred in many places to tomorrow [Monday, 30 September 2013].

The Communion motet at the Cathedral Eucharist this morning is Richard Deering’s ‘Antiphon to Benedictus at Lauds on Michaelmas Day’:

Factum est silentium in coelo dum committeret bellum draco, cum Michaele Archangelo audita est vox milia milium dicentium. Salus, honor et virtus, omnipotenti; Deo. Alleluia (“There was silence in heaven whilst the dragon joined battle with the Archangel Michael. A cry was heard – thousands of thousands saying: ‘Salvation and honour and power be to Almighty God’ Alleluia”).

Angels were the subject of this year’s summer school organized by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and icons of angels featured throughout the Icon Exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon which continued until the beginning of this month.

John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral, reflecting the ruins of the old, bombed cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I am reminded too that Coventry Cathedral is entered through John Hutton’s “Screen of Saints and Angels,” with tall glass panels inspired by Basil Spence’s plans for the new cathedral, rising up from the ruins of the bombed cathedral, and by his vision of a new church rising through a screen of angels and saints, linking the old and the new.

Gazing at this screen, especially on a sunny summer’s day, picking out the angels and archangels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, you see a vivid reflection in the glass of the ruins of the old bombed cathedral behind you.

This morning we can pray that we remain open to welcoming strangers and that we may be pleasantly surprised to find we are entertaining angels. For a Church that marginalises certain identifiable groups of people will be surprised that when we are “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” to find that the marginalised and the excluded are there already.

A Musical Endnote

Last night on Facebook, Professor Brendan McConvery of Maynooth drew my attention to this YouTube clip of Maddy Prior singing Dives and Lazarus during a live performance from Nettlebed Folk Club in Oxford on the ‘Seven For Old England’ tour. The song is on the album of the same name, Seven For Old England.

The tune, which sounds like the air for the Star of the County Down, comes from Vaughan Williams’s Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus for Strings and Harp, which had their first performance in New York in 1939, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult during the World’s Fair.

This performance also comes from New York, given by the CBS Radio Orchestra on 7 February 1954 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, who was a student with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in the 1890s and a long-time champion of the composer’s music.


Almighty and everlasting God:
Increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

All praise and thanks, O Christ,
for this sacred banquet,
in which by faith we receive you,
the memory of your passion is renewed,
our lives are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory given,
to feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.

Saint Michael above the main door in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect of Saint Michael’s Day:

Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted the ministries
of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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