12 July 2015

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

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

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

12 July 2015,

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity,

11 a.m., The Parish Eucharist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are your places of pilgrimage?

Are there places where you find living water and refreshment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Post Communion Prayer:

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

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

Solidarity with Greeks (4):
Pray for Greece, Pray for Europe

Pray for the people of Greece, their political leaders, their churches and their church leaders ... candles in a church in Rethymnon in the Greek island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

While the present Greek crisis continues, I have decided each morning to suggest Tiny, Tickable, Achievable Targets as ways of expressing support for Greece and Greeks in the present crisis.

It began on Thursday [9 July 2015], when I posted a breakfast photograph on Facebook urging people to buy real Greek products, including Greek honey and Greek yoghurt, not Greek-style yoghurt. Buying Greek products helps Greek exports, puts money from euro economies back into Greece, and keeps Greek workers in jobs.”

On Friday morning [10 July 2015] I suggested picking a Greek football team to support as a gesture of solidarity. Yesterday, I suggested reading or re-reading the classics and re-discovering the foundations of European civilisation and culture.

These gestures may not change the agenda in Brussels, but you can make yourself and your family and friends feel more positive about Greece, and show solidarity in a humane way.

This Sunday morning, I am asking people to pray for Greece, for the Greek people, and for the political leaders of Greece, for President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, for the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipris, and for all poiticians.

Greece was the first nation in Europe to receive the Gospel (Acts 16-18), Greece is a land of the Bible, and the New Testament is written in Greek, with most of the Epistles written to Greek cities. Paul, Timothy, Titus, Apollos and Phoebe, all New Testament figures, were familiar with the same coastlines, mountain passes and ancient cities of Greece as we are today.

If you live near a Greek Orthodox Church, consider visiting it this morning, offering your solidarity with Greek people in exile, and praying for and with them.

Pray for the Church of Greece, of which 95 to 98% of the people are members. The constitutional status of the Orthodox Church acknowledges it as the “prevailing religion.”

The Church of Greece (Ἐκκλησία τῆς Ἑλλάδος) is confined canonically to the borders of Greece before the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, with the rest of Greece subject to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, although most of its dioceses are de facto administered as part of the Church of Greece for practical reasons.

Pray for Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and All Greece and the 81 dioceses, including the 36 dioceses in northern Greece and in the islands that are spiritually under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Pray for the Patriarch Bartholomeos, for Archbishop Irinaios (Athanasiadis) of Crete and the dioceses of the Church of Crete, for the dioceses in the Dodecanese, and for the Monastic Republic of Holy Mount Athos.

Saint Paul’s Church is in the very heart of Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Please pray too for the Anglican Church and the Anglican presence in Athens and throughout Greece.

Saint Paul’s Anglican Church is in the very heart of Athens, just a few minutes’ walk from the Plaka, the Acropolis, Syntagma Square and Parliament, and from the daily protests in the centre of Athens.

The church is a focus of worship, pastoral care and cultural activities not only for English-speaking people in Athens, but also for pilgrims following in the footsteps of Saint Paul, and for many visitors and tourists.

There has been an Anglican presence in Athens since early 1831 when Dr JH Hill, an American philanthropist and founder of a school, gathered Anglicans in his home for services. In 1836 the Revd HD Leeves arrived in Athens in 1836, and they helped secure a site for a church close to the Acropolis and 15 minutes' walk from the Areopagus, where the Apostle Paul addressed the Athenians (Acts 17: 22).

Saint Paul’s Church was consecrated on Palm Sunday 1843, and among those commemorated in the monuments and windows is Sir Richard Church, the Irish-born general who became commander-in-chief of the Greek army during the Greek War of Independence.

There is another Anglican community in northern Athens. Saint Peter’s Anglican Church uses Saint Catherine’s British School in Lycovrisi.

The Anglican Church in Athens is part of the “Church in the Street” ecumenical project which distributes 1,500 meals each day to homeless people and immigrants. But a report in the Church Times last week (3 July 2015) highlights how churches and charities in Greece are unable to help relieve the suffering of Greek people as the financial crisis escalates, because their own bank accounts have been frozen.

The Senior Chaplain of St Paul’s, Athens, Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, said that the situation was “incredibly worrying. Everyone is full of anxiety and fear … Charities and churches who work with the elderly and the poor are struggling to find money themselves. Our own bank accounts have been frozen.

“There is nothing here, no money coming in – we have been completely cut off. We can’t do much at all to support those in financial hardship.”

The Anglican Chaplaincy in Athens has particularly strong relations with the Greek Orthodox Church. The Senior Chaplain is the personal representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece.

Saint Paul’s Church in Athens and Holy Trinity Church in Corfu are the “hub” churches for a total of 11 Anglican congregation in Greece.

The other Anglican churches in Greece include: Holy Trinity Church, Kerkyra (Corfu); the Church of St. Thomas, the Apostle, Kefalas, Apokoronou, Chania (Crete); the Anglican Church in Thessaloniki, which meets in the German Evangelical Church; Saint Andrew’s Anglican Church, close to the central bus station on Agiou Andreou Street in Patras; and the Anglican Church in Nafplion, which meets in the Roman Catholic Church.

In his interview with the Church Times, Canon Bradshaw said that, although he and his wife could leave for Britain, he would not go. “It would be like the captain leaving the sinking ship. I am here to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has written this week to the Archbishop of Athens to express his concern at the situation.”

He asked for prayer. “I would ask people to pray that wisdom may prevail in Brussels and in Greece. I know we have many supporters who will want to help us to help those who are suffering, when the banks are open again. But will they open again? And, if they do, will they be empty?”

Pray for Greece – Pray for Europe is an open group on Facebook formed last Friday

Pray for Greece – Pray for Europe is an open group on Facebook formed to support the open letter published on Friday [10 July 2015] by a cross-section of Greek Orthodox theologians:

A Christian Call in a Time of Crisis in Europe

If one member suffers, all suffer together

(1 Corinthians 12:26)

Respected ecumenical friends and partners in Europe,

Dear, sisters and brothers in Christ,

In the spirit of the contemporary inter-Christian cooperation, churches have contributed to the development and establishment of a wider ecumenical spirit of reconciliation and collaboration – extremely necessary and significant for both Europe and the world. This spirit was particularly needed in challenging times, such as following the end of the World War ΙΙ and the rise of the divisive climate of the Cold War between the East and West. Since then, churches have worked to support a progressive, and sometimes even a radical Christian spiritual approach in addressing social, political, economic and environmental issues. In this spirit, as Christians and responsible citizens, we call the European churches, ecumenical organizations, religious institutions and various Christian movements in Europe to respond to our call to ensure a secure future of our common home by taking immediate actions.

The Greek crisis is a European crisis. Therefore we believe that only at the European level foundations for a sustainable and definitive solution to this problematic, injurious and particularly dangerous situation can occur. We encourage both the Greek government and the governments of the member states of the European Union to exhaust any margin of dialogue to reach an immediate agreement, ensuring equal participation of Greece in the Common Monetary Union, and leading up to a national economic recovery.

We recognize that the current adverse situation in our country is also relevant to the crucial issues related with the growth and development of particular political, economic and social systems during the political changeover, following the re-establishment of Democracy in 1974. Furthermore, we recognize that neither have we (as citizens and Orthodox Christians) risen to the occasion nor have done the self- reflection required. Today we are ready to recognize errors in our political and economic system and we take responsibility for our failures to overcome these unhealthy situations. However, we are concerned about the policies proposed by our partners, focused apparently on the need for reforms, without taking into consideration the systemic causes of the crisis, the debt crisis and the need to address the serious humanitarian consequences of the ineffective neoliberal policies applied in the recent years.

Despite our different political affiliations and interpretation of effective solutions, we all recognize that the position of Greece remains within the European family; a position that represents the overwhelming majority of Greek citizens. We call for actions that can ensure European identity of our country based on the principles of democracy, solidarity, social justice, dignity, mutual respect and implementation of the European principles. Based on these cornerstones of unity, cooperation and common progress of the European people, we invite you to work together in order to safeguard these values, because we recognize in these foundational principles common cultural, religious and humanistic inheritance of Europe. This inheritance must be preserved at all costs against powers that put our peaceful common path at serious risk; powers that impose the deification of the markets and aim to revive sad moments of the history of our continent.

Within this context, we welcome supportive statements by religious leaders and organizations. We appreciate especially comments of solidarity from His Holiness Pope Francis, pastoral letter of the distinguished members of the Presidium of the Conference of European Churches and the public interventions from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. We call upon all Christians of Europe, in a spirit of prayer and prophetic witness (martyria), to remind the European family, the greatest value of human beings against the value of profit. We are experiencing an unfortunate revival of division and intense polarization across Europe, which taints the process of making political choices, traumatizes coexistence of our nations and stigmatizes people's hearts. In the midst of this dark reality, we firmly believe that churches of Europe must – and are able to – become bridges of cooperation and dialogue, as post-war history has proven. We are part of our common spiritual and cultural heritage and consequently co-responsible for our common future.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Vasileiadis Petros,
Professor Emeritus of the Theological School, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki,
President of the Center of Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies
“Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou”

Saroglou Vassilis,
Professor of psychology at the Université catholique de Louvain,
President of the Académie internationale des sciences religieuses

Zaxaropoulos Nikos Gr.,
Deputy Dean, Professor of Theology, Head of the Master’s Programme in Theology, Neapolis University in Cyprus

Stamoulis Chrysostomos,
Professor of the Theological School, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki,
Head of the School of Theology

Kalaitzidis Pantelis,
Director, Volos Academy for Theological Studies, Volos, Greece

Zorbas Konstantinos,
Dr. of Theology and Sociology

Papageorgiou Niki,
Associate Professor of Theology at the Theological School,
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Stathokosta Vassiliki,
Assistant Professor of Theology at the Faculty of Theology,
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Tsompanidis Stylianos,
Associate Professor of Theology at the Theological School,
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Dimitrios Moschos,
Assistant Professor of Theology at the Faculty of Theology,
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi Eleni,
Lecturer at the Hellenic Open University

Nikiforos Dimitrios,
M.Th., Secretary General of the Center of Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies
“Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou”

Papathanasiou Athanasios N.,
Dr. of Theology, Lecturer at the Hellenic Open University

Pekridou Katerina,
ThM, Research Associate,
Institute for Missiology & the Study of Theologies beyond Europe,
Catholic Faculty of Theology, WWU-Münster

Mitralexis Sotiris,
Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy (Bogazici University),
Dr. of Philosophy (FUBerlin)

Skliris Dionysios,
Theologian, Philologist (Paris)

Papachristou Nikos-Giorgos,
Religious editor / Amen.gr
Student at the School of Social Sciences of the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome with a scholarship of the Pontifical Council of Christian Unity

Kosmidis Nikos,
Former World Council of Churches youth commissioner,
Political and ecumenical activist

Arkadi Monastery in the mountains above Rethymnon in Crete is a symbol of Greek pride and identity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)