21 December 2014

‘The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight’

A Tuscan scene in Wallace’s Taverna … a scene that would not be strange to refugees in the Middle East (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Before the carol service in Marlay Park ended last night, one of the priests from Ballinteer Parish asked us to remember Christians in many parts of the Middle East who would not be free to gather in public to sing carols this Christmas or the celebrate Christmas.

It was an appropriate reminder at an appropriate time that the Christmas story is not a comfortable story: it is the story of a migrant family in the bleak mid-winter, it is the story of a homeless family refused a room on the streets of a once-royal city, it continues with the story of mass murder by a tyrannical despot who feels insecure after a visit by foreigners and strangers, and it moves on to the story of a refugee family seeking asylum after crossing the desert and one of the great rivers of the Middle East.

These are all themes in today’s Middle East, and they came up in wandering conversations over lunch this afternoon in Wallace’s Taverna in the Italian Quarter in Dublin this afternoon.

Earlier, in the morning, I had been the sub-deacon at the Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, assisting at the celebration and at the administration of the Holy Communion. As we prepared to leave the chancel and the organist began to play the recessional voluntary, the lights went out throughout the cathedral, the alarms sounded, and we left in silence.

There was no fire, but roadworks or utility works outside had cut the power supply to the cathedral, and you could say, I suppose, that a people who had seen great lights walked out in darkness.

Waiting for Christmas ... in Christ Church Cathedral before the Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later, four of us met in Walace’s Taverna for lunch, and a family member recounted stories from his visits to Beirut, the Beeka Valley and Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, and Antakya in southern Turkey and places east along the borders with Syria and Iraq.

The photographs from were amazing. They are not mine to show, but they included a large domed mosque in Beirut, lit up with stars and an impressive, tall Christmas Tree; Armenian and Maronite churches; a Druze khalwat, vineyards and cultivated terraces in the Bekaa Valley; and signs for some of the best Lebanese vineyards, including Chateau Musar, Clos Saint Thomas and Cave Kouroum.

There were photographs too of Syrian refugee camps, and Syrian children in makeshift schools.

And we discussed the distressing plight of the Yazidi refugees, all but forgotten after intense media attention a few months ago.

The photographs of the mosque with Christmas decorations – including two reindeer – and the mixture of religious traditions led to a discussion of the delicate balance in Lebanon which was once a multi-confessional state, how the protection of religious and ethnic minorities has been lost in Syria, and how it is not just Christians but people from many other faiths, including the Druze and Yazidi people, and many Muslims of different schools, are not free to gather and worship in the way they would like.

Those Syrian children looked as though could have been children in any school in Greece or Italy.

We were seated at a table by a window, looking out onto the Quays and the bridges over the River Liffey. Behind our table, a mural depicted a typical scene in Tuscany, with vineyards, cultivated terraces, bridges and a romantic Tuscan town in the distance.

It was a scene that those refugee children from Syria in schools and camps in Lebanon and Turkey could have identified with only a short time ago. I am sure tranquil scenes like this were once the norm in many parts of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

Christmas should be a time of peace for all – for children especially, and not just for Christians alone:

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by;
yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
and peace to all on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary;
and gathered, all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in;
be born to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord, Emmanuel.

A toy dog is not just for Christmas? … a trader’s stall in Henry Street this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later, we went strolling through the streets behind Ormond Quay and Bachelor’s Walk to see the bustle of last-minute Christmas shopping in Henry Street and Mary Street.

There were no “last of the Cheeky Charlies” to get, and the latest must-have to buy as a last-minute bargain seems to be a selfie stick allowing you to take “selfies” with ample panoramic background.

I also took a detour into the “Church” – the former Saint Mary’s Church of Ireland parish church which has been turned into a cafĂ© and bar. But that’s a story for another day.

Behind the Church, there was a funfair in Wolfe Tone Street, and few trees were lit up in bright lights – but they came nowhere near the delightful sight of Christmas trees and reindeer on that mosque in Beirut.

Christmas lights on the trees in Wolfe Tone Square behind the former Saint Mary’s Church in Mary Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Hymns for Advent (22): ‘Gabriel’s
message does away’ (NEH 4)

The Annunciation … an icon by the Romanian icon writer, Mihai Cocu in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. Today [21 December 2014] is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: II Samuel 7: 1-11, 16; The Canticle Magnificat (Luke 1: 46b-55) or Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26; Romans 16: 25-27; and Luke 1: 26-38.

Luke 1: 26-38

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the last purple candle is lit on the Advent, and this traditionally represents the Virgin Mary.

The following prayers at the Advent Wreath are provided in Common Worship for the Fourth Sunday of Advent:

Blessed are you, sovereign Lord, merciful and gentle:
to you be praise and glory for ever.
Your light has shone in our darkened world
through the child-bearing of blessed Mary;
grant that we who have seen your glory
may daily be renewed in your image
and prepared like her for the coming of your Son,
who is the Lord and Saviour of all.
Blessed be God for ever.

God our Father,
the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary
that she was to be the mother of your Son.
Though Mary was afraid,
she responded to your call with joy.
Help us, whom you call to serve you,
to share like her in your great work
of bringing to our world your love and healing.
We ask this through Jesus Christ,
the light who is coming into the world.

Lord Jesus, light of the world,
blessed is Gabriel,who brought good news;
blessed is Mary, your mother and ours.
Bless your Church preparing for Christmas;
and bless us your children, who long for your coming.

People of God: prepare!
God, above all, maker of all
is one with us in Christ.
Come, Lord Jesus!
God, the mighty God,
bends down in love to earth.
Come, Lord Jesus!
God with us, God beside us,
comes soon to the world he has made.
Come, Lord Jesus!
We are God’s children,
we seek the coming Christ.
Come,Lord Jesus!

So, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I have chosen as my Advent hymn ‘Gabriel’s message does away.’ This is Hymn No 4 in the New Church Hymnal, but is not included in the Irish Church Hymnal.

This is a translation by the Revd John Mason Neale (1818-1866) of Angelus emitter, a Latin hymn found in the Finnish collection Piae Cantiones (1582), and that may date from the 13th Century or earlier.

The Archangel Gabriel’s message to the Virgin Mary, and her subsequent “Yes,” mark the dawn of our redemption. This is a hymn about the triumph of Christ over Satan, and may also be used for the Annunciation (25 March), at Easter or for Christmas, as well as Advent.

This hymn was first translated from Latin into English by Neale for Carols for Christmas-Tide 1853, and was harmonised at that time by the Revd Thomas Helmore. Their original refrain was:

Therefore sing – Glory to the infant King!

However, most hymnals omit the original antiphon:

Beata es Maria quae credidisti:
perficientur in te quae dicta sunt tibi a Domino.

O Mary, blessed art thou that didst believe
for there shall be a performance of those things which were told thee from the Lord.

The Gate of Honour at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge ... Charles Wood, who was organist and fellow here, wrote the harmony for today’s hymn preferred in the ‘New English Hymnal’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The version in New English Hymnal includes both a harmony by Charles Wood (1866-1926) and a choir version with a harmony by GR Woodward (1848-1934). The hymn has been harmonised by others, including Sir Richard Runciman Terry (1865-1938).

Charles Wood was born in Armagh in 1866 and studied composition under Charles Villiers Stanford before going on to study music in Cambridge. He became an organ scholar at Gonville and Caius College in 1889, became organist in 1891, and was elected a Fellow in 1894, the first fellow in music to be elected by a Cambridge college. He succeeded Stanford as Professor of Music in Cambridge in 1924, but died two years later in 1926.

His students included some of the great composers of the 20th century, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Michael Tippett and Thomas Beecham.

Gabriel’s message does away translated by John Mason Neale

Gabriel’s message does away
Satan’s curse and Satan’s sway,
Out of darkness brings our Day:
So, behold,
All the gates of heaven unfold

He that comes despised shall reign;
He that cannot die, be slain;
Death by death its death shall gain:
So, behold,
All the gates of heaven unfold

Weakness shall the strong confound;
By the hands, in grave-clothes wound,
Adam’s chains shall be unbound:
So, behold,
All the gates of heaven unfold

By the sword that was his own,
By that sword, and that alone,
Shall Goliath be o’erthrown:
So, behold,
All the gates of heaven unfold

Art by art shall be assailed;
To the cross shall Life be nailed;
From the grave shall hope be hailed:
So, behold,
All the gates of heaven unfold

The Annunciation portrayed on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tomorrow: ‘When came in flesh the incarnate Word’ (NEH 17)