06 December 2014

John 1: 6-8, 19-28, ‘I am the voice
of one crying out in the wilderness’

The Triptych of the Baptism of Christ in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

In our Bible studies in this tutorial group we are looking at the Lectionary readings for Sunday week. Tomorrow week [14 December 2014] is the Third Sunday of Advent (Year B), which is known in many parts of the Church as ‘Gaudete Sunday.’

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday are: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or the Canticle Magnificat; I Thessalonians 5: 16-24; and John 1: 6-8, 19-28.

John 1: 6-8, 19-28

6 Ἐγένετοἄνθρωπος ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης: 7 οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰςμαρτυρίαν, ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός, ἵνα πάντες πιστεύσωσιν δι' αὐτοῦ.8 οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸ φῶς, ἀλλ' ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός.

19 Καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μαρτυρία τοῦἸωάννου, ὅτε ἀπέστειλαν [πρὸς αὐτὸν] οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἐξ Ἱεροσολύμων ἱερεῖς καὶΛευίτας ἵνα ἐρωτήσωσιν αὐτόν, Σὺ τίς εἶ; 20 καὶ ὡμολόγησεν καὶ οὐκ ἠρνήσατο,καὶ ὡμολόγησεν ὅτι Ἐγὼ οὐκ εἰμὶ ὁ Χριστός. 21 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτόν, Τί οὖν; ΣύἨλίας εἶ; καὶ λέγει, Οὐκ εἰμί. Ὁ προφήτης εἶ σύ; καὶ ἀπεκρίθη, Οὔ. 22 εἶπαν οὖναὐτῷ, Τίς εἶ; ἵνα ἀπόκρισιν δῶμεν τοῖς πέμψασιν ἡμᾶς: τί λέγεις περὶ σεαυτοῦ; 23 ἔφη,

Ἐγὼ φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ,
Εὐθύνατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου,
καθὼς εἶπενἨσαΐας ὁ προφήτης.

24 Καὶ ἀπεσταλμένοι ἦσαν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων. 25 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν καὶ εἶπαναὐτῷ, Τί οὖν βαπτίζεις εἰ σὺ οὐκ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς οὐδὲ Ἠλίας οὐδὲ ὁ προφήτης; 26 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς ὁἸωάννης λέγων, Ἐγὼ βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι: μέσος ὑμῶν ἕστηκεν ὃν ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε, 27 ὁ ὀπίσω μουἐρχόμενος, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ [ἐγὼ] ἄξιος ἵνα λύσω αὐτοῦ τὸν ἱμάντα τοῦ ὑποδήματος. 28 Ταῦτα ἐν Βηθανίᾳἐγένετο πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, ὅπου ἦν ὁ Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων.

Translation (NRSV):

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21 And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22 Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23 He said,

‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”,’
as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptising if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26 John answered them, ‘I baptise with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptising.

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11

The Old Testament reading (Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11), probably written after the return from Exile in Babylon, looks forward to the total salvation of God’s people – bodily, spiritually, individually and socially. The prophet says God has empowered and anointed him to act on God’s behalf.

Verses 1b to 2 are quoted by Christ when he preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth (see Luke 4: 18-19). “The year of the Lord’s favour” (verse 2; see Leviticus 25:10) refers to the jubilee year, a year dedicated to God, when all shall be free to return home to their families, and a year of rest when the land produces without being sown or worked.

Verses 4-7 tell us that strangers or foreigners from all nations are to contribute to the restoration of righteousness on earth. They will be double blessed and have eternal joy, and God’s agreement will last for ever.

In verses 10-11, the prophet speaks as the renewed Jerusalem. All will rejoice because God has provided salvation and has healed their rift with God, and the people will praise God as an example for “all the nations.”

Psalm 126

The Psalm is a liturgical song for use in public worship. When the people first returned from exile in Babylon, they could hardly believe their good fortune. But after the initial joy, life is difficult, and they ask God to restore their fortunes.

I Thessalonians 5: 16-24

Saint Paul is drawing near the end of his first letter to the Church in Thessaloniki. God’s plan for them, realszed in Christ, is to rejoice always, to make their lives a continual prayer, and to be thankful to God, whatever happens to them.

He tells them not to suppress manifestations of the Holy Spirit, not to despise the words of prophets or words of consolation and warnings spoken by members who receive messages from God, and not to ignore predictions of future events. They are to be aware that there are true and false prophets. Some speak God’s word authentically, but others who do not and are false or evil. We must take care and test or discern all supposed manifestations of the Spirit (“test everything,” verse 21).

Finally, Saint Paul prays that God, who brings peace in the community and promises eternal peace in his kingdom, may bring them into union with him. Their relationships with God and with one another must worthy of the kingdom when Christ comes again.

The Holy Spirit descending as a dove ... part of a triptych in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

John 1: 6-8, 19-28

In the opening verses of his Gospel, Saint John tells us, that the Word, the logos, in other words, what God says, God in action, creating, revealing and redeeming, exists before all time. He is the force behind all that exists; he causes physical and spiritual life to be; life, goodness, light, overcomes all evil. Jesus, the “light” (verse 7), took on being human through God, and is a force for goodness, light, godliness, for all people.

Now he tells of John the Baptist, who is sent or commissioned by God to point to Christ, to “testify to the light” (verse 7). John is the lamp that illumines the way, but Christ is the light (verse 8). When the religious authorities (verse 19) send their representatives, priests and Levites, to assess John's authenticity as a religious figure, John tells them that he is neither of the two figures they are expecting to come to earth: he is neither “the Messiah” (verse 20) nor the returned “Elijah” (verse 21). At the time, Jews believed that one or both would establish a kingdom on earth that would be free of Roman domination.

Neither is John the prophet some expected would be instrumental in establishing the Messiah’s kingdom. Saint John says simply that he is the one who prepares “the way of the Lord” (verse 23), who announces the Messiah’s coming, fulfilling the promise in Isaiah 40: 3.

The representatives of the Pharisees ask John in verse 25 why he is performing an official rite without official status. John tells them that the one to whom he points is already on earth. He is so great that for his part John protests he is not even worthy to be his slave.

Have you noticed the interesting setting for all this story?

It all takes place outside Israel (see verse 28).

Last week, I was recording a television programme for Joe Duffy’s Spirit Level, to be broadcast tomorrow evening [Sunday 7 December 2014] on RTÉ1. I was part of a panel of four, and in the test run beforehand, each of us was asked how to be addressed, and for titles for the on-screen captions.

We can become very precious about our titles in the Church of Ireland … “Reverend” … “Very Reverend” … “Right Revd” … Canon … Professor … Dr … Dean … Archdeacon … Your Grace … My Lord … and so on.

I suppose, in terms of respect for the office, or in terms of shorthand descriptions of someone’s function in the Church, they serve a purpose. But respect is not a right, it must be earned, and when we start standing on our dignity, taking ourselves too seriously, something has gone wrong.

I figure if I am known to God by the name I was baptised with, Patrick, then all Christians should feel perfectly at ease in calling me that.

And in terms of office, I should never forget that I too am one of the laos, the People of God, by virtue of my baptism, and that I remain a deacon, someone who was first ordained to serve.

Saint John the Baptist is self-effacing about himself; he is aware of his role, and he refuses to exaggerate it; yet, on the other hand, to descend to self-abasement.

He sees his own ministry as one of waiting and preparing. He is a man sent from God, he is a witness testifying to the light, but he is not the light himself, and he is quick to dispel any confusion. He is not the Messiah, he is not the Prophet Elijah, who was expected to come again. All he says about himself is that he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness the words first spoken by the Prophet Isaiah.

The Lamb seated on the Throne ... a fresco on a ceiling in a Greek Orthodox monastery in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

Have you noticed the terms Saint John the Baptist uses to describe Jesus outside this Gospel reading?

● “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1: 29 and 36): This title is given to Christ at the beginning of his public ministry as he approaches John the Baptist, and is repeated the next day. It has resonances of the Passover, so John’s Gospel begins with Jesus hailed as the Lamb of God and closes with his death as the Paschal Lamb is sacrificed in the Temple. This title speaks to us, therefore, of self-sacrifice, revealing a God who suffers for and with us.

● The one who existed before John (verse 30).

● The Son of God (John 1: 34): His two acclamations of Christ as “the Lamb of God” enclose or sandwich his other proclamation (John 1:34): “I have borne witness that this is the Son of God” or “God’s Chosen One” (verse 34). This is the first time in this Gospel that Christ is given the messianic title of “the Son of God.” The title of “The Son of God” is another reference to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

Saint John’s description of Christ as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” presents Christ as the Servant of God described in Isaiah as being led without complaint like a lamb before the shearers, a man who “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (see Isaiah 53: 7-12). But this is also read, with the benefit of hindsight, as a reference to the Lamb sacrificed at Passover – in Saint John’s Gospel, the crucifixion takes place at the same time as the Passover.

But the Lamb of God who is taking away not just my sin, not just our sin, not just the sin of many, of Christians, or those we judge as transgressors – not even the sin of the world, but the sin of the kosmos, the whole created order.

There is a difference in translations that speak of the “sins of the world” and the sin of the world.”

The word in verse 29 is the singular sin of the cosmos: ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου. The word indicates being without a share in something, in this case God’s intention or design; or missing the mark.

So often the world has missed the mark in terms of shaping up to Gods plan and intention for the whole creation, the whole cosmos.

Saint John also describes Christ (verse 30) as one who “existed before me” (RSV) or who “was before me” (NRSV), reflecting a recurring theme in Johannine literature of the pre-existence of the Word.

But who do the disciples say Christ is?

Later, they are to give three very different descriptions from those given by Saint John the Baptist:

● Rabbi or Teacher (verse 38);

● the one to see and follow (verse (verse 39);

● the Messiah or the anointed one (verse 41).

Who is Christ for you?

Robert Spence (1871-1964), “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield,” depicts George Fox preaching barefooted in the Market Square in Lichfield 1651 … George Fox challenged his followers to say who Christ is for them (Lichfield Heritage Centre)

Who is Christ for you? This is a question each and every one of us must ask ourselves anew time and time again.

He must be more than a good rabbi or teacher, because the expectations of a good religious leader or a good teacher change over time.

In this time of Advent, can you ask who is the Coming Messiah for you?

At the time, many people had false expectations of the Coming Messiah.

We may see the difference between how Saint John, near the end of his ministry, describes Christ, and how the disciples, at the beginning of answering Christ’s call, describe Christ. But who is Christ for you?

George Fox, the founding Quaker, challenged his contemporaries: “You may say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”

Who is Christ for you?

Is he a personal saviour?

One who comforts you?

Or is he more than that for you?

Who do you say Christ is?

It is a question that challenges Saint Peter later in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 16: 15). Not who do others say he is, but who do you say Christ is?

I find it is a beautiful presentation in Saint John’s Gospel that the beginning of Christ’s ministry is set out over six days. And on the seventh day of that new beginning we have a sabbath – God rests; Christ goes to the wedding at Cana, the third of the Epiphany moments. And there we have a sign, a sacrament, a token of the complete transformation of the created order, a sacramental or symbolic token of the heavenly banquet (John 2: 1-12).

Who is Christ for you?

Is Christ inviting you to the heavenly banquet, to enjoy the new creation, to be in partnership with him, as the Lamb of God, in the renewal of the cosmos?


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. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with part-time MTh students on 6 December 2014.

Hymns for Advent (7): ‘Saint Nicolas’
a cantata by Benjamin Britten

Chocolate Santas on shelves in a supermarket in Bettystown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning, on the Feast of Saint Nicholas [6 December], I have chosen Saint Nicolas, which is not a hymn but a cantata written by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in 1948, with text by Eric Crozier, and incorporating the text of two well-known hymns, and the words of the canticle Nunc Dimittis.

Britten wrote Saint Nicolas (note Britten spells the saint’s name without the letter H) for the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, the old school of Peter Pears. This was his first professional work intended primarily for performance by amateur musicians. The audience also gets to join in singing two well-known hymns, All people that on earth do dwell (Irish Church Hymnal, No 683) and God moves in a mysterious way (Irish Church Hymnal, No 13).

Although it was written for Lancing College, the first performance was in Aldeburgh Church at the opening of the first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948.

The text of Saint Nicolas was written by Eric Crozier after extensive research into the legendary life of Saint Nicholas, the fourth century Bishop of Myra. This libretto is a work of great poetry and sensitivity, offering a dramatic portrait of the saint who has become the model for Santa Claus.

As the patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas was a popular saint among mediaeval seafarers and gave his name to churches in many port cities, including Saint Nicholas Within-the-Walls in Dublin’s Liberties, dating from 1166, Saint Nicholas Without-the-Walls, a parish church that was contained within Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, from 1192, and the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas in Galway.

Over the past few years, I have visited a number of churches and cathedrals, islands and towns, associated with Saint Nicholas, including: Aghios Nikolaos in Crete; churches named after Saint Nicholas in Dublin, Galway, Dundalk, Co Louth, and Adare, Co Limerick; the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Newcastle, England; the former Nerantze Mosque in Rethymnon, which was converted into a Church in 1925 with a dedication to Saint Nicholas after the last Turks left the town; the Venetian Cathedral of San Nicolo or Saint Nicholas on the Fortezza in Rethymnon, which the Turks converted into the Sultan Ibrahim Han Mosque; the Church of Aghios Nikolaos Rangava in Athens; and the abandoned Church of Saint Nicholas on the deserted the Island of Gemile, about 9 km south of Fethiye and off the Aegean coast of Turkey.

Christopher Columbus named a port in Haiti after Saint Nicholas on 6 December 1492 – perhaps recalling his stop-off in Galway on his way to the New World, and prayers in Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church.

In eastern Crete, I have often visited the attractive harbour town of Aghios Nikólaos (Άγιος Νικόλαος), on the Gulf of Mirabello. The town is built around an inner lagoon, Voulismeni, which is surrounded by palm trees and cafés. Modern hotels and apartments may dwarf surviving older buildings, but it is still a charming place, and local people love trying to convince visiting tourists that the lake is bottomless.

The town takes its name from the tiny 11th century church of Aghios Nikólaos. Many years ago, on my first visit to the town, a visit to this Church of Aghios Nikólaos with its icons of the saint was enough to end the doubts about Santa Claus that were beginning to emerge in hearts of two small children.

As Christmas approaches, I think of Saint Nicholas as the bishop who cared for the poor, was the patron saint of children and seafarers, the generous and benevolent dispenser of gifts, the defender and rescuer of children in distress and poverty and who were in danger of exploitation and abuse, and the defender of Orthodox Christian doctrine.

Saint Nicholas remains a model for how all Christians – especially priests and bishops – are meant to live, with Christ not just at the centre of our Christmas festivities this year, but at the centre of our lives every year.

Saint Nicolas , by Benjamin Britten

I. Introduction

Our eyes are blinded by the holiness you bear…
the bishop’s robe, the mitre, and the cross of gold
obscure the simple man within the Saint.
Strip off your glory, Nicolas, and speak!
Across the tremendous bridge
of sixteen hundred years
I come to stand in worship with you,
as I stand among my faithful congregation long ago.
All who knelt beside me are gone.
Their name is dust, their tombs are grass and clay,
yet their shining seed of faith survives in you!
It weathers time, it springs again in you!
With you it stands like forest oak or
withers with the grasses underfoot.
Preserve the living Faith for which your fathers fought!
For Faith was won by centuries of sacrifice
and many martyrs died that you might worship God.

Help us, Lord, to find the hidden road…
that leads from love to greater Love…
from faith to greater Faith.
Strengthen us, O Lord!
Screw up our strength to serve thee with simplicity.

II. The Birth of Nicolas

Nicolas was born in answer to prayer, and
leaping from his mother’s womb he cried:
God be glorified!
Swaddling bands and crib awaited him there,
but Nicolas clapped both his hands and cried:
God be glorified!
Innocent and joyful, naked and fair,
he came in pride on earth to abide.
God be glorified!
Water rippled Welcome! in the bathtub by his side;
he dived in open-eyed, he swam, he cried:
God be glorified!
When he went to church at Christmastide,
he climbed up to the font to be baptized.
God be glorified!
Pilgrims came to kneel and pray by his side.
He grew in grace, his name was sanctified.
Nicolas grew in innocence and pride.
His glory spread a rainbow round the countryside.
“Nicolas will be a saint!” the neighbours cried.
God be glorified!

III. Nicolas devotes himself to God

My parents died… all too soon…
I left the tranquil beauty of their home…
and knew the wider world of man. Poor man!
I found him solitary, racked by doubt: born, bred,
doomed to die in everlasting fear of death:
the foolish toy of time, the darling of decay –
hopeless, faithless, defying God.
Heartsick, in hope to mask the twisted face of poverty,
I sold my lands to feed the poor.
I gave my goods to charity but Love demanded more.
Heartsick, I cast away all things
that could distract my mind
from full devotion to His will; I thrust my happiness
behind but Love desired more – still.
Heartsick, I called on God to purge my angry soul,
to be my only master, friend and guide.
I begged for sweet humility, and Love was satisfied.

IV. He journeys to Palestine

Nicolas sailed for Palestine across the sunlit seas.
The South West Wind blew soft and fair,
seagulls hovered through the air
and spices scented the breeze.
Everyone felt that land was near,
all dangers now were past,
except for one who knelt in prayer,
fingers clasped and head quite bare,
alone by the mizzenmast.
The sailors jeered at Nicolas, who paid them no regard
until the hour of sunset came
when he stood up and stopped their game
of staking coins on cards.
Nicolas spoke and prophesied a tempest far ahead.
The sailors scorned such words of fear
since sky and stars shone bright and clear,
so “Nonsense!” they all said.
Darkness was soon on top of them,
but still the South Wind blew.
The captain went below to sleep, and
left the helmsman there to keep his course
with one of the crew.
Nicolas swore he’d punish them for mocking the Lord.
The wind arose, the thunder roared,
lightning split the waves that poured
in wild cascades on board.
Waterspouts rose in majesty until the ship was tossed
abaft, aback, astern, abeam,
lit by lightning’s livid gleam,
and all aboard cried “Lost!”
Lightning hisses through the night,
blinding sight with living light! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!
Man the pumps! Man the pumps! Axes! Axes!
Winds and tempests howl their cry
of battle through the raging sky!
Spare us! Save us! Lifeboats! Lower away!
Waves repeat their angry roar,
fall and spring again once more.
Let her run before the wind!
Shorten sail! Reef her! Heave her to! Thunder rends the sky asunder
with its savage shout of wonder
. Pray to God! Kneel and pray!
Lightning, thunder, tempest, ocean…
praise their God with voice and motion.
Nicolas waited patiently
till they were on their knees.
Then down he knelt in thankfulness,
begging God their ship to bless,
and make the storm to cease:
O God! We are all weak, sinful foolish men.
We pray from fear and from necessity at death,
in sickness or private loss.
Without the prick of fear our conscience sleeps,
forgetful of Thy Grace.
Help us, O God! to see more clearly.
Tame our stubborn hearts.
Teach us to ask for less and offer more
in gratitude to Thee.
Pity our simplicity, for we are truly pitiable in thy sight.
The winds and waves lay down to rest.
The sky was clear and calm.
The ship sailed onward without harm
and all creation sang a psalm of loving thankfulness.
Beneath the stars the sailors slept
exhausted by their fear, while I knelt down
for love of God on high and saw his angels in the sky
smile down at me and wept, wept, wept.

V. Nicolas comes to Myra and is chosen Bishop

Come, stranger sent from God!
Come, man of God!
Stand foremost in our Church
and serve this diocese,
as Bishop Nicolas, our shield,
our strength, our peace!
I Nicolas, Bishop of Myra and its diocese
shall with unfailing grace of God,
defend his faithful servants,
comfort the widow and fatherless, and
fulfill his will for this most blessed church.

Amen! Amen!
Place the mitre on your head
to show your mastery of men.
Take the golden robe that covers you
with Christ’s authority.
Wear the fine dalmatic woven with the cross of faith.
Bear the crozier as a staff and comfort to your flock.
Set the ring upon your hand in sacramental sign,
in sign of wedlock with our God.
Amen! Amen!
Serve the faith and spurn his enemies…
Serve the faith!

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell,
Come ye before Him and rejoice.

O enter then his gates with praise,
Approach with joy His courts unto,
Praise, laud and bless His name always,
For it is seemly so to do.

For why? The Lord our God is good:
His mercy is for ever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure. Amen.

VI. Nicolas from Prison

Persecution sprang upon our Church
and stilled its voice.
Eight barren years it stifled under Roman rule:
And I lay bound, condemned to celebrate
my lonely sacrament with prison bread,
while wolves ran loose among my flock.
O man! The world is set for you as for a king!
Paradise is yours in loveliness.
The stars shine down for you,
for you the angels sing.
Yet you prefer your wilderness.
You hug the rack of self,
Embrace the lash of sin,
pour your treasures out to bribe distress.
You build your temples fair without and foul within…
you cultivate your wilderness.
Yet Christ is yours, yours!
For you He lived and died.
God in mercy gave his Son to bless you all,
to bring you life,
and Him you crucified to desecrate your wilderness.
Turn, turn, turn away from sin!
Ah! Bow down your hard and stubborn hearts!
Confess yourselves to Him in penitence,
and humbly vow your lives to Him, to Holiness.

VII. Nicolas and the Pickled Boys

Famine tracks us down the lanes,
hunger holds our horses’ reins.
Winter heaps the roads with snow…
O we have far to go.
Starving beggars howl their cry,
snarl to see us spurring by.
Times are bad and travel slow...
O we have far to go.

We mourn our boys, our missing sons,
We sorrow for three little ones.
Timothy, Mark and John are gone.
Are gone! Are gone! Are gone!
Landlord, take this piece of gold!
Bring us food before the cold…
makes our pangs of hunger grow…
O we have far to go!

Day by day we seek to find
some trace of them but Oh! Unkind!
Timothy, Mark and John are gone, are gone….
Let us share this dish of meat!
Come, my friends, sit down and eat!
Join us, Bishop, for we know that you have far to go!

Mary meek and Mother mild
who lost thy Jesus as a child,
our Timothy, Mark and John are gone, are gone.
Come, Your Grace, don’t eat so slow!
Take some meat…
O do not taste! O do not feed on sin!
But haste to save three souls in need!
The mothers’ cry is sad and weak…
within these walls they lie whom mothers sadly seek.
Timothy, Mark, and John!
Put your fleshly garments on!
Come from dark oblivion!
Come! Come! Come! Come!

See! Three boys spring back to life,
who slaughtered by the butcher’s knife,
lay salted down!
And entering, hand in hand they stand and sing:
Alleluia! Alleluia! to their King!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

VIII. His piety and marvellous works

For forty years our Nicolas, our prince of men,
our shepherd and our gentle guide
walked by our side.
We turned to him at birth and death,
in time of famine and distress,
in all our grief, to bring relief.
He led us from the valleys to the
pleasant hills of grace.
He fought to fold us in from mortal sin.
O! He was prodigal of love!
A spendthrift in devotion to us all,
and blessed as he caressed.
We keep his memory alive in legends
that our children and their children’s
children treasure still.
A captive at the heathen court wept sorely all alone.
“O Nicolas is here, my son!
And he will bring you home!”
“Fill, fill my sack with corn,” he said,
“We die from lack of food!”
And from that single sack he fed a hungry multitude.
Three daughters of a nobleman were
doomed to shameful sin till our good Bishop
ransomed them by throwing purses in.
The gates were barred, the black flag flew,
three men knelt by the block,
but Nicolas burst in like flame and
stayed the axe’s shock.
“O help us, good Nicolas! Our ship is full of foam!”
He walked across the waves to them
and led them safely home.
He sat among the Bishops
who were summoned to Nicaea:
then rising with the wrath of God
boxed Arius’s ear!
He threatened Constantine the Great
with bell and book and ban,
till Constantine confessed his sins
like any common man!

Let the legends that we tell,
praise him with our prayers as well.
We keep his memory alive in
legends that our children
and their children’s children treasure still.

IX. The Death of Nicolas

Death, I hear thy summons and I come in haste,
For my short life is done;
and Oh! My soul is faint with love
for Him who waits for me above.
Lord, I come to life, to final birth.
I leave the misery of this earth for light,
by thy eternal grace,
where I shall greet Thee face to face.
Christ, receive my soul with tenderness,
for in my last of life I bless Thy name,
who lived and died for me,
and dying, yield my soul to Thee.

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.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is
now, and ever shall be…
world without end. Amen!

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
of never failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy
and shall break in blessings on your head.

Saint Nicolas, Op. 42 by Benjamin Britten © Copyright 1948 by Boosey & Co Ltd.

Saint Nicholas in an Earley stained-glass window in the north nave of the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Francis Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Tomorrow:On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry,’ by Charles Coffin (No 136).