Monday, 18 February 2013

A teaching Eucharist in Lent

“... to preside in the very deed that so expands the life of creatures is a function of unquestionable beauty and dignity,” according to Robert Hovda

Patrick Comerford

Introduction


During our training, preparation and placements, many of us are filled with a natural human anxiety, worrying about the first time we stand before a congregation to celebrate or preside at the Eucharist or the Holy Communion. So much so, that we may be in danger of forgetting that we too are present among the congregation, to be enriched and fed spiritually as we meet Christ, present in word and sacrament.

We all know what it is to ask: “Will I get it all right when it comes to my turn?”

This morning, we have an opportunity, instead, to ask not about ourselves, but about the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper itself. This morning, we ask not “What am I doing?”

Rather, we ask: “What are we doing together?”

And: “What is Christ doing with me, with us?”

The Eucharist is the great thanksgiving –
eucharistia (εὐχαριστία) – for the great goodness of God. Whether we call this “The Eucharist,” “The Holy Communion,” “The Sacrament,” or “The Lord’s Supper,” this is the central act of Christian worship where Christ encounters and feeds his faithful ones.

As the first of the General Directions for Public Worship in
The Book of Common Prayer, and as Bishop Harold Miller says, “The Holy Communion is the central act of worship in the church.” Bishop Miller says it is the most normative and complete act of Sunday worship. He says: “The Holy Communion gives us a window into all that is most vital in our regular worship.”

As we have it, this service is not simply the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. It is a combination of both a Liturgy of the Word, a Prayer Service, and a Liturgy of the Sacrament.

The President’s Role at the Eucharist is defined at six specific points:

1, The Opening Greeting;
2, The Collect of the Day;
3, The Absolution;
4, introducing the Peace;
5, praying the Eucharistic Prayer;
6, the Dismissal.

So let us watch for these six moments as we are gathered together.

The Greek work ἐκκλησία
ekklesía, which we translate as “Church,” refers to the gathering of the people, the calling out of the world and into the assembly.

Before the arrival of the priest, the congregation gathers. We are here first and foremost as the gathered or assembled church, believers. Others may be guests, and welcomed guests, but it is not a secular gathering, on the one hand, nor, on the other hand, is it a meeting for evangelism. The presumption first and foremost is that those present are baptised believers.

We meet in his name, and we do as he commanded us. We meet not as a collection of neighbours, or as a collection of individual Christians, but as the One Body of Christ, and in the power of the Spirit. The liturgy is essentially what we do – it is truly our “Common Prayer.”

Already, the candles are lit and the lectern has been dressed in the liturgical colours of the season: Violet for Lent, for we are preparing to welcome Christ who is made known to us as our King at his passion, death and resurrection.

In the vestry or sacristy, the priest may be saying prayers such as the familiar third collect at Morning Prayer:


Go before us, Lord, in all our doings, with your most gracious favour,
and further us with your continual help;
that in all our works begun, continued and ended in you,
we may glorify your holy name,
and finally by your mercy attain everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The memory of the silent prayers said by the priest before presiding or celebrating is retained in Holy Communion 1 in The Book of Common Prayer, where it says “The priest stands at the Lord’s Table. The people knell.” And then he or she prays the Lord’s Prayer (without the doxology) alone.

We too should be silent as we gather our thoughts, our minds, ourselves as we prepare to celebrate.

In common language, we normally use the words “celebration,” “celebrating” and celebrant” for the person presiding at the Eucharist or the Holy Communion.

But we are all celebrating, celebrating together, we are all co-celebrants, and the person who presides is the one who seeks to bring it alive, to animate what is happening, to see that it truly is the liturgy, the work of the people, and not something we are present at as spectators.

The people have gathered, the many have come together to be one body.

We are social and sociable. We chat with one another.

But we are not collected individuals, and small groups of twos or threes.

We are about to be gathered together as one people.

The priest who is presiding is the last to enter, and we stand – in silence or singing a hymn – ready to be gathered together as one body.

The priest joins us before the altar or table.

Our worship does not open or begin with the processional hymn. It opens or begins when we are gathered together as one body when the presiding priest stands at the president’s chair and calls us together in the opening liturgical greeting.

The liturgical greeting is not the same as Good Morning. And it establishes who is presiding, the presidency, so it should not be left to a Reader or an assistant:


The Lord be with you
and also with you.

A sentence of scripture may be read, and the presiding minister may introduce the liturgy of the day …

And we know why we are celebrating this Eucharist together this morning.

Christ is present among us in so many ways: in word, in sacrament, and in the gathered Body of Christ. And so, in awe and reverence, we draw our hearts and minds together and prepare to enter fully into worship, praying the Collect for Purity.

This prayer comes to us as an inheritance of Sarum Use, and was so loved that it has survived in
The Book of Common Prayer ever since 1549.


Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden;
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Penitence as part of the gathering of the people has been an integral part of Anglican liturgy since 1556.

The Confession is introduced with appropriate words, such as:


God so loved the world that he gave his only Son Jesus Christ, to save us from our sins, to intercede for us in heaven, and to bring us to eternal life.
Let us then confess our sins in penitence and faith,
firmly resolved to keep God’s commandments
and to live in love and peace:

Then there is silence to think about this.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned in thought and word and deed,
and in what we have left undone.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us,
that we may walk in newness of life
to the glory of your name. Amen.


Almighty God,
who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy on you,
pardon and deliver you from all your sins,
confirm and strengthen you in all goodness,
and keep you in eternal life,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sometimes we use penitential sentences instead of the confession and absolution. The Kyrie responses are a Trinitarian acclamation and among the oldest prayers in the Church. In their Greek form they are the oldest surviving Greek prayers in the Western church:

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

In Holy Communion 1, the canticle
Gloria comes after receiving Communion. Its present place restores the canticle to the place it had in 1549. We have been forgiven, now – like the angels and shepherds – we can give Glory to God who comes among us.

The canticle
Gloria in Excelsis may be omitted in Advent and Lent and on weekdays which are not holy days, and so we omit it today, but not for any excuse of brevity.

But when we use
Gloria, we should use it joyfully, it is full of images that children love, and resonances of its words can be found in almost all Christmas carols, for example. Children love the story of this canticle. All Christmas carols, in some form, include words from it, and they delight in its images, its words and its pictures.

Then comes the
Collect. Once the meaning of a collect has been explained, people rarely forget, because we all know what is to ask for our basic needs to be met. That is natural … I need, I need, I need, I feed, I feed, I feed … therefore I am? A collect is literally a collection of all the intentions and favours we seek, for the Church, for ourselves, for the world.

We are all asking for something … and we should give people time to think of what they need before praying the Collect of the Day:


Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
In obedience to your Spirit;
And, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In our worship, the Church of Ireland seeks a balance between Word and Sacrament. Both are important places for Christ being made present for us, for us presenting ourselves before Christ.

Colin Buchanan has summarised the Eucharist as “A Bible study, followed by a prayer meeting, followed by a meal.” And so, Proclaiming and Receiving the Word is not preliminary to, or preparation for the Eucharist. It is both proclaiming and receiving. It is an essential part, an indispensible element of every celebration.

Properly, the full Word of God should be proclaimed … Old Testament, Psalm or Biblical Canticle, New Testament and Gospel. Otherwise, we have to ask, are we saying the Old Testament has lost its validity or – even worse – suggesting the God of the Old Testament is not quite the same as the God of the New Testament?

Unfortunately, the Daily Lectionary of the Church of Ireland for today provides only for an Old Testament reading [Leviticus 19: 1-2, 11-18], a portion of a psalm (Psalm 19: 7-14], and a Gospel reading [Matthew 25: 31-46].


A reading from the Book Leviticus, Chapter 19, beginning at verse 1:

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
13 You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning. 14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15 You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Lord.
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

This morning’s psalm is Psalm 19, verses 7-14.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
and gives wisdom to the simple.

the statutes of the Lord are right and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure
and gives light to the eyes.


The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever;
the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, dripping from the honeycomb.
By them is your servant taught
and in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can tell how often they offend?
O cleanse me from my secret faults.
Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins
lest they get dominion over me;
so shall I be undefiled, and innocent of great offence.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

The doxology, ‘Glory to the Father ...’ may be omitted, for the Psalms are valid Biblical prayers without having to be ‘Christianised,’ and it is traditional to omit to doxology at the end of the Psalms during Lent and Advent.

We often sing a canticle, psalm, hymn, anthem or acclamation as a gradual before proclaiming and receiving the Gospel.

And that leaves us standing to receive the Word of God, facing the Gospel, which is best proclaimed and received, not from the table or the altar but among the people.

If the Gospel reader marks three Crosses on the forehead, lips, and heart, all that is being said is simply: “Please help me to love your word with my mind, keep it on my lips, and hold it in my heart.”


The Gospel Reading


Hear the Gospel of our Saviour Christ, according to Saint Matthew, chapter 25, beginning at verse 31.

Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

31 [Jesus said:] ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

The word is not just proclaimed but is received, and we ought to take it for granted that at every celebration of the Eucharist there is an exposition of the World, so people can receive it, so we can own it, so we can integrate it into our faith.

And the Liturgy of the Word then naturally reaches its climax when we share in the common confession of the faith of the universal Church, the Nicene Creed.

We may use other creeds in other forms of worship, but
The Book of Common Prayer insists on the Nicene Creed in the Eucharist, and on Sundays and Principal Holy Days.

The Prayers of the People

The intercessions normally include: prayers for: the universal Church; the nations of the world; the local community; those in need; and remembrance of, and thanksgiving for, the faithful departed.

But each petition should be brief, and we should avoid making intercessions appear like a series of collects. They should be addressed directly to God, and not to the people – this is not the place for another sermon.

But bear in mind firstly that these are the prayers of the people, not of the priest, and secondly, that you do not need to pray for all things at all services. Brevity and simplicity are important, corporate silence is important, and we should not hijack the prayers of others, the piety of others, and we should not displace the importance of the Great Thanksgiving, for the Eucharist itself is the Thanksgiving par excellence, and this should never be obscured by the content of the intercessions.


Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

The Peace

We have been gathered together, we have heard God’s word together, we have found we share the same faith, we have prayed together. To draw on Colin Buchanan’s imagery, we have had our Bible study and our prayer meeting. Now, before we share the meal … are we at peace with one another?

The Peace is still objected to in some parishes. How it is introduced will shape whether it is acceptable and whether it is liturgical. In the Communion we are being reconciled with God and with one another, so this should not be any old peace.


Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God though our Lord Jesus Christ.

The peace of the Lord be always with you
and also with you.

Let us offer one another a sign of peace.

Celebrating at the Lord’s Table

But we have more to offer. Most people think of the offertory as the collection. But it’s not, at all. It’s about offering God back what God has offered us … food and drink to nourish us, transformed by our labour, the fruits of our labour, our sweat and toil.

And we offer that as we prepare to eat together.

Now is the time to eat together, and so before the meal we prepare the table.

In families, children love preparing the family table, love the idea of gifts being given and received. There’s not much chance of that happening at this point in a parish church if they have been sent out to Sunday school beforehand.

If the priest washes his or her hands at
Lavabo it is good table manners. But over and over again, the Church uses water as a sign of purity and purification.

If children are preparing the table, they would love to hear these appropriate words:


Wise and gracious God,
you spread a table before us;
nourish your people with the word of life,
and the bread of heaven. Amen.

Or when the gifts are brought forward – and the most important gifts are not money but food and drink that sustain us – we might also include gifts made by the children who have come in from the Sunday School. More likely we are going to hear traditional words such as: ‘Lord, yours is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty; for all things come from you and of your own we give you.’

The Eucharist is not just words. It comes alive in action. And so there are four identifiable movements or actions we should watch out: taking, blessing, breaking and giving.

First we have the Taking of the Bread and Wine
.

The bread and wine are the gifts of God and the work of our hands has turned wheat and grapes and water into bread and wine ... we offer to God what God has offered to us

We sometimes get this so wrong. How often do we find the bread and wine are already on the table or altar, or on a credence table at the side where no-one can see them? If the bread is little bits of sliced pan already cut into tiny squares, how are we going to break the bread together?

And the person presiding should show they are taking this bread and wine – and this is not about elevation. Only the bishop or priest then may say: “Christ our Passover …” This is one of the roles of the president, and cannot be delegated.

Like the opening greeting, this too states clearly what we are about to do. This is no longer bread and wine for secular use. What God has given to us for our sustenance we now offer to God.


The Eucharist ... the word simply means thanksgiving

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us
therefore let us celebrate the feast.

The word Eucharist simply means thanksgiving. In a sense we are all lifting that Bread and Wine and saying thanks you for God’s gifts of life and what sustains life.

The Great Thanksgiving

There are three Great Thanksgiving Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer. We are using Prayer 3 this morning because it looks back to the past, looks to the present, and looks to the future, because it is remembrance and anticipation, because it is fully Trinitarian, and because its responses and refrains reminds us that Liturgy is the Work of the People, we are all celebrating together.

The spirit of each of these three prayers is thanksgiving. It is not supposed to be quiet, or penitential, or singular. The appropriate posture is that all are standing, for all are celebrating. But how many people when they are leading the liturgy change this by asking people to kneel, or by asking them to kneel for the Sanctus. The only rubric for posture in Holy Communion is Stand, and, as Bishop Harold Miller says, the normal place for presiding is behind the altar/table, with hands out-stretched throughout the prayer.

The whole prayer, and not merely the Biblical words recalling the Last Supper, is the Eucharistic Prayer. If after those words the bread and wine are raised up, it is in giving thanks. But it is the whole prayer that is what we may call the ‘consecration,’ it is all the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion.


“The Lord’s People at the Lord’s Table

Catherine and Philip are standing beside Patrick, not to assist him, but to symbolise that we are all gathered around together. It is not that they are assisting Patrick, but that Patrick is assisting us to celebrate. He is the servant at the Table. This is Christ’s meal … and, as the Body of Christ, it is our meal. Notice the plural language that Patrick now uses:

The Lord is here.
His Spirit is with us.

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Father, Lord of all creation,
we praise you for your goodness and your love.
When we turned away you did not reject us.
You came to meet us in your Son,
welcomed us as your children
and prepared a table where we might feast with you.

In Christ you shared our life
that we might live in him and he in us.
He opened wide his arms upon the cross and,
with love stronger than death,
he made the perfect sacrifice for sin.


Lord Jesus Christ, our redeemer,
on the night before you died
you came to table with your friends.
Taking bread, you gave thanks, broke it
and gave it to them saying,
Take, eat: this is my body which is given for you;
do this in remembrance of me.
Lord Jesus, we bless you:
you are the bread of life.


At the end of supper
you took the cup of wine, gave thanks, and said,
Drink this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant,
which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins;
do this in remembrance of me.
Lord Jesus, we bless you:
you are the true vine.


Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ:
dying, you destroyed our death,
rising, you restored our life;
Lord Jesus, come in glory.


Holy Spirit, giver of life,
come upon us now;
may this bread and wine be to us
the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
As we eat and drink these holy gifts
make us, who know our need of grace,
one in Christ, our risen Lord.


Earlier, we had the taking of the gifts of bread and wine. Now in the thanksgiving, in the invocation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we have the blessing. And we repeat that blessing:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Blessed Trinity:
with your whole Church throughout the world
we offer you this sacrifice of thanks and praise
and lift our voice to join the song of heaven,
for ever praising you and saying:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
God of power and might.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!


Thanks be to you, our God, for your gift beyond words.
Amen. Amen. Amen.

Taking, blessing … now we are about to notice the breaking and the giving. And we prepare for this in the words of The Lord’s Prayer.

As our Saviour Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:

Our Father, who art in heaven:
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory
for ever and ever. Amen.


And now we have The Breaking of the Bread, what is also called the Fraction.

The bread which we break
is a sharing in the body of Christ.
We being many are one body,
for we all share in the one bread.


We break, we share. There is no point in a meal where the food is not served. And so the fourth essential movement, after taking, blessing and breaking, is the giving … the giving and receiving. And at The Communion there is an invitation to each and every one of us, collectively and individually:

Draw near with faith.
Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you,
and his blood which he shed for you.
Remember that he died for you,
and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

Only when the invitation has been given, should the altar party receive Communion. It would be wrong for them to receive first and then invite others; this is work of the whole Church, and there are not two categories or classes of baptised and communicant members. The rubric states specifically: the presiding minister and people receive communion, and states this after the invitation.

And if you were at a meal, how appropriate it would be for us all to serve one another, to look after each other’s needs.


The body of Christ keep you in eternal life.
The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life.

Amen.

Our ‘Amen’ is our Amen to Christ present to us and among us in so many ways this morning … in Word, in Sacrament, and in us collectively as the Body of Christ.

The Great Silence

When all have received Communion, all keep silence, not for some imposed act of piety, but for reflection on this awe-filled meeting with God. As the Bible reminds us constantly, the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of all Wisdom.

The Blessing and Dismissal

Now we have been gathered, had our Bible study, our prayer meeting, and our meal together, we are ready for Going out as God’s People. We are ready for a Blessing to send us out into the world in mission.

Firstly, we are prepared for that with an appropriate Post Communion Prayer:


Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We think on what has happened in the past hour, and look forward to the coming week:

Almighty God,
we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
of the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies
to be a living sacrifice.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to live and work to your praise and glory. Amen.


To do that we expect God’s blessing:

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

And that’s it, Let’s go!

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord
in the name of Christ. Amen.

And we go

Some reading:

Rosalind Brown, Christopher Cocksworth, On Being a Priest Today (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2002).
Stephen Burns, Liturgy (London: SCM Press, 2006).
Mark Earey, Liturgical Worship: a fresh look, how it works, why it matters (London: Church House Publishing, 2002).
Howard E. Galley, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist, A Guide to Celebration (Cambridge MA: Cowley Publications, 1989).
Richard Giles, Creating Uncommon Worship: transforming the liturgy of the Eucharist (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004).
Robert Hovda, Strong, Loving and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976).
Harold Miller: The Desire of our Soul: a user’s guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Dublin: Columba, 2004).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating the Eucharist, A Practical Guide (London: SPCK, 2011 edition, Alcuin Liturgy Guides 3).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Victiry, Ash Wednesday to Trinity (London: SPCK, 2009, Alcuin Liturgy Guides 6).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin). This ‘Teaching Eucharist’ was celebrated in the institute chapel on 18 February 2013 as part of module Spirituality on the Pastoral Formation course.

The words in red italics were read by a student-narrator.

Material in this service from The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004) © RCB 2004

With the Saints in Lent (6): Fra Angelico, 18 February


Fra Angelico (Fra Giovanni di Pietro da Fiesole), The Annunciation (ca 1440-1445), Basilica di San Marco, Florence

Patrick Comerford

During last week’s Ash Wednesday tretreat in the Jesuit Centre for Spirituality in Manresa, Clontarf, my tutorial group met in the afternoon in Father Brendan Comerford’s room, where the prints on the wall included a copy of The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, an Italian painter of the early Renaissance who was both a devout friar and an accomplished painter.

Because 25 March falls on the Monday in Holy Week this year, the celebration of the Annunciation have been transferred to 8 April. However, today [18 February], Fra Angelico (1395-1455) is named in the Roman Catholic calendar. Fra Angelico is also the Patron of Artists, and it said he once said: “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always.”

During my visit to the Uffizi in Florence last September among the works of Fra Angelico on display were his Coronation of the Virgin (ca 1432), his Altarpiece, The Coronation of the Virgin, and his life-sized Madonna and Child with twelve Angels.

The National Gallery of Ireland has his Saints Cosmas and Damian and their Brothers Surviving the Stake (ca 1439-1442), which was bought in 1886. This small panel was part of the predella or lower register of Fra Angelico’s most important altarpiece. Other parts of it are scattered in galleries around the world. The altarpiece was painted for the church of San Marco in Florence, and was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici - whose name is echoed in the profession of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian (medici means ‘physicians’ in Italian).


Fra Angelico was called both Angelico (“angelic”) and Beato (“blessed”) because his paintings were of calm, religious subjects and because of his extraordinary personal piety.

He was born Guido di Pietro in Vicchio, Tuscany, in 1395. He entered a Dominican convent in Fiesole in 1418 and he became a friar with the name Giovanni da Fiesole ca 1425. He apparently began his career as an illuminator of missals and other religious books. He began to paint altarpieces and other panels; among his important early works are the Madonna of the Star (1428?-1433, San Marco, Florence) and Christ in Glory surrounded by Saints and Angels (National Gallery, London), which depicts more than 250 distinct figures.

Among other works of that period are two of The Coronation of the Virgin (Uffizi and Louvre, Paris) and The Deposition and The Last Judgment (San Marco). His mature style is first seen in The Madonna of the Linen Weavers (1433, San Marco), which features a border with 12 music-making angels.

In 1436, the Dominicans of Fiesole moved to the Convent of San Marco in Florence, which had recently been rebuilt by Michelozzo. Cosimo de’ Medici, one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the city’s Signoria, had a large cell – later occupied by Savonarola – reserved for his own personal use at the friary so he could retreat from the world.

There, Fra Angelico, sometimes aided by assistants, painted many frescoes for the cloister chapter house and the entrances to the 20 cells on the upper corridors. The most impressive of these are The Crucifixion, Christ as a Pilgrim, and The Transfiguration.

His altarpiece for San Marco (1439) is one of the first representations of what is known as A Sacred Conversation: the Madonna flanked by angels and saints who seem to share a common space.

In 1445, Pope Eugenius IV summoned Fra Angelico to Rome to paint frescoes for the now destroyed Chapel of the Sacrament in the Vatican. In 1447, with his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli, he painted frescoes for the chapel of Pope Nicholas in the Vatican, including Scenes from the Lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence (1447-1449), probably painted from his designs by assistants.

From 1449-1452, Fra Angelico was the Prior of the Dominican Convent in Fiesole. He died in the Dominican Convent in Rome on 18 February 1455. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

His epitaph says: When singing my praise, don't liken my talents to those of Apelles. Say, rather, that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor. The deeds that count on Earth are not the ones that count in Heaven. I, Giovanni, am the flower of Tuscany.

Fra Angelico combined the influence of the elegantly decorative Gothic style of Gentile da Fabriano with the more realistic style of Renaissance masters such as the painter Masaccio and the sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti, all of whom worked in Florence.

Fra Angelico was particularly effective in his use of colour to heighten emotion. His skill in creating monumental figures, representing motion, and suggesting deep space through the use of linear perspective, especially in the Roman frescoes mark him as one of the foremost painters of the Renaissance.

He is described by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists as having “a rare and perfect talent.” Vasari wrote: “But it is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.”

Legend has it that Fra Angelico almost became a saint. When he was called to Rome in 1445, Pope Eugene IV was in search of a new Archbishop of Florence. He eventually chose the Vicar of San Marco, Antonio Pierozzi. Then, 200 years later, when Pierozzi was proposed for sainthood, it emerged that the pope’s first choice as Archbishop of Florence was Fra Angelico, but that the painter’s humility caused him to decline and instead suggest Pierozzi for the post.

Eventually, after a further two centuries, Fra Angelico was beatified on 3 October 1982 by Pope John Paul II in recognition of the holiness of his life, giving him the title of “Blessed” rather than “Saint.” In 1984, Pope John Paul II declared him patron of Catholic artists.

The Incarnation was one of Fra Angelico’s favourite themes, and he painted over 25 variations of it. His painted meditations, so needed at the time of the early Renaissance, are still necessary today. This Lent, let us remember that God became human to bring us closer to God by way of all things human. God makes all things new by fashioning them into possible vehicles of grace for us, so that by visible realities and concrete concepts, we can arrive at an understanding and a love of higher, invisible realities, all leading to God himself.

Tomorrow (19 February): Saint Philothei.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and Adjunct Assistant Professor, the University of Dublin (TCD).