Sunday, 3 December 2017

Eight suggested rules for good
manners in leaving the golf club
… or negotiating a Brexit deal

Patrick Comerford

I have not played golf since I left school. But when ‘Brexiteers’ draw parallels between leaving a golf club and continuing to pay into the EU after Brexit, I am aware of a few points of good manners:

1, If you have been a member of a golf club, when you leave of course you don’t have to continue paying your membership fees. But you do have to pay any debts you have accrued, including your bar bill … and that includes the drinks you bought for others and put on your tab.

2, If you leave, you can’t keep your parking space, even if that may include the parking space for past presidents.

3, If you want to set up another golf club, you cannot expect to make up your own rules for a new game, still less expect to call it golf, and that you can then enter inter-club competitions with other golf clubs without playing by the old, accepted rules. You can’t say that even when everyone else plays by the rules they don’t apply to your new rules, and still claim you are a golf club.

4, If you still set up that new golf club, and you want to share the grounds of your old club, you have to respect the rules of the old club. And that includes not picking and choosing which greens you are going to play on, and not dictating when you want to use the car park and the 19th hole.

5, You have to extend the same courtesy to visiting players and members of other golf clubs as are going to be extended to your players and members when they visit the old club.

6, You still need to have good manners, and stop arrogantly claiming that your new club is, has been, and is always going to be better and snootier than all the other clubs in the neighbourhood. Wake up, it’s a long time since you were at school and could threaten other children with the trump card ‘My daddy’s a policeman.’

7, You need to remember that in the old golf club certain sorts of riff-raff were not allowed in … neo-Nazis, KKK members, BF members and other forms of low life. If your new friends like them, and keep tweeting about them, be wary about inviting them to cross the Atlantic to visit you when no-one else wants them, let alone would consider signing them in on the visitors’ book in the bar … where you still have to pay your bar bill.

8, Remember to clean out your locker when you are leaving, return anything that you got from other members, and don’t leave behind any dirt or rubbish for the remaining members to clean up. But also remember that you may quickly regret all the benefits of past membership, Interpol, Euratom, Erasmus, systems to protect minimum wages, children’s rights, women’s rights, educational and professional exchanges. You don’t see the place for them in a golf club? Wait till you stand on your own, all alone, ready to tee-off, and find you have no caddy, no-one to play with, and no prize for the winners at the end.

How the real gift-giving
Saint Nicholas of Myra
became Santa Claus

An icon of Saint Nicholas in a church in Crete … how did he become Santa Claus? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

When Jerpoint Abbey was founded in Co Kilkenny during the reign of Henry II, it was important to persuade local people that the monastery was of divine origin and had supernatural powers. To support their claims, the Cistercian monks needed a saint buried there who had a reputation as a miracle worker.

The story developed that Jerpoint was the burial place of Saint Nicholas who had lived in Myra, in present-day Turkey, until he died on 6 December 343.

In 809, Myra was captured by Harun al-Rashid and his Muslim force. It fell again to Muslim conquerors between 1081 and 1118. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from the port of Bari in southern Italy collected half the skeleton of Saint Nicholas in Myra in 1087, leaving the rest of his remains in the grave. The remaining remains were collected a decade later by Venetian sailors during the First Crusade (1096-1099).

The first part of the body arrived in Bari in 1087. The remaining bones were taken to Venice in 1100.

2, Saint Nicholas Church on Gemile Island … was this is true burial place of Saint Nicholas? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Another grave attributed to Saint Nicholas also exists on the small Turkish island of Gemile, between Fethiye and Rhodes, and some historians say this is his original grave.

But a local story in Co Kilkenny says a band of Irish-Norman knights from Jerpoint travelled to the Holy Land with the Crusades, seized Saint Nicholas’s remains as they headed back to Ireland, and buried his bones in Jerpoint.

Another version says a Norman family called de Frainet or Frenet removed Saint Nicholas’s remains from Myra to Bari in 1169 and later brought the relics to be buried in 1200 in Jerpoint. A graveslab from the 1300s has an image of a cleric, said to be Saint Nicholas, and two other heads said to represent the crusaders who brought his relics to Ireland.

Finding the true saint

The mediaeval church of Saint Nicholas in Aghios Nikolaos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This month, on 6 December, the Church commemorates Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who was also one of the fathers of the Council of Nicaea and became the role model for Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas, whose name means ‘Victory of the People,’ was born in Myra in Lycia, now known as Demre, near Antalya in present-day Turkey. He had a reputation as a secret giver of gifts, such as putting coins in the shoes of poor children, and because of this, perhaps, he was transformed into our present-day Santa Claus.

King’s College Cambridge … founded as the King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, seafarers, merchants, archers, pawnbrokers, children and students, and the patron saint of Amsterdam, Liverpool and other port cities. King’s College, Cambridge, known for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, was founded in 1441 as the King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge.

Legend says that young Nicholas was sent to Alexandria as a student. On the voyage, he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship’s rigging in a storm. In one version, on their arrival back in Myra Nicholas took the sailor to church. The previous Bishop of Myra had just died, and the freshly-returned, heroic Nicholas was elected his successor.

The Venetian Cathedral of Saint Nicholas on the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete … turned into the Sultan Ibraim Han Mosque by the Turks in the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Another story tells how during a famine, a butcher lured three small children into his house, slaughtered and butchered them, and put their bodies in a pork barrel to sell as meat pies. Saint Nicholas, who heard of the horrific plans, raised the three boys back to life through his prayers.

Saint Nicholas of Myra Church in inner city Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The best-known story tells how a poor man had three daughters but could not afford proper dowries for them, meaning they would remain unmarried or become prostitutes. Saint Nicholas secretly went to their house under cover of darkness and threw three purses filled with gold, one for each daughter, through the window – or down the chimney.

Defender of the Church

The minaret of the Nerantze mosque in Rethymnon … the mosque became Saint Nicholas Church in 1925 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I prefer the stories that link Saint Nicholas with the defence of true doctrine. In the year 325, the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, attended by more than 300 bishops, to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity.

It was one of the most intense theological debates in the early Church. Arius from Alexandria was teaching that Christ was the Son of God but was not equal to God the Father. As Arius argued his position at length, Nicholas became agitated, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face.

The shocked bishops stripped Nicholas of his episcopal robes, chained him and jailed him. In the morning, the bishops found his chains on the floor and Nicholas dressed in his episcopal robes, quietly reading the Scriptures. Constantine ordered his release, and Nicholas was reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.

As the debate went on, the Council of Nicaea agreed with his views, deciding against Arius and agreeing on the Nicene Creed, which remains the symbol of our faith.

Saint Nicholas and his churches

Aghios Nikoloas in Crete takes its name from Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Nicholas is associated with churches throughout Greece, and has given his name to the harbour town of Aghios Nikolaos in Crete. The town is built around an inner lagoon, Voulismeni, and local people try to convince visiting tourists that the lake is fathomless.

The town takes its name from the tiny 11th century church of Aghios Nikólaos (Saint Nicholas). Many years ago, a visit to this Church of Aghios Nikólaos, with its icons of the saint, was enough to end the doubts about Santa Claus that were beginning to emerge in hearts of two small children.

Saint Nicholas also gave his name to the monastic island of Saint Nicholas, now known as Gemile Island, close to the Ölüdeniz Lagoon and about 9 km south of Fethiye on the Anatolian coast of Turkey. The island is just beneath the town of Levessi or Kayaköy.

Saint Nicholas Island had numerous churches, chapels and schools, and was home to a significant Greek-speaking population until the last century. Then, like their neighbours in the nearby mainland town of Levessi, they were forced to leave their homes in the horrific wave of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that swept Anatolia in the 1920s.

The people of Levessi and their story inspired the novel Birds Without Wings (2004) by Louis de Bernières, his prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1993).

Tourists pile onto the island every day during the holiday season as part of a sailing tour of the Twelve Islands off Fethiye. But few notice the ruins that were once family homes and churches or ask about the original inhabitants, why they were forced to leave, or why their churches and chapels no longer echo with the Divine Liturgy.

From Europe to America

Nicholas Street was the High Street of mediaeval Limerick … the site of Saint Nicholas Church is on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

As the patron of sailors, Saint Nicholas was popular among mediaeval seafarers. He gave his name to churches in many port cities, including Saint Nicholas Within-the-Walls and Saint Nicholas Without-the-Walls in Dublin, Saint Nicholas Church on the mediaeval High Street of Limerick, now known as Nicholas Street, churches in Adare, Co Limerick, and Dundalk, Co Louth, and the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas in Galway.

A mediaeval archaeological site close to the site of Saint Nicholas Church in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Columbus named a port in Haiti after Saint Nicholas on 6 December 1492 – perhaps recalling his stop-off in Galway and a visit to Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church. But how did the kindly Bishop Nicholas end up as a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for a secular holiday festivity and commercial busyness?

The first European seafarers to arrive in North America brought their devotion to Saint Nicholas with them: the Vikings dedicated a cathedral to him in Greenland; centuries later in Florida, the Spaniards named an early settlement Saint Nicholas Ferry – now known as Jacksonville.

But there is scant evidence to support traditions that Saint Nicholas was popular in the Dutch New Netherlands.

An unhistorical history

10, Saint Nicholas Church in Dundalk, Co Louth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered the colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, who formed the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted Saint Nicholas as the patron of his society and his city. Washington Irving joined the society in 1809 and published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly Saint Nicholas character – not a saintly bishop, but an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.

And so, began the legends about Saint Nicholas and New Amsterdam: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of Saint Nicholas; that Saint Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that Saint Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts.

Saint Nicholas Church in Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Inside Saint Nicholas Church, Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The New York Historical Society held its first Saint Nicholas anniversary dinner on 6 December 1810, and in an image by Alexander Anderson for the occasion, Saint Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children’s treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace.

Other artists and writers continued the transformation of Saint Nicholas from a saintly bishop to an elf-like jolly, rotund gift-giver. In 1863, the cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of drawings in Harper’s Weekly, based on the descriptions in Washington Irving’s fiction and Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ or ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and a clay pipe, and the saint’s name shifted to Santa Claus – a phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and the Dutch Sinterklaas.

By the end of the 1920s, a standard American Santa – life-sized, dressed in a red, fur-trimmed suit – was being portrayed by popular illustrators. In 1931, Coca Cola began 35 years of Santa advertisements that popularised and established this Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture.

Santa’s commercial success led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world, displacing the European Saint Nicholas who and his identity as a bishop and saint.

Saint, Santa and refugees

14, How was Saint Nicholas transformed into the modern Santa Claus? … a shop display in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The metamorphosis of Saint Nicolas into the commercial Santa Claus recently came to his home town of Demre, the modern Turkish town near the ruins of ancient Myra.

Saint Nicholas is a popular Orthodox saint and the city attracts many Russian tourists. The Russian government donated a bronze statue of the saint to the city in 2000, and was it erected on the square in front of the mediaeval Church of Saint Nicholas.

But in 2005, the mayor replaced the statue with by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus. After Russian protests, the statue was returned, but to a secluded corner near the church. A third statue was erected showing Saint Nicholas as a modern-day Turk – although the Turks did not arrive in Anatolia until the 11th century. The church is being restored, and the Turkish Ministry of Culture has given limited permission for the Orthodox Church to celebrate the Divine Liturgy there.

But as Christmas approaches, I cannot forget the children of Levessi and Saint Nicholas Island, whose descendants have a very different idea of a stay-at-home Christmas.

Santa and the elves … more about Coca Cola that the Council of Nicaea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This feature was first published in December 2017 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Leighlin)

The picturesque modern Church of Saint Nicholas on a tiny islet off Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

‘Give us grace to cast away
the works of darkness and
to put on the armour of light’

A colourful early winter sunset at the Rectory in Askeaton last Thursday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 3 December 2017,

The First Sunday of Advent.


11.30 a.m.: Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry (Morning Prayer).

Readings: Isaiah 64: 1-9; Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; and Mark 13: 24-37.

Part 1: Lighting the first candle on Advent Wreath

Candles are always a good idea for big celebrations. We use them at baptisms, birthdays and weddings. And today is the first day of the new year in the Church Calendar, the First Sunday of Advent.

New Years start with a countdown. And this morning, we begin our countdown to Christmas.

In these four Sundays of Advent leading up to Christmas Day, we are going to do some things that are new, that are different.

On Advent Sunday, we begin a new cycle of readings, this time mainly from Saint Mark’s Gospel – we are calling this Year B.

On each Sunday in Advent, instead of preaching one long sermon, I’m going to offer three short reflections, looking at the Advent Wreath and Candles, looking at the Gospel reading and our hopes for the Coming of Christ, and looking at the meaning of Santa Claus.

We are going to light a new candle each Sunday on the Advent Wreath.

The first one is a purple candle this morning, representing the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, including Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac, and their grandson Jacob.

The Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society, Partners in the Gospel) has drawn up a series of prayers, one for each Sunday in Advent, to go with each of the candles on the Advent Wreath.

The USPG prayer to go with lighting this morning’s purple candle prays:

O God of Abraham and Sarai,
whose promise was fulfilled in the birth of Isaac;
we pray for mothers in Tanzania whose hope for their unborn
children is tainted by the threat of preventable disease.
Bless those who work to overcome this threat
so that children can be born healthy and full of potential.

Part 2: Waiting for Christ:

‘Then they will see the Son of Man coming’ (Mark 13: 26) … the King of Kings and Great High Priest, an icon from Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

The First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new Church year, and we begin a new cycle of readings, mainly from Saint Mark’s Gospel. But instead of beginning at the beginning, with the first coming of Christ at his Incarnation, we begin with looking forward to his Second Coming.

With the onset of winter, the sunsets are earlier each evening, and the sunrises are later each morning. Late last week, as I was heading out for an evening stroll, there was a clear sunset to the west, and the clouds in the sky were streaked with distinctive shades of pink and purple, with tinges of red and orange.

It was almost a heavenly pleasure.

And I mused, in that idle moment that evening, that if these were my last days then this year alone I have had so many experiences of the love of God in my life and snatches or glimpses of the beauty of God’s Kingdom.

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning are classical apocalyptic passages in the Bible. The passage in the reading in Saint Mark’s Gospel is part of what is sometimes known as the ‘Little Apocalypse.’

We hear of the angels proclaiming the coming of the Son, but this time it is the second coming.

Yet, there is this beautiful image of even the fig tree putting forth tender branches and fresh leaves, even at the end of time.

It is said that Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he was told the world was going to end tomorrow, and he replied he would plant a tree.

Some years ago, I was given a present of an olive tree and I was hoping to see it grow in our back garden in Dublin. But heavy rains soon fell, and as winter closed in its leaves faded and it was taken away with the rains and the wind (see Isaiah 64: 6).

The dead olive tree was replaced with another one, and now, many years later, it is in a much better state of health. But, if these were my closing days, I too would like to plant an olive tree, despite the immeasurable variations in weather we are experiencing in Ireland in recent winters.

If you were told the end is coming, if you were told there was no tomorrow, or no next week, what would you do?

Would you want to spend those last few days closing that business deal?

Would you finish a long-delayed project?

Would you want to take that world cruise?

Would you finish that great novel?

Would you join me in planting another olive tree?

Or would you rise early to glory in the sunrise, listen to the waves rolling in onto the beach, stand beneath the last leaves falling from the trees by the river bank, or prayerfully watch the sunset?

So, if that is what we would do if we were told these are the closing days, maybe we should ask: Why not do that now?

Would you tell your children, your partner, your parents, your brothers and sisters, that one last time, that you love them?

Would you wrap the person you should love the most in one long, tender embrace?

We are the doorkeepers of our souls and our hearts (Mark 13: 34-37).

And if Christ comes at sunset this evening, tonight, early tomorrow morning, will he find me sleeping on my responsibility to be a sign of hope and a living example of true, deep, real love? (see Mark 13: 35-36).

Will he find the Church sleeping on our call, our mission, to be a sign of the kingdom, a beacon of hope, a true and living sacrament of love?

In days of woe and in days of gloom, the Church must be a sign of hope, a sign of love, a sign that even if things are not going to get better for me and for others in my own life time, God’s plan is that they should be better (Mark 13: 27, 31).

In a world that needs hope, in a world that is short on love, then the Church, above all else, must be a visible sign of hope, must be a visible sign of love. If we cannot love one another in the Church, how can expect to find signs of hope and love in the world?

Advent calls us again to be willing to be clay in the hands of God who is our Father and who is the potter (Isaiah 64: 8), so that we can be shaped into his vessels of hope and of love, so that we can be signs of the coming Kingdom, so that our hope and our love give others hope and love too in the dark days of our winters.

Mark Twain once said: ‘The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.’

What would you do if the world, your world, were to end tomorrow?

We do not need to wait. We can do those things now.

Finish the work you started. Be reconciled to those who need you. Be faithful to the people and tasks around you. Undertake some small and wonderful and great endeavour. Be a sign of hope. But most of all – love the ones you want to and ought to love.

Why not? For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again, in the name of love.

Part 3: Waiting for Santa Claus

A place for letters to Santa Claus in Askeaton last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Santa arrived with a loud bang at the Arena in Askeaton on Friday.

I could not figure out what the noise was. I could hear it from the Rectory, and I had to go and see it for myself. Santa had arrived just a few hundred metres from the Rectory.

Over the Four Sundays of Advent, and on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day itself, I want to give five good reasons, five short, crisp stories, why Saint Nicholas of Myra who has become Santa Claus has a good story to tell all of us at this time of the year.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Saint Nicholas is commemorated not on 25 December but on 6 December, even if he does not make an appearance in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland.

Saint Nicholas was such a favourite saint in mediaeval Ireland that many of our principal ports and towns have large churches named after him, including one in Adare, Co Limerick, and one, in the mediaeval era, on Nicholas Street, close to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

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

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, seafarers, merchants, archers, pawnbrokers, children and students, and the patron saint of Amsterdam, Liverpool and many port cities. King’s College, Cambridge, known for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, was founded in 1441 as the King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas.

Legend says that young Nicholas of Myra was sent to Alexandria as a student. On the voyage home, he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship’s rigging in a storm.

So, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Santa Claus, is a role model for being willing to follow God’s leadings, wherever we may be called or sent on this journey and pilgrimage in life. His willingness to travel, even when his own life was at risk, makes him a role model for the church in mission.

He teaches us to follow God’s leading, that life is a journey, that it is an Advent that leads to an encounter with the incarnate and living God.

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

Collect:

Almighty God,
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.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This three-part sermon was prepared for the First Sunday of Advent, 3 December 2017.

‘Awaken our hearts to prepare
the way for the advent of your Son’

‘Then they will see the Son of Man coming’ (Mark 13: 26) … the King of Kings and Great High Priest, an icon from Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 3 December 2017,

The First Sunday of Advent.


9.30 a.m.: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion).

Readings: Isaiah 64: 1-9; Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; and Mark 13: 24-37.

Part 1: Lighting the first candle on Advent Wreath

Candles are always a good idea for big celebrations. We use them at baptisms, birthdays and weddings. And today is the first day of the new year in the Church Calendar, the First Sunday of Advent.

New Years start with a countdown. And this morning, we begin our countdown to Christmas.

In these four Sundays of Advent leading up to Christmas Day, we are going to do some things that are new, that are different.

On Advent Sunday, we begin a new cycle of readings, this time mainly from Saint Mark’s Gospel – we are calling this Year B.

On each Sunday in Advent, instead of preaching one long sermon, I’m going to offer three short reflections, looking at the Advent Wreath and Candles, looking at the Gospel reading and our hopes for the Coming of Christ, and looking at the meaning of Santa Claus.

We are going to light a new candle each Sunday on the Advent Wreath.

The first one is a purple candle this morning, representing the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, including Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac, and their grandson Jacob.

The Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society, Partners in the Gospel) has drawn up a series of prayers, one for each Sunday in Advent, to go with each of the candles on the Advent Wreath.

The USPG prayer to go with lighting this morning’s purple candle prays:

O God of Abraham and Sarai,
whose promise was fulfilled in the birth of Isaac;
we pray for mothers in Tanzania whose hope for their unborn
children is tainted by the threat of preventable disease.
Bless those who work to overcome this threat
so that children can be born healthy and full of potential.

Part 2: Waiting for Christ:

A colourful early winter sunset at the Rectory in Askeaton last Thursday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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

The First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new Church year, and we begin a new cycle of readings, mainly from Saint Mark’s Gospel. But instead of beginning at the beginning, with the first coming of Christ at his Incarnation, we begin with looking forward to his Second Coming.

With the onset of winter, the sunsets are earlier each evening, and the sunrises are later each morning. Late last week, as I was heading out for an evening stroll, there was a clear sunset to the west, and the clouds in the sky were streaked with distinctive shades of pink and purple, with tinges of red and orange.

It was almost a heavenly pleasure.

And I mused, in that idle moment that evening, that if these were my last days then this year alone I have had so many experiences of the love of God in my life and snatches or glimpses of the beauty of God’s Kingdom.

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning are classical apocalyptic passages in the Bible. The passage in the reading in Saint Mark’s Gospel is part of what is sometimes known as the ‘Little Apocalypse.’

We hear of the angels proclaiming the coming of the Son, but this time it is the second coming.

Yet, there is this beautiful image of even the fig tree putting forth tender branches and fresh leaves, even at the end of time.

It is said that Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he was told the world was going to end tomorrow, and he replied he would plant a tree.

Some years ago, I was given a present of an olive tree and I was hoping to see it grow in our back garden in Dublin. But heavy rains soon fell, and as winter closed in its leaves faded and it was taken away with the rains and the wind (see Isaiah 64: 6).

The dead olive tree was replaced with another one, and now, many years later, it is in a much better state of health. But, if these were my closing days, I too would like to plant an olive tree, despite the immeasurable variations in weather we are experiencing in Ireland in recent winters.

If you were told the end is coming, if you were told there was no tomorrow, or no next week, what would you do?

Would you want to spend those last few days closing that business deal?

Would you finish a long-delayed project?

Would you want to take that world cruise?

Would you finish that great novel?

Would you join me in planting another olive tree?

Or would you rise early to glory in the sunrise, listen to the waves rolling in onto the beach, stand beneath the last leaves falling from the trees by the river bank, or prayerfully watch the sunset?

So, if that is what we would do if we were told these are the closing days, maybe we should ask: Why not do that now?

Would you tell your children, your partner, your parents, your brothers and sisters, that one last time, that you love them?

Would you wrap the person you should love the most in one long, tender embrace?

We are the doorkeepers of our souls and our hearts (Mark 13: 34-37).

And if Christ comes at sunset this evening, tonight, early tomorrow morning, will he find me sleeping on my responsibility to be a sign of hope and a living example of true, deep, real love? (see Mark 13: 35-36).

Will he find the Church sleeping on our call, our mission, to be a sign of the kingdom, a beacon of hope, a true and living sacrament of love?

In days of woe and in days of gloom, the Church must be a sign of hope, a sign of love, a sign that even if things are not going to get better for me and for others in my own life time, God’s plan is that they should be better (Mark 13: 27, 31).

In a world that needs hope, in a world that is short on love, then the Church, above all else, must be a visible sign of hope, must be a visible sign of love. If we cannot love one another in the Church, how can we expect to find signs of hope and love in the world?

Advent calls us again to be willing to be clay in the hands of God who is our Father and who is the potter (Isaiah 64: 8), so that we can be shaped into his vessels of hope and of love, so that we can be signs of the coming Kingdom, so that our hope and our love give others hope and love too in the dark days of our winters.

Mark Twain once said: ‘The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.’

What would you do if the world, your world, were to end tomorrow?

We do not need to wait. We can do those things now.

Finish the work you started. Be reconciled to those who need you. Be faithful to the people and tasks around you. Undertake some small and wonderful and great endeavour. Be a sign of hope. But most of all – love the ones you want to and ought to love.

Why not? For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again, in the name of love.

Part 3: Waiting for Santa Claus

A place for letters to Santa Claus in Askeaton last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Santa arrived with a loud bang at the Arena in Askeaton on Friday.

I could not figure out what the noise was. I could hear it from the Rectory, and I had to go and see it for myself. Santa had arrived just a few hundred metres from the Rectory.

Over the Four Sundays of Advent, and on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day itself, I want to give five good reasons, five short, crisp stories, why Saint Nicholas of Myra who has become Santa Claus has a good story to tell all of us at this time of the year.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Saint Nicholas is commemorated not on 25 December but on 6 December, even if he does not make an appearance in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland.

Saint Nicholas was such a favourite saint in mediaeval Ireland that many of our principal ports and towns have large churches named after him, including one in Adare, Co Limerick, and one, in the mediaeval era, on Nicholas Street, close to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

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

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, seafarers, merchants, archers, pawnbrokers, children and students, and the patron saint of Amsterdam, Liverpool and many port cities. King’s College, Cambridge, known for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, was founded in 1441 as the King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas.

Legend says that young Nicholas of Myra was sent to Alexandria as a student. On the voyage home, he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship’s rigging in a storm.

So, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Santa Claus, is a role model for being willing to follow God’s leadings, wherever we may be called or sent on this journey and pilgrimage in life. His willingness to travel, even when his own life was at risk, makes him a role model for the church in mission.

He teaches us to follow God’s leading, that life is a journey, that it is an Advent that leads to an encounter with the incarnate and living God.

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

Collect:

Almighty God,
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.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This three-part sermon was prepared for the First Sunday of Advent, 3 December 2017.

Praying in Advent with USPG
and Lichfield Cathedral
(1): 3 December 2017

ADVENT PRAYER MEDITATION from USPG on Vimeo.


Patrick Comerford

Today is the First Sunday of Advent (3 December 2017). Later this morning, I am leading the services and preaching in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (the Parish Eucharist), and Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry (Morning Prayer). In the evening, I hope to take part in the Advent Carol service in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

Throughout the season of Advent this year, I plan to spend a short time of Prayer and reflection each morning, using the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

USPG, founded in 1701, is an Anglican mission agency supporting churches around the world in their mission to bring fullness of life to the communities they serve.

Theologically, practically and financially, USPG encourages and enables churches within the Anglican Communion to act as the hands and feet of Christ. Together, they are working to improve health, tackle poverty, put children in school, challenge discrimination, nurture leaders, give voice to women, and much more.

Under the title Pray with the World Church, the current prayer diary (22 October 2017 to 10 February 2018), offers prayers and reflections from the Anglican Communion.

Introducing this week’s prayers, the Prayer Diary says: ‘Throughout Advent, as we remember the Nativity, we’re looking at how the world is reaching out to mothers and babies.’

The diary publishes this story from the USPG-supported PMTCT (Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission) HIV programme run by the Church of Tanzania:

In 2000, Sophia left the village of Mzula and moved to the capital Dar es Salaam in search of a better life. She found work as a waitress, then met a young man with whom she started a family.

Sophia had two children, but illness claimed their lives while they were very young. Then Sophia became sick, developing partial paralysis, and the couple separated.

In 2015, Sophia met another partner. But when she became pregnant, he abandoned her. Unable to cope, Sophia returned to her mother in Mzula.

When a mobile clinic from Mvumi Hospital visited the village, Sophia was found to be HIV-positive. She started attending the hospital’s PMTCT services, which showed Sophia how to care for herself and her unborn baby.

In June 2016, Sophia have birth to a baby boy, Shedrack, who was free from HIV. Sophia was overjoyed! She reported: ‘Without the support of this project, I would never have been tested or received support. I have regained the happiness I lost.’

The USPG Prayer Diary:

Sunday 3 December 2017: 1st Sunday of Advent:


O God, whose promises to faithful Abraham and Sarai
were fulfilled in the birth of Isaac:
bless all expectant mothers in Tanzania,
and bring their children to fullness of life.

Lichfield Cathedral in winter sunshine at the end of November (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Lichfield Cathedral Advent and Devotional Calendar:

Lichfield Cathedral’s Advent Devotional Calendar for 2017 suggests you light your Advent candle each day as you read the Bible and pray. It suggests setting aside five to 15 minutes each day.

Buy or use a special candle to light each day as you read and pray through the suggestions on the calendar. Each week there is a suggestion to ‘eat simply’ – try going without so many calories or too much rich food, just have enough. There is a suggestion to donate to a charity working with the homeless. There is encouragement to pray through what you see and notice going on around you in people, the media and nature.

The calendar is for not only for those who use the Cathedral website and for the Cathedral community. It is also for anyone who wants to share in the daily devotional exercise. The calendar suggests lighting your Advent candle each day as you read the Bible and pray.

Today’s suggested reading is Matthew 9: 27-31.

The reflection for today suggests going to Church and continues:

At the start of Advent, ask God for the gift of Spiritual sight. Pray for those deprived of physical sight. Ask for the gifts of attentiveness and perception.

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

Isaiah 64: 1-9; Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; and Mark 13: 24-37.

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:

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.