15 December 2013

In the company of the Angelic Host and the
Communion of Saints on Gaudete Sunday

Early morning stillness in Christ Church Cathedral this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Early morning, as the sun is still rising, can cast different lights and shadows around an ancient building.

I was in Christ Church Cathedral as dawn was breaking for an early morning Eucharist in Lady Chapel on the Third Sunday of Advent (15 December 2013).

Walking around the cathedral before the doors opened, there was a calm stillness and a quiet peacefulness that were tangible in this centuries-old place of prayer.

Nobody was moving, nobody was reading aloud from guidebooks, nobody was looking for monuments or stained-glass windows, nobody was rehearsing a hymn or anthem. The organ was silent. The aisles and side chapels echoed only the prayers of centuries.

Nobody turned up for the early morning Eucharist and the Lady Chapel remained silent. I was prepared, and I had a short reflection prepared on the Gospel reading. But I was in communion with the whole heavenly host and the communion of saints.

After coffee with the vergers in the kitchen in the Chapter House, I went for a stroll through the city centre. It was now after 9 a.m., but it was a dark and quiet Sunday morning in winter, and there was a feeling that this was a much earlier morning.

A quiet Sunday morning in Trinity College Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I headed east down Lord Edward Street, and along Dame Street. A man with a power house was busy cleaning the plaza in front of the Central Bank after the pre-Christmas Saturday night revelries.

From College Green, I strolled into the Front Square in Trinity College, where small clusters of tourists looked lost and bewildered for the Library and the exhibition of the Book of Kells do not open until 12 noon on Sundays at this time of the year.

A bright winter morning sky over the Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In Dublin Castle, the Chapel Royal was still closed and in the Upper Castle Yard people in twos or threes were setting out their stalls for a Christmas Market ... but no customers had arrived.

Back in Lord Edward Street, I had a light breakfast in a small, quiet café, catching up on some sections of The Irish Times I had missed yesterday.

Back in the cathedral, the seats that had been empty earlier in the morning were filling quickly.

I was deacon at the 11 a.m. Eucharist, lighting the pink candle on the Advent Wreath for Gaudete Sunday, reading the Gospel (Matthew 11: 2-11), and assisting at the administration of Holy Communion.

The celebrant was the former Precentor and former Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College, Canon John Bartlett, and the preacher was Canon Kenneth Kearon of the Anglican Communion Office. The setting was William Walton’s Missa Brevis.

I missed the Festival of Five Lessons and Carols in the cathedral this afternoon. But, with only ten days to go to Christmas, there will be more carols and more singing in the days to come.

Early morning in Trinity College Dublin ... ten days before Christmas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Waiting for Christmas: high
expectations or disappointments?

Salome visiting Saint John the Baptist in Prison, Francesco Barbieri (Il Guernico)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 15 December 2013,

The Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday).

8. 30 a.m., Said Eucharist (The Lady Chapel).

Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146: 4-10; James 5: 7-10; and Matthew 11: 2-11.

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

Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, is commonly known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word Gaudete (“Rejoice”), the first word of the traditional introit of this day’s Liturgy:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”

On Gaudete Sunday, on the Advent wreath, the rose-coloured or pink candle is lit and the readings emphasise the joyous anticipation of the Lord’s coming.

In our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 35: 1-10), the Prophet Isaiah foretells:

● the restoration of the land to fertility
● the end of human suffering and sickness
● the restoration of hope and justice
● the joyful return of the exiles from captivity.

The Psalm (Psalm 146: 5-10) echoes the theme of restoration, focussing especially on God’s justice.

The Epistle reading (James 5: 7-10) is encouragement to keep faith in the coming kingdom in the midst of suffering and injustice in this world. Saint James tells us to be patient in suffering like the prophets.

The Gospel reading (Matthew 11: 2-11), like the third, pink candle on the Advent Wreath, is a reminder of Saint John the Baptist.

We already meet Saint John the Baptist by the banks of the River Jordan in the Gospel reading last Sunday (Matthew 3: 1-12, 8 December 2013).

Have you ever wondered why John the Baptist in this morning’s Gospel reading appears not to know who Jesus is? Is this not the same John who leaped with joy in his mother’s womb when he realised he was in the presence of the unborn Christ (see Luke 1: 44)?

As John waits in prison, about to lose his head, did he wonder whether he made a mistake in thinking Jesus is the Messiah? Is he feeling discouraged and doubtful when he sends messengers to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

In his answer, Christ points Saint John, the messengers and the crowd to the signs of the Kingdom. Echoing the Prophet Isaiah, he points out that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the dead are raised and the poor receive good news.

Is it possible that Saint John was expecting for the wrong kind of Messiah?

When Saint John’s disciples return and tell him what Christ has told them, does Saint John conclude that Jesus is not the Messiah he has been waiting for?

How often have you waited expectantly – for Christmas, for a Christmas present, for a new job, for a major family milestone, for the move to a new home – only to face the realisation that your expectation has been unfulfilled? Another pair of socks? The wrong job with low pay, high expectations and bad conditions? The family milestone upstaged by a family crisis? The new home has horrid neighbours? Is the person I loved so many years ago really the person I live with now?

Picture Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, lonely and empty by the side of the road, waiting forever for Godot who never arrives.

Picture Eleanor Rigby in the lyrics of the Beatles, waiting alone at the window, alone among the lonely people.

Picture Saint John the Baptist, waiting in a cell where he has been imprisoned by Herod the Great.

Now he is tired. He has grown discouraged. He is questioning. He is dispirited, he has questions, and he has doubts.

What happened to the John the Baptist who hailed Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?

Of course, I do not agree with those who argue that Saint John the Baptist now doubts whether Jesus is truly the Christ. It is not Saint John the Baptist who is a reed swaying in the wind, blown about by the happenings of the world and the persecution he now faces. It is the people who went to see him who are now being told they are like reeds swaying in the wind.

Saint John knows that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Saint Jerome says that Saint John, who is about to be put to death by Herod, sends his disciples to Christ so that they have the opportunity of seeing his signs and wonders so they might believe in him (Jerome, Catena Aurea, Matthew 11: 2-6).

By sending them to question Christ about his mission, Saint John the Baptist offers his disciples the opportunity to become true disciples of Christ. This is the opinion of Saint Hilary, Saint Chrysostom, Saint Cyril and many other patristic writers.

When we are disappointed, when our expectations of the coming Kingdom are dashed, is it because we are not looking for the signs of the Kingdom that are all around us?

The gift of Christ is precious, but does it always meet our expectations?

Are we prepared to look around and notice new places where Christ is working and living? If you were told: “Go and tell John what you see and hear,” where would you say you see and hear Christ at work today?

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end.

Post Communion Prayer:

we give you thanks for these heavenly gifts.
Kindle us with the fire of your Spirit
that when Christ comes again
we may shine as lights before his face;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This reflection was prepared for the Said Eucharist in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday 15 December 2013.

Art for Advent (15): ‘Christ
in Majesty’ by John Piper

‘Christ in Majesty’ (1984) by John Piper … the East Window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This morning is the Third Sunday of Advent [15 December 2013], and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary focus us on Saint John the Baptist, the traditional theme for this Sunday, also known as Gaudete Sunday: Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146: 4-10 or the Canticle Magnificat; James 5: 7-10; and Matthew 11: 2-11.

On Gaudete Sunday, the liturgical colour changes in many churches from Purple or Sarum Blue to Pink, and we light the third, Pink candle, rather than one of the purple candles, on the Advent Wreath to remind us of Saint John the Baptist.

So, for this morning’s work of art to meditate on this day in Advent, I think it is appropriate to return to the Hospital of Saint John Baptist without the Barrs on Saint John Street in Lichfield. On Friday [13 December 2013], I wrote about ‘Noah and Dove,’ the sculpture by Simon Manby in the grounds of Saint John’s. This morning, I invite you to look at the stained glass in the East Window of the chapel: ‘Christ in Majesty,’ by John Piper.

Saint John’s Hospital and its chapel date back to 1135, and the chapel is open daily to the public. Saint John’s Hospital, which provides sheltered housing for retired people, is one of the finest 15th century brick buildings in England. The chapel and the east range facing Saint John Street are part of the original mediaeval foundation, but ancient and modern come together with John Piper’s magnificent interpretation of ‘Christ in Majesty’ in stained glass, which was installed in 1984.

John Piper is best-known for his Baptistry window in Coventry Cathedral. He was born John Egerton Christmas Piper in Epsom, Surrey, on 13 December 1903. His father, a solicitor, Charles Piper, wanted him to become a solicitor too, but instead he trained at the Richmond School of Art and the Royal College of Art, London.

At an early stage in his career, he turned from abstraction concentrating on a more naturalistic but distinctive approach. His work often focuses on the English landscape and English churches.

From 1940 to 1942, he was an official war artist in World War II. The morning after the air raid that destroyed Coventry Cathedral, Piper produced his first painting of bomb damage, Interior of Coventry Cathedral. It has been described as “Britain’s Guernica” and is now in the Herbert Art Gallery.

Sir Osbert Sitwell invited Piper to Renishaw Hall to paint the house and illustrate an autobiography he was writing and Piper made his first of many visits to the estate in 1942. The Sitwell family still holds 70 of his pictures.

Piper collaborated with many others, working with the poet John Betjeman on the Shell Guides, and with the potter Geoffrey Eastop and the artist Ben Nicholson. In later years he produced many limited-edition prints.

Working closely with Patrick Reyntiens, Piper designed the stained glass windows for the new Coventry Cathedral as well as the East Window in Saint John’s, Lichfield.

Later, he worked at the Chapel of Robinson College, Cambridge, and designed a large window The Land is Bright, for Washington National Cathedral. He also designed windows for many smaller churches and created tapestries for Chichester Cathedral and Hereford Cathedral. His work can also be seen in Saint Andrew’s Church, Plymouth, the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool, the chapel of Eton College, Aldeburgh Parish Church in Suffolk, and the Old Chapel in Ripon College Cuddesdon, where I stayed recently.

As a set designer, he designed many of the premiere productions of Benjamin Britten’s operas at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the Royal Opera House, La Fenice and the Aldeburgh Festival.

John Piper died at his home at Fawley Bottom in Buckinghamshire on 28 June 1992. The Tate Collection holds 180 of his works, including etchings and some earlier abstractions. In 2012, a major exhibition, ‘John Piper and the Church,’ looked his relationship with the Church and his contribution to the development of modern art in churches.

Inside the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield … the beginning of a story of faith and discipleship (Photograph: Leon Hawley/Wikipedia)

the East Window, designed by John Piper, is the main attraction for many visitors to the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

This window is Piper’s last major undertaking, and was executed by Patrick Reyntiens in 1984. Piper’s inspiration for the window came from his drawings and paintings of Romanesque sculptures in the Dordogne and Saintogne areas of western French during his many visits between 1955 and 1975.

The window shows ‘Christ in Majesty,’ dressed in royal purple and flanked by angels within a mandorla surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists: Matthew (angel), Mark (lion), Luke (ox) and John (eagle). They appear aged, perhaps because Piper had in mind the residents of Saint John’s Hospital who pray daily in this chapel.

The window provides a splash of deep, vibrant colour above the altar in the chapel. But it is also a window of great solemnity power.

Look closely and you can also see behind Christ that the cross is in the shape of the Mercian cross, which also features on the coat-of-arms of the Diocese of Lichfield.

John Piper’s cartoon for this window was part of a recent exhibition Dorchester Abbey. His cartoons for his window in the chapel in Eton College are on exhibition in the Verey Gallery, Eton, until 7 April 2014.

For a Flickr group with more images of works by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens click here.

Tomorrow: Traditional icons of the Nativity of Christ.