09 December 2013

A Song for Simeon instead of
Nunc Dimittis at Evening Prayer

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Andrea Mantegna, 1460, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Patrick Comerford

The canticle Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2: 29-32) stands alongside Magnificat as one of the best-loved canticles in the Anglican tradition of Choral Evensong:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace;
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

This afternoon, at Evening Prayer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, instead of singing Nunc Dimittis, I read one of two poems written at the time of TS Eliot’s conversion, A Song for Simeon, based on the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, although Eliot titles his poem A Song for Simeon rather than A Song of Simeon, the English sub-title of the canticle in The Book of Common Prayer.

A Song for Simeon (TS Eliot)

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

Simeon holds the Christ Child (Rembrandt, 1666)

This is one of four poems by Eliot published between 1927 and 1930 and known as the Ariel Poems.

TS Eliot (1888-1965), right is one of the great poets of Anglican spirituality – indeed he was one of the major Christian poets of the 20th century – and his Ash Wednesday (1930) was written to mark his baptism and confirmation as an Anglican three years earlier in 1927.

In Journey of The Magi and A Song for Simeon, Eliot shows how he persisted on his spiritual pilgrimage. He was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England on 29 June 1927. Journey of the Magi was published two months later, in August 1927, and a few months later Faber, for whom he worked, published A Song for Simeon as part of a series of Christmas booklets. In all, Eliot wrote four poems for the series.

Both Journey of the Magi and A Song for Simeon draw on the journeys of Biblical characters concerned with the arrival of the Christ-child. Both poems deal with the past, with a significant epiphany event, with the future – as seen from the time of that event, and with a time beyond time – death. The narrator in Journey of the Magi is an old man, with the first two stanzas recalling the journey from the East to Bethlehem through “cities hostile and towns unfriendly” – perhaps reflecting a difficult period of Eliot’s own journey.

In that poem, Eliot draws on a sermon from Christmas 1622 preached by the Caroline Divine, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626): “A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the year; just the worst time of the year, to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off in solistitio brumali, the very dead of winter.”

Eliot wrote:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

A Song for Simeon is also put in the mouth of an old man, the prophet Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem. Here too, Eliot draws on a Christmas sermon by Andrewes: “Verbum infans, the Word without a word, the eternal Word not able to speak a word.” In Eliot’s words, the old man sees a faith that he cannot inhabit in “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word.”

In both poems, Eliot uses images from the Christmas season that are significant for those exploring the Christian faith, images that are also prophetic, telling of things to happen to the Christ Child in the future. For example, in Journey of the Magi, we are told of “three trees on the low sky” – the three crosses that will erected on Calvary, and of “hands dicing” and “pieces of silver” – the Roman soldiers throwing dice for Christ’s clothes and the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas.

So too, there are several examples of prophetic imagery in A Song for Simeon:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation …
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow …

These refer to the scourging of Christ at his crucifixion and his mother weeping as he was crucified.

This poem starts with a winter scene:

Lord, the Roman’s hyacinths are blooming in the bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.

In this poem, Eliot confines his comments on things of the past to four lines in the second stanza. In contrast to Journey of the Magi, which concentrates more on a physical journey, Eliot here places his emphasis on the time that has been spent making an inner journey of faith:

I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.

We are aware too, that Simeon is very old. He is hanging on, waiting for God’s promise, so that he can die:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.

Just as Eliot had his inner searches and wanderings, in which he moved about from one place to another. The difficulties with his wife Vivien’s illness contributed to a separation and the complete breakdown of their marriage, adding to Eliot’s sense of disillusion with life. In both these poems, Eliot focuses on an event that brings about the end of an old order and the beginning of a new one.

Eliot structures A Song for Simeon around lines from the prayer spoken by the priest Simeon as recorded in Luke 2: 29-32:

Master, now you are dismissing
Your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation …

Simeon too was a witness. Although he was not present at Christ’s birth, he witnessed the presentation of the Christ-child when he was brought by his parents to the Temple as an eight-day-old. Yet Simeon did more than just witness the child, “Simeon took him in his arms” (Luke 2: 28) as he prayed. In his blind faith, he comes to hold the Body of Christ, and to see the child for who he really is. As Joseph and Nicodemus do when they take him down from the Cross, and as we do at the Eucharist, he becomes a bearer of Christ as he holds the Body of Christ in his hands and so becomes too part of the Body of Christ at one and the same time.

Three times in the poem, Simeon asks for peace. Is he referring to the peace that will come with his own death? Or the peace of Christ that passes all understanding?

As Christians, we do not believe that death is the end of our journey. Even before death, Eliot marks his baptism and confirmation as, if not the end of, then a triumph on, his spiritual journey. He has come to a place of faith, and now he is encouraged to continue on his spiritual journey.

The poem can be read as a song for Simeon to sing, or as a song to be sung for Simeon. We can imagine ourselves listening to Simeon’s prophetic voice, or imagine the voice of a poet singing on Simeon’s behalf or in his honour at a later age, from a viewpoint and with insights denied to Simeon himself.

In the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, the old Simeon in prayer in the Temple in Jerusalem prays: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” By contrast, Eliot’s speaker sings: “Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls.” This is not prayer at all. Instead, it sets an unexpected scene. The flowers, protected from the winter cold, are Roman, the property and pride of the pagans. Hyacinths were named after Hyacinthus, the youth killed by mistake by Apollo when his rival, Zephyrus, turned the flight of a discus.

The winter sun creeps by the snow hills as the speaker waits for the death wind. Pagan flowers and the pagan myth of a young man’s death flourish in the world of Eliot’s speaker and provide the language for speaking of life and death and life beyond.

Voices are heard from the Christian future, which the blind Simeon will not see. He is still waiting for the wind to blow, imagines only the death wind that will bear him away.

“Grant us thy peace” – the speaker evokes the Agnus Dei from the liturgy. Here we have a prayer for the peace that the Eucharist will offer, although Simeon will never share in the Eucharist.

In the first stanza, he tells of his own death.

In the second stanza, he speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem, decades later, by Rome’s armies. We are pointed towards New Testament images of the foxes that have holes, while the Son of Man has nowhere to rest; of the speaker’s descendants, in flight from Jerusalem from foreign faces and swords, and who will have to occupy the foxes’ homes.

In the third stanza, that flicker of light becomes a blaze of allusions. The Christ will tie cords to drive the traders from the Temple, will be whipped and scourged, and hear the lamentation of the weeping women of Jerusalem on the way to his death on a hill, above the “abomination of desolation,” and to his mother’s sorrow: Stabat mater dolorosa.

Simeon’s death is imminent, but far more is to come, for with the birth of this child a whole world is passing away, ages old and with no tomorrow.

In Nunc Dimittis, Simeon pleads: “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” But the word will be fulfilled in a faith and in an age that Eliot’s speaker can see only in prophecy.

Eliot capitalises “Thee” for the one and only time, as his speaker looks forward to the praise offered by the Church: “They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation …”.

Simeon warns Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul also.” But we might ask whether the heart, Eliot’s speaker says will be pierced is God’s own heart.

The weary speaker concludes by praying:

Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

At the very end of the poem, we seem to have arrived at the start of Nunc Dimittis. All that we have read so far is now seen in a new light, as a prelude to the canticle. The poet, now baptised, has the hope of a greater hope, having seen his salvation. He is tired of his former life, there is consolation as derision turns to glory. Baptised into the death of Christ, he has been born into new life.

Liturgy (2013) 10: 1 and 2: Sacred space in
Judaism, visiting the Irish Jewish Museum

The Torah Scrolls in the Ark in the synagogue in the Irish Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 14:00 to 16:30, Mondays, Hartin Room:

9 December 2013

This afternoon:

10.1 and 2:
Sacred space in Judaism: visiting the Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin.

We are visiting the Irish Jewish Museum this afternoon as part of the Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality module of the MTh course.

In the week immediately after Chanukah, which ended on Thursday [5 December 2013] and in these weeks in Advent leading up to Christmas, this visit provides an opportunity to appreciate the Jewish community’s understanding of sacred space, worship and inculturation, and the story of an important religious and cultural community in Ireland.

This small museum on Walworth Road in Portobello is in the area that once located in a part of Portobello that once had such a prominent Jewish community that it was known among Dubliners as “Little Jerusalem.”

The museum was opened in June 1985 by Chaim Herzog, who was then President of Israel. He was born in Belfast and grew up in Dublin, the son of a former Chief Rabbi of Ireland.

The museum is housed in a former synagogue that was built in 1917 when two adjoining terraced houses off the South Circular Road were knocked together.

The Jewish population later migrated from this area to the southern suburbs, and the main synagogue in Dublin is now on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure.

We shall have opportunities to see the traditional synagogue upstairs and the artefacts and exhibits on display on the ground floor, and to hear the colourful and culturally rich stories of Jews in Ireland over the centuries, including the communities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast, and the contribution over the centuries of Irish Jews to Irish political, social and cultural life.

The traditional kitchen, with a typical Sabbath meal setting, in the Irish Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

A unique feature in the museum on the ground floor is a traditional kitchen, with double kitchen sinks and a typical Sabbath meal setting from a Jewish home of the late 19th and early 20th century in this neighbourhood.

Due to the drift of the Jewish population from Portobello and Little Jerusalem to the suburbs of south Dublin, the synagogue fell into disuse and stopped functioning around 1970. The premises were locked for almost 15 years, and but the building was brought back to life again with the formation of the Irish Jewish Museum Committee in 1984 and its opening the following year.

The Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre is housed in the former synagogue on Walworth Road, which opened in 1915 and remained in use until the 1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

On the ground floor, the museum preserves an important part of Ireland’s cultural and historic heritage, with a collection of memorabilia relating to Ireland’s Jewish communities and their associations and contributions to present-day Ireland. The material relates to the last 150 years and tells the stories of Jewish communities not just in Dublin but also in Belfast, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Limerick and Waterford.

The museum is divided into several areas. In the entrance area and corridors, there is a display of photographs, paintings, certificates and testimonials. The ground floor contains a general display relating to the commercial and social life of the Jewish community.

The first reference to the presence of Jews in Ireland is in the Annals of Innisfallen, which record the arrival of five Jews, probably from Rouen in France, in 1079. Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, more Jews settled in Ireland, and 1555 William Annyas became the Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork, and the first Jewish mayor in Ireland.

However, the first synagogue in Ireland did not open until 1660, with the opening of a prayer room in Crane Lane, opposite Dublin Castle. The ground floor exhibits include memorabilia and photographs from Dublin’s many synagogues, including the now-closed synagogues on Adelaide Road and the South Circular Road (Greenville Hall).

The Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre is housed in two terraced houses in area once known as “Little Jerusalem” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In the museum, there are photographs of famous Jewish politicians and judges, including Mr Justice Henry Barron, Otto Yaffe, who became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899, Bob Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956, and Gerald Goldberg, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977, and of Ben Briscoe of Fianna Fail, Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and Mervyn Taylor of Labour.

When Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork, he opened the Trinity pedestrian bridge, which is also close to the synagogue on South Terrace where he had been President. The bridge was named after a nearby church, but local wags nicknamed it “the Passover.”

A special feature on the ground floor of the museum is a kitchen with the kosher double sink and a table that is laid out with the traditional Sabbath or Festival meal setting of a typical Jewish home in this area of Dublin in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The displays include photographs of some of the Jewish characters mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses, as well as many religious and other Jewish objects mentioned in this book. One showcase displays a selection of items referred to in the various episodes of Ulysses that have a Jewish or Irish connection.

There has never been any concern within the Dublin Jewish about James Joyce’s portrayal of Leopold Bloom. The Jerusalem Post on a recent Bloomsday reported: “Nobody has ever complained about the fictitious character Leopold Bloom. In fact, everyone enjoys it. Jews everywhere have accepted it as a story.”

The synagogue was used for a wedding as recently as 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Upstairs, the original synagogue retains all its ritual fittings. The synagogue could hold about 150 men and women. It has never been formally deconsecrated, and so was used for a wedding last year. There is still a pair of mannequins beneath a canopy, dressed for a wedding.

What was the women’s gallery now houses the Harold Smerling gallery, with many religious objects, including richly decorated covers for Torah scrolls.

The Irish Jewish Museum seeks to collect, preserve and present for public display material and artefacts relating to the Irish Jewish Community and Judaism in general and to make this memorabilia available to visitors, researchers and students.

Judaism in Ireland today:

Rabbi Zalman Lent speaking to the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference in Terenure Synagogue (Photograph: Orla Ryan, 2010)

Almost 60 years ago in New York, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, led the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue. There is a popular story that two Jews were watching that parade There is a popular story that.

One Jew said to the other: “Did you know that Robert Briscoe is Jewish?”

“Amazing! Only in America,” replied said her friend.

Since the arrival of the first Jews here in 1079, a number of Jews have been elected to high office William Annyas was Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork in 1555; Sir Otto Yaffe was Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899; in 1956 and 1961, Robert Briscoe of Fianna Fail was Lord Mayor of Dublin; in 1977, Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork; Ben Briscoe, a Fianna Fail TD, followed in father’s footsteps when he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1988.

In my own lifetime, there have been Jewish TDs for the three main political parties: Ben Briscoe (Fianna Fail), the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter (Fine Gael) and Mervyn Taylor (Labour).

The present Jewish community in Ireland dates mainly from the 1880s, when immigrants from Lithuania fleeing pogroms in the Tsarist empire found refuge in Dublin and Cork. At its highest point, the Jewish population of Ireland stood between 3,500 and 4,000 from 1911 until 1948. By 1991, this number had dropped to 1,581.

Although the last census (2011) did not include a tick box for Judaism, many Jews filled in their Jewish affiliation, so the number of Jews in the Republic of Ireland was recorded at 1,984 in 2011, up from 1,930 in 2006. In Northern Ireland, 335 people chose to identify themselves as Jewish, up from a previous estimate of 150. A further 1,069 Jews of Irish birth are living in England and Wales.

There are two synagogues in Dublin: one Orthodox synagogue on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure, and one Liberal-Progressive synagogue on Leicester Avenue in Rathgar (Knesset Orach Chayim). There is one small synagogue in Cork that rarely opens, and one synagogue in Belfast.

The Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation (Knesset Orech Chayim) on Leicester Avenue in Rathgar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In addition, there are two smaller synagogues in Dublin: the Machzikei haDas Congregation in Rathmore Villas, behind Terenure Road North; and the synagogue in the Dublin Jewish Home at the Quaker-run Bloomfield Care Centre in Rathfarnham, where there is a full Kosher kitchen is provided and services are held each Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Other synagogues in Dublin – including the ones on Adelaide Road, Walworth Road, and on the South Circular Road (Greenville Hall) closed in the 1970s and 1980s. The synagogue on Walworth Road now houses the Irish Jewish Museum, which we are visiting this afternoon.

The museum was opened in 1984 by the former President of Israel, Chaim Herzog (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

There are Jewish cemeteries in Ballybough, with graves dating back to the early 18th century, in Dolphin’s Barn, which opened in 1898, and close to the Orlagh Retreat Centre in Rathfarnham, which opened in the early 1950s. Stratford College, on Zion Road, is a Jewish-run school. But Dublin’s kosher bakery, The Bretzel in Portobello, has been owned by non-Jews for two generations.

Most Irish Jews are comfortably middle-class, many are professionals or in business, and many are third- or fourth-generation Irish-born. But they are asking themselves whether Jewish life is going to continue in Ireland? And if so, for much longer?

Emigration, an aging population, intermarriage and assimilation have all taken their toll, and some estimates say that within a generation or two only a handful of Jews are likely to remain in Ireland. Raphael Siev, who founded the museum, has estimated “there are more Irish-born Jews living in Israel than in Ireland.”

During the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute three years ago, we visited the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, where Rabbi Zalman Lent speculated that the decline has been arrested. He pointed out there is a young Jewish population in Dublin, and some Jewish immigration.

Personal encounter

Terenure Synagogue, Rathfarnham Road ... I was born a few doors away in 1952 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Close to Harold’s Cross Bridge, there is a terrace of houses on Clanbrassil Street where James Joyce says Leopold Bloom was born. Joyce made Bloom the archetypal “Dub” of the early 20th century when he wrote Ulysses.

There, in Little Jerusalem, my grandfather had cousins who shared a house with Lithuanian Jewish immigrants and cousins who lived two doors away from the house where Joyce says Bloom was born.

I was born on Rathfarnham Road, a few doors away from the Terenure Synagogue. In my youth, I knew the streets of Little Jerusalem, off the South Circular Road and Clanbrassil Street in Dublin.

Over the years, I have visited the synagogues in Dublin at Adelaide Road and Walworth Road (both now closed), Rathfarnham Road and Leicester Avenue, Rathgar, and I have written about and I have visited synagogues and Jewish communities in Austria, Britain, China, France, Greece, Hungary, Hong Kong, Israel/Palestine, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, South Africa and Turkey.

The Jewish experience in Europe

The Jewish Holocaust Memorial on Platia Eleftherias near the port in Thessaloniki ... in July 1942, all the men in the Jewish community aged from 18 to 45 were rounded up in this square for deportation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Jewish contribution to Western culture cannot all be compartmentalised into the wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, the movies of Woody Allen, amateur dramatic stagings of Fiddler on the Roof, the novels of Chaim Potok or James Heller, the songs of Bob Dylan, the poems of Leonard Cohen, Erich Segal’s Love Story, the politics and conflicts around Israel, or Madonna’s dabbling in the Kaballah.

But over the centuries, European civilisation and our spirituality have been challenged by, have been enriched by and have engaged with innumerable Jewish thinkers and philosophers, including:

● Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who declared that religious faith “consists in honesty and sincerity of heart rather than in outward actions.”
● Karl Marx (1818-1883), who irreversibly changed political and social thinking.
● Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the father figure of post-modernism, who argued: “We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent and, what is more … capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of places.” Instead, he said, we should see God as “the structure of conscience.”

Stars of David in the darkness of the night at the synagogue in Rathfarnham Road, Dublin ... the spirituality that sustained a people and a faith through the dark night of the Holocaust is rich, deep and profound (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The spirituality that sustained a people and a faith through the dark night of the Holocaust must be very rich, deep and profound, and has to have something deep and beautiful to contribute to us today, and to say to us as we experience and live our lives spiritually. Any introduction to Jewish spirituality needs to imagine the profound impact of the Holocaust on Jews collectively and on our society. And an introduction to Jewish spirituality also needs to take account of the Hasidic movement, which has influenced many writers outside its own circles.

Eight key contemporary Jewish figures:

There is a perception that Jewish religious activity is confined to concerns about the modern state of Israel or debates about the observation of kosher regulations. But there are other sources and strengths for the practice of Jewish spirituality today.

During Spirituality hour in Week 4 next semester [Monday 3 February 2014], I hope to introduce us to key themes in Jewish spirituality, including eight key personalities who, for me, illustrate the sources and strengths for the practice of Jewish spirituality today:

Martin Buber (1878-1965), a leading Austrian-born Israeli philosopher, translator, and educator. His evocative, sometimes poetic writing style has marked the major themes in his work: the re-telling of Hasidic tales, Biblical commentary, and metaphysical dialogue.

Simone Weil (1909-1943), a French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist.

Elie Weisel (born 1928), a Romanian-born modern Jewish novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor who has influenced many Christian theologians, including Jürgen Moltmann.

Dr Jonathan Henry Sacks, the former (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi in Britain, and a well-known spokesman for the Jewish community.

Rabbi Lionel Blue, an English Reform rabbi from the East End of London, a journalist and broadcaster, well-known for his contributions to A Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a Reform rabbi and Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Wales in Lampeter, and author of The Crucified Jew (1992).

Michele Guinness, who bridges Judaism and Anglicanism in her own life story.

Leonard Cohen, the Canadian born poet and song-writer – there is more to his spirituality than Hallelujah: his poetry and his lyrics are deeply influenced by Hasidic ideas and he remains deeply mystical and spiritually challenging.

CITI students, Rob Clements (Dublin and Glendalough) and Andrew Campbell (Connor), visiting the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin two years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Irish Jewish Museum, 3 Walworth Road, off the South Circular Road, Dublin 8, is open 1 May to 30 September: Monday to Thursday, 11 am to 3.30 pm; 1 October to 30 April: Sunday only, 10.30 am to 2.30 pm. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. Arrangements can be made outside opening times for adult and school groups. Contact: museum_at_jewishireland.org

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These briefing notes were prepared for Year II M.Th. students in advance of a visit to the Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin, on 9 December 2013, as part of the Module EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality.

Art for Advent (9): ‘The Dream
of Saint Joseph’ by Rembrandt

‘The Dream of Saint Joseph’ by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a work of art for this morning [Monday, 9 December 2013] is The Dream of Saint Joseph by the Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), known simply as Rembrandt.

Rembrandt is one of the greatest painters in European art and the most important in Dutch history. His best-known work is probably The Night Watch (1642) which was the highlight of my visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam some years ago. His greatest works include his portraits of his contemporaries, especially his self-portraits, and his depictions of Biblical scenes, often using members of the Jewish community in Amsterdam as models for his Biblical figures.

Rembrandt painted at least two paintings on the theme of Saint Joseph’s dreams His Joseph’s Dream in the Stable in Bethlehem, dating from 1645, is a work in oil on canvas, and can be seen in Ehemals Staatliche Museum in Berlin.

A second painting, The Dream of Saint Joseph, which I have chosen for this morning, is also a work in oil on canvas, and measures 105 x 83 cm. It was completed ca 1650-1655. It was bought in 1885 by the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum) in Budapest from Alois Hause in Munich.

I sometimes wonder what Saint Joseph must have thought in these weeks of Advent, before he went to Bethlehem with the pregnant Mary

When he realises that Mary is pregnant, Saint Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’.”

Saint Joseph has a second dream after the birth of Christ, and after the Magi visit the new-born Christ Child. Saint Joseph is then warned in a dream by an angel of the Lord to take the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child and flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plans (see Matthew 2: 13-15).

In Egypt, Joseph has a third dream when Herod dies, and is told by an angel of the Lord to “take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel” (see Matthew 2: 19-20).

Perhaps, when reading these Gospel stories, we should not lose sight of the resonances, especially in the last dream, of the stories in the Book Genesis of Joseph, who interprets the dreams of Pharaoh in Egypt.

So, Joseph in his first dream is certainly worth pondering in these weeks of Advent as a person of faith that translates into action. This painting by Rembrandt imagines the angel coming gently but insistently with a message to Joseph in his second dream, telling him must do to save the life of the Christ Child. These dreams come to an end with the third dream, which shows us that Joseph is not only a dreamer of dreams, but also a doer of deeds. He is not only a man of vision, but also a man of action – a combination that I certainly find a challenge.

Tomorrow: The Church of ‘Il Redentore’ in Venice, by Canaletto.