22 December 2013

Teasing experiences of Four Seasons
on the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Winter lights and snow clouds on the beach at Bettystown, Co Meath, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The bite of the bitter chills of Christmas weather could be felt along the east coast this afternoon.

Earlier in the morning there was a clear blue above Christ Church Cathedral that looked deceptively like summer skies – but for the bare branches on the trees in front of the Chapter House. But by the time four of us got to Laytown in the afternoon for a late lunch in Bettystown, the rain had turned to sleet, and soon in turned to snow.

Deceptive blue skies but bare branches at Christ Church Cathedral this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Yesterday was the winter solstice, and soon some smart people are going to begin repeating the well-worn Irish mantra: “It won’t be long before you start noticing a grand stretch in the evening.”

But this afternoon I noticed there the bite and chill of winter.

It was as though this Fourth Sunday of Advent was teasing us with some of the experiences of the Four Seasons on one day.

Earlier this morning, at 8.30, I had presided at and preached at the early morning Said Eucharist in the Lady Chapel in the cathedral.

Later, after a light breakfast in a pleasant café in Lord Edward Street, and a little time to skip through the pages of the Economist, I was back in the cathedral to preside at 11 a.m. at the Choral Eucharist.

The Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral before the Said Eucharist early this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The preacher was the Dean of Residence in Trinity College Dublin, the Revd Darren McCallig, and the setting was Tomás Luis da Victoria’s Missa Ave Regina Coelorum, sung by the Cathedral Choir – an appropriate setting for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, when the Gospel reading, the fourth candle on the Advent Wreath, and the Collect and Post-Communion Prayer traditionally remember the Advent role of the Virgin Mary.

This morning’s hymns included: O come, O come, Emmanuel! (Post-Gospel Hymn), by TA Lacey; Long ago, prophets knew (Offertory Hymn), by F. Pratt Green, with its rousing season chorus:

Ring, bells, ring, ring, ring!
Sing, choirs, sing, sing, sing!
When he comes,
When he comes,
Who will make him welcome?

And All for Jesus! all for Jesus! (Communion Hymn), by WJ Sparrow-Simpson, with its tune by John Stainer; and Lo! he comes with clouds descending (Post-Communion Hymn), by Charles Wesley, to the tune Helmsley, attributed to Thomas Olivers.

During the Communion, the choir was in ambulatory to sing a 14th century Latin motet to a setting by Francisco Guerrero (1527–1599):

Ave virgo sanctissima, Dei Mater
piissima, maris stella clarissima.
Salve semper gloriosa, margarita pretiosa,
sicut lilium formosa, nitens, olens velut rosa.

Hail, Holy Virgin, most blessed Mother of God,
bright star of the sea.
Hail, ever glorious, precious pearl, beautiful as the lily,
shining and giving perfume like the rose.

The splendour of Gormanston Castle this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

After coffee in the crypt, and a brief stop in Clontarf, four of us continued north for lunch, stopping on the way so a visitor from New York could see the splendour of Gormanston Castle and the unique Yew Walk in the grounds of my old school, Gormanston College.

Local legend and popular tales given currency by schoolboys say Lord Gormanston created this sculpted yew walk as a triangular-shaped cloister in the late 17th century to appease his daughter and to persuade not to become a nun.

As we were leaving Gormanston, there were heavy black clouds in the sky. As we turned east from Julianstown towards Laytown, the rain started to pour down. Although we still had good views of the river and estuary, we joked that no-one could describe this as “a grand soft day.”

As we drove north along the “Gold Coast” of Co Meath, it was a matter of gold turning to silver as the rain turned to sleet, and then – by the time we got to Bettystown – turning to snow.

Snow on the terrace and tables outside Relish in Bettystown, Co Meath, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We got a table by the window at Relish, and sat watching the brown, snow filled choppy waters beating against the sands of the shore.

As we waited for our food, two of us descended the steps behind Relish, and as we photograph the winter scene, the snow suddenly stopped, the clouds turned to white and the sky to blue, and there was a blue reflection along the waters in the ripples in the sand. It was possible to imagine we could see as far as the Co Down coast to the north and the Mountains of Mourne that sweep down to the sea.

Looking south towards Laytown from the beach at Bettystown this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We lingered in the warmth of the welcome at Relish, over an accompanying bottle of Pinot Grigio, and stayed even longer with four double espressos in this winter wonderland. How long is going to be this pleasant? Snow, ice and heavy rain is threatening to sweep across these islands with flooding and severe disruption to traffic over the next 24 hours.

Snow clouds above the Irish Sea at Bettystown this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Dreaming dreams and being
obedient to God’s promises

The Dream of Joseph, Georges de la Tour (1593-1652)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral,

Sunday 22 December (The Fourth Sunday of Advent)

8.30 a.m., Said Eucharist (the Lady Chapel).

Isaiah 7: 10-16; Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-25.

Matthew 1: 18-25

18 Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν. μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ, πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου. 19 Ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι, ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν. 20 ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμηθέντος ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου κατ' ὄναρ ἐφάνη αὐτῷ λέγων, Ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς Δαυίδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν Μαρίαν τὴν γυναῖκά σου, τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου: 21 τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν. 22 Τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,

23 Ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν,
καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ,

ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ' ἡμῶν ὁ θεός. 24 ἐγερθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰωσὴφ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕπνου ἐποίησεν ὡς προσέταξεν αὐτῷ ὁ ἄγγελος κυρίου καὶ παρέλαβεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ: 25 καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν: καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν.

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

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

Our readings this morning [22 December 2013] bring us into the last week of Advent. Christmas is upon us, most of the presents have been bought, most of the cards have been sent, most of the trees are up and dressed, and the last of the purple candles on the Advent Wreath is being lit at the Sung Eucharist later this morning.

This last candle represents the Virgin Mary, and in most cathedrals and churches this morning, Mary is likely to be the heroic figure in sermons focusing on our Gospel reading.

Those sermons are likely to talk about Mary and her obedience, Mary’s “Yes.” And Joseph may be pushed to the side of the stage. He says “Yes” too, but he says it silently; he has no scripted lines; he has no dramatic part or role; he is mute; but he is obedient. And, like Joseph, his namesake in the Old Testament who is named in the Psalm (Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19), he too is dreamer of dreams and a doer of deeds.

Saint Matthew’s nativity story lacks the romantic images we have with Saint Luke, whose heady mixture of heavenly angels and earthy shepherds is missing.

Instead, the hope of all the earth takes shape under the sign of arrangements being made for a betrothal that is apparently violated. The gifts of God’s grace and the promise of God’s reign are hidden, are to be searched for and are to be found in the midst of what appears be a very tawdry story.

I imagine Mary may have been a mere teenager at the time, just 14 or 15. And, like so many other teenage brides, she turns up for her wedding – pregnant! Joseph knows he could not possibly be the father. He decides quietly drop out of the arrangement.

If Joseph goes ahead, then this child is going to be known in his family, among his neighbours, perhaps by everyone who needs to know, as illegitimate for the rest of his life.

These fears and sneers, those social judgments and wagging fingers, must have been running rapidly through Joseph like a nightmare. Yet the angel of Joseph’s dream makes a startling suggestion. He tells him to marry Mary, and then he is to name the child. To take on naming the child means becoming his father. And this suggested not as a nice thing to do, or a courteous thing to do, or a gallant or gentlemanly sort of thing to do. Joseph is told why: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (verse 21).

It is not a promise of immediate reward. Joseph is not offered the promise that if he behaves like this he is going to earn some Brownie points towards the forgiveness of his own sins; that God will see him as a nice guy; or even that if he lives long enough this child may grow up, be apprenticed to him, take over the family business, and act as a future pension plan.

Instead, the promised pay-off is for others as yet unknown. “He will save his people from their sins.” The forgiveness spoken of here is spoken of in apocalyptic terms. It is the declaration of a new future. To be forgiven is to receive a future. Forgiveness breaks the simple link between cause and effect, action and reaction, failure and disaster, rebellion and recrimination.

It is the fulfilment of the ancient prophecy, Matthew declares (verse 22): the hope of all the ages, the beginning of the end of all the old tyrannies, the restoration of everything that is and will be, was always meant to take place in a virgin’s womb, in the manger, on the cross.

That is Advent. It is a time of expectation, repentance and forgiveness. It is a time of preparation, anticipation and hope. It is a time for dreaming dreams, and putting behind us all our nightmares.

The dream in our Gospel reading is the dream of Joseph, not Mary’s dream. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the angel appears not to Mary, but to Joseph.

Joseph dreamed something wonderful. God would enter the world; God would be born to his new, young wife, Mary. But to believe this, Joseph had to trust not only his dream, but to trust Mary, to trust the future child, to trust God.

Do you love the people you trust and trust the people you love?

To trust Mary, Joseph must have truly loved Mary. But trust in this predicament must have gone beyond trust. Joseph must have truly glimpsed what it is to trust God, to have hope in God, to love God, to have faith in God.

Joseph dreams a dream not of his own salvation, but of the salvation of the world.

Do you trust that God is working through the people you love? Do you trust that God is working through people you find it difficult not to love but merely to like … working through God’s people for their salvation?

Too often we forget about poor Joseph. Every year, we tend to focus on the story of Mary. But this morning we are told the annunciation is an event not just for Mary, but for Joseph too. And they both say “Yes.”

Joseph has a second dream and faithfully responds to God’s call a second time

And Joseph says a second Yes too. Later in this Gospel, in the Lectionary reading for next Sunday, the First Sunday of Christmas, we read:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’ (Matthew 2: 13-15).

Joseph listens, God sends a messenger again, Joseph dreams again, and he remains true to God, he answers God’s call.

Joseph has no speaking part; he just has a walk-on part in this drama. But his actions, his obedience to God’s call, speak louder than words.

Yes, God appears over and over again, to men, women, to “all sorts and conditions of people.”

But do we trust them?

Can you have faith in someone else?

Can you believe their dreams?

Can you believe the dreams of those you love?

And dream their dreams too?

As Dean Samuel G. Candler of Saint Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia, suggests in a sermon on this Sunday six years ago: “Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and Jesus will be born again. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God will appear. Amen.”

The Gospels are silent about the intimate details of Joseph. But then, Joseph too is silent in the Gospels. I sometimes thought Joseph was the worst part to play in the school nativity play … a walk-on part, but no lines to say.

Joseph has no speaking parts at all. All we know is he lived in Nazareth in Galilee before the birth of Christ (Luke 2: 4).

Joseph does not speak. Instead, Joseph dreams and Joseph listens.

He listens to the angel who tells him not to divorce Mary (Matthew 1: 20-21), and does what the angel of the Lord tells him (Matthew 1: 24).

When the law commands it, Joseph takes his pregnant wife to Bethlehem (Luke 2: 4), and the child is born there.

After the birth of Christ, Joseph listens to an angel in another dream – and, silently, he does as he is told, and without mumbling or grumbling gets up and takes the Mother and Child into Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-14).

When Herod dies, Joseph is told by the angel in yet another dream to return with Mary and Jesus from Egypt (Matthew 2: 19-21).

Then Joseph learns in a fourth dream Herod Archelaus is in power in Judea, and he is warned in a dream to move to Galilee. And so, Joseph takes the mother and child to Nazareth and they settle there (Matthew 2: 21-23).

The last time Joseph appears is when the family visits the Temple in Jerusalem when Jesus is about 12 (Luke 2: 41-52). Bu there is no mention ever again of Joseph.

Did he hear Jesus preach in the synagogue?

Did he see him heal?

Was he too at the Wedding at Cana?

Well, we do not know.

Like his namesake Joseph in the Old Testament, Joseph in the Gospels is a dreamer. Most dreamers are good on ideas but weak on delivery, dreamers but not doers. But Joseph in this morning’s Gospel is both a dreamer and a doer.

What if Joseph had rolled over and had another 40 winks after each of those dreams? What if Joseph said No at each turn?

At different times, we’ve all pondered Mary’s potential “No” at each turn. But, what if Joseph said No, had divorced Mary, left Jesus to be brought up by a single mother?

What if Joseph decided to stay at home and Jesus was born in Nazareth?

What if Joseph had ignored the warning and stayed on in Bethlehem, so that the new-born child was found by Herod’s troops hunting down all the new-born children?

What if Mary and Jesus moved back from Egypt to Bethlehem or Jerusalem, and became victims of the murderous schemes of Herod Archelaus?

What if Joseph and Mary had failed to find the teenage Jesus when he got lost in the Temple?

What if?

We often think that dreamers need to take their heads out of the clouds and get their feet back firmly on the ground. We often think that those who have little to say have little to contribute.

Joseph proves how wrong we can be. Joseph is a dreamer and Joseph is a doer. Joseph plays a key role in the great story of salvation. Does it matter what he does afterwards? No. It just matters that he did what he was asked to do. We leave the rest to Christ.

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


God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer

Heavenly Father,
you have given us a pledge of eternal redemption.
Grant that we may always eagerly celebrate
the saving mystery of the incarnation of your Son.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was prepared for the Said Eucharist in the Lady Chapel, Christ Church Cathedral, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 22 December 2013.

Art for Advent (22): Presepe in Duomo
dei San Filippo e Giacomo, Sorrento

The Nativity scene inside the main doors of Sorrento’s cathedral is on display all year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

In our Gospel reading this morning, the Fourth Sunday of Advent (22 December 2013), we read Saint Matthew’s account of the Nativity (Matthew 1: 18-25), and the fourth and final candle on the Advent Wreath which is lit this morning, is a reminder of the Virgin Mary.

My choice of a work of Art for Advent this morning is the Presepe or diorama, the traditional nativity scene in the Cathedral in Sorrento, the Duomo dei San Filippo e Giacomo.

Although Christmas in Italy has become more-and-more commercialised and internationalised each year, it is not all that long ago since the main Christmas decorations were limited to the traditional presepio or presepe, or nativity scene, which reached an high level of intricate detail in recent decades.

The tradition of recreating the Nativity with a presepio (the word literally means crib) dates back to the 13th century.

These nativity scenes are examples of Italian rustic art, and are often very elaborate affairs, and feature scenes conflated from the first Christmas alongside imaginative scenes from 19th century towns and villages. They often have hundreds of hand-made figures, individually and lovingly crafted, including artisans in traditional costumes working at their trades and merchants and bankers at their stalls and tables carrying out their daily business.

The manufacturers now even make figures of celebrities, sports stars and politicians to place in the presepio along with the traditional characters. In some places, you may see Barack Obama or Silvio Berlusconi among the shepherds.

Each church erects elaborate Nativity displays with these hand-carved miniatures depicting scenes from the Christmas story and every-day old town scenes. Many families also have one in their home and shops sell complete stable scenes, or the figures to make your own, in the weeks before Christmas.

Part of the Nativity scene inside the main doors of Sorrento’s cathedral is on display all year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In Sorrento, the Christmas celebrations still focus on the Nativity, with many events and concerts. During December, the churches in Sorrento have had their presepio or nativity scene on display. However, in the duomo or cathedral, it seems as it is forever Christmas, for the large presepio just inside the main doors is on display all year.

The cathedral, dedicated to the apostles Saint Philip and Saint James, stands halfway along the Corso Italia in the heart of Sorrento. It was first built in the 11th century was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 15th century, and has a marble altar, pulpit and throne dating from the 16th century, and a pair of 12th century doors from Constantinople.

The cathedral, which I visited a few times this year, is best known for its collection of 17th-century art, including paintings by Giacomo del Po and Oronzo Malinconico. The Italian poet Torquato Tasso was baptised in the baptistery which has been restored.

Part of the Nativity scene inside the main doors of Sorrento’s cathedral is on display all year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Tomorrow:Ten Saints’ by Giovanni D’Angelo D’Amato.