30 November 2016

Matthew 11: 2-11, wondering who
Christ is, or waiting for another?

Saint John the Baptist in Prison, Juan Fernandez de Navarrete (1526-1579)

Patrick Comerford

The Sunday after next [11 December 2016] is the Third Sunday of Advent. In the liturgical calendar of the Western Church, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran Churches, and other mainline Protestant churches, it is popularly known as ‘Gaudete Sunday.’

The day takes its common name from the Latin word Gaudete (‘Rejoice’), the first word of the introit of this day’s Liturgy:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob (see Philippians 4: 4–6; Psalm 85: 1).

Throughout Advent, the spirit of the Liturgy is one of expectation and preparation for Christmas and for the coming of Christ. Gaudete Sunday in Advent is a counterpart to Laetare Sunday in Lent, and provides a similar break about mid-way through the season of preparation, and signifies the joy and gladness as the Lord’s coming comes nearer and nearer.

On Gaudete Sunday, rose-coloured vestments may be worn instead of violet or Sarum blue, and this is noted as an option in the Church of England in Common Worship.

On the Advent wreath, the rose-coloured or pink candle is lit in addition to the two violet or blue candles, which represent the first two Sundays of Advent. The readings emphasise the joyous anticipation of the Lord’s coming.

We have started Year A in the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, and the readings for Gaudete Sunday this year are: Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146: 4-10 or the Canticle Magnificat; James 5: 7-10; and Matthew 11: 2-11.

In our tutorial group this morning we are looking at the Gospel reading for that Sunday morning.

Κατα Ματθαιον ιʹαʹ 2-11

2 Ὁ δὲ Ἰωάννης ἀκούσας ἐν τῷ δεσμωτηρίῳ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ Χριστοῦ πέμψας διὰ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ 3 εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος ἢ ἕτερον προσδοκῶμεν; 4 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Πορευθέντες ἀπαγγείλατε Ἰωάννῃ ἃ ἀκούετε καὶ βλέπετε: 5 τυφλοὶ ἀναβλέπουσιν καὶ χωλοὶ περιπατοῦσιν, λεπροὶ καθαρίζονται καὶ κωφοὶ ἀκούουσιν, καὶ νεκροὶ ἐγείρονται καὶ πτωχοὶ εὐαγγελίζονται: 6 καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί.

7 Τούτων δὲ πορευομένων ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγειν τοῖς ὄχλοις περὶ Ἰωάννου, Τί ἐξήλθατε εἰςτὴν ἔρημον θεάσασθαι; κάλαμον ὑπὸ ἀνέμου σαλευόμενον; 8 ἀλλὰ τί ἐξήλθατε ἰδεῖν; ἄνθρωπον ἐν μαλακοῖς ἠμφιεσμένον; ἰδοὺ οἱ τὰ μαλακὰ φοροῦντες ἐν τοῖς οἴκοις τῶν βασιλέων εἰσίν. 9 ἀλλὰ τί ἐξήλθατε ἰδεῖν; προφήτην; ναί, λέγω ὑμῖν,καὶ περισσότερον προφήτου. 10 οὗτός ἐστιν περὶ οὗ γέγραπται,

Ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου,
ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου ἔμπροσθέν σου.

11 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐκ ἐγήγερται ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν μείζων Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ: ὁ δὲ μικρότερος ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν μείζων αὐτοῦ ἐστιν.

Matthew 11: 2-11

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4 Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’

Putting the readings in context:

Isaiah 35: 1-10:

Each Sunday during Advent this year, we are reading from the Prophet Isaiah. In this reading, the prophet foretells:

● the restoration of the land to fertility
● the end of human suffering and sickness
● the restoration of hope and justice
● the joyful return of the exiles from captivity.

The exiles shall be restored, and the ‘desert shall ... blossom,’ the fertility of Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon will be given to them as a sign of God’s favour and glory. The land once given over to wild beasts, including jackals and lions, will be cultivated once again, and the barren land will bloom.

Human life will be transformed, with the end of infirmity and disability. The feeble, the blind, the deaf, the lame and the speechless shall be restored, along with the restoration of justice and the return of hope. Waters and streams will make the land fertile again.

Finally, the exiles, who have been captives in Babylon, will return on a ‘Holy Way’ (verse 8) or a ‘highway’ in safety (verse 9) to ‘Zion’ (verse 10), the holy city, and there once again they will worship God in the Temple.

But all of these are not ends in themselves, for they are signs of and point to the hope that God’s rule is being restored and that his favour rests on his people.

Psalm 146: 5-10:

This psalm echoes the theme of restoration we have read about in Isaiah, focussing especially on God’s justice. This is one of the Hallelujah psalms at the end of the Psalter, which contain a series of hymns of praise, each with a call to worship, a statement of the purpose for praising God, and a renewed summons to praise. These Psalms all begin and end with the word Hallelujah, which is translated in the NRSV: ‘Praise the Lord.’

In contrast to human rulers, God’s reign is just. Those who trust in God are happy or blessed and have ‘hope.’ This psalm sings of God’s justice expressed in his care and action on behalf of the defenceless, the oppressed, the hungry, prisoners, the blind, the weak or humiliated, strangers, orphans and widows. When these are cared for, it is a sign of God’s just reign, and he is to be praised: ‘Praise the Lord!’

Inside the Remu'h Synagogue in Kraków … traditional Jewish daily prayers include the petition, ‘I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah. And though he may tarry, I shall wait anticipating his arrival each day’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

James 5: 7-10:

Praying for the Messiah to come is a daily part of prayer in Judaism. At the heart of the Jewish prayer life is a prayer known as the Amidah (18 Blessings). It is often said three times a day, and includes: ‘The offspring of your servant David may you speedily cause to flourish …’

The Yigdal, which is part of daily morning prayers in many congregations, focuses on the 13 Articles Of Faith that Maimonides says every Jew should believe in. The Yigdal inspired Thomas Olivers’s hymn, The God of Abraham praise (Irish Church Hymnal, 5th ed, No 323).

The twelfth principle of the Yigdal prays: ‘I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah. And though he may tarry, I shall wait anticipating his arrival each day.’

Early Christians anticipated Christ’s return, the second coming, believing it was imminent and would be immediate, and that with it would come the Kingdom of God. Its delay – the tarrying of the Messiah’s advent – caused some difficulties and even some disputes in the Apostolic Church. Here, the Apostle James warns his readers not to be impatient. This impatience may lead to grumbling and division within the church, which will bring judgment, for with the second coming of Christ comes also the judgment of God. The second coming is a two-edged sword: its arrival is a comfort for and a warning to Christians (see Proverbs 5: 4; Hebrews 4: 12; Revelation 1: 16; Revelation 2: 12).

Instead, Saint James tells us to be patient in suffering like the prophets, to bide our time like the farmer who plants his crop knowing the rains will come in due time (verse 7). In the same way, the Kingdom is near (verse 8) – it may appear to be tarrying, but it will come in its own time. Though it may tarry, our impatience will not hasten its coming. But we can anticipate its arrival each day with complete faith.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, Caravaggio

The Gospel reading, Matthew 11: 2-11:

The Third Sunday of Advent is associated with Saint John the Baptist. The first purple candle on the Advent Wreath on the First Sunday of Advent reminds us of the Patriarchs; the second purple candle, on the Second Sunday of Advent, recalls the Prophets; the third, pink candle on the Third Sunday of Advent, is a reminder of Saint John the Baptist; and the last purple candle, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, recalls the Virgin Mary.

We already meet Saint John the Baptist by the banks of the River Jordan in the Gospel reading for the previous Sunday, the Second Sunday of Advent (Matthew 3: 1-12, 4 December 2016).

Do you remember how John is taken aback when he first meets with Christ? He comes across full of confidence and certainty. He announces the coming of Christ with great hope and expectation, bursting with energy. Yet, when Christ comes to him to be baptised, is there even a hint that John is a little reluctant to baptise him?

Have you ever wondered why John does not know who Jesus is? After all, not only has he baptised him and hailed him, he is also his cousin. Considering how close to one another their mothers Mary and Elizabeth have been, why would John now not know who Jesus is? Is this not the same John who leaped with joy in his mother’s womb when he realised he was in the presence of the unborn Christ (see Luke 1: 44)?

Have you ever wondered why John was not one of the disciples?

We move on quite a bit by the Third Sunday of Advent. It is a week later in the lectionary readings, but many months after Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. Saint John the Baptist has preached himself hoarse about looking forward to one who is more powerful than he is. However, since then Jesus has not been wielding power in the way John may have hoped for or may have been expecting.

Now as John waits in prison, about to lose his head, perhaps he wonders whether he made a mistake in thinking Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps he is feeling discouraged and doubtful, he sends messengers to ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (verse 3).

The simple answer for Christ might have been: ‘Yes.’ Instead, however, Christ points Saint John, the messengers and the crowd to the signs of the Kingdom. Echoing the Prophet Isaiah, he points out that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the dead are raised and the poor receive good news.

These are not mere claims, but incontrovertible proof. Yet, apparently, there are some who take offence at Christ (verse 6). Perhaps even Saint John the Baptist has been disappointed because his expectations of the Messiah are not being fulfilled by Christ. He is hardly the king of the coming kingdom – after all, he is not ‘dressed in soft robes’ (verse 8). The term ‘soft robes,’ used twice in this verse, has resonances of self-indulgence.

Is this what gives rise to Saint John’s doubts?

Is it possible that Saint John was expecting for the wrong kind of Messiah?

Indeed, is Jesus the one John the Baptist has been waiting for?

When Saint John’s disciples return and tell him what Christ has told them, does Saint John conclude that Jesus is not the Messiah he has been waiting for?

Does John think he has been waiting for the wrong kind of Messiah?

How often have you waited expectantly – for Christmas, for a Christmas present, for a new job, for a major family milestone, for the move to a new home – only to face the realisation that your expectation has been unfulfilled? Another pair of socks? The wrong job with low pay, high expectations and bad conditions? The family milestone upstaged by a family crisis? The new home has horrid neighbours? Is the person I loved so many years ago really the person I live with now?

Picture Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, lonely and empty by the side of the road, waiting forever for Godot who never arrives.

Picture Eleanor Rigby in the lyrics of the Beatles, waiting alone at the window, alone among the lonely people.

Picture Saint John the Baptist, waiting in prison where he has been sent by Herod the Great.

Now he is tired. He has grown discouraged. He is questioning. He is like us. He jumps to hope with power and aggressiveness. But later, when he is dispirited, he has questions, and he has doubts. Is Jesus really the Christ he is looking for?

What happened to the John the Baptist who said Jesus would chop down fruitless trees and throw chaff into the fire?

Has Jesus spent his ministry throwing chaff into the fire?

No, it seems not. And so Saint John sends his own disciples, to ask: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?’

Saint John, who has devoted his entire life to preparing the way for Christ, now seems not to even recognise Jesus when he comes. Has Jesus come in a way that John does not expect. Should he and his disciples look for another?

Christ refers to the signs of the Kingdom in Isaiah. Saint John is ‘more than a prophet’ (verse 9), for he heralds the dawn of the final era of history and he announces the coming of the Kingdom. Now Christ validates Saint John’s ministry as a true prophet, quoting a prophecy from Malachi in verse 10, and then equating Saint John’s ministry with the returned Elijah (verse 14).

At that time, Jews believed the time of the prophets had come to an end. But they understood Malachi’s words to mean that Elijah would come again, heralding the advent of the Messiah.

Christ criticises the people who went out to see Saint John the Baptist in the wilderness with the wrong expectations. What they actually saw was greater than they could ever imagine. Yet even Saint John, as great as he is, only points the way to an even greater reality (verse 11). Now the fulfilment of this promise is beginning to be worked out and to be seen.

When we are disappointed, when our expectations of the coming Kingdom are dashed, is it because we are not looking for the signs of the Kingdom that are all around us?

The gift of Christ is precious, but does it always meet our expectations?

Are we prepared to look around and notice new places where Jesus is working and living? If you were told: ‘Go and tell John what you see and hear,’ where would you say you see and hear Christ at work today?

I am not blind, lame, leprous, deaf, poor, downtrodden, dead … surely? Am I?

Christ comes in humility for the humble. He comes for those who do not have it all worked out for themselves. I am not humble; so often I think I have it all worked out.


No, I do not agree with those who argue that Saint John the Baptist doubted whether Jesus is truly the Christ. Often, these arguments are built on ‘paperback psychology’ – thinking that fails to examine the person being discussed.

It is not Saint John the Baptist who is a reed swaying in the wind, blown about by the happenings of the world and the persecution he now faces. It is the people who went to see him who are now being told they are like reeds swayed by the wind.

Saint John remains a prophet and more than a prophet – he rejoices to see the fulfilment of the Promise, and he knows that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, for he sees the Holy Spirit descending on him and remaining on him. He knows that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. One of his own disciples, Saint Andrew, becomes the first-called among the disciples of Christ.

Saint Jerome says Saint John’s questions arise not out of ignorance but in the same way that Christ asks where Lazarus is buried, so that those who show him the sepulchre might be so far prepared for faith, and believe that the dead are raised again to life. So Saint John, who is about to be put to death by Herod, sends his disciples to Christ, ‘that by this opportunity of seeing his signs and wonders they might believe on him, and so might learn through their master’s inquiry’ (Jerome, Catena Aurea, Matthew 11: 2-6).

By sending them to question Christ about his mission, Saint John the Baptist offers his disciples the opportunity to become true disciples of Christ. This is the opinion of Saint Hilary, Saint Chrysostom, Saint Cyril and many other patristic writers.

Similar points are made by Saint John Chrysostom who says ‘the Baptist did not doubt or slacken in his faith; for he is no reed swayed in the wind, but the new Elijah.’

Saint Gregory the Great holds that Saint John the Baptist truly questioned whether Christ was the one who would come. But this does not imply that Saint John doubted whether he was the Messiah, but only whether he was the one who would come – meaning the one who would come into Sheol to retrieve the souls of the just who are waiting. As Saint John realises his own death is near, he seeks consolation from Christ who is to deliver the dead from the power of death.

Salome visiting Saint John the Baptist in Prison, Francesco Barbieri (Il Guernico)


O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end.

Post Communion Prayer:

we give you thanks for these heavenly gifts.
Kindle us with the fire of your Spirit
that when Christ comes again
we may shine as lights before his face;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 30 November 2016.

Praying in Advent with USPG,
(4): 30 November 2016

Saint Andrew … a stained glass window in Saint Andrew’s Church, Malahide, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle [30 November 2016]. The season of Advent began on Sunday [27 November 2016], and throughout this time of preparation, I am praying each morning and using for my reflections the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

USPG is also marking the time around the beginning of Advent, from 25 November to 10 December, as ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.’

The USPG Prayer Diary:

Wednesday 30 November 2016 (Saint Andrew the Apostle):

Pray for the millions of women who suffer in silence having endured sexual violence at the hands of family members or strangers or during wars.

The shrine of Saint Andrew in the crypt in the cathedral in Amalfi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, the Church of Ireland, Holy Communion):

Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 19, 1-6; Romans 10: 12-18; Matthew 4: 18-22.

The Collect of the Day (Saint Andrew):

Almighty God,
who gave such grace to your apostle Saint Andrew
that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ
and brought his brother with him:
Call us by your holy Word
and give us grace to follow without delay,
and to tell the good news of your kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Advent Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

may the gifts we have received at your table
keep us alert for your call
that we may always be ready to answer,
and, following the example of Saint Andrew,
always be ready to bear our witness
to our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Continued tomorrow

29 November 2016

Two 18th century houses hidden
behind old gates in Knocklyon

Mount Michael is hidden behind old gates on Scholarstown Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

During a recent walk through the suburban areas of Knocklyon, as dusk turned to darkness in one of these early winter evenings, I stopped to look at two 18th century houses than enhance the architectural legacy of this suburban part of south Dublin, Idrone House on Idrone Avenue and Mount Michael on Scholarstown Road. Both are close to Knocklyon Shopping Centre.

Idrone House, on Idrone Avenue, which has put on the market recently, and is attracting attention less for its architectural features and merits than the story of the celebrity who lives here and her reasons for selling the house.

Idrone House, facing Knockyon shopping centre and parish church, is a detached, five-bay two-storey former country house, built ca 1790. Although it is located behind electronic gates, it is not completely hidden, and from the footpath outside it is possible to appreciate that Idrone House is essentially a country house in the suburbs.

There is a full height bow to the south end. The house has rough-cast rendered walls, timber sash windows and a replacement glazed timber door with a timber surround and sidelights, all under a radial depressed-arched fanlight.

There is a channelled render surround, a hipped slate roof behind the parapet, and rendered chimney stacks. It has 3,500 sq ft of floor space, making it two or three times the size of an average semi-detached house in the Dublin suburbs. The house still has much of its original fabric and unusual proportions, with a low ground floor sill level, and it acts as a landmark in this area.There are extensions and outbuildings to the rere.

Despite encroaching suburban developments, this house still stands in grounds of half an acre and manages to retain some of its original and elegant settings, enhanced partly by an old, large tree standing in the garden.

Idrone House is ‘a landmark’ in the Knocklyon area (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Architectural archives describe Idrone House as ‘a landmark in the area.’ There is no evidence to substantiate a claim in recent reports of this sale that at one time Idrone House was the residence of the Archbishop of Dublin.

Idrone has a drawing room with sash windows and working shutters while the ceiling has ornate historically-sound mouldings.

A short walk away, facing onto Scholarstown Road, Mount Michael is another partly-hidden house in Knocklyon that is worth looking out for.

The older section at the rear of the house was built in the early part of the 18th century, at a time when coach road ran past the front door.

This is a detached, three-bay, two-Storey over basement house that dates back to the 18th Century house. The newer section, which is now the main entrance, was added about 200 years later and some local historians claim that it appears to be the work of an Italian architect. A feature of the house is a little spire on the roof.

For the past half century, Mount Michael has been the home of the Harrison family, and it remains a hidden oasis in the middle of expanding suburban developments.

Mount Michael was built in the early part of the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

For other postings on the architectural heritage of South Dublin see:

Berwick Hall.
The Bottle Tower, Churchtown.
Brookvale House, Rathfarnham.
Camberley House, Churchtown.
Dartry House, Orwell Park, Rathgar.
Ely Arch, Rathfarnham.
Ely House, Nutgrove Avenue, Rathfarnham.
Fernhurst, 14 Orwell Road, Rathgar.
Fortfield House, Hyde Park, Terenure.
No 201 Harold’s Cross Road, the birthplace of Richard Allen.
Homestead, Sandyford Road, Dundrum.
Kilvare House, also known as Cheeverstown House, Templeogue Road.
Knocklyon Castle.
Laurelmere Lodge, Marlay Park.
Marlay Park.
Mountain View House, Beaumont Avenue, Churchtown.
Newbrook House, Taylor’s Lane, Rathfarnham.
Old Bawn House, Tallaght.
Pussy’s Leap, Firhouse Road.
Rathfarnham Castle.
Sally Park, Fihouse.
Scholarstown House, Knocklyon.
Silveracre House, off Sarah Curran Avenue, Rathfarnham.
Synge House, Newtwon Villas, Churchtown, and No 4 Orwell Park, Rathgar.
Templeogue House.
Washington House, Butterfield Avenue, Rathfarnham.
Westbourne House, off Rathfarnham Road.

Praying in Advent with USPG,
(3): 29 November 2016

USPG is marking the days between 25 November and 10 December as ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’

Patrick Comerford

The season of Advent began on Sunday [27 November 2016], and throughout this time of preparation, I am praying each morning and using in my reflections the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

USPG is also marking the time around the beginning of Advent, from 25 November to 10 December, as ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.’

The USPG Prayer Diary:

Tuesday 29 November 2016:

Pray for women around the world who carry the sole responsibility for feeding their families.

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, the Church of Ireland, Holy Communion):

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 72, 1-4, 18-19; Luke 10: 21-24.


Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Continued tomorrow

28 November 2016

Advent 2016: An introduction
to a Spirituality for Advent

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John Without the Barrs, Lichfield … Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ in Majesty

Patrick Comerford

The Chapel, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

9 a.m., 28 November 2016

The Lord be with you,
And also with you

O Come O Come Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 1:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear:

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from above,
who ord’rest all things through thy love;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go:Refrain

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud, and majesty, and awe:Refrain

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave:Refrain

Opening Prayer:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen


Matthew 21: 1-11 (the Church of Ireland Lectionary reading for Morning Prayer).

A time of preparation:

It is very difficult to prepare for Christmas when Santa has already arrived in every shopping centre, when the Christmas lights are already strung across the Main Street in every town and village, and many of our parish choirs are already singing Christmas Carols. Indeed, it is hard to distinguish between Advent and Lent when you find Cadbury’s crème eggs are already on sale.

But even in the Church we often manage to confuse Advent and Lent, probably because they are both seasons of preparation when we change the liturgical colour from Green to Purple or Violet.

The word Advent, from the Latin word adventus, means ‘coming.’ That Latin word is simply a translation of the Greek word παρουσία (parousía), used for the Second Coming of Christ.

This season is a reminder of the original waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But more especially it is a reminder of our waiting for Christ at his the Second Coming. This season, which began yesterday, the First Sunday of Advent [27 November 2016], is the season when the Church marks a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, not just as a cuddly child in Christmas crib, but his coming in glory and as king.

Throughout the next four weeks, our readings, collects, post-communion prayers and the other seasonal provisions in our liturgies try to focus us – yes on Christ’s incarnation, but more particularly (if less successfully) to focus us – on Christ’s coming judgment and reign.

Because of that, the ‘Four Last Things’ – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell – have been traditional themes for Advent meditation. The characteristic emphasis in Advent, therefore, is expectation, rather than penitence.

Purple is not a penitential colour ... it is a rich, royal imperial colour, originally derived from a very rare source. Πορφύρα (porphyra), the rare purple dye from Tyre, could command its weight in silver and was manufactured in classical antiquity from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail. As a seller of purple, Lydia was a wealthy woman of independent means. And as Judith Herrin points out in her beautiful book on the powerful woman of Byzantium, Women in Purple, a child born to a reigning emperor was πορφυρογέννητος (porphyrogénitos), ‘born in the purple.’

So, we change our liturgical colour in Advent to purple to signify we are preparing for the coming of Christ as the King of Kings, the ruler of all, in all his royal, imperial, majesty, splendour and glory.

Although comparisons are too often made with Lent, Advent is a time of preparation rather than a time of penitence, Lent too is a time of preparation for the completion of Christ’s majestic task, seen in his passion, death, burial and Resurrection. It was a time too, in the Early Church, of preparation for baptism, which required penitence and repentance and μετάνοια (metánoia), conversion, turning round to face Christ.

Today’s office parties, Christmas lunches, early Santas, hastily-planned carol services, and bringing the last posting day forward to the week before Advent, make it difficult to sustain this sense of being alert and watchful. Yet, can’t you remember with glee and warmth the child-like waiting and watching you experienced during the build-up for Christmas? In the cold and dark of winter, can you remember that warm glow you felt as you anticipated such a wonderful festival?

In recent times, the most common, popular observance of Advent is the use of the Advent Calendar, with one door being opened in the calendar, or one new candle being lit, on the Advent Wreath each day or each week leading up to Christmas Eve.

So I would like to suggest seven customs that we can use in the Church to help restore and built-up that sense of anticipation, of watching and waiting, to cheerfully inviting people into a time and space for praying in joyful anticipation:

1, the Advent Calendar;
2, the Advent Wreath;
3, the Jess Tree;
4, Christingle services;
5, the Advent Prose;
6, Advent carols;
7, good old Saint Nicholas.

1, The Advent Calendar

The Advent Calendar … a choice between Christ and chocolates?

As children, many of us have watched the progression of Advent through the doors of an Advent calendar. I remember once looking for an Advent calendar for our children in a shop one year and being asked cheerfully: Do you want one with the chocolates or one with the child? But then, I notice this year that Cadburys have tried to hijack Advent with the hashtag Cadvent!

You know what an Advent calendar is: it allows us to count or celebrate the days of Advent, and to build up an anticipation of Christmas. Today, most Advent calendars are made for children. But why can’t they be for adults too?

Advent Calendars do not have to be filled with chocolates and sweets. You can make a simple one in your parish, using a large rectangular card, cutting out the right number of windows, so that one can be opened each day during Advent, revealing an image, a poem, a Scripture text or part of a story related to the Nativity.

The Advent Calendar has its origins among German Lutherans, and may have been a family practice in German-speaking places from the 17th century on. From perhaps the beginning of the 19th century, many German families counted down the 24 days of Advent physically: at first, this meant simply drawing a chalk line on the door each day from 1 December. Some families had more elaborate ways to mark each day – lighting a new candle or hanging a little religious picture on the wall.

The first known Advent Calendar was handmade in 1851, the first printed Advent calendar was produced in Hamburg in 1902 or 1903, and the first commercially produced Advent Calendar, produced in Munich in 1908, had 24 little coloured pictures that could be affixed to a piece of cardboard.

The custom spread from Germany after World War II. Even though you may have put your childhood behind you, you may find an Advent Calendar a source for inspiration for prayers and intercessions over the next few weeks.

2, The Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin … the first purple candle, which was lit at the Cathedral Eucharist yesterday, recalls the Patriarchs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

This morning we lit the first of the candles on our Advent Wreath. Traditionally, a new candle is lit in church each week, followed by a Bible reading or selected prayers. Some say the circle symbolises the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens and lit candles signify the persistence of life in the midst of winter.

The Advent wreath is said to have been the idea of Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881), a German pastor and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor in Hamburg. In December 1838, he made a large wooden ring from an old cartwheel, with 19 small red and four large white candles. A new small candle was lit each weekday in Advent, and a large white candle was lit on Sundays. The custom spread in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles. The custom spread to Britain in the 19th century, and to North America in 1930s, so that it has global appeal today.

In most Anglican churches today, there are three purple candles and one pink candle in a ring, with a white or gold candle in the centre.

The purple candles reflect the liturgical colour of the season, while pink marks the Third Sunday of Advent, when that colour change briefly to pink.

There are many traditions about the meaning or theme of each candle. But Common Worship and Times and Seasons suggest these five themes:

Advent 1: The Patriarchs (Purple);
Advent 2: The Prophets (Purple);
Advent 3: John the Baptist (Pink);
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary (Purple);
Christmas Day: The Christ (White or Gold).

Each of those Sundays then reminds us of those who prepared for the coming of Christ. ‘The Patriarchs’ can naturally focus on Abraham, our Father in faith, and David, the ancestor in whose city the Christ Child was born. ‘The Prophets’ invites us to reflect on the way Christ’s coming was foretold. And then we recall John the Baptist, who proclaimed him as Saviour; and the Virgin Mary, who bore him in her womb and gave birth to him.

The pink candle on the Third Sunday comes from the mediaeval tradition of adopting a splash of colour on this Sunday, Gaudate Sunday or ‘Rose Sunday,’ reflecting the traditions surrounding Laetare Sunday (Refreshment Sunday), the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

In others traditions, the first candle is called the prophet’s candle and is meant to signify the hope of Christ’s coming. The second is called the Bethlehem candle in honour of the city of Christ’s birth. The third candle is the shepherds’ candle. The final candle is the angels’ candle, symbolising the angelic proclamation of joy at Christ’s birth.

In either case, the accumulation of light is an expression of the growing anticipation of the birth of Christ, the light of the world. The circular wreath represents God’s eternity and unity. Evergreens are a symbol of enduring life.

A number of carols have been written for use with the short liturgy as the Advent candles are lit. A common format is to add an extra verse each week, relating to the symbolism of that week’s candle.

3, The Jesse Tree

The West End windows in Christ Church Cathedral are another way of illustrating the Jesse Tree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At times, we have had a Jesse Tree in this chapel during Advent, and it has become a popular teaching aid in many Anglican parishes, although the earliest example probably dates from the 11th century.

The Tree of Jesse depicts the Ancestors of Christ in a tree that rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. The earliest example dates from the 11th century. But it is also inspired by that passage from Isaiah: ‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,’ (Isaiah 11: 1), which is the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 11: 1-10) in the Church of Ireland lectionary for Holy Communion tomorrow [29 November 2016] and next Sunday [4 December 2016].

The lineage of Jesus is traced by two Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. Saint Matthew’s Gospel opens with the words: ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ With this beginning, Matthew makes clear Jesus’ whole lineage: he is of God’s chosen people, by his descent from Abraham, and he is the ‘shoot of Jesse’ by his descent from Jesse’s son, King David. Saint Luke describes the ‘generations of Christ,’ beginning with Jesus himself and tracing backwards through his ‘earthly father’ Joseph back to Adam (see Luke 3).

The figures in a Jesse Tree are drawn from the genealogies in the Gospels, although usually showing only a selection. In many churches, the traditional Jesse Tree is decorated over the course of Advent with symbols representing stories leading up to the Incarnation – for example, a burning bush for Moses, a ram for Isaac or a crown for David.

4, Christingle Services:

Christinlge services … a good resource for Advent

Tomorrow evening [29 November 2016], the Service of the Word in this chapel is taking the form of a Christingle service.

The Moravian custom of a Christingle service was introduced to these islands in the late 20th century, and resources are available through the Children’s Society (in the Church of England). Christingle services may take place before or after Christmas, but they are a good resource for Advent.

5, The Advent Prose

The ‘O Antiphons’ … detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan Van Eyck, 1420s

In Advent, we often sing the Advent Prose or the Advent Antiphons, an antiphonal plainsong. The ‘Late Advent Weekdays,’ 17 to 24 December, mark the singing of the Great Advent ‘O Antiphons.’

These are the antiphons for the canticle Magnificat at Evensong, Evening Prayer or Vespers day and mark the forthcoming birth of the Messiah. They form the basis for each verse of the popular Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel.

These antiphons, all beginning with ‘O ...,’ were sung before and after the Canticle Magnificat at Vespers from 17 to 24 December, the seven days before Christmas.

They are addressed to God, calling on him to come as teacher and deliverer, and woven through with scriptural titles and images describing God’s saving work in Christ. This tradition was developed in the Sarum Rite in mediaeval England, and was reflected in The Book of Common Prayer, where the Anglican Reformers retained the title O Sapientia (‘O Wisdom’) as the designation for 16 December.

This is linked with the Anglican tradition of not appending ‘Gloria’ to psalms and canticles during Advent.

6, Advent carols

Advent Carols … appropriate Advent carols are not the same as Christmas carols

It is also from this tradition that we have derived one of the best-known Advent carols, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), which we are signing this morning.

But there are other special Advent carols and hymns for this season. See Irish Church Hymnal, Nos 119 to 145.

7, Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus? … a role model for self-giving and mission

Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves that Saint Nicholas is commemorated not on 25 December but on 6 December [Tuesday of next week], even if he does not make an appearance in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland Calendar.

Saint Nicholas was such a favourite saint in mediaeval Ireland that many our principal ports and towns have large churches named after him, including Carrickfergus, Co Antrim; Dundalk, Co Louth; Dublin (two churches); Galway; Cork; and Adare, Co Limerick.

He is an important figure, but not because of the roly-poly figure hijacked by Coca-Cola and advertising.

His willingness to travel, even when his own life was at risk, makes him a role model for the church in mission.

As Bishop Nicholas of Myra he was a key defender of Trinitarian dogma at the Council of Nicaea (325).

The stories of his bringing the victims of murder back to life is a reminder that Christmas is without meaning unless it is related to and connected with Good Friday and Easter Day, that the significance of the Incarnation is to be found in our Redemption and the Resurrection.

As a bishop who was the protector of vulnerable children and teenagers to point of risking his own place in society, he is an important challenge to some of the ways the whole church has handled some recent difficulties; as the free-giver of gifts, without expecting anything in return he is a reminder that God’s love is given freely and unconditionally at the Incarnation in his Son, Christ Jesus … and what better sermon could we preach in the Season of Advent.

Three questions for our time of reflection:

1, Are you ready for the coming of Christ?

2, Is this a time of preparation or celebration for you, your parish?

3, Is Christmas more important than Easter in your parish?

Some resources and reading:

Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).

William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent antiphons (Dublin: Columba/APCK, 1993).

Dorothy McRae-McMahon, Liturgies for High Days (London: SPCK, 2006).

Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008; Alcuin Liturgy Guides 5).

Times and Seasons: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).

Closing poem

In the bleak mid-winter

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

(Christina Rosetti, 1830-1893, see Irish Church Hymnal, No. 162)

Closing hymn:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 2:

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery: Refrain

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight: Refrain

O come, Desire of nations, bring,
all peoples to their Saviour King;
thou Corner-stone, who makest one,
complete in us thy work begun: Refrain

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear: Refrain


Prayers for lighting the candles on the Advent Wreath on the Sundays in Advent:

The First Sunday of Advent (27 November 2016)

The Patriarchs and Matriarchs

O God of Abraham and Sarai,
we thank you for your faithfulness throughout all time.
As today we begin our Advent journey
may the light of your love
surround your church across the world,
as we watch and wait for your kingdom.

The Second Sunday of Advent (4 December 2016)

The Prophets

Loving God, your prophets spoke out
in the darkness of suffering and loss,
of a light coming into the world.
May we, with your global church, proclaim your light
as we stand alongside the marginalised of the world,
that they may find new strength and hope in you.

The Third Sunday of Advent (11 December 2016)

Saint John the Baptist

Lord Jesus, your cousin John
prepared the way for your coming.
Inspire your church across the world,
like John, to speak out against injustice:
that the world may become
a fairer and just home for all.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (18 December 2016)

The Virgin Mary

Lord Jesus, your mother Mary
carried you with tender determination
on the dangerous road to Bethlehem.
May the same flame of love
fill your global church to bring courage
and hope to all who carry and nurture children today.

Christmas Day (25 December 2016)

Jesus Christ

Holy God, your only son was born with no home and laid in a manger;
fill us with compassion for all in need today.
Bless your church as it works for dignity, healing and peace
across the world, and give us generous hearts
to respond to your most generous gift,
of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture, on Monday 28 November 2016, was part of the Spirituality programme in the module Pastoral Formation (TH 8841) with MTh students

Praying in Advent with USPG,
(2): 28 November 2016

USPG is marking the time around the beginning of Advent, from 25 November to 10 December, as ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’

Patrick Comerford

The season of Advent began yesterday [27 November 2016], and later this morning I speaking to MTh students about a Spirituality for Advent.

Throughout this time of preparation for Christmas, I am praying each morning and using in my reflections the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

USPG is also marking the time around the beginning of Advent, from 25 November to 10 December, as ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.’

The USPG Prayer Diary:

Monday 28 November 2016:

Pray for safety and respect for women and girls, especially those who are most vulnerable to abuse. Pray that they might know God’s love and protection..

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, the Church of Ireland, Holy Communion):

Isaiah 4: 2-6; Psalm 122; Matthew 8: 5-13.


Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Continued tomorrow

27 November 2016

Presiding at the Cathedral Eucharist
on the First Sunday of Advent

(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Advent begins today [27 November 2016], and this morning, on the First Sunday of Advent, I am presiding at the Cathedral Eucharist at 11 a.m. in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

The preacher this morning is the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, and the setting is the Mass for Four Voices, by William Byrd (1540–1623), is being sung by the Cathedral Choir.

At the Gathering of God’s People, the choir is singing a section of the Advent Prose in procession:

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.
Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity for ever: Thy holy
cities are a wilderness, Sion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation: Our holy
and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee.
Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.

The readings are: Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 25: 1–9; Romans 13:11-14; and Matthew 24: 36-44.

The Post-Gospel Hymn is one of the best-known Advent carols, O come, O come, Emmanuel!, and we are signing this hymn again tomorrow morning in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute at the beginning and at the end of my reflections on ‘Finding a Spirituality for Advent.’

The first English translation of Veni, veni, Emmanuel was made by John Henry Newman in 1836. Some years later, the Revd John Mason Neale (1818-1866), a Victorian authority on mediaeval liturgy and hymnody, published the five Latin metrical stanzas in his Hymni Ecclesiae in 1851. Neale’s English translation was published that year in his Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, with the opening line: ‘Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel.’

A slightly revised version was also published in 1854 by Neale and the Revd Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), a one-time curate in Saint Michael’s, Lichfield, and a priest-vicar in Lichfield Cathedral, who helped revive an Anglican interest in plainsong or Gregorian chant, in The Hymnal Noted.

Seven years later, in 1861, it was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern, but with the more familiar opening words: ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ – and with the note: ‘Altered by the Compilers.’

The Advent Procession in the cathedral later this afternoon, at 5 p.m., includes Advent readings and hymns.

The Dean’s welcome in the booklet for this evening’s Advent Procession says:

On the first Sunday of Advent, we find ourselves in a unique position, standing both at the beginning and at the end, precisely at the turning–point of the liturgical year. This peculiar experience of living within a paradox is a characteristic of the Christian faith. However, perhaps the greatest paradox of Advent is the tension between the joyous anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the inevitability of the cross.

In one sense, Advent does not end at Christmas. The nativity, the Incarnation, cannot be separated from the crucifixion, the Atonement. The purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world, of the ‘Word made flesh’ and dwelling among us, is to reveal God and His grace to the world through Jesus’ life and teaching, but also through his suffering, death, and resurrection. So, at the beginning of things, we think about the end of things.

This evening’s readings reflect this emphasis on Christ’s second coming and include themes of accountability, judgement, and the hope of eternal life. The course of the service traces the witness of the prophets, of John the Baptist and of Mary, all of whom point us towards the birth of Jesus.

Towards the end of the service, Charles Wesley’s hymn sums up all that we have heard and reminds us of the paradox of our faith. In the words of T.S. Eliot,

‘What we call the beginning is often the end
and to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.’
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding.

Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield … the Revd Thomas Helmore, co-author of O come, O come, Emmanuel!, was once a curate here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

One of my favourite poems at this time of the year – and a sobering one too – is ‘Advent 1955’ by John Betjeman:

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound –
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out ‘Prepare
, Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.’

And how, in fact, do we prepare
The great day that waits us there –
For the twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards, And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know –
They’d sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.

We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell’d go extremely well
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Praying in Advent with USPG,
(1): 27 November 2016

Patrick Comerford

The season of Advent begins today [27 November 2016], and later this morning I am presiding at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 11 a.m., and taking part in the Advent Procession in the cathedral at 5 p.m. this evening.

The prayer at the lighting of the first candle on the Advent Wreath on the First Sunday of Advent recalls the Patriarchs and Matriarchs:

O God of Abraham and Sarai,
we thank you for your faithfulness throughout all time.
As today we begin our Advent journey
may the light of your love
surround your church across the world,
as we watch and wait for your kingdom.

The Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) has produced an Advent Prayer Card to accompany lighting the Advent Candles.

This year, as you light your Advent candles, USPG invites us to pray for mothers and babies in Tanzania and around the world. The four Advent candles remind us that the coming of Christ was anticipated over many generations. Each Sunday of Advent we remember faithful participants in that journey of faith: the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Prophets, Saint John the Baptist, and finally the Virgin Mary. The fifth candle, lit on Christmas Day, reminds of the birth of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the World.

As we journey through this season of Advent, we are invited to pray for those who through their life’s journey are in need of a Saviour today. Throughout this time of preparation in this season of Advent, I am praying each morning and using for my reflections the USPG prayer.

USPG is also marking the time around the beginning of Advent, from 25 November to 10 December, as ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.’

In an article in the USPG Prayer Diary, the Revd Delmaine Petersen, from False Bay Diocese, South Africa, who received USPG-funded training in tackling gender-based violence (GBV), writes:

‘In my parish, many women are the victims of violence but afraid to speak out. I try to show them I am trustworthy. I wasn’t sure how to do this, but the training I received has helped greatly. I want women to know the church is on their side. Jesus himself was an activist on exactly these kinds of issues.

‘When I preach, I speak about love. Love, I say, is about having respect for one another, whoever we are, whatever we’ve done.

‘I am committed to the education of children and women, from the cradle to the grave, so to speak. Currently, the church is saying surprisingly little about GBV and I want this to change. The churches need to wake up. Tackling GBV is not an optional extra – it affects every area of life. We need to change the mindset of clergy. People need to know they belong to a greater community, which is God’s community; people need to know they are valuable and have a right to the abundant life that Jesus offers.’

The USPG Prayer Diary:

Sunday 27 November 2016: 1st Sunday of Advent:

Loving God, you long for us to live in peace, we grieve with you for the violence in our world. Help us to protect the vulnerable and all who suffer, offering with love a safe place to all in need.

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, the Church of Ireland):

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44.


Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Continued tomorrow

26 November 2016

Listening to legends of castles, giants
and salmon fishers on the Antrim coast

On the Causeway Coast in Co Antrim, above the Giant’s Causeway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

On my Saturday visit to the Antrim coast two weeks ago [12 November 2016], after walking through the ‘Dark Hedges’ and visiting Gracehill House, I moved on to visit Dunluce Castle, the Giant’s Causeway and the Rope Bridge at Carrick-a-Rede, three of the most popular and most-visited tourist sites in Northern Ireland.

Dunluce Castle is a mediaeval ruin perched precariously on the craggy and treacherous Antrim coast in north-east Ulster. It stands on the edge of a basalt outcropping on the coast between Portballintrae and Portrush.

The steep cliffs and drops beneath the castle may explain why a fort has stood on this site from early times, and the first castle on this site was built in the 13th century by Richard Óg de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster.

The McQuillans came from Scotland in the 1200s as hired mercenaries, and were the Lords of Route from the late 13th century. They built their castle on the cliffs around 1500, and the earliest written record of the castle dates from 1513. The earliest features of the castle are two large drum towers about 9 metres (30 feet) in diameter on the east side, both remains of the castle built by the McQuillans after becoming Lords of the Route.

The McQuillan family continued to hold Dunluce Castle for anonther 55 years until it was taken by the MacDonnells, who came over from Islay in 1554. The McQuillans lost two major battles with the MacDonnells in the mid-16th century, and the McDonnells took Dunluce Castle by force in 1565 after the Battle of Orla. It is said the McDonnells covered a bog with rushes and stationed a few men on firm ground, fooling the McQuillans into charging into the bog.

Dunluce Castle then became the home of the chief of the Clan MacDonnell of Antrim and the Clan MacDonald of Dunnyveg from Scotland.

John Mor MacDonald of Dunluce Castle was the second son of ‘Good’ John MacDonald of Islay, Lord of the Isles, 6th chief of Clan Donald in Scotland. His mother, Princess Margaret, was a daughter of King Robert II of Scotland.

In 1584, on the death of James MacDonald, the 6th chief of the Clan MacDonald of Antrim and Dunnyveg, the Antrim Glens were seized by Sorley Boy MacDonnell, one of his younger brothers. Sorley Boy rebuilt Dunluce in the Scottish style, and swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth I.

The castle also has links with the Girona, a ship in the Spanish Armada that foundered on the rocks of the Giant’s Causeway. Sorley Boy MacDonnell retrieved the cannons from the shipwreck and mounted them in the castle. The rest of the cargo was sold, and the funds raised were used to restore the castle. The dead crew of the Girona are said to have been buried in Saint Cuthbert’s graveyard.

Sorley Boy’s son, Randal MacDonnell, was made 1st Earl of Antrim by King James I. Randal and his wife frequently visited the royal court in London and filled the castle with riches including curtains from Cardinal Wolsey and chairs of State.

The countess is aid to have built Saint Cuthbert’s Church near the castle. It was originally thatched and the ceiling plaster was decorated with signs of the zodiac. Saint Cuthbert’s was the only church in Ireland with that name and is thought to be linked to the cult of the saint in Northumbria. Saint Cuthbert’s in Bushmills takes its name from this church in Dunluce.

Dunluce Castle on the Antrim coast … did the castle kitchens ever fall into the sea below? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A local legend claims that on a stormy night in 1639, as the family was waiting for dinner, the castle kitchens next to the cliff face, along with kitchen staff, collapsed into the sea, and that Lady Antrim refused to live in the castle any longer.

The legend says that only a kitchen boy survived, as he was sitting in a corner of the kitchen that did not collapse. However, the kitchen is still intact and next to the manor house, with the oven, fireplace and entry ways. It was not until the 18th century that the north wall of the castle collapsed and fell into the sea. The east, west and south walls are still standing.

General Munro arrested and imprisoned the Earl of Antrim in 1642 and ransacked the castle. The Earl of Antrim returned to Dunluce Castle after 1666. One of his visitors was Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, who was later martyred on Tyburn Hill.

Dunluce Castle was the seat of the Earls of Antrim until the MacDonnells were impoverishwd of in 1690, following the Battle of the Boyne, when Alexander MacDonnell, 3rd Earl of Antrim, supported the cause of James II.

The family abandoned Dunluce Castle, moved to Glenarm Castle, and since then Dunluce Castle has deteriorated. When the MacDonnell line looked look dying out, the ttile was restored on many occasions to daughters in the family, whose husbands and sons changed their name to MacDonnell and McDonnell and the family titles were rescued from extinction at different times. Over the years parts of the castle were scavenged and used as materials for nearby buildings.

Alexander Randal Mark McDonnell, 9th Earl of Antrim, still owns Dunluce Castle, but lives in Glenarm Castle. His son and heir, Randal Alexander St John McDonnell, is known as Viscount Dunluce. Dunluce Castle is managed by the Northern Irish Environment Agency.

The castle appeared on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s album Houses of the Holy (1973). It is said to be the inspiration behind the royal castle of Cair Paravel in CS Lewis’s Narnia stories.

In 2011, major archaeological excavations found significant remains of the lost town of Dunluce, razed to the ground during the wars of 1641. Lying beside Dunluce Castle, the town was built around 1608 by Randall MacDonnell, 1st Earl of Antrim, and predates the official Plantation of Ulster.

The MacDonnells brought Scottish settlers over to found the trading town of Dunluce. The town, designed to rival Coleraine, had Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh residents, as well as people from Continental Europe. However, the town was a failure because it had no port that could be used for trading.

Over the last five years, the archaeological digs have uncovered cobbled streets and stone merchants’ houses. The digs uncovered a Scottish merchant’s house, built in the first two decades of the 17th century, fronting onto the cobbled streets. The walls survive to waist height with plastered walls, an internal privy and a fireplace. The town also held a courthouse and a dungeon.

The recent excavations have discovered a cobbled street stretching through the town towards the castle, with a blacksmith’s forge, as well as coins dating back to the reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles I, bone combs, dress fastenings, thimble, gaming pieces, and the stem of a wine glass.

A bronze tuning pin used to tune harps suggests the presence of musicians. A 16th century Polish coin, kept as a token by the merchants, provides a reminder of the Scottish migrations to Poland.

Looking down on the Giant’s Causeway from the Causeway Coast (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

From Dunluce Castle, I moved on to Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway, about 5 km further east. The Giant’s Causeway is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, perhaps 50 to 60 million years ago. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and a national nature reserve in 1987.

The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea. Most of the columns are hexagonal, although there are also some with four, five, seven or eight sides. The tallest are about 12 metres (39 feet) high, and the solidified lava in the cliffs is 28 metres (92 feet) thick in places.

According to legend, the columns are the remains of a causeway built by the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), who was challenged to a fight by a rival Scottish giant Benandonner. Fionn accepted the challenge and built the causeway so that the two giants could meet. Across the sea, there are identical basalt columns, formed by the same ancient lava flow, at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa.

The discovery of the Giant’s Causeway was announced to the wider world in 1693 in a paper to the Royal Society by Sir Richard Bulkeley of Trinity College Dublin, although it had been discovered a year earlier during a visit by William King, Bishop of Derry and later Archbishop of Dublin.

The site received international attention when Dublin artist Susanna Drury exhibited watercolour paintings of it in 1739. The Giant’s Causeway first became popular with tourists in the 19th century.

Today, much of the Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast World Heritage Site is owned and managed by the National Trust. The remainder of the site is owned by the Crown Estate and private landowners.

Crossing Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge near Ballintoy is said to have been first built by salmon fishermen in 1755. The bridge crosses a chasm that is 30 metres (98 feet) deep and 20 metres (66 feet) wide and was first built by fishermen to check their salmon nets.

The rope bridge links the Antrim coast and Carrick-a-Rede Island. Suspended above the rocks and the sea, the rope bridge is a popular tourist destination, attracting thousands of visitors who also come to see the Giant’s Causeway Coast and the Glens of Antrim.

The bridge and the island offer uninterrupted views of Rathlin Island, the coast of Scotland and the Causeway Coast. There are views of the clear, green water flowing around the caves and caverns far below, but the challenge alone makes this a popular attraction.

It is said local salmon fishermen have been building bridges to the island for over 350 years and it has taken many forms over the years. It is no longer used by fishermen during the salmon season. The season once lasted from June until September, but there are few salmon left there today. In the 1960s, almost 300 fish were caught each day, but by 2002 only 300 were caught over the whole season.

In the 1970s, the bridge had only one handrail and large gaps between the slats. A new bridge, tested up to ten tonnes, was built with the help of local climbers and abseilers in 2000. Another bridge was built in 2004. The current bridge was made of wire rope and Douglas fir bridge in Belfast and was built in 2008 at a cost of over £16,000.

From there we travelled along the coast on to Cushendun in the Glens of Antrim to admire the village that is the architectural creation of Clough Williams-Ellis, better known as the architect of Portmeirion in Wales.

A reminder of the centuries old traditions of the fishermen near Ballintoy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A Saturday morning at the Dark Hedges,
a much-photographed tree-lined avenue

The Dark Hedges have become one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Two weeks ago [13 November 2016], while I was on a tour of the Co Antrim coast that ended in the pretty village of Cushedun, I visited the ‘Dark Hedges,’ which is one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland and attracts tourists from all over the world.

The Dark Hedges is a quiet road near the town of Ballymoney in Co Antrim. It is just a short road surrounded by farmers’ fields, lined with beech trees whose twisted branches form an arch over the road. It has attracted photographers, painters, artists, composers and tourists for decades, and was used recently as a filming location in HBO’s epic series Game of Thrones, representing the King’s Road.

The Antrim-born composer Elaine Agnew premiered her compelling Dark Hedges composition at the BBC Proms in 2012.

This beautiful avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century. They planned it as a driveway leading up to their home at Gracehill House and as a compelling landscape feature that would impress visitors as they approached the entrance to the Georgian country house.

James Stuart built Gracehill House around 1775 and named it after his wife, Grace Lynd. The family planted 150 beech trees along the avenue leading up to the entrance to their house.

The large estate surrounding the house dates back to the early 17th century, when King James I granted land to a cousin.

King James I estates in Ireland to a family member James Stuart by royal charter. James Stuart was the king’s ambassador to the court in Turin, and the grant included lands in Co Cavan, Co Monaghan and Co Antrim.

Unfortunately, the ambassador never had the opportunity to take up residence and drowned on his way to Ireland.

Later in the 17th century, Brigadier-General William Stuart raised a regiment to fight for William III and fought at Derry, Aughrim, Limerick and the Boyne. Because he was never reimbursed for raising the regiment, he became impoverished him and lost most of his estate.

His son James served with his father and became a colonel. Although severely wounded in battle, James and his wife Jane Irwin from Roscommon went on to have 21 children.

The Dark Hedges provided a tree-lined avenue leading up to Gracehill House, built around 1775 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Co Antrim estates stayed in the Stuart family, although it was some time before they built Gracehill House.

The Revd Irwin Stuart, a son of Colonel James Stuart, was ordained in the Church of Ireland and became Rector of Ballywillan and Ballyrashane, and later of Derrykeighan. He married Elizabeth McDaniel and they had six children – Christopher, James, Charles, Archibald, Elizabeth and Henry. It is not until we read of Irwin’s son James that we hear of Gracehill House being mentioned for the first time.

One of these sons, James Stuart, began building the house around 1775 and named it after his wife, Grace Lynd. Later, James raised a Yeomanry Corp, the 2nd Dunluce regiment, which was heavily involved in the suppression of the 1798 rebellion.

Meanwhile, Gracehill House developed a sense of grandeur, and the beech tree drive leading to the house was planted.

The Revd Charles Stuart, a brother of James Stuart, stayed at home and was ordained in the Church of Ireland. Two of his sons followed in the footsteps of their military forefathers and became officers in the 39th Regiment during in the Napoleonic wars in Spain in 1813-1814.

Eventually, the Stuart family left Gracehill House and settled in North America and across the globe.

More recently, Gracehill House was owned by Major Windsor in 1955 who married a Chichester of Galgorm. It was bought in 1971 by the Gillian family in 1971, who turned the landscape into an 18-hole championship golf course in 1995. It changed hands once again last year [2015].

The present owners are developing the property, including an 18-hole parkland golf course and the Hedges Hotel.

A favourite local story tells of the grey lady, said to glide along the Bregagh Road, sashaying between the gnarled trees. She is said to vanish from sight when she passes the last tree.

Some local people say she is the ghost of a maid from Gracehill House who died in mysterious circumstances centuries ago. Others say she is the daughter of James Stuart, referred to in some genealogical accounts of the family as ‘Cross Peggy.’ Others still say she is a lost spirit from an old, deserted graveyard hidden in the fields nearby. On Hallowe’en, the forgotten graves are said to open and the Grey Lady is joined on her walk by those who were buried beside her.

Today, this unique, tranquil and spell-binding tunnel of ancient beech trees stretches along the Bregagh Road, intertwining and entangling to create a spectacular fusion of light and shadow. With its mysterious and spectacular play of light and tranquillity the site has inspired visiting artists and photographers.

Now known as the Dark Hedges, this tunnel remains a magnificent sight and has become one of the most photographed places in Northern Ireland.

Although the branches of the trees have been pruned in recent years and the tunnel is a little less impressive than it once was, it remains a spectacular sight.

The Dark Hedges Preservation Trust plans to continue preserving, enhancing and promoting the Dark Hedges for future generations, endeavouring to maintain safe access to the site for visitors and local people, and utilising the hedges as a learning tool by improving and developing interpretation around the hedges.

From the Dark Hedges, it was a half-hour drive to Dunluce Castle, and from there we continued on to the Giant’s Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Cushendun.

The Dark Hedges Preservation Trust plans to continue preserving, enhancing and promoting the Dark Hedges for future generations (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)