Sunday, 4 January 2015

An accidental lunch in gardens
in the ‘Garden of Ireland’

The windows of the Avoca Café provided picture frames for the gardens at Mount Usher (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I only came across the Gardens at Mount Usher in Ashford, Co Wicklow, for the first time last year. I had intended to go to lunch in Bray but ended up in Mount Usher by accident that Sunday afternoon and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the gardens during that first visit last July.

Once again, at the end of October, I ended up in Mount Usher by accident for a second time, when I had planned instead to go for a walk on the beach at Brittas Bay.

I had a busy morning this morning, the Second Sunday of Christmas, celebrating the Eucharist and preaching in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, at 9 a.m. and once again at 10.30 a.m.

Two of us planned afterwards to have lunch in Greystones and a walk on the beach. But as we arrived in Greystones we thought it was a very cold and grey day, and decided to drive on further south. Once again, by accident rather than design, we ended up having lunch in the Avoca Café at Mount Usher.

We got there before the Sunday lunch rush, and what a delightful lunch it was.

One of us had Castletownbere Crab on Avoca toasted multi-seed with celeriac and apple remoulade, cucumber pickle, pink grapefruit and mixed leaves. I had homemade falafel with baba ghanoush, beetroot tzatziki, caramelised onion hummus, cous-cous and pita. We shared a jug of water and finished with two double espressos.

Time for double espressos after lunch at Mount Usher this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Most people visit Mount Usher to see the trees and the foliage in Spring, Summer and Autumn. But the Winter views of the gardens, framed in the windows of the garden café were equally attractive.

Co Wicklow boasts it is the “Garden of Ireland.” But Mount Usher also deserves its reputation one of Ireland’s loveliest gardens, and one of the prettiest too. There are over 5,000 species of plants and shrubs from all over the world scattered throughout the nine hectares of gardens along the River Vartry.

Mount Usher is one of the few Irish gardens ever to have had a whole programme devoted to it as part of the BBC’s long-running series, Gardener's World, and the BBC's Gardener's World Magazine once voted it the best garden to visit in Ireland. It is one of only three top-rated Irish gardens in the The Good Garden Guides, and the celebrity gardener Monty Don once nominated it as one of his favourite gardens anywhere.

The shop at the garden centre is closed for the winter season, but the Avoca food shop was open, and we returned with enough food for the next few days, driving back though the Glen of the Downs, part of the scenery that contributes to Co Wicklow’s reputation as the ‘Garden of Ireland.’

TS Eliot remains one of
the great Anglican poets
50 years after his death

The poet TS Eliot in a portrait by Gerald Kelly

Patrick Comerford

The American-born English poet, playwright and literary critic, Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), was perhaps the most important poet in the English language in the 20th century. He is one of the greatest examples of how Anglican spirituality is expressed in poetry and drama, and he died half a century ago, on 4 January 1965.

Many readers know TS Eliot for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), the inspiration for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats (1981). But he was first recognised as a poet 100 years ago with the poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (1915). It was followed by some of the best-known poems, including ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925), ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), and the four poems in his Four Quartets (1943).

TS Eliot is the greatest poet in English in the 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, the youngest child in a prominent Unitarian and academic family. He studied philosophy at Harvard (1906-1909) and at the Sorbonne (1910–1911) before returning to Harvard (1911-1914). He then moved to Merton College, Oxford, but left after a year, remarking: “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.” By 1916, he had completed a PhD in philosophy for Harvard, but he never returned for his viva voce exam.

Merton College, Oxford …Eliot left after a year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Merton College, Oxford … Eliot said later: “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, in 1915 he had been introduced to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Their tragic marriage was a catalyst for ‘The Waste Land,’ and inspired the movie Tom and Viv (1994). Eliot held several teaching posts, including one at Highgate School where his pupils included John Betjeman. By 1917, he was working at Lloyd’s Bank.

Conversion to Anglicanism

No 24 Russell Square, London, where TS Eliot worked for Faber and Faber, is now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A plaque at 24 Russell Square, recalling TS Eliot’s working days (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1922, the same year as James Joyce published Ulysses, Eliot published ‘The Waste Land.’ The poem includes well-known phrases such as “April is the cruellest month,” and “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Recent studies see in this poem a description of Eliot’s pilgrimage from the Unitarianism of his childhood to his life-lasting Anglo-Catholicism.

In 1925, he joined the publishers Faber and Gwyer, later Faber and Faber, and spent the rest of his career there. His major poem that year, ‘The Hollow Men,’ is indebted to Dante and wrestles with the difficulty of hope and religious conversion, and with his failed marriage.

On 29 June 1927, Eliot was baptised in Holy Trinity Church, Finstock, outside Witney, by the Revd William Force Stead, a fellow American, a poet and the chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford. Stead had encouraged him to read the poems of George Herbert and John Donne and the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes. A day later, he brought Eliot to be confirmed by Bishop Thomas Banks Strong of Oxford in his private chapel.

Eliot soon became a British citizen, and served as a churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road, London. He would describe himself as a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.”

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes in Southwark Cathedral ... his prayers and sermons were critical in TS Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism and had an abiding influence on his writings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His conversion to Anglicanism was encouraged through reading the prayers and sermons of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester. His poem, ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927), the first of the Ariel Poems and written shortly after his baptism, begins with a quotation from a sermon on the Epiphany by Andrewes in 1622. He was influenced too by Nicholas Ferrar’s life at Little Gidding, and by the works of Richard Hooker and Jeremy Taylor.

‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), Eliot’s first long poem after becoming an Anglican, has been described as his conversion poem. But he regarded the Four Quartets as his masterpiece, and the collection earned him his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. It comprises four poems: ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936), ‘East Coker’ (1940), ‘The Dry Salvages’ (1941) and ‘Little Gidding’ (1942). Eliot’s plays included Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949).

In 1958, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury appointed Eliot to a commission that produced The Revised Psalter (1963). CS Lewis, once a harsh critic of Eliot, was also a member of the commission, and during their time on that commission their antagonism turned to true friendship.

Childhood nurse from Co Cork

Many biographers suggest Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism may have been helped by his childhood experiences in the company of his Irish nurse, Annie Dunne from Co Cork. He wrote in 1930: “The earliest personal influence I remember, besides that of my parents, was … Annie Dunne, to whom I was greatly attached.”

She took the young Eliot with her “to the little Catholic church which stood on the corner of Locust Street and Jefferson Avenue when she went to make her devotions,” and also took him to Mass in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Writing in the Criterion in 1927 shortly after his baptism, Eliot recalled that when he was a six-year-old, Annie had discussed with him about the ways of proving the existence of God. She gave him a glimpse of a liturgical Christianity that was very different from his Unitarian background. James E Miller suggests that the seeds for his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism “had been sown by Annie Dunne and the impressive Catholic services to which she took him.”

A poet’s reputation

Eliot’s reputation has been plagued by accusations that he held anti-Semitic and anti-Irish views. In a study of Eliot’s impact on Anglican theology, Professor Barry Spurr deals convincingly with the accusations of anti-Semitism. But it is difficult to imagine that someone who was so close to his Irish nurse in childhood could hold negative opinions of Irish people.

In ‘The Waste Land,’ Eliot quotes from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and his reference to the Irish princess. The couple are sailing from Ireland to Cornwall, and a sailor sings a song with lines that translate:

The wind blows fresh
To the Homeland
My Irish Girl
Where are you lingering?


Sweeney is a baffling person who, in the words of TH Thompson, “runs in and out [of Eliot’s] poems like a naughty boy, with bad manners and rude behaviour.” He is the main character in three poems written in 1917-1919 – ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales,’ ‘Sweeney Erect’ and ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’ – and appears in the fragments of ‘Sweeney Agonistes,’ and in ‘The Fire Storm’ in ‘The Waste Land.’

There is little consensus on what Sweeney represents, and it ranges from a stereotypically drunken, Irish Catholic brute to an appealingly unsophisticated “natural man.”

Another Irish figure created by Eliot is Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, the psychiatrist in The Cocktail Party who merrily sings a refrain of the bawdy song, ‘The One Eyed Riley.’ The character’s part-blindness may have been partly inspired by James Joyce’s sight problems.

Four Irish friends

The Cocktail Party: TS Eliot (centre) with the poets Louis MacNeice, Ted Hughes, WH Auden and Stephen Spender at a Faber and Faber cocktail party in the 1960s

Perhaps the best way to evaluate Eliot’s attitude to Irish people is to look at his friendship with four key Irish contemporary literary figures: the writers WB Yeats, James Joyce and Louis MacNeice and the Jesuit Martin D’Arcy.

The house at 10 Ashfield Terrace (now 418 Harold’s Cross Road), Dublin, where WB Yeats lived during some of his schooldays (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No 5 Woburn Walk ... the Bloomsbury home of WB Yeats in London from 1895 to 1919 … Eliot called him ‘the greatest poet of his time’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Through his contacts with Bertrand Russell and Ezra Pound, Eliot mixed with a group including the ageing Irish poet William Butler Yeats. At first, Eliot expresses distaste for Yeats, and even mocks Yeats’s membership of the Theosophical Society. Later, following his attendance at the first performance of Yeats’s one-act play, At the Hawk’s Well, in 1916 and after the publication of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ in 1919, Eliot softened his opinion of Yeats’s poetry.

In his review of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1923, Eliot favourably mentions Yeats. But it was not until 1935, in the Criterion, that Eliot publicly praised Yeats, when he called him “the greatest poet of his time.” Eliot continued to praise Yeats, although in a lecture in Dublin in 1936 he regretted that Yeats “came to poetry from a Protestant background.” After the death of Yeats, Eliot was invited to give the first annual Yeats lecture to the Friends of the Irish Academy in 1940.

No 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, Dublin ... James Joyce was born here on 2 February 1882 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eliot and Joyce first met at the Hotel de l’Elysee in Paris on 15 August 1920. They dined in Joyce’s favourite restaurant, and Joyce extended his hospitality several times. Their friendship blossomed after ‘The Waste Land’ and Ulysses were published around the same time in 1922.

In 1923, when Eliot reviewed Ulysses, he said: “It is a book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape.” It marked a major shift in literature, he said. “It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art.”

Eliot would look to Joyce for support when he separated from his wife, and Eliot continued to visit Joyce whenever he was in Paris. In his Dublin lectures in 1936, Eliot said Joyce “seems to me the most universal, the most Irish and the most Catholic writer in English of his generation … What is most truly Irish … is most truly Catholic.”

Meanwhile, from 1932, Louis MacNeice, the son of a Church of Ireland bishop, was sending poems to Eliot at Faber and Faber. Eliot did not feel these poems were worth publishing in a single volume, but he used several of them in his journal The Criterion.

In 1934, MacNeice sent Eliot the long poems that were published as the book (1935). In 1939, Eliot helped to plan MacNeice’s tour of the US, arranging engagements in Princeton, Harvard and Wellesley. The developed a firm friendship, and when MacNeice died in 1963, Eliot wrote in The Times of his grief and shock at “his unexpected death” just as Faber was about to publish a new volume of his verse. He said MacNeice was “a poet of genius,” who “had the Irishman’s unfailing ear for the music of verse, and he never published a line that is not good reading.”

Lifelong friendships

Father Martin D’Arcy, a Jesuit with Irish parents, may have secured TS Eliot’s invitation to Dublin

Eliot also had a lifelong friendship with the Jesuit philosopher, Father Martin Cyril D’Arcy (1888-1976), whose literary circle also include Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy L Sayers and WH Auden and whose parents were born in Ireland.

It was perhaps at D’Arcy’s suggestion that the Irish Jesuits invited Eliot to Dublin for the first time in January 1936. During that visit, Eliot lectured in University College Dublin, attended a lecture by Father Roland Burke-Savage, the Jesuit editor of Studies, and twice addressed the English Literary Society at UCD in Earlsfort Terrace.

Later, D’Arcy’s major work, The Mind and Heart of Love, was published by Eliot at Faber and Faber in 1945.

‘Now the light falls ... I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope’ (TS Eliot, ‘East Coker’) … dusk turns to darkness at Minister Pool in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1957, at the age of 68, Eliot secretly married his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher. He died in London on 4 January 1965. His ashes were buried at Saint Michael’s Church, East Coker, the Somerset village from which his ancestors had emigrated. A commemorative plaque in the church quotes from ‘East Coker’:

In my beginning is my end ... In my end is my beginning.

The plaque in Saint Michael’s Church, East Coker, Somerset, commemorating TS Eliot

Patrick Comerford is a lecturer and an adjunct assistant professor at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Trinity College Dublin. This essay and these photographs were first published in January 2015 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

An Epiphany sermon on the 50th
anniversary of the death of TS Eliot

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Patrick Comerford,

The Second Sunday of Christmas,

4 January 2015,

Zion Church, Rathgar, Dublin:

10.30 a.m., The Eucharist

Readings:


Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 147: 12-20; Ephesians 1: 3-14; John 1: [1-9], 10-18.

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

The Christmas festivities are almost over, the New Year’s celebrations are already past. Some of us may have returned to work, or are going back to school or college tomorrow. Some of us, perhaps, have already forgotten those New Year’s resolutions made only a few days ago. We are a people with great resolve but little perseverance.

But it is good at the beginning of a new year, on our first Sunday back in Church, to begin at the beginning.

And so, on this Sunday, the Second Sunday of Christmas, the cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary always provides for these same readings.

The prophet Jeremiah has that wonderful promise of new beginnings, of a new heaven and a new earth, that is a cheering beginning to the new year.

In the bleak midwinter, the Psalmist reminds us that God “gives snow like wool and scatters the hoarfrost like ashes.”

Saint Paul, in turn reminds us of our first promise in Christ and our final hopes in God’s promises.

And then in the Gospel, we re-read what is for many one of the climatic readings on Christmas day: the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

This Gospel reading comes to mind when I read TS Eliot’s poem ‘East Coker’ – the second of his poems in the Four Quartets, which opens:

In my beginning is my end …

and which ends:

… In my end is my beginning.

For Christmas is meaningless as a beginning unless it has its end, and the end must have a beginning.

The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Over the next few weeks, the Epiphany readings remind us that the Christmas story is not just about the Crib and the Christmas, nativity stories, but about God coming to dwell among us, and pointing from the beginning towards the promise and revelation to all nations, to all people.

The three principle Epiphany themes are:

• The Adoration of the Magi (Tuesday’s reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, Matthew 2: 1-12);
• The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist in the River Jordan (Epiphany 1, next Sunday’s reading, 11 January, Mark 1: 1-11);
• The miracle at the wedding in Cana (Epiphany 3, 25 January, John 2: 1-11).

But, while we are moving from Christmas to Epiphany, which begins on 6 January and ends at the Feast of the Presentation on Candlemas on 2 February, the Epiphany season is truly a continuation of the Christmas season, the liturgical colour remains white, and together Christmas and Epiphany form one full, continuous season of 40 days.

The visit of the Magi is a symbolic presentation of God’s revelation in Christ to the Gentiles. It inspired one of the great poems by TS Eliot, who died on this day 50 years ago, 4 January 1965.

This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, but was not published until 1930 in his Ariel Poems.

In some ways, this poem recalls ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), but also shows some influences of the earlier ‘The Magi’ by WB Yeats.

However, unlike Yeats, Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ is a truly Anglican poem, for the first five lines are based on the 1622 ‘Nativity Sermon’ of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester, who first summarised Anglicanism in the dictum “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.”

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. He chooses an elderly speaker who is world-weary, reflective and sad. This narrator is a witness to momentous historical change who seeks to rise above that historical moment, a man who, despite material wealth and prestige, has lost his spiritual bearings. The speaker is agitated, his revelations are accidental and born out of his emotional distress, and he speaks to us, the readers, directly.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of the journey, the wise man recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that “this was all folly.”

The poem picks up Eliot’s persistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of his journey, the surviving magus complains about a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless. He says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that “this was all folly.” The magus may have been unimpressed by the new-born infant, but he realises that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

... were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?


The birth of Christ was the death of the old religions. Now in his old age, he realises that with this birth his world had died, and he has little left to do but to wait for his own death.

On their journey, the Magi see “three trees against a low sky” – a vision of the future Crucifixion on Calvary. The Incarnation points to the Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The “running stream” may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is also an Epiphany moment.

The “six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, another Epiphany theme.

The early morning descent into a “temperate valley” evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death?

He is a witness of historical change, does he manage to rise above his historical moment?

With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings?

Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

And so, on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of TS Eliot, the greatest Anglican poet of the 20th century, let me go no further and simply read that poem, which links Christmas, Epiphany and the Easter story, which links beginnings and ends, ends and beginnings, which makes sense and meaning of the Christmas story at the beginning of this New Year:

The Adoration of the Magi ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot

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.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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

Collect:

Almighty God,
in the birth of your Son
you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word,
and shown us the fullness of your love:
Help us to walk in this light and dwell in his love
that we may know the fullness of his joy;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Light eternal,
you have nourished us in the mystery
of the body and blood of your Son:
By your grace keep us ever faithful to your word,
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 Parish Eucharist in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, Dublin, on Sunday 4 January 2015.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year’
… an Epiphany sermon

The poet TS Eliot in a portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly … he died 50 years ago on 4 January 1965

Patrick Comerford,

The Second Sunday of Christmas,

4 January 2015,

Zion Church, Rathgar, Dublin:

9 a.m., The Eucharist

Readings:


Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 147: 12-20; Ephesians 1: 3-14; John 1: [1-9], 10-18.

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

Four days into January, and I wonder how many of us have already forgotten our New Year’s resolutions?

Sometimes, we begin as we mean to go, but our intentions are always better than our capacity for endurance.

Yet our Scripture readings this morning make that connection between beginnings and endings.

Christ comes to dwell among us, and Saint John reminds us that this is a new creation. This is a new beginning. We re-read what is for many one of the climatic readings on Christmas day: the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

This Gospel reading comes to mind when I read TS Eliot’s poem ‘East Coker’ – the second of his poems in the Four Quartets, which opens:

In my beginning is my end …

and which ends:

… In my end is my beginning.

Christmas always holds the offer of new beginnings, new creation, the promise of new opportunities to be caught up in the love of God.

The Epiphany readings remind us that the Christmas story is not just about the Crib and the Christmas, nativity stories, but about God coming to dwell among us, and pointing from the beginning towards the promise and revelation to all nations, to all people.

The three principle Epiphany themes are:

• The Adoration of the Magi (Tuesday’s reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, Matthew 2: 1-12);
• The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist in the River Jordan (Epiphany 1, next Sunday’s reading, 11 January, Mark 1: 1-11);
• The miracle at the wedding in Cana (Epiphany 3, 25 January, John 2: 1-11).

The visit of the Magi is a symbolic presentation of God’s revelation in Christ to the Gentiles. It inspired one of the great poems by TS Eliot, who died on this day 50 years ago, 4 January 1965.

This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, but was not published until 1930 in his Ariel Poems.

So, rather than continuing with this sermon so early in the morning, I think it might be a good idea, on the 50th anniversary of the death of TS Eliot, and two days before the Feast of the Epiphany, to read that poem:

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

The Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot

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.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Collect:

Almighty God,
in the birth of your Son
you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word,
and shown us the fullness of your love:
Help us to walk in this light and dwell in his love
that we may know the fullness of his joy;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Light eternal,
you have nourished us in the mystery
of the body and blood of your Son:
By your grace keep us ever faithful to your word,
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 early Sunday morning Eucharist in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, Dublin, on 4 January 2015.

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (11):
‘As with gladness men of old’ (No 189)

‘Star of Bethlehem’ by Edward Burn-Jones

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Second Sunday After Christmas, and this morning I am celebrating the Eucharist and preaching in Zion Church, Rathgar, where my friend, the Revd Stephen Farrell, is the Rector.

Although it is another two days to the Feast of Epiphany [6 January], many parishes are likely to opt for the Epiphany readings this morning. However, the Christmas season continues. Each morning during this Season of Christmas, I am reflecting on an appropriate hymn or carol. This morning [4 January 2015], I have chosen ‘As with gladness men of old.’

The words and lyrics of this Christmas Carol were written by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 1858, when he was only 20 and while he was sick in bed. Dix is also the author of another popular Christmas hymn, ‘What Child Is This,’ which provided my reflection for Friday morning [2 January 2015].

Dix was born in Bristol, the son of a local medical doctor. His spent most of his working life in maritime insurance, but he had a life-long passion for writing lyrics for hymns and carols. He died in Cheddar, Somerset, in 1898.

This morning’s hymn was first published in AH Ward’s Hymns for Public Worship and Private Devotion (1860). The following year it was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern, for Use in the Services of the Church (1861), and Dix included it in his own book, Hymns of Love and Joy (1867).

This morning’s hymn was brought to prominence by Sir Roundell Palmer (Lord Selborne) in his paper on ‘English Church Hymnody,’ at the Church Congress at York in 1866. Since then, it has been included in numerous hymnals throughout the English-speaking world. It is included in both the Irish Church Hymnal (No 189), and the New English Hymnal (No 45).

The carol is inspired by the Epiphany gospel, Matthew 1: 1-11. Taking Matthew 1: 1-11 as his theme for stanzas 1-3, Dix likens the journey of the wise men who came to worship the Christ Child to our own Christian pilgrimage. The pattern of these stanzas is “as they … so may we.”

Stanzas 4 and 5 are a prayer that our journey on the “narrow way” may bring us finally to glory where Christ is the light (see Revelation 21: 23) and where we may perfectly sing his praise (see Revelation 22: 5).

Further examination of the carol also reveals built-in references to Psalm 43: 3, Isaiah 60: 6, II Samuel 24: 24, and Matthew 7: 14.

The tune is known as “Dix,” and was adapted by William Henry Monk from the original Treuer Heiland, Wir Sind Heir by theGerman composer Conrad Kocher (1786-1872), in Stimmen aus dem Reiche Gottes (1838).

Kocher was born in Ditzingen, Wurttemberg, in 1786, and was trained as a teacher. He moved to St Petersburg, Russia, to work as a tutor at the age of 17, but his love for the music of Haydn and Mozart impelled him to a career in music. The prestigious Cotta music firm published some of his early compositions and sent him to study music in Italy, where he came under the influence of Palestrina's music.

He returned to Germany in 1811, and settled in Stuttgart. There in 1821 he established the School of Sacred Music, which popularised four-part singing in the churches of that region.

Kocher was organist and choir director at the Striftsckirche in Stuttgart from 1827 to 1865. He wrote a treatise on church music, Die Tonkunst in der Kirche (1823), collected a large number of chorales in Zions Harfe (1855), and composed an oratorio, two operas, and some sonatas. He died in Stuttgart in 1872.

William H. Monk created the current form of ‘Dix’ by revising and shortening Kocher’s chorale melody. Monk’s tune was published with Dix’s text in the 1861 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, of which Monk was the music editor. Dix regretted the use of this tune for his text, but the combination has proven a good match.

Stanza 5 adds a descant by Sir Sydney H. Nicholson (1875-1947). He studied at New College, Oxford, the Royal College of Music in London, and in Frankfurt, before going on to become the organist at several famous prominent churches and cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey (1919-1928). In 1927, Nicholson founded the School of English Church Music at Chislehurst, which became the Royal School of Church Music in 1945.

As with gladness, men of old, by William Chatterton Dix

As with gladness, men of old
did the guiding star behold;
as with joy they hailed its light,
leading onward, beaming bright;
so, most glorious Lord, may we
evermore be led to thee.

As with joyful steps they sped,
Saviour, to thy lowly bed;
there to bend the knee before
thee whom heaven and earth adore;
so may we with willing feet
ever seek thy mercy-seat.

As they offered gifts most rare
at that cradle rude and bare;
so may we with holy joy,
pure and free from sin’s alloy,
all our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to thee, our heavenly King.

Holy Jesus, every day
keep us in the narrow way;
and, when earthly things are past,
bring our ransomed souls at last
where they need no star to guide,
where no clouds thy glory hide.

In the heavenly country bright,
need they no created light;
thou its light, its joy, its crown,
thou its sun, which goes not down:
there for ever may we sing
alleluias to our King.

Tomorrow:O come, all ye faithful.’