Sunday, 7 June 2015

The nearest of neighbours
can be the best of friends

Clip-clop ... a firm but gentle presence in Temple Bar this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Temple Bar this evening, celebrating a family birthday.

Twenty years ago, the atmosphere in Dublin after an Ireland v England international football match was very different. Why was it so different this evening?

No-one expects problems after an Ireland v England rugby match or cricket fixture. But this afternoon’s match in Dublin was a real test that relations between two neighbours had moved on to a better plane.

Close neighbours should be the best of friends too. But it is also true that good fences make good neighbours.

This evening there was a very firm, but gentle policing presence throughout Temple Bar. There were gardai on every street corner, standing in clusters of two to six. No policeman was on his or her own. Most were on foot, some were in patrol cars, some were in unmarked cars, a few were going around in pairs on bicycles, and every now and then you could hear the clip-clop of patrols on horseback.

Firm but gentle presence marked the police patrols throughout the evening. As we parked the car and worked our way through Temple Bar, cans of beer were being confiscated gently but firmly from anyone drinking on the street.

Strolling back through Temple Bar this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

After a pleasant dinner in the Italian Corner, we strolled back through Temple Bar.

A young woman who had spread herself on the ground, with a group of young men gathered around her, was quickly spotted. She was told to stand up and was called aside. Nobody murmured, nobody questioned, nobody challenged, and nobody was charged.

Twenty years later we have all moved on. Ireland’s favourite Englishman, Jack Charlton, got a standing ovation from both crowds of supporters. Yes, near neighbours can be the best of friends. The only ribadlry was cheering and jeering about the €5 million John Delnaey had accepted from FIFA ... and that, I suppose, is what you could describe as an own goal.

A draw may have kept everyone quiet in Lansdowne Road this afternoon. But it looked like a win-win situation for everyone in Temple Bar this evening.

Bloomsday … a June celebration
of Joycean and Jewish heritage

‘Say Gorgonzola’ … a group poses for Bloomsday outside Davy Byrne's in Duke Street, Dublin, two years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Bloomsday has become a major attraction on the cultural and tourism calendar in Dublin each year. The programme for 16 June each year celebrate the life and work of James Joyce and re-enact the events of one day narrated in Ulysses, 16 June 1904.

Joyce chose 16 June because this was when he had first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle, when they walked out to Ringsend.

Many of the events marking Bloomsday this year will retrace Leopold Bloom’s steps on his Odyssey through the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and the events Molly Bloom recalls in the ‘Little Jerusalem’ area around Clanbrassil Street in the south inner city.

Molly Bloom recalls a party in the Comerfords’ home in Upper Clanbrassil Street in 1895 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are some passing references to the Comerfords in Ulysses: Leopold held onto a Christmas card sent by the Comerfords in 1892, and in her soliloquy, Molly Bloom recalls having had too many oranges and too much lemonade at a party in 1895 in the Comerfords’ home in Clanbrassil Street.

A plaque claims Leopold Bloom was born at No 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

My grandfather’s cousin, James Comerford, lived at 50 Upper Clanbrassil, and a plaque two doors away claims No 52 is Bloom’s birthplace. But the heart of the Jewish community in Dublin at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was in Lower Clanrassil Street. Instead, Joyce may have been referring to my grandfather’s eldest brother, James Comerford, who lived at 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street. But it was more convenient to erect that plaque in Upper Clanbrassil Street because No 52 Lower Clanbrassil Street has long been demolished in road-widening schemes.

The site of 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street … perhaps the real location that inspired an episode in ‘Ulysses’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Embarrassed memories

James Joyce was born at No 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, embarrassment at the explicit scenes portrayed by Joyce prevented family pride from finding public expression for many years.

Perhaps similar embarrassment prevented many people from owning the many Joycean references to the Church of Ireland. Ever since Ulysses was first published in Paris in 1922, the quintessential Irishman for many foreigners has been seen as a Dublin Jew, born to a Hungarian exile in an area known to this day as “Little Jerusalem”. But few readers and critics remember that Leopold Bloom was born and baptised into the Church of Ireland.

A number of Dublin Church of Ireland clergy, lay members and parish churches feature as important landmarks in both Ulysses and Joyce’s life story. In his early childhood, the Joyce family lived at 23 Castlewood Avenue, Rathmines, where their immediate neighbour at No 24 was William Jones of the Church of Ireland Temperance Society.

A plaque on a pub in Terenure celebrates James Joyce’s mother (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1887, the family moved to 1 Martello Terrace, Bray, where their neighbours were the Vance family, members of the Church of Ireland of Huguenot origins. Charles Vance is named in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, along with his daughter Eileen, who sent Joyce a Saint Valentine’s Day card at his school in Clongowes Wood. Later, she recalled no mention of the religious differences between their families, who even entertained the thought that they might marry.

Clongowes Wood was the former home of Archibald Hamilton Rowan, a leading Church of Ireland figure in the 1798 Rising. This later inspired Joyce to give the name Richard Rowan to the protagonist in his play, Exiles, set in the sedate avenues of Ranelagh near Sandford Parish Church.

After Joyce finished school at Belvedere College and before he entered UCD in 1898, the family moved to 29 Windsor Avenue, Fairview, where they had a particularly troublesome landlady named Love. There Joyce first read Ibsen’s plays and also renewed his childhood friendship with Eileen Vance. She later made an appearance in A Portrait, and perhaps it was this love for a Church of Ireland girl that never came to full bloom that prompted Joyce to give the name of his former landlady’s son to the Revd Hugh C Love, a Church of Ireland clergyman in Ulysses, where he is the landlord of Father Bob Cowley, who also lives at 29 Windsor Avenue.

The Joyce family lived in two more houses in Fairview before moving in May 1900 to 8 Royal Terrace, later known as Inverness Road. In the back garden, the Joyce children found two books that they called the “ashpit books” – a King James Version of the Bible and a hymnbook. The house and garden later featured in A Portrait.

In September 1904, three months after the first Bloomsday, Joyce was sharing the Martello Tower in Sandymount with Oliver St John Gogarty and Samuel Chenevix Trench. Although Joyce presents Trench as Haines, an Englishman, in Ulysses, he was a passionate advocate of the Irish language and a grandson of Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench of Dublin. His screaming and shooting during a nightmare forced Joyce to leave the tower.

Parish churches and chimes

Saint George’s Church, Hardwicke Place … Bloom ‘crossed to the bright side … The sun was nearing the steeple of George’s church’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No 29 Hardwicke Street, close to Saint George’s Church, Hardwicke Place, was one of the many homes of the Joyce family in the 1890s. In Ulysses, Bloom’s Odyssey begins when he pulled the hall door at 7 Eccles Street and then “crossed to the bright side, avoiding the loose cellarflap of number seventyfive. The sun was nearing the steeple of George’s church.” He returns to the house briefly to bring Molly her breakfast, and when he leaves the house once again the bells of Saint George’s chime out a quarter to nine.

Saint George’s, which also appears in The Boarding House, Stephen Hero, and Finnegans Wake, was closed in 1990 and has gone through many changes of use and ownership since then.

When he was writing Ulysses, Joyce went to great trouble to find out details of Our Lady Star of the Sea, the Roman Catholic Church in Sandymount, and he used the Jesuit Church of Saint Francis Xavier in many of his works. But he also had a detailed knowledge of many Church of Ireland parish churches.

The Black Church or Saint Mary’s Chapel-of-Ease in Saint Mary’s Place, which appears in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, was close to Fontenoy Street, where Joyce’s grandfather and aunts lived for a while at No 44, a house he visited while writing Ulysses. The church closed finally in 1962. At one point, Father John Conmee, a real priest who appears in Ulysses, passes the “Ivy Church” – the North Strand Episcopal Chapel on North Strand Road – on a tram.

There is one reference too in Ulysses to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Cathedral Close. Other Church of Ireland churches in Dublin celebrated in Joyce’s works include: Saint Mark’s, Saint Michan’s, and Saint Nicholas Without, each referred to in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake; Saint Catherine’s, mentioned in ‘The Sisters,’ a short story in Dubliners; and Saint Laurence’s, Chapelizod, which appears in both ‘A Painful Case’ in Dubliners and in Finnegans Wake.

In Exiles, Joyce refers to the harmonium as the “asthmatic voice of protestantism.” But, while he was strongly critical of the Roman Catholic Church, he had a more benign attitude to the Church of Ireland. In the “Oxen of the Sun” discourse in Ulysses, a discussion about foot-and-mouth disease leads to the tale of the two bulls, a fable about the two main churches in Ireland. In Exiles, he challenges the prejudices towards the children of inter-Church marriages that lead to Bertha Rowan being called ‘the black protestant.’ In ‘Grace’ in Dubliners, he shows a gentle understanding of the dilemma of Tom Kernan, forced through an inter-church marriage to leave the Church of Ireland and become a Roman Catholic – a decision repeated by Leopold Bloom when he is re-baptised in Rathgar before he marries Molly.

Building on real people

The area around Leonard’s Corner and Clanbrassil Street is still known as ‘Little Jerusalem’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church of Ireland figures who appear in Ulysses include Archbishop William Alexander, the Revd Thomas Connellan, who ran a bookshop in Dawson Street, Dr George Salmon, Provost of TCD, the Revd Thomas R Greene, Incumbent of the Free Church, Charles Street, William A Boyd, general secretary of the Dublin YMCA, and Douglas Hyde, the rector’s son who later became President of Ireland.

Joycean scholars have used the clues in Ulysses to construct biographical portraits of Leopold Bloom. Shortly before his marriage to Ellen Higgins in August 1865, Rudolph Virag, a Hungarian Jew who had moved to Dublin, was baptised and received into the Church of Ireland by the Revd Thomas Wellard, and changed his name to Rudolph Bloom. Their first child, Leopold, was born in Clanbrassil Street in May 1866, and was baptised in Saint Nicholas Without, the parish church of the Coombe, by the Revd Gilmer Johnston. Leopold later went to the High School in Harcourt Street, where his science teacher is named Vance in honour of Eileen Vance’s pharmacist father.

Leopold’s baptism is a literary device, for Johnston is a fictitious character and the church was demolished in 1862. But Wellard was a real-life clergyman: at the time of Rudolph’s baptism he was clerical secretary of the Church of Ireland Jews’ Society, and by the time of the first Bloomsday in 1904 he was Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore.

Bloomsday marks the anniversary of the first time Joyce met Nora Barnacle. In her teens in Galway, Nora’s stern uncle strongly objected to her Church of Ireland boyfriend, Willie Mulvagh, and forced the couple to part. Joyce features Mulvagh in Ulysses as Mulvey, Molly Bloom’s lover under the Moorish walls in Gibraltar. Had Nora been allowed to marry Willie, she would never have met Joyce on 16 June 1904.

A heritage to recall

No 31 Lower Clanbrassil Street was Rubinstein’s kosher butcher shop on the corner of Lombard Street. It closed in 1980 ... it is now a café (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The area around Leonard’s Corner and Clanbrassil Street is still known as ‘Little Jerusalem.’ It was still at the heart of Dublin’s Jewish community in the 1950s and even in the 1960s, but today there are few remaining signs of that heritage, apart from the Irish Jewish Museum on Walworth Road.

The Irish Jewish Museum was opened 30 years ago in June 1985 by President Chaim Herzog of Israel

The Irish Jewish Museum … one of the few remaining visible signs of the ‘Little Jerusalem’ known to Leopold Bloom (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Torah Scrolls in the Ark in the synagogue in the Irish Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The museum is housed in a former synagogue built in 1917 when two adjoining terraced houses were knocked together. The museum was opened 30 years ago in June 1985 by Chaim Herzog, who was then President of Israel. He was born in Belfast and grew up in Dublin, the son of a former Chief Rabbi of Ireland.

The museum exhibits include photographs of some of the Jewish characters mentioned in Ulysses, as well as many religious and other Jewish objects mentioned by Joyce.

The museum exhibits include many religious and other Jewish objects mentioned by Joyce (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A replica wedding canopy in the old synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The museum on Walworth Road preserves an old traditional kitchen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There has never been any concern within the Dublin Jewish community about James Joyce’s portrayal of Leopold Bloom. The Jerusalem Post, reporting on a recent Bloomsday, noted: “Nobody has ever complained about the fictitious character Leopold Bloom. In fact, everyone enjoys it. Jews everywhere have accepted it as a story.”

The Bloomsday celebrations may not move any who have yet to read the book to rush out and buy Ulysses, which has been voted the Greatest Irish Novel, the greatest English-language novel, and the novel of the millennium. But Ulysses and Joyce both deserve to be better known among the members of the Church into which Leopold Bloom was baptised.

The journalist and Joycean scholar Terence Killeen enjoying Bloomsday at the Bailey two years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the June 2015 editions of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)

‘The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason’

‘Other echoes / Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow’ (TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’) … in the garden at the Hedgehog in Lichfield last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 7 June 2015,

The First Sunday after Trinity

All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin,

11.30 a.m.
, The Parish Eucharist.

Readings: I Samuel 8: 4-11, [12-15], 16-20, [11: 14-15]; Psalm 138; II Corinthians 4: 13 to 5: 1; Mark 3: 20-35.

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

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of TS Eliot on 4 January 1965. Eliot is, perhaps, the greatest poet in the English language in the 20th century, and he is one of the greatest Anglican literary figures.

As well as being a great poet, he was also a playwright, and his plays include Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party.

Murder in the Cathedral was first staged in the Chapter House in Canterbury Cathedral 80 years ago on 15 June 1935. This verse drama is based on the events leading to the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 29 December 1170.

The play was written at the prompting of the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, a friend of the martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and later one of the key critics of the excesses of violence unleashed in World War II.

The dramatisation in this play of opposition to authority was prophetic at the time, for it was written as fascism was on the rise in Central Europe and Bishop Bell had chosen wisely when he suggested Eliot should write this play.

The play is set in the days leading up to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket at the behest of King Henry II, and the principal focus is on Becket’s internal struggles.

As he reflects on the inevitable martyrdom he faces, his tempters arrive, like characters in a Greek drama, or like Job’s comforters, and question the archbishop about his plight, echoing in many ways Christ’s temptations in the wilderness when he has been fasting for 40 Days.

The first tempter offers Becket the prospect of physical safety:

The easy man lives to eat the best dinners.
Take a friend’s advice. Leave well alone,
Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.


The second tempter offers him power, riches and fame in serving the king so that he can disarm the powerful and help the poor:

To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?


Then the third tempter suggests the archbishop should form an alliance with the barons and seize a chance to resist the king:

For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
At once, for England and for Rome.


Finally, the fourth tempter urges Thomas to look to the glory of martyrdom:

You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.


Becket responds to all his tempters and specifically addresses the immoral suggestions of the fourth tempter at the end of the first act:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason
.

Saint Mark’s Gospel is very sparse in its account of the story of Christ’s temptations in the wilderness – just two verses (see Mark 1: 12-13) compared to fuller 11 or 13 verse accounts given by Saint Matthew (see Matthew 4: 1-11) and Saint Luke (see Luke 4: 1-13).

In those fuller temptation narratives, Christ is tempted to do the right things for the wrong reason.

What would be wrong with Christ turning stones into bread (see Matthew 4: 3; Luke 4: 3-4) if that is going to feed the hungry? With showing his miraculous powers (see Matthew 4: 3; Luke 4: 9), if this is going to point to the majesty of God (see Matthew 4: 4; Luke 4: 10-11)? With taking command of the kingdoms of this world (see Matthew 4: 9; Luke 4: 5-7), if this provides the opportunity to usher in justice, mercy and peace?

Let us not deceive ourselves, these are real temptations. Christ is truly human and truly divine, and for those who are morally driven there is always a real temptation to do the right thing but to do it for the wrong reason.

‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past’ (TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’) … summer returns to Cross in Hand Lane, Lichfield, last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This theme of temptation and how to respond runs through this morning’s Scripture readings.

In the Old Testament reading (I Samuel 8: 4-11, [12-15], 16-20, [11: 14-15]), the elders of Israel want a king, and go to Samuel, claiming their motivation is to be “like other nations” (I Samuel 8: 5). But the real reason was a power grab, motivated by a loss of faith in the power of God. Israel is warned that a king would exploit the people and enslave them, but they refused to heed these warnings.

We all know Ireland benefitted in recent years from wanting to be a modern nation, like your neighbours. But that ambition turned to greed, and we were surprise when greed turned to economic collapse. We found we had given in to the temptation to do what appeared to be the right thing for the wrong reason.

Too often when I am offered the opportunity to do the right thing, to make a difference in this society, in this world, I ask: “What’s in this for me?”

When I am asked to speak up for those who are marginalised or oppressed, this should be good enough reason in itself. But then I wonder how others are going to react – react not to the marginalised or oppressed, but to me.

How often do we use external sources to hide our own internalised prejudices?

How often have I seen what is the right thing to do, but have found an excuse that I pretend is not of my own making?

I hear people claim they are not racist, but speaking about migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers in language that would shock them if it was used about their own family members in England, America or Australia.

The victims of war in Syria or boat people in the Mediterranean are objects for our pity on the television news night after night. But why are they not being settled with compassion, in proportionate numbers in Ireland?

How often do I think of doing the right thing only if it is going to please my family members or please my neighbours?

How often do I use the Bible to justify not extending civil rights to others? Democracy came to all of us at a great price paid by past generations, but how often we try to hold on to those rights as if they were personal, earned wealth.

How often we use obscure Bible texts to prop up our political, racist, social and economic prejudices, forgetting that any text in the Bible, however clear or obscure it may be, depends, in Christ’s own words, on the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love one another.

Christ is challenged in this morning’s Gospel reading in two fundamental ways, about his calling those on the margins to come inside and be part of the Kingdom of God.

Christ is challenged about whether his work is the work of God or the work of the Devil (Mark 3: 22). And he is challenged to think about what his family thinks about what he doing (Mark 3: 32).

It would have been so easy for any one of us to give in under these twin pressures. To give up because of what people think of us, or how our family members might be upset when we do the right thing and there is nothing in it for them or for us – nothing at all except sneers and jeers and isolation.

We can give in so easily … we can convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing when we are doing it for the wrong reason. And when we allow ourselves to be silenced or immobilised, those we should have spoken up for lose a voice, and we lose our own voices, and our own integrity.

A wrong decision taken once, thinking it is doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason, is not just about an action in the present moment. It forms habits and it shapes who we are, within time and eternity.

The Revd Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a prominent German Lutheran pastor and an outspoken opponent of Hitler, spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He once said:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.


Eighty years ago, TS Eliot took some of the material that his producer Martin Browne asked him to remove from Murder in the Cathedral and he transformed it into his poem Burnt Norton (1935), the first of his Four Quartets, four poems concerned with the conflict between individual mortality and the endless span of human existence.

In Burnt Norton, TS Eliot tells us that the past and the future are always contained in the present. Past, present, and future cannot be separated with any precision:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.


What we do today or refuse to do today, even if we think it is the right thing to do but we do it for the wrong reasons, reflects how we have formed ourselves habitually in the past, is an image of our inner being in the present, and has consequences for the future we wish to shape.

I pray that I, we, and our Church recover our voices and speak up for the oppressed and the marginalised, not because it is fashionable or politically correct today, but because it is the right thing to do today and for the future. Because all our actions must depend on those two great commandments – to love God and to love one another. And because, as Christ reminds us this morning, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 35).

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

‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future’ (TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’) … walking through the fields beside Cross in Hand Lane, near Lichfield, last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Collect:

God,
the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake 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 on Sunday 7 June 2015 at the Parish Eucharist in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin.

‘Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future’

‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past’ (TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’) … summer returns to Cross in Hand Lane, Lichfield, last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 7 June 2015,

The First Sunday after Trinity

Saint Werburgh’s Church, Saint Werburgh Street, Dublin

10 a.m.,
The Parish Eucharist

Readings: I Samuel 8: 4-11, [12-15], 16-20, [11: 14-15]; Psalm 138; II Corinthians 4: 13 to 5: 1; Mark 3: 20-35.

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

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of TS Eliot on 4 January 1965. Eliot is, perhaps, the greatest poet in the English language in the 20th century, and he is one of the greatest Anglican literary figures.

As well as being a great poet, he was also a playwright, and his plays include Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion, and The Cocktail Party.

Murder in the Cathedral was first staged in the Chapter House in Canterbury Cathedral 80 years ago on 15 June 1935. This verse drama is based on the events leading to the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 29 December 1170.

The play was written at the prompting of the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, a friend of the martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and later one of the key critics of the excesses of violence unleashed in World War II.

The dramatisation in this play of opposition to authority was prophetic at the time, for it was written as fascism was on the rise in Central Europe and Bishop Bell had chosen wisely when he suggested Eliot should write this play.

The play is set in the days leading up to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket at the behest of King Henry II, and the principal focus is on Becket’s internal struggles.

As he reflects on the inevitable martyrdom he faces, his tempters arrive, like characters in a Greek drama, or like Job’s comforters, and question the archbishop about his plight, echoing in many ways Christ’s temptations in the wilderness when he has been fasting for 40 Days.

The first tempter offers Becket the prospect of physical safety:

The easy man lives to eat the best dinners.
Take a friend’s advice. Leave well alone,
Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.


The second tempter offers him power, riches and fame in serving the king so that he can disarm the powerful and help the poor:

To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?


Then the third tempter suggests the archbishop should form an alliance with the barons and seize a chance to resist the king:

For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
At once, for England and for Rome.


Finally, the fourth tempter urges Thomas to look to the glory of martyrdom:

You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.


Becket responds to all his tempters and specifically addresses the immoral suggestions of the fourth tempter at the end of the first act:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason
.

Saint Mark’s Gospel is very sparse in its account of the story of Christ’s temptations in the wilderness – just two verses (see Mark 1: 12-13) compared to fuller 11 or 13 verse accounts given by Saint Matthew (see Matthew 4: 1-11) and Saint Luke (see Luke 4: 1-13).

In those fuller temptation narratives, Christ is tempted to do the right things for the wrong reason.

What would be wrong with Christ turning stones into bread (see Matthew 4: 3; Luke 4: 3-4) if that is going to feed the hungry? With showing his miraculous powers (see Matthew 4: 3; Luke 4: 9), if this is going to point to the majesty of God (see Matthew 4: 4; Luke 4: 10-11)? With taking command of the kingdoms of this world (see Matthew 4: 9; Luke 4: 5-7), if this provides the opportunity to usher in justice, mercy and peace?

Let us not deceive ourselves, these are real temptations. Christ is truly human and truly divine, and for those who are morally driven there is always a real temptation to do the right thing but to do it for the wrong reason.

‘Other echoes / Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow’ (TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’) … in the garden at the Hedgehog in Lichfield last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This theme of temptation and how to respond runs through this morning’s Scripture readings.

In the Old Testament reading (I Samuel 8: 4-11, [12-15], 16-20, [11: 14-15]), the elders of Israel want a king, and go to Samuel, claiming their motivation is to be “like other nations” (I Samuel 8: 5). But the real reason was a power grab, motivated by a loss of faith in the power of God. Israel is warned that a king would exploit the people and enslave them, but they refused to heed these warnings.

We all know Ireland benefitted in recent years from wanting to be a modern nation, like your neighbours. But that ambition turned to greed, and we were surprise when greed turned to economic collapse. We found we had given in to the temptation to do what appeared to be the right thing for the wrong reason.

Too often when I am offered the opportunity to do the right thing, to make a difference in this society, in this world, I ask: “What’s in this for me?”

When I am asked to speak up for those who are marginalised or oppressed, this should be good enough reason in itself. But then I wonder how others are going to react – react not to the marginalised or oppressed, but to me.

How often do we use external sources to hide our own internalised prejudices?

How often have I seen what is the right thing to do, but have found an excuse that I pretend is not of my own making?

I hear people claim they are not racist, but speaking about migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers in language that would shock them if it was used about their own family members in England, America or Australia.

The victims of war in Syria or boat people in the Mediterranean are objects for our pity on the television news night after night. But why are they not being settled with compassion, in proportionate numbers in Ireland?

How often do I think of doing the right thing only if it is going to please my family members or please my neighbours?

How often do I use the Bible to justify not extending civil rights to others? Democracy came to all of us at a great price paid by past generations, but how often we try to hold on to those rights as if they were personal, earned wealth.

How often we use obscure Bible texts to prop up our political, racist, social and economic prejudices, forgetting that any text in the Bible, however clear or obscure it may be, depends, in Christ’s own words, on the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love one another.

Christ is challenged in this morning’s Gospel reading in two fundamental ways, about his calling those on the margins to come inside and be part of the Kingdom of God.

Christ is challenged about whether his work is the work of God or the work of the Devil (Mark 3: 22). And he is challenged to think about what his family thinks about what he doing (Mark 3: 32).

It would have been so easy for any one of us to give in under these twin pressures. To give up because of what people think of us, or how our family members might be upset when we do the right thing and there is nothing in it for them or for us – nothing at all except sneers and jeers and isolation.

We can give in so easily … we can convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing when we are doing it for the wrong reason. And when we allow ourselves to be silenced or immobilised, those we should have spoken up for lose a voice, and we lose our own voices, and our own integrity.

A wrong decision taken once, thinking it is doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason, is not just about an action in the present moment. It forms habits and it shapes who we are, within time and eternity.

The Revd Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a prominent German Lutheran pastor and an outspoken opponent of Hitler, spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He once said:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.


Eighty years ago, TS Eliot took some of the material that his producer Martin Browne asked him to remove from Murder in the Cathedral and he transformed it into his poem Burnt Norton (1935), the first of his Four Quartets, four poems concerned with the conflict between individual mortality and the endless span of human existence.

In Burnt Norton, TS Eliot tells us that the past and the future are always contained in the present. Past, present, and future cannot be separated with any precision:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.


What we do today or refuse to do today, even if we think it is the right thing to do but we do it for the wrong reasons, reflects how we have formed ourselves habitually in the past, is an image of our inner being in the present, and has consequences for the future we wish to shape.

I pray that I, we, and our Church recover our voices and speak up for the oppressed and the marginalised, not because it is fashionable or politically correct today, but because it is the right thing to do today and for the future. Because all our actions must depend on those two great commandments – to love God and to love one another. And because, as Christ reminds us this morning, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 35).

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

‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future’ (TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’) … walking through the fields beside Cross in Hand Lane, near Lichfield, last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Collect:

God,
the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake 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 on Sunday 7 June 2015 at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Werburgh’s Church, Dublin.