02 December 2018

‘There will be signs in the sun,
the moon, and the stars, and on
the earth distress among nations’

‘This most tremendous tale of all, / Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 December 2018, the First Sunday of Advent

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Readings: Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25: 1-10; I Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36.

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

The Poet Laureate John Betjeman loved to tell the story of a Japanese prince who arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford, as an undergraduate in 1925, the same year as Betjeman arrived at Oxford as a student.

The President of Magdalen College, Sir Thomas Herbert Warren (1853–1930), was known as a poet too, albeit a bad poet although he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He was also an insufferable snob, and Jeremy Paxman says he ‘was perhaps the greatest snob in England.’

When Prince Chichibu arrived at Magdalen in 1925, Herbert Warren hoped he would soon be followed by his elder brother, the future Emperor Hirohito. The prince told Warren he was a direct descendant of the sun goddess and let him know: ‘At home I am called the son of God.’

Warren took a deep breath, coughed and put the prince in his place: ‘You will find, your highness, that we have the sons of many famous fathers here.’

This morning, on Advent Sunday, our Gospel reading (Luke 21: 25-36) tells the story of the arrival of the Son of God on earth, not as a child in a Christmas nativity story or in a decorative crib, but ‘with power and great glory.’

We are warned to be on guard for that coming of Christ and his Kingdom so that our hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, so that day does not catch us unexpectedly, like a trap.

It might be too easy to transfer the awful and awesome fears and forebodings in this Gospel story to our present day and what is happening in the world today: our fears surrounding the consequences of ‘Brexit’ or our concerns about where the Trump presidency may take the world, the television images night after night of the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean, the English Channel or Central America, and the plight of starving children in Yemen.

But for many people, the apocalyptic images in this morning’s Gospel story are already being lived out in their lives. The whole world has collapsed around you, or so it may seem, if your family is homeless, if you have been made redundant, if a close family member has life-threatening medical condition, if you live with someone who is depressed or suicidal.

To return to John Betjeman: he spent time in Dublin during World War II as the British press attaché, and was an active parishioner in Saint John’s, Clondalkin.

In the first few verses of his poem ‘Christmas,’ Betjeman describes the frivolous ways we prepare for Christmas:

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

Throughout the world, in these weeks of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, many people feel insecure and threatened and are looking for hope. But it is hope that cannot be found in the shops and the magazines, in the jingles and the baubles.

Those things have little to do with the coming of Christ and his kingdom, or how we can show that we believe in his coming and show in our actions what we think are the priorities of the Kingdom of God, how they challenge the present state of the world.

The Gospel reading today speaks not of baubles and fripperies but speaks frighteningly about the state of the world today, telling us how ‘on the earth [there is going to be] distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves’ (verse 25).

It might be more accurate to read verse 25 so that it speaks about the people on the earth being perplexed by the sound and the echoes of the sea and the surf.

It is not difficult to think of the people from many nations who are confused and endangered by the sea and the surf and the waves: the people fleeing war and violence and mass murder in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, or who are being washed up against the European shores of the Mediterranean.

David Hamid, the suffragan bishop in the Anglican Diocese in Europe, recently warned that this is the ‘largest crisis that Europe has had to face since World War II.’

Some days ago, I was in London at a meeting of the Trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), followed by a one-day meeting with USPG volunteers in Birmingham Cathedral. During those three days, I heard again and again of the work USPG is doing with refugees throughout the Diocese in Europe.

Rebecca Boardman spoke in Birmingham Cathedral of USPG’s work with the Diocese in Europe, focussing on this work in Greece, France and Morocco. She pointed out that migration has always existed, and the Bible is a story of people on the move. It is not a new trend in Europe.

But in 2015, the photograph of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach woke Europe up to the plight of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean. That year, about 1 million arrived in Greece, mainly on the Aegean islands from Turkey.

Today, in 2018, about 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, including migrants and refugees, and this figure may be an underestimate.

By 2018, the number of people moving through Greece has fallen to 17,000. But the same problems remain in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.

The borders across Europe have started to shut down, barbed wire fences have gone up, and there is a knock-on impact. The route for migrants and refugees has shifted from the East Mediterranean to the West Mediterranean, and the routes have become more dangerous.

The Diocese in Europe works in 40 countries, from Morocco in north Africa through Europe and Turkey into the former Soviet Union.

In Morocco, USPG is supporting Saint Andrew’s Chaplaincy in Tangier, where Father Denis has been seconded from Nigeria to work with west Africans and provide pastoral support and care.

In Athens, the partnership of USPG and Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in the city centre has given hope to refugees and migrants and refugees who were once camped out in the city squares and parks. And it has created ecumenical partnerships that have brought the Greek Orthodox Church into a new and exciting stage in its work with the marginalised and bringing hope to people ‘confused by the roaring of sea and the waves.’

During these recent days in London and Birmingham, I listened to stories of how USPG and the Diocese in Europe are trying to be lights of hope in this dismal, dark winter.

The Advent candles on the Advent wreath represent the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Saint John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary, all pointing to Christ in the midst of darkness, despite the disasters of famines, earthquakes and wars.

We can be beacons of hope. We can show in how we live our lives this Advent that we believe, that we want, good to triumph over evil, and to show that the Light of Christ shines in our hearts.

In the last three stanzas of his poem ‘Christmas,’ John Betjeman proclaims the wonder of Christ’s birth in the form of a question: ‘And is it true...?’

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

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

‘God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine’ … John Betjeman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 21: 25-36:

25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves’ (Luke 21: 25) … the setting sun and the waves on the beach in Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Colour: Purple (Violet)

The liturgical provisions suggest that the Gloria is omitted during Advent, and it is traditional in Anglicanism to omit the Gloria at the end of canticles and psalms during Advent.

First Sunday of Advent, 2 December 2018 (Purple Candle):

The Patriarchs and Matriarchs

O God of Abraham and Sarah,
we thank you for your faithfulness
throughout all time.
As today we begin our Advent journey,
may the light of your love
surround us and all for whom we pray,
as we watch and wait for your kingdom.

The 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.

Penitential Kyries:

Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)


Salvation is your gift
through the coming of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and by him you will make all things new
when he returns in glory to judge the world:

The 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.


Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:

‘Your kingdom come, O God’ (Hymn 509) … Christ in Glory depicted in the mosaics in the apse of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)


652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us (CD 37)
126, Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding (CD 8)
509, Your kingdom come, O God (CD 29)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Christ in Majesty at the Last Judgment … a fresco in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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