12 July 2015

‘God of our pilgrimage, you have led us to
the living water. Refresh and sustain us’

‘The Feast of Herod with the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist,’ Prado, Madrid. This enormous painting, almost 10 metres wide, is probably the work of Bartholomeus Strobel the Younger (Image from Wikipedia, click image to enlarge)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

12 July 2015,

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity,

11 a.m., The Parish Eucharist

II Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29.

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

For many years, I have been engaged in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

When I first became involved in this dialogue in the 1980s, I was worried that some people in Europe were then talking about Muslims in the same way that some people in Europe were talking about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s.

Today, the world has become more polarised. We have had 9/11; we have been reminded this week of the underground bombings in London on 7/7.

This polarisation has seen the extremists become more extreme – from one extremism to the next, from the Taliban, to al-Qaeda, to Boko Haram and the self-styled Islamic State with its beheadings.

It was brought home in the past few weeks when three Irish people were among the tourists murdered in the sunshine in Tunisia.

With this widening chasm between what is being delineated as the Christian world and the Muslim world, it is more and more difficult to talk about what we share in common, rather than our differences.

It is increasingly common in many societies to see religion either as an ideological servant of the dominant political forces, or as a minority interest that should be expressed privately, in the home and the family, but not in public.

With these dual polarisations, dialogue has become an exercise where we exchange arguments and compare differences, rather than a dialogue of companionship, in which we retain our integrity but realise that the other partner has something to offer as gift.

For example, I am impressed how the daily life of the average pious Muslim is regularly punctuated by prayer, five times a day, more than most of us manage.

I am impressed by the way Muslims fast once a year for the month of Ramadan, which this year comes to an end next Saturday [18 July 2015]. In the Church of Ireland, The Book of Common Prayer notes that all Fridays are “Days of Discipline and Self-Denial” (see The Book of Common Prayer 2004, p. 20). But this is a practice that is seldom honoured or observed.

And I am impressed by the way Muslims see pilgrimage as an essential religious obligation. Apart from the haj or once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, many Muslims also make pilgrimages to places like Jerusalem, Damascus, or the tomb of Rumi in Konya.

As a Christian, as a priest, I was surprised – but ought not have been – by the welcome I received in Konya three months ago. Would we, as Christians, be so welcoming to a Muslim visiting one of the sacred places of Christianity, I wondered.

Our Post-Communion Prayer this morning addresses God as “God of our pilgrimage,” thanks God for leading “us to the living water,” and asks God to “refresh and sustain us as we go forward on our journey.”

Where are your places of pilgrimage?

Are there places where you find living water and refreshment?

Have you found places where you are sustained on the journey through life?

Is there some place you can go to and find refreshment for your soul, either on pilgrimage or on retreat?

Inside the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Two of my own places for regular pilgrimage, retreat and renewal are the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist in Lichfield, where I had my first adult experience of being filled with the light and love of God, and where I was invited to preach a few weeks ago at the Festal Eucharist on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist; and the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tollenshunt Knights, which I try to visit once a year when I am on study leave in Cambridge.

In Our Old Testament reading this morning (II Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b-19), David sets out on a pilgrimage to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Mount Zion, to Jerusalem. But it is not a journey without cost. Seeing David’s behaviour, his wife Michal despises and loathes him in her heart (verse 16).

In our Gospel reading (Mark 6: 14-29), we are caught in an in-between time.

At one bookend, we have last Sunday’s reading, when Jesus is faced with rejection when he returns home to Nazareth and when he warns the disciples that they too face rejection in their ministry and mission.

The other bookend is an episode later in this chapter (30-32), when Jesus calls his disciples together to go with him to a deserted place and to rest a while.

Pilgrimage and retreat are not necessarily about spiritual comfort and solace. Sometimes they are about preparing to face the truth, to face the world as it really is.

And this morning’s Gospel story is full of stark, cruel, violent reality. To achieve this dramatic effect, it is told with recall, or with the use of the devise modern movie-makers call “back story.”

Cruel Herod has already executed Saint John the Baptist – long ago. Now he hears about the miracles and signs being worked by Jesus and his disciples.

Some people think he is Saint John the Baptist, even though John has been executed. Others think Jesus is Elijah – and popular belief at the time expected Elijah to return at Judgment Day (Malachi 4: 5).

On the other hand Herod, deranged Herod, who has already had John beheaded, wonders whether John is back again. And we are presented with a flashback to the story of Saint John the Baptist, how he was executed in a moment of passion, how Herod grieved, and how John was buried.

At this point, the story reminds us of the cost of discipleship, and prepares us for the accounts later in this Gospel of the arrest of Jesus, his trial, including being brought before Herod, his execution, and his burial.

Saint John the Baptist remains a key figure for all traditions in the Middle East and beyond. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, he is the last of the prophets, providing the bridge between the Old and New Testaments.

Several places claim they have the severed head of Saint John the Baptist, and have become centres of pilgrimage, including a church in Rome, in the past two churches in England, the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun in Egypt, and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

When the late Pope John Paul II took off his shoes and prayed at the shrine of Saint John the Baptist in the Umayyad Mosque on a pilgrimage to Damascus in 2001, he sent out a clear message that Christians and Muslims can work together and can find more that unites us than divides us.

Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun, showing the relics in the crypt of Saint John the Baptist below the northern wall of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have also visited the Monastery of Saint Macarius. Each day, this monastery receives large numbers of Egyptian and foreign visitors, sometimes as many as 1,000 a day, both Christian and Muslim. Despite the upheavals and violence in Egypt, this monastery is playing a significant role in the spiritual awakening of the Coptic Church.

The monastery website says: “We receive all our visitors, no matter what their religious conviction, with joy, warmth and graciousness, not out of a mistaken optimism, but in genuine and sincere love for each person.”

Going out into the desert to this monastery is not a retreat from the world; it is an invitation to a new commitment to renewal, ecumenism and dialogue.

Those places associated with Saint John the Baptist can be reminders that pilgrimage and retreat are not withdrawals from the world, but are challenges to the ways of the world, particularly at times of injustice and violence.

Those places associated with Saint John the Baptist in the Middle East, including Syria and Egypt, remind us that there is another way. That we are not disciples of Herod, that blood-letting for the sake of power and victimising people of religion is not the way for people of religion who share a vision of peace.

And of course, this morning, these places must be in our prayers as we pray that integrity, morality and honour should triumph over arrogance, vengeance and the tyrannical abuse of power, that, in the words of this morning’s Collect, love may be poured into our hearts so that we may obtain God’s promises, “which exceed all that we can desire.”

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

Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary … a scene in the chancel of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)


Merciful God,
you have prepared for those who love you
such good things as pass our understanding:
Pour into our hearts such love toward you
that we, loving you above all things,
may obtain your promises,
which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of our pilgrimage,
you have led us to the living water.
Refresh and sustain us
as we go forward on our journey,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy, and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbirdge, Dublin, on Sunday 12 July 2015.

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