Monday, 16 November 2015

Liturgy 6.3 (2015-2016): Seminar, the ‘Word’
expressed in music and the arts

Stained glass windows in the chapel of Gormanston College, Co Meath ... inspired by the architecture and art of Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays, Hartin Room:

Liturgy 6.2: 16 November 2015


Seminar: the ‘Word’ expressed in music and art.

For this seminar, linking the word, in its liturgical context, with music and art, I have chosen some of my favourite examples from paintings, architecture, music and poetry.

1, Paintings:

My two chosen paintings are Holman Hunt’s Light of the World and Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927).

1.1: Holman Hunt, The Light of the World

“Be like those who are waiting for their master ... that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks” ... Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World

One of the earliest images I have of Christ is William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World – it was the first image of Christ I remember being shown to me by my grandmother as a small boy in her house in West Waterford.

There are two original copies of this famous painting. The first painting was moved to Keble College, Oxford, and became so popular that Holman Hunt was asked to paint a larger copy. This second version was sold on condition that it toured the world to preach the Gospel and the purchaser would provide cheap colour reproductions. After travelling the world, this second version of The Light of the World was presented to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1904. There it remains to this day as ‘a painted text, a sermon on canvas.’

There are countless copies of this painting in vestries and vestries, rectories and vicarages, and homes throughout the Anglican Communion.

Despite the popularity of this great work of art, few people know what the artist was trying to say, or the spiritual depths he searched, as he worked on this painting. Yet it remains one of the great artistic expressions of Anglican spirituality.

Holman Hunt was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – those young artists and poets of the Victorian era who reacted vigorously against ‘the frivolous art of the day.’ They included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister, the poet Christina Rossetti. Their paintings of religious or romantic subjects were clear and sharply focused. They believed that art is essentially spiritual in character and that mediaeval culture had a spiritual and creative integrity that was lost in later eras.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) received his middle name through a clerical error at his baptism in 1827 in Saint Mary’s, Ewell, near Epsom. He was raised in Cheapside in an evangelical family, where he spent much time reading the Bible. He left school at 12, but he persuaded his parents to send him to the Royal Academy Schools to train as a painter.

Holman Hunt began painting The Light of the World in 1851. When it was displayed in 1853, it was harshly criticised. But John Ruskin defended Holman Hunt, and curiosity about the painting reached such a pitch that it went on a national tour by demand.

Holman Hunt later recalled: ‘I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject.’

To achieve realism, Holman Hunt did much of this painting at night by the light of a lamp in Ewell, where he was baptised.

The work is full of symbolic meaning, with the contrasts between light and dark, and between luxuriant, abundant plants and the thorns and weeds. The painting shows Christ, the Light of the World (John 8: 12), knocking on an overgrown and long-unopened door: ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you, and eat with you, and you with me’ (Revelation 3: 20).

In his painting, Christ’s head bears two crowns: the earthly crown of shame and his heavenly crown of glory. The thorny crown is beginning to bud and to blossom. These are not thorns from a hawthorn hedge, or briars from an overgrown garden in England. These are thorns from branches thrown by soldiers in Palestine on a barrack-room brazier, with spikes three to four inches long, twisted into a rough-and-ready crown set firmly on Christ’s head, each sharp spike drawing blood.

Christ’s loving eyes look directly at you wherever you stand to view this painting. But the sadness on his face is painful. His listening aspect shows that even at the eleventh hour he knocks, hoping for an answer. His hands are nail-pierced, his half-open right hand is raised in blessing, but his feet are turned away, as if he is about to go. For he has been knocking, and he has been left waiting.

For Christ’s royal mantle, Holman Hunt draped his mother’s best tablecloth around his model, but the symbolism was lost on many. Christ who knocks at the door invites us to his table and to the heavenly banquet. The mantle might be a liturgical cope, linking this scene with the eschatological promise in the Eucharist. This cope or mantle is secured by the Urim and Thummim, clasped by the Cross in a symbol of Judaism and Christianity being brought together.

Christ’s robe is seamless, symbolising the unity of the Body of Christ.

Christ’s lantern lights up his features, the doorway, and the way ahead. ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Psalm 119: 105). To those living in darkness, Christ is waiting to enter their lives. The cords of the lamp, twisted around Christ’s wrist, symbolise the intense unity between Christ and the Church.

The shut door has no latch, no handle, no keyhole – it can only be opened from inside. But the iron-work is rusted, for it is a long time since this door has been opened. The door to our hearts has to be opened from within, through repentance and faith, faith that flowers and bears fruit.

The door is overgrown with the dead weeds and trailing ivy that choke up flowers and any fruit. They would not be there had the door been kept open. All the plants have been overtaken by brambles, because this a place to which the gardener has not come.

Above flies a bat, blind and unable to see in the darkness, long associated with ruin and neglect. Below, the fruit has fallen to the ground and some are rotten. Yet the light from the lamp shows this fruit has come from a good tree.

I think of the Advent theme of Christ coming to usher in his kingdom, and wonder when Christ comes knocking at your door, whether those in the house will be prepared and ready?

Will Christ be welcome to sit down and eat?

Will he find the fruits of faith are flowering?

Or will they be crushed and scattered on the ground beneath him?

1.2: Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927):

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927)

This painting hangs in the Tate Gallery in London and I have been intrigued by it long before it was used to illustrate a major feature of mine in The Irish Times.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1956) believed that the divine rested in all creation. His earthy Christian faith and his preoccupation with death and resurrection are reflected in many of his works. His mural for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, dedicated to the dead of World War I, has an altarpiece depicting the Resurrection of the Soldiers.

Stanley Spencer was born in and spent most of his life in the Thames-side village of Cookham in Berkshire, about 30 miles west of London. One of 12 children, he seems to have had an enchanted childhood. Perhaps this explains why he saw his home town of Cookham as a paradise in which everything is invested with mystical significance.

Characters and stories drawn from the daily Bible readings with his father inspired his future work. Much of his greatest work depicts Biblical scenes, from miracles to the Crucifixion. However, they are set not in the Holy Land, but – like this painting, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923–1927) – are set in Cookham, which he referred to as ‘a village in heaven.’ Cookham and its familiar figures became the ingredients for most of his paintings, with actual villagers depicted as Biblical characters.

The Resurrection, Cookham is the first of a great series of resurrection paintings. The entire population of the village – including Spencer – is seen popping out of their graves in the churchyard in Cookham, looking as dapper as ever, squinting in the sunlight of bright sunny day.

Christ is enthroned in the church porch, cradling three babies, with God the Father standing behind. Spencer himself appears near the centre, naked, leaning against a grave stone. His fiancée Hilda Carline – whom he married in 1925 while working on this painting – lies sleeping in a bed of ivy. At the top left, we can see risen souls being transported to Heaven in the pleasure steamers that then ploughed along the River Thames.

But do you notice anything odd here? This is a resurrection without a last judgment. It seems everyone in Cookham is to be forgiven their sins.

Some questions:

Do you think either of these artists is trying to say something about liturgy of word and liturgy of sacrament in these paintings?

What connection is Holman Hunt’s image of Christ making with Eucharistic symbolism?

How is he trying to make visual connections between the Eucharist and the Word?

What is Stanley Sepncer saying about the goodness of people and the way we conduct funerals, preach at funerals, or preach about the resurrection?

2, Architecture:

Once again, I have two choices this morning. But instead of choosing two Gothic revival churches designed by Pugin, I have chosen two works of modern architecture, one Anglican and one Roman Catholic: Coventry Cathedral in the English Midlands, and the Church of the Sacred Heart in Laytown, on the coast of Co Meath.

2.1: Coventry Cathedral

John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral, reflecting the ruins of the old, bombed cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a national poll in Britain in the 1990s, Coventry Cathedral was elected Britain’s favourite 20th century building. It never fails to move, excite and delight all who visit and worship here, and it had a remarkable influence on church architecture from the 1950s on, influencing even the design of my own school chapel in Gormanston, Co Meath.

The cathedral’s international work, through its Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation and the Community of the Cross of Nails, has provided spiritual and practical support in areas of conflict throughout the world, and has made Coventry Cathedral known internationally.

The story of Coventry dates back for more than 1,000 years, and includes the story of the 12th century Priory Church of Saint Mary, the mediaeval Parish Church Cathedral of Saint Michael and the modern Coventry Cathedral, also named after Saint Michael.

Saint Mary’s, the earliest cathedral in Coventry, was founded as a Benedictine community in 1043. The modern Diocese of Coventry was formed in 1918, and Saint Michael’s Church became its cathedral. On the night of 14 November 1940, Coventry was destroyed by German bombs, and along with it the cathedral was burned down.

The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the next morning. But rebuilding was not to be an act of defiance; rather, it was to be seen as a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future. The vision of the Provost at the time, the Vey Revd Dick Howard, led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred and led to the cathedral’s Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation.

Instead of sweeping away the ruins or rebuilding a replica of the former church, the leaders of the cathedral community took the courageous step to build a new cathedral and preserve the remains of the old cathedral as a moving reminder of the folly and waste of war.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall outside Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The foundation stone was laid on 23 March 1956 and the new cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962, and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was written to mark the occasion. The ruins remain hallowed ground and together the two create one living Cathedral.

The new cathedral was an inspiration to many fine artists of the post-war era. The architect Sir Basil Spence commissioned works from Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ralph Beyer, John Hutton, Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink and others.

The modernist design of Coventry Cathedral caused much controversy at the time, but it rapidly became a hugely popular symbol of reconciliation in post-war Britain. The interior is notable for:

Facing the world ... the Gethsemane Chapel in Coventry Cathedral

● The large tapestry of Christ, designed by Graham Sutherland.
● John Bridgeman’s emotive sculpture of the Mater Dolorosa in the East end.
● John Piper’s Baptistery window that fills the full height of the bowed baptistery; it is made of 195 panes, ranging from white to deep colours.
● The stained glass windows in the Nave, by Lawrence Lee, Keith New and Geoffrey Clarke, facing away from the congregation, the opposite pairs representing a pattern of growth from birth to old age, and culminating in heavenly glory nearest the altar, with one side representing Humanity, the other side representing the Divine.
● The Great West Window known as the Screen of Saints and Angels, engraved directly onto the screen in expressionist style by John Hutton.
● The foundation stone, the ten stone panels inset into the walls of the cathedral called the Tablets of the Word, and the baptismal font, designed and carved by Ralph Beyer, a German émigré.
● The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, at the end of the liturgical south aisle (to the right of the altar and tapestry), featuring a striking gold mosaic of a Byzantine-like angel, offering the chalice. The angel was designed by Stephen Sykes, and the chapel is separated by a bronze screen in the shape of a crown of thorns.

2.2: The Church of the Sacred Heart, Laytown, Co Meath:

The East Window of the parish church in Laytown looks out onto the beach and across the Irish Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Laytown is one of the locations for my regular beach walks. But, from an architectural perspective, the most captivating building on the shoreline at Laytown is the Church of the Sacred Heart. The first church on this site was built in 1879, but was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the new parish church. The façade from the original 19th century church has been retained, but the new building is a 1970s circular-plan single room.

Light shafts in the walls and the ceiling illuminate the interior of church. Behind the altar, a large window looks out to the sea, with a 20-ft wooden cross on the hill behind the window.

The foundation stone for the new church was blessed by Pope John Paul II at Knock in September 1979, and the church was blessed and opened in October 1979. But the architects incorporated into the new church the façade of the earlier church, with its yellow brick gable-fronted entrance and buttresses, set on a rock-faced limestone plinth. It has a pointed arch door opening and triple lancet windows with a limestone dressing.

They must be deeply spiritual moments when the rising sun shines in from the Irish Sea through the large east window during early morning Masses, or the sea outside is wild and the waves are high on a winter’s Sunday morning.

The façade of the 19th century church has been retained as part of the modern parish church in Laytown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, Music:

Vaughan Williams co-edited the English Hymnal with Percy Dearmer, and wrote the scores for many of our popular carols

Secular understandings of ‘Anglican culture’ include shared music from Henry Purcell to John Rutter. I have already mentioned Benjamin Britten in the context of Coventry Cathedral, but think too of composers like William Byrd, Edward Elgar, Orlando Gibbons, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, John Marbeck, Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, Thomas Tallis, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood, to name but a few.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), one of the greatest English composers of the last century, was the musical editor of The English Hymnal, which he co-edited with Percy Dearmer. He wrote symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, arranged a number of hymns, adapting them to popular melodies, and collected English folk music, folk dance and songs.

I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams over 40 years ago when I was 19 and I was staying in Wilderhope Manor on the slopes of Wenlock Edge. It was 1971 and I was walking through Shropshire, visiting small towns and villages such as Much Wenlock, Church Stretton, Longville and Shipton. Appropriately, the warden of the youth hostel suggested I should listen to Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge.

Six settings of poems from AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad make up On Wenlock Edge, which is Vaughan Williams’s first totally characteristic work. The landscape inhabited by Housman is that of a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex evoked in the novels of Thomas Hardy. His dominant themes are love, and a post-industrial pastoral nostalgia, infused with expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice of the young soldiers going to war, never to return.

His other works include In the Fen Country (1904), Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (1906, revised in 1914), The Wasps, based on the play by Aristophanes (1909), On Wenlock Edge (1909), Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, revised in 1913 and 1919), Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934) and The Lark Ascending (1914). In all these works, Vaughan Williams is characteristically English, and Bishop Edward Darling and Donald Davison, in their Companion to Church Hymnal, say: ‘Many would claim he was the greatest 20th century English composer.’

A vicar’s son, Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. His father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, who died in 1875, was the Vicar of Down Ampney, while his mother, Margaret Susan Wedgwood (1843–1937), was a direct descendant of the Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood, and was related to the Darwin family – Charles Darwin was a great-uncle and Tony Benn is a distant cousin. With a background like that, it is little wonder that Vaughan Williams grew up with life-lasting democratic and egalitarian ideals – a socialist who refused all honours except the Order of Merit, which he accepted after the death of Elgar in 1935.

Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music under the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford. Later, as he read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, he became friends with the philosophers George Moore and Bertrand Russell.

During World War I, he was a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. His war-time experiences eventually led to his complete deafness in old age, but his Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) draws on his experiences as an ambulance volunteer. During World War II, he spoke up for his fellow composers Britten and Tippett who were conscientious objectors.

When he died in 1958, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. His second wife, the poet Ursula Wood, claimed he was an ‘atheist … [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.’ But he is a deeply mystical and spiritual composer, and many of his works have religious subject-matters.

His hymn settings include To be a pilgrim, based on John Bunyan’s hymn Who would true valour see, using the traditional Sussex melody Monk’s Gate; the tune Sine Nomine which we sang recently with William Walsham How’s For All the Saints; the tune Forest Green for the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem by Phillips Brooks; and his setting for Come Down, O Love Divine, named Down Ampney after his birthplace. He wrote settings for canticles, carols and masses, and composed a Te Deum in G for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928.

With Percy Dearmer and Martin Shaw, Vaughan Williams can be credited with the revival and spread of traditional and mediaeval English musical forms. Without Vaughan Williams, it is impossible to imagine the English Hymnal (1906), for which he was the musical editor and in which he collaborated with Percy Dearmer.

In collaboration with the organists of Saint Mary’s, Primrose Hill, Martin and Geoffrey Shaw, Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer later produced two more hymnals, Songs of Praise (1925) and The Oxford Book of Carols (1928). These hymnals have been credited with reintroducing many elements of traditional and mediaeval English music into the Church of England, as well as carrying that influence into the rest of the Anglican Communion.

Without Vaughan Williams, where would Anglican liturgy, hymnody, music and spirituality be today? As David Johnson said in an essay in The Tablet seven years ago (23 August 2008): ‘The preoccupation with the journey of the soul shines through the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams. His music is the enduring legacy of one of the most insightful and visionary of pilgrims.’

4, Poetry:

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Andrea Mantegna, 1460, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Much of the language of The Book of Common Prayer (2004) draws on the cadences and rhythms of English poetic forms. Perhaps, it was this lack of literary grace that made the Alternative Prayer Book less popular.

The poet TS Eliot saw a deep connection between his poetry and his liturgical life. But perhaps one poem more than other, A Song for Simeon, which is based on the canticle Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2: 29-32), links Eliot with the tradition of Anglican canticles and the tradition of Choral Evensong, and with the Anglican tradition of liturgical preaching:

Nunc Dimittis

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.


Eliot titles his poem A Song for Simeon, rather than A Song of Simeon, which is the English sub-title of the canticle in The Book of Common Prayer.

A Song for Simeon (TS Eliot)

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

This is one of four poems by Eliot published between 1927 and 1930 and known as the Ariel Poems.

TS Eliot (1888-1965) is as one of the great poets of Anglican spirituality – indeed he was one of the major Christian poets of the 20th century – and his Ash Wednesday (1930) was written to mark his baptism and confirmation as an Anglican in 1927.

In Journey of The Magi and A Song for Simeon, Eliot shows how he persisted on his spiritual pilgrimage. He was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England on 29 June 1927. Journey of the Magi was published two months later, in August 1927, and a few months later Faber, for whom he worked, published A Song for Simeon as part of a series of Christmas booklets.

Both Journey of The Magi and A Song for Simeon draw on the journeys of Biblical characters concerned with the arrival of the Christ-child. Both poems deal with the past, with a significant epiphany event, with the future – as seen from the time of that event, and with a time beyond time – death. The narrator in Journey of the Magi is an old man, with the first two stanzas recalling the journey from the East to Bethlehem through “cities hostile and towns unfriendly” – perhaps reflecting a difficult period of Eliot’s own journey.

In that poem, Eliot draws on a sermon from Christmas 1622 preached by the Caroline Divine, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626): “A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the year; just the worst time of the year, to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off in solistitio brumali, the very dead of winter.”

Eliot wrote:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.


A Song for Simeon is also put in the mouth of an old man, the prophet Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem. Here too, Eliot draws on a Christmas sermon by Andrewes: ‘Verbum infans, the Word without a word, the eternal Word not able to speak a word.’ In Eliot’s words, the old man sees a faith that he cannot inhabit in ‘the still unspeaking and unspoken Word.’

In both poems, Eliot uses images that are significant for those exploring the Christian faith, images that are also prophetic, telling of things to happen to the Christ Child in the future. For example, in Journey of the Magi, we are told of ‘three trees on the low sky’ – the three crosses that will erected on Calvary, and of ‘hands dicing’ and pieces of silver’ – the Roman soldiers throwing dice for Christ’s clothes and the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas.

So too, there are several examples of prophetic imagery in A Song for Simeon:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation …
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow …


These refer to the scourging of Christ at his crucifixion and his mother weeping as he was crucified.

This poem starts with a winter scene:

Lord, the Roman’s hyacinths are blooming in the bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.


In this poem, Eliot confines his comments on things of the past to four lines in the second stanza. In contrast to Journey of the Magi, which concentrates more on a physical journey, Eliot here places his emphasis on the time that has been spent making an inner journey of faith:

I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.


We are aware too, that Simeon is very old. He is hanging on, waiting for God’s promise, so that he can die:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.


Just as Eliot had his inner searches and wanderings, in which he moved about from one place to another. The difficulties with his wife Vivien’s illness contributed to a separation and the complete breakdown of their marriage, adding to Eliot’s sense of disillusion with life. In both these poems, Eliot focuses on an event that brings about the end of an old order and the beginning of a new one.

Eliot structures A Song for Simeon around lines from the prayer spoken by the priest Simeon as recorded in Luke 2: 29-32:

Master, now you are dismissing
Your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation …


Simeon too was a witness. Although he was not present at Christ’s birth, he witnessed the presentation of the Christ-child when he was brought by his parents to the Temple as an eight-day-old. Yet Simeon did more than just witness the child, ‘Simeon took him in his arms’ (Luke 2: 28) as he prayed. In his blind faith, he comes to hold the Body of Christ, and to see the child for who he really is. As Joseph and Nicodemus do when they take him down from the Cross, and as we do at the Eucharist, he becomes a bearer of Christ as he holds the Body of Christ in his hands and so becomes too part of the Body of Christ at one and the same time.

Three times in the poem, Simeon asks for peace. Is he referring to the peace that will come with his own death? Or the peace of Christ that passes all understanding? As Christians, we don’t believe that death is the end of our journey. Even before death, Eliot marks his baptism and confirmation as, if not the end of, then a triumph on, his spiritual journey. He has come to a place of faith, and now he is encouraged to continue on his spiritual journey.

The poem can be read as a song for Simeon to sing, or as a song to be sung for Simeon. We can imagine ourselves listening to Simeon’s prophetic voice, or imagine the voice of a poet singing on Simeon’s behalf or in his honour at a later age, from a viewpoint and with insights denied to Simeon himself.

In the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, the old Simeon in prayer in the Temple in Jerusalem prays: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’ By contrast, Eliot’s speaker sings: ‘Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls.’ This is not prayer at all. Instead, it sets an unexpected scene. The flowers, protected from the winter cold, are Roman, the property and pride of the pagans. Hyacinths were named after Hyacinthus, the youth killed by mistake by Apollo when his rival, Zephyrus, turned the flight of a discus.

The winter sun creeps by the snow hills as the speaker waits for the death wind. Pagan flowers and the pagan myth of a young man’s death flourish in the world of Eliot’s speaker and provide the language for speaking of life and death and life beyond.

Voices are heard from the Christian future, which the blind Simeon will not see. He is still waiting for the wind to blow, imagines only the death wind that will bear him away.

‘Grant us thy peace’ – the speaker evokes the Agnus Dei from the liturgy. Here we have a prayer for the peace that the Eucharist will offer, although Simeon will never share in the Eucharist.

In the first stanza, he tells of his own death.

In the second stanza, he speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem, decades later, by Rome’s armies. We are pointed towards New Testament images of the foxes that have holes, while the Son of Man has nowhere to rest; of the speaker’s descendants, in flight from Jerusalem from foreign faces and swords, and who will have to occupy the foxes’ homes.

In the third stanza, that flicker of light becomes a blaze of allusions. The Christ will tie cords to drive the traders from the Temple, will be whipped and scourged, and hear the lamentation of the weeping women of Jerusalem on the way to his death on a hill, above the ‘abomination of desolation,’ and to his mother’s sorrow: Stabat mater dolorosa.

Simeon’s death is imminent, but far more is to come, for with the birth of this child a whole world is passing away, ages old and with no tomorrow.

In Nunc Dimittis, Simeon pleads: ‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’ But the word will be fulfilled in a faith and in an age that Eliot’s speaker can see only in prophecy.

Eliot capitalises ‘Thee’ for the one and only time, as his speaker looks forward to the praise offered by the Church: “They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation …”

Simeon warns Mary: ‘A sword will pierce your own soul also.’ But we might ask whether the heart, Eliot’s speaker says will be pierced is God’s own heart.

The weary speaker concludes by praying:

Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.


At the very end of the poem, we seem to have arrived at the start of Nunc Dimittis. All that we have read so far is now seen in a new light, as a prelude to the canticle. The poet, now baptised, has the hope of a greater hope, having seen his salvation. He is tired of his former life, there is consolation as derision turns to glory. Baptised into the death of Christ, he has been born into new life.

Some links for this seminar:

Keeping score

Douglas Galbraith charts important landmarks in the history of English church music

http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=100988

[The Church Times, 24 September 2010]

Voices raised, hearts lifted

To mark the publication of Sing Praise, the Church Times and the Royal School of Church Music asked people to nominate the best hymns. Jeremy Davies looks at the top five:

http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=101040

[The Church Times, 24 September 2010]

Keeping art and soul together

Pat Ashworth finds that the art of commissioning works for churches has changed a great deal since the swashbuckling days of Walter Hussey

http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=103880

[The Church Times, 19 November 2010]

Let’s have a show of hands

To mark the centenary of the birth of Dean Walter Hussey, Chichester Cathedral commissioned Jaume Plensa’s sculpture Together for its main aerial space. Anthony Cane’s diary tells the inside story of the commissioning process.

http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=103893

[The Church Times, 19 November 2010]

Reminder:

Essays

End-of-semester visit


Next week:

7.1:
Baptism and Eucharist (2): Liturgical renewal among Catholics and Protestants in the 20th century.

7.2: Seminar: homiletics and homiletics in history: readings may include Saint Augustine, Thomas Cranmer, Lancelot Andrewes, John Wesley and Martin Luther King.

(Revd Canon Professor) 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 seminar on 16 November 2015 in the Module TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality, on the MTh course.

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