06 July 2014

Dancing and mourning with
each other in the cycle of life

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’ (Matthew 11: 17) … ‘Τα κάλαντα’ (‘Carols’), Νικηφόρος Λύτρας (Nikiphoros Lytras)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church,

Clyde Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4,

Sunday 6 July 2014,

The Third Sunday after Trinity,

11 a.m.:
The Parish Eucharist.


Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49, 58-67; or Zechariah 9: 9-12; Psalm 45: 10-17 or Psalm 145: 8-14; Romans 7: 15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30.

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

If confession is good for the soul, then let me confess I have stayed up too late, far too late, too many nights during the past few weeks.

I have found this year’s World Cup gripping entertainment.

Even though Ireland did not qualify, I thought it was worth following our nearest and best neighbours, even to the point of watching the match against Costa Rica when the result was not going to make one whit of difference.

And I followed Greece to the bitter end too … once again against Costa Rica.

I have stayed up far too late, on too many nights, even last night (once again watching Costa Rica), watching teams battle it out in extra time and at penalty shoot-outs.

Even if I have not flown any flags nor had my face painted, I really have entered into the spirit of this year’s World Cup.

Entering into the spirit of a game moves us from being mere spectators to feeling we truly are participants … that every shout and every roar is a passionate response, is true encouragement, that is wish fulfilment … the more passion the more we not only hope but believe that our team is going to win.

When we go to weddings and funerals … and as a priest I get my fair share of weddings and funerals … when we go to weddings and funerals, the attitude we go with makes a world of difference: do I go as a spectator or as a participant?

Imagine going to a funeral and failing to offer sympathy to those who are grieving and mourning.

Shortly after my ordination, I was asked to officiate at my first wedding. Initially, I declined the invitation to go to the reception afterwards, until someone chided me gently and asked me: are you at this wedding as a spectator or as a participant?

Perhaps, as a new curate, I was too worried about sending out the wrong signals. If I stood back, would I be reproached for not eating and drinking with the people I was there to serve (see Matthew 11: 18)? If I went, would I be seen as being too interested in eating and drinking (verse 19; cf Romans 7: 15-16)?

But it was never about me, surely. It was only ever about the couple getting married.

Recently, a student in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute was telling me about her parish placement as an ordinand. Initially, she was uncomfortable with the style of worship and the theological emphasis of the parish she was placed in. But the parish reacted to her warmly and gently. And as the weeks rolled over she realised she had moved from being an observer on Sunday mornings, to being an engaged visitor, to being a participant.

When we join in waves and chants at a match, join in the dance at weddings, sing the hymns and enter into the prayers at another church, we are moving from being observers and spectators to being participants. And the great opportunity for this transformation is provided Sunday after Sunday here, not at the Liturgy but in the Liturgy.

If you have been to the Middle East, or have just seen Fiddler on the Roof, you know that dancing at Jewish weddings was traditionally a male celebration. I have seen at funerals in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean that the open mourning and weeping is usually expressed on behalf of the community by women in particular.

Indeed, we know since classical times how a man’s worth in life was once counted by the number of women crying at his funeral.

These traditions were passed on through the generations by children learning from adults and by children teaching each other.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, we see how Christ has noticed this in the streets and the back alleys as he moves through the towns and cities, probably in Galilee and along the Mediterranean shore.

He sees the children playing, the boys playing wedding dances, and the girls playing funeral wailing and mourning.

He notices the ways in which children can reproach each other for not joining in their playfulness:

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.
(verse 17)

Even as he speaks there is playfulness in the way Jesus phrases his observation poetically. There is humour in the way he uses Greek words that rhyme for dance and mourn at the end of each line of the children’s taunts:

Ηὐλήσαμεν ὑμῖν
καὶ οὐκ ὠρχήσασθε:
καὶ οὐκ ἐκόψασθε.

Perhaps he was repeating an everyday rebuke in Greek at the time for people who stand back from what others are doing. We might put poetic rhyme on his lips here:

A wedding song we played for you,
The dance you did but scorn.
A woeful dirge we chanted too,
But then you would not mourn.

The boys playing tin whistles and tin drums are learning to become adult men. The girls wailing and beating their breasts in mock weeping are learning to become adult women. Each group is growing into the roles and rituals that will be expected of them when they mature.

Like all good children’s games, the point is the game, not who wins.

Do you remember the games you played as a child? They now seem silly and pointless. But when you were a child they mattered as a communal and community experience. The fun was not because there was anything to win. The fun was in taking part. And in taking part we were helped in the process of growing and maturing and making the transition from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood.

To and fro, back and forth, these boys and girls in the market place play the games of weddings and funerals.

The music they play shifts and changes its tones and tunes. This endless, pointless, repetition is their inherited way of learning and socialising. Their playfulness ensures their tradition and culture is reinforced and is handed on to the next generation.

But if the boys make music and the girls do not dance, if the girls wail, and the boys do not weep, how can they have a shared story, a shared adulthood, a shared culture, a shared future, a shared humanity?

When we refuse to take part in the game, in the ritual, we refuse to take part in the shaping of society, we are denying our shared culture.

When reciprocity collapses, we are denying our shared humanity.

We can become paralysed by our inability to enter into the game of others. And then the game turns from song and dance to what we might call “the blame game.”

It is so easy when I withdraw from the social activities of others to blame them.

Yes, there is a time for dancing and a time for mourning: each has its proper place, and they flow into each other, like the children’s game when it is working. But when vanity gets in the way, there is a break-down in our understanding of time and of humanity.

If I stand back detached, and remain a mere observer of the joys and sorrow in the lives of others, I am not sharing in their humanity.

And in not sharing in your humanity, I am failing to acknowledge that you too are made in the image and likeness of God.

But when we rejoice with people in their joys, and when we mourn with people in their sorrows, we are putting into practice what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us about us being not only made in the image and likeness of God individually but communally and collectively too as humanity.

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

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 6 July 2014.


Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
Give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

O God,
whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
Give us a glimpse of your glory on earth
but shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

1 comment:

Peter Langan said...

For visitors to London: all the Irish regiments, and the RIC, are commemorated by individual plaques in the chapel of St Patrick in the south aisle of Westminster Cathedral.

For visitors to Newcastle: the Tyneside Irish are commemorated (and one of their flags displayed) in St Mary's Cathedral. St Mary's is a fine Pugin building, not unlike Enniscorthy, but on a grander scale.

Peter Langan