Sunday, 3 June 2018

Thessaloniki: the ‘mother
of Israel’ and once the
greatest Jewish city

The Jewish community of Thessaloniki is unique because of its continued presence throughout the city’s 2,300-year history (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I spent some time after Easter in Thessaloniki, enjoying the Greek celebrations of Easter, which came a week later this year, visiting monasteries, churches and archaeological sites, meeting friends, and retracting the steps of my grandfather, who was stationed in Thessaloniki during World War I.

This is the city of Aristotle and of Alexander the Great. With its walls, towers, churches and historical and archaeological sites, Thessaloniki remains a Byzantine city. But it was once the largest Jewish city in the world.

The Jewish Museum tells the story of a unique community (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Jewish community in Thessaloniki so influenced the Sephardic world both culturally and economically, that the city was known among Jews for centuries as ‘la Madre de Israel’ or ‘the Mother of Israel,’ and was known to non-Jews as ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans.’

This is the second city of Greece, and in Byzantine times it was second only to Constantinople as a f political and cultural city. Until World War II, Thessaloniki had a major Jewish community, and for centuries it was the only major European city with a Jewish majority.

A unique Jewish presence

The Jewish Memorial at the Aristotelean University of Thessaloniki, on the site of the ancient Jewish cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

I was staying in the old Jewish quarter, close to the Jewish Museum and the city’s only surviving synagogues. In the Jewish Museum, I was reminded that the Jewish community of Thessaloniki is unique because of its continued presence throughout the city’s 2,300-year history, a rare fact in Jewish history, even for Jerusalem or Alexandria.

Alexander the Great granted equality under the law to Jews in 331 BC. This new freedom attracted many Jews to settle in Hellenistic cities and to become Hellenised. Jews settled in the newly-established Thessaloniki in 315 BC and there were new Jewish arrivals from Alexandria in 145 BC.

The Jewish Studies Centre at the Aristotelean University of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

There were Jews in Thessaloniki when Saint Paul preached in the synagogues on three successive Saturdays in 50 AD, and when he wrote his first Letter to the Thessalonians. Some of these Jews probably formed a minority within the church he was writing to.

A small Jewish population was living in the city during the Byzantine period, and Rabbi Benjmain of Tuleda reported 500 Jewish families living in Thessaloniki at the end of the 12th century, engaged mainly in silk production.

When the Ottoman Turks finally captured Thessaloniki in 1430, the Jewish population was still small. Although four synagogues had been founded in the 14th and 15th centuries (1376, 1391, 1394 and 1423), few Jews were left in Thessaloniki at the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Sephardic arrivals from Spain

Jews started arriving in Thessaloniki in large numbers following the expulsions from Spain in 1492 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Sephardic Jews began to migrate to the city in large numbers when they were expelled from Spain in 1492. The first Sephardic Jews to arrive were said to have come from Majorca and were ‘repentant’ Jews returning to Judaism after forced conversions to Christianity. Later arrivals came from other parts of Spain, Portugal and Italy, and each new group set up its own synagogue, with names such as Castilla, Aragon, Old Catalonia, Old Italy, Sicily, Apulia, Lisbon, Portugal and Otranto.

The 20,000 Sephardim or Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled in Thessaloniki brought an economic revival to the city. They were engaged in international trade, finance, medicine and pharmacology and introduced new crafts such as manufacturing arms and gunpowder, as well as textiles.

By the turn of the 16th century, when other Greek cities were in decline, Thessaloniki had 29,000 inhabitants. More than half of them were Sephardic Jews, and there were 31 independent synagogues. The new arrivals gave Thessaloniki an international character and made it the second most important port in the Ottoman Empire.

The 16th century was the ‘Golden Age of Salonica,’ when the Sephardic communities established libraries, an important Talmudic academy, a printing press and a conservatory for Jewish religious music and singing. Almost all the Jews of Thessaloniki spoke Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish. For more than four centuries, 50 per cent of the city’s population was Jewish, so Ladino was the main language, spoken too by many Christians or Muslims.

The Sephardic Jews of Thessaloniki were so highly educated and widely respected that by the 16th century they were supplying rabbis for synagogues from Venice to Amsterdam. They were soon joined in Thessaloniki by Ashkenazic Jews from the Austrian empire.

Secret Jews or Muslims?

The Ahmet Kapantzi Villa … built by a prominent family in the Dönmeh community (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Later in the 17th century, Ottoman territorial losses in Europe and the discovery of new commercial routes brought about an economic decline, and Thessaloniki’s Jewish community lost its former glory. But the city continued to attract new settlers and Jews, Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks lived side-by-side, usually in harmony and often without discrimination, with a variety of languages and three days of religious observance each week.

The Jewish community was divided by schism in the 17th century with the arrival of a charismatic and mystical preacher from Smyrna. Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676), a kabbalistic rabbi, claimed he was the long-expected messiah, and gathered thousands of disciples. But the new group was disowned by the rabbis of Thessaloniki and the Ottoman authorities saw them as a threat to social stability in the city.

He was imprisoned in 1666 and accused of sedition, but his followers continued to grow in numbers. He was brought before the Sultan and was offered three choices: to test his claims before a firing squad of archers, to be impaled, or to convert to Islam.

To the horror of his followers, he converted to Islam in 1666. Most of them abandoned him, but about 300 families followed him in becoming a Muslim. After his conversion, Zevi continued to preach many of his old beliefs, and a new Kabbalist cult, slightly influenced by Sufism, was born.

The Jews of Thessaloniki who followed Zevi into Islam became the Dönmeh. The Turkish word dönme means to turn, to convert or to betray and was used in a pejorative way. But they knew themselves by a Hebrew name that means ‘the Believers.’

Despite their conversion to Islam, the Dönmeh secretly remained close to Judaism and continued to practice Jewish rituals covertly. They prayed in Hebrew and Ladino, maintained links with other Sabbateans who had not converted to Islam, and Jewish rabbis often secretly settled community disputes. They built their own mosque and although outwardly they were Muslims, secretly they were Jewish Sabbateans.

Modern revival

The Modiano Market … built by the Modiano family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In the mid-19th century, Jewish educators and entrepreneurs migrated in large numbers from Western Europe to Thessaloniki to develop schools and industries, bringing new European ideas that changed the culture of the city.

From 1878, Thessaloniki was connected to Europe by rail, the port was renovated and the city was modernised. New banks stimulated commerce and contributed to economic growth. Between 1865 and 1940, more than 50 Jewish newspapers were published in the city, most of them in Ladino, but several also in Turkish, French and Greek.

The former Olympos-Naussa restaurant … a once-elegant Jewish-founded establishment on the seafront (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Between 1878 and 1914, flour mills, hotels, cafés, brick factories, breweries, soap-works and silkworm nurseries, carpet and shoe factories and several large tobacco workshops were established, mainly by Jews. They built markets, such as the Modiano Market, synagogues, schools and orphanages. All four theatres established then were owned by Jews.

Yet most of the Jewish population was working class and lived in poverty. The Workers’ Union, formed in 1909 by a group of Jews in Thessaloniki, became the most important socialist organisation in the Ottoman Empire.

The mansion built by Josef Modiano, who created the largest commercial company in the Balkans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

By the early 20th century, the Dönmeh numbered no more than 15,000. The brothers Mehmet and Ahmet Kapantzi, who founded schools and built elegant mansions, were prominent members of this community, and several Dönmeh were also leading members of the Young Turks, who would bring down the Ottoman Empire.

After Thessaloniki was incorporated into the modern Greek state in 1912, Jews became full citizens of Greece, but the Dönmeh community was forced to move to Turkey in the 1920s.

The former Bank of Thessaloniki founded by the Allatini family … now the Malakopi Arcade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The devastating fire that raged through Thessaloniki in 1917 destroyed two-thirds of the Jewish districts, 45 synagogues, schools, shops and businesses. About 52,000 Jewish people were made homeless and most Jewish monuments and archives were destroyed.

In the rebuilding programme, the historic centre of Thessaloniki lost the Jewish character that had enriched it for centuries. But the city’s port continued to close on Saturdays as well as Jewish holidays until 1923.

Holocaust and destruction

The old customs house in the port was built by the Jewish architect Eli Modiano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In the inter-war period, new laws were passed aiming to Hellenise the city. Slowly the Jews became segregated and turned into second-class citizens. This policy legalised anti-Semitic activities and drove many Jews to emigrate. Between World War I and World War II, the Jewish population of this city fell from 93,000 people to 53,000 on the eve of the war.

With the arrival of the Nazis, hundreds of Jews joined the Greek resistance, while many others tried to go into hiding. On 11 July 1942, the ‘Black Shabbat,’ all Jewish men in Thessaloniki aged from 18 to 45 were rounded up in Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) in the city centre. Throughout the afternoon, they were forced at gunpoint into humiliating physical exercises.

The old railway station in Thessaloniki … more than 46,000 Jews were sent by rail to Auschwitz and Belsen in 19 convoys in 1943 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In 1943, the Nazis forced the Jews in Thessaloniki into a ghetto near the railway station, and began deporting them by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen and other concentration camps and labour camps, where most of the 60,000 deported died.

In all, 96 per cent of the members of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community were murdered in 1941-1945. Jewish cemeteries were erased, and most of their cultural wealth and surviving Jewish character of the city was destroyed.

The loss of more of the remaining traces of the Jewish presence came with the post-war reconstruction of Thessaloniki, which reached its peak in the 1960s, and the earthquake of 1978.

The tracks to Auschwitz … old railway tracks at the port where the convoys left for the death camps (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A surviving synagogue

The Monasterioton Synagogue at the top of Syngrou Street is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki. It was built in 1927 by Jews from Monastir in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The synagogue was saved during World War II because it had been requisitioned by the Red Cross as a warehouse. The building was structurally damaged by the earthquake in 1978, but it was restored by the Greek government and is one of the three functioning synagogues in Thessaloniki.

In all, there are three surviving synagogues, some surviving Jewish mansions on Vassilisis Olgas Avenue, the Modiano Market, and a new Jewish Cemetery in Stavroupoli.

The Jewish Holocaust Memorial at Liberty Square … a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid of a menorah whose flames are wrapped around human bodies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Jewish Holocaust Memorial at the south-east corner of Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) recalls the 50,000 Greek Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. The memorial is a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid of a seven-branch menorah whose flames are wrapped around human bodies in death.

The names of Holocaust victims on the pavement in Vassilisis Olgas Avenue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Only 1,200 Jews live in Thessaloniki today. But the Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, and the President of the Jewish Community, David Saltiel, are partners in honouring the pre-war Jewish presence and contribution to the city and ensuring the story of Jewish presence in Thessaloniki continues to be told.

This feature was first published in June 2018 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

The Monasterioton Synagogue is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

‘Is it lawful to do good or
to do harm on the sabbath?’

God’s counsels are ‘more in number than the sand’ … the beach at Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 3 June 2018, the First Sunday after Trinity

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

Readings: I Samuel 3: 1-10; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; II Corinthians 4: 5-12; and Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6.

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

This has been glorious summer weather for the past week. On my journeys up to Dublin and back down, I have travelled through countryside watching people working in the fields until late in the evening, taking advantage of the long days and the warm sunshine before the darkness begins to settle in.

And even then, the full moon has allowed some farmers to work much later than they expected. Some fields have been busy right up to 11 at night.

This morning, in our reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6), we are invited once again to join Christ on his journey with the disciples on their way to Jerusalem, and we are also challenged in the other readings to think about walking out of darkness into light, from oppression to freedom.

This Gospel reading talks about the feeding and healing we experience in our lives when we rest in God.

So I want to talk about just three things from our readings this morning:

1, The Majesty of God;

2, The humour of Jesus;

3, Christ’s attitude to the disabled man.

‘You mark out my journeys and my resting place … you encompass me behind and before’ (Psalm 139: 2-4) … a lone walker on the beach at Laytown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

1, The Majesty of God:

In our Psalm this morning (Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18), the Psalmist says that God’s counsels are ‘more in number than the sand’ (Psalm 139: 18; 139: 17, NRSV), and if we were to count them all we would still be in God’s presence. It is a majestic image of the scope of God’s presence.

In his 1980 bestseller, Cosmos, the astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996) calculated that there are more stars in the heavens than all the grains of sands covering the world’s beaches. He calculated that a handful of sand contains about 10,000 separate grains.

But how many grains of sand cover the earth’s beaches?

Some years ago, researchers at the University of Hawaii tried to calculate this number by dividing the volume of an average sand grain by the volume of sand covering the Earth’s shorelines. The volume of sand was obtained by multiplying the length of the world’s beaches by their average width and depth. The number they calculated was seven quintillion five quadrillion (that is 7.5 followed by 17 zeros or 7.5 billion billion) grains of sand.

On top of this, astronomers now calculate that there are 10 stars for every grain of sand, 11 times the number of cups of water in all the Earth’s oceans, ten thousand times the number of wheat kernels that have ever been produced on Earth, and 10 billion times the number of cells in a human being.

This is a staggering number: 70 sextillion (or 7 followed by 22 zeros or 70 thousand million million million) stars in the observable universe. And that is probably a very, very low estimate because the number of galaxies filling the Universe is thought to be much larger than those the Hubble can see.

‘As they made their way [through the grainfields] his disciples began to pluck heads of grain’ … grain fields near Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

2, The humour of Jesus;

The first part of Gospel reading (Mark 2: 23-28) begins when Christ is bypassing the grainfields and the disciples make their way through the fields. The religious law of the day accepted that as long as they are plucking the heads of grain and not harvesting it, they are allowed to so this, and there is no question of any theft (see Deuteronomy 23: 24-25).

We have all done something like this in a field: picked fruit growing on hedges or on trees; or we have done something like this in the kitchen, pouring cereal into a bowl and snatching a few lumps before even sitting down to breakfast.

So, what concerns the Pharisees here is not theft. They are worried that the disciples are gleaning on the Sabbath, and they challenge Christ about this. They claim this behaviour ignores the command to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy (see Exodus 20: 8; Deuteronomy 5: 12). Perhaps they thought the disciples could have prepared food the previous day to take with them.

Jesus disagrees, not because he is trivialising the laws about the Sabbath, but because he sees the Sabbath in a different light. He turns to a story about David, who is fleeing Saul who is plotting to kill him (see I Samuel 21: 1-6). David takes consecrated bread that was supposed to be part of the 12 loaves reserved for the priests (see Leviticus 24: 5-9) and feeds it to his followers who are on the journey with him.

By meeting the needs of David’s hunger, the priest sustains the life of a weary traveller and contributes to David’s quest to fulfil his calling to be the king anointed to replace Saul (see I Samuel 16: 1-13).

Why, in this story, does Jesus identify the priest who assists David as Abiathar? The Old Testament account (I Samuel 16) names the priest as Ahimelech. Who is mistaken in this passage … Jesus? Saint Mark? An unknown and unidentifiable redactor?

There are details here that are not in the original story: David was not explicitly acting from hunger, and he does not enter the house of God to eat the bread of the presence.

I have read many attempts to reconcile this Gospel account and the story of David, most of them setting out with the premise that the ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’ of Scripture must be defended at all costs, without seeking to debate the literary genre found in this passage.

Instead, Christ is displaying a sense of irony and a sense of humour here. He asks his protagonists: ‘Have you never read what David did … when Abiathar was high priest?’ (verses 25-26).

If they say no, they show they have not read this story; if they say yes, they show are not truly familiar with the details of the story?

Christ then offers a legal opinion derived from scripture itself. He argues that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favour of greater values or needs, especially when those needs involve someone’s well-being, and this can bring God’s blessings.

With his subtle sense of humour, Jesus challenges us when we are too straight-faced and humourless, and put our minor interpretations of petty values before the real needs of others, and their sense of fun and enjoyment of life.

‘He entered the house of God … and ate the bread of the Presence’ (Mark 2: 26) … 12 loaves of bread in two rows of six (see Leviticus 24: 5-9) depicted in a fresco in the 17th century Kupa Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, Christ’s attitude to the disabled man.

The second part of the Gospel reading (Mark 3: 1-5) is set once again on the Sabbath, but this time in a synagogue. But even before the healing takes place, a debate begins. This debate is not about whether Christ has the right or the power to heal the man’s withered hand, or even whether it is appropriate for him to do this in a synagogue, but whether doing this on the Sabbath shows disdain for the law of God.

Of course, the man is not dying, although his hand is withered, and this act of healing could take place on any other day, indeed at any other venue.

Even before they speak, Christ’s response to his potential protagonists is once again to ask a question: ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ (verse 4).

If they say no, they show their ignorance of the law and the rabbinical tradition; if they say yes, how could they possibly disagree with what they know he is about to do?

Once again, the irony and humour of Jesus trump suspicion and disdain on the part of those who are watching but doing nothing.

In our Collect this morning, we pray that ‘in the keeping of your commandments … we may please you, both in will and deed.’

What better day is there than the Sabbath, a day meant to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, for the restoration of a man’s malformed hand? In doing so, Christ allows him to return to work with dignity, and restores him to his full and rightful place in the community of faith that may have been denied to him by the very people who are present that day.

‘But we have this treasure in clay jars’ (II Corinthians 4: 7) … clay jars on a window sill in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In conclusion, what better way of honouring God’s great Sabbath, the coming kingdom, than seeing the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, those on the margins are restored to their place in the heart of society?

We can do this conscious of God’s great majesty, yet with a sense of Christ’s good humour.

In our epistle reading (II Corinthians 4: 5-12), Saint Paul seems to be saying that we are living in a new creation: ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ (verse 6), which is both the light of creation (see Genesis 1: 3) and the ‘light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (verse 7).

Saint Paul is saying that all that distorts and spoils our created goodness dies in Christ and that Christ’s life is manifest as the flourishing of new creation in our lives. Just as humanity is created out of the clay (see Genesis 2: 7), we are ‘clay jars’ – cheap and fragile – but in those clay jars we hold that great treasure which is our life in Christ.

Cheap and fragile we may be, but we are called to be like Christ.

In us, others will see, ‘The lamp of God had not yet gone out’ (I Samuel 3: 3).

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

‘The lamp of God had not yet gone out’ (I Samuel 3: 3) … the lights in a synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is the priest-in-charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 3 July 2018, the First Sunday after Trinity (Trinity I)

Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6

23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ 25 And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27 Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 4 Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green.

The Collect of the Day:

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

Hymns:

78, This is the day the Lord has made
104, O for a thousand tongues to sing
569, Hark, my soul, it is the Lord

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

‘The lamp of God had not yet gone out’ ... candles in a church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In keeping your commandments,
may we please you in will and deed

‘But we have this treasure in clay jars’ (II Corinthians 4: 7) … clay jars on a window sill in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 3 June 2018, the First Sunday after Trinity

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

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

Readings: I Samuel 3: 1-10; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; II Corinthians 4: 5-12; and Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6.

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

This has been glorious summer weather for the past week. On my journeys up to Dublin and back down, I have travelled through countryside watching people working in the fields until late in the evening, taking advantage of the long days and the warm sunshine before the darkness begins to settle in.

And even then, the full moon has allowed some farmers to work much later than they expected. Some fields have been busy right up to 11 at night.

This morning, in our reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6), we are invited once again to join Christ on his journey with the disciples on their way to Jerusalem, and we are also challenged in the other readings to think about walking out of darkness into light, from oppression to freedom.

This Gospel reading talks about the feeding and healing we experience in our lives when we rest in God.

So I want to talk about just three things from our readings this morning:

1, The Majesty of God;

2, The humour of Jesus;

3, Christ’s attitude to the disabled man.

God’s counsels are ‘more in number than the sand’ … the beach at Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

1, The Majesty of God:

In our Psalm this morning (Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18), the Psalmist says that God’s counsels are ‘more in number than the sand’ (Psalm 139: 18; 139: 17, NRSV), and if we were to count them all we would still be in God’s presence. It is a majestic image of the scope of God’s presence.

In his 1980 bestseller, Cosmos, the astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996) calculated that there are more stars in the heavens than all the grains of sands covering the world’s beaches. He calculated that a handful of sand contains about 10,000 separate grains.

But how many grains of sand cover the earth’s beaches?

Some years ago, researchers at the University of Hawaii tried to calculate this number by dividing the volume of an average sand grain by the volume of sand covering the Earth’s shorelines. The volume of sand was obtained by multiplying the length of the world’s beaches by their average width and depth. The number they calculated was seven quintillion five quadrillion (that is 7.5 followed by 17 zeros or 7.5 billion billion) grains of sand.

On top of this, astronomers now calculate that there are 10 stars for every grain of sand, 11 times the number of cups of water in all the Earth’s oceans, ten thousand times the number of wheat kernels that have ever been produced on Earth and 10 billion times the number of cells in a human being.

This is a staggering number: 70 sextillion (or 7 followed by 22 zeros or 70 thousand million million million) stars in the observable universe. And that is probably a very, very low estimate because the number of galaxies filling the Universe is thought to be much larger than those the Hubble can see.

‘As they made their way [through the grainfields] his disciples began to pluck heads of grain’ … grain fields near Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

2, The humour of Jesus;

The first part of Gospel reading (Mark 2: 23-28) begins when Christ is bypassing the grainfields and the disciples make their way through the fields. The religious law of the day accepted that as long as they are plucking the heads of grain and not harvesting it, they are allowed to so this, and there is no question of any theft (see Deuteronomy 23: 24-25).

We have all done something like this in a field: picked fruit growing on hedges or on trees; or we have done something like this in the kitchen, pouring cereal into a bowl and snatching a few lumps before even sitting down to breakfast.

So, what concerns the Pharisees here is not theft. They are worried that the disciples are gleaning on the Sabbath, and they challenge Christ about this. They claim this behaviour ignores the command to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy (see Exodus 20: 8; Deuteronomy 5: 12). Perhaps they thought the disciples could have prepared food the previous day to take with them.

Jesus disagrees, not because he is trivialising the laws about the Sabbath, but because he sees the Sabbath in a different light. He turns to a story about David, who is fleeing Saul who is plotting to kill him (see I Samuel 21: 1-6). David takes consecrated bread that was supposed to be part of the 12 loaves reserved for the priests (see Leviticus 24: 5-9) and feeds it to his followers who are on the journey with him.

By meeting the needs of David’s hunger, the priest sustains the life of a weary traveller and contributes to David’s quest to fulfil his calling to be the king anointed to replace Saul (see I Samuel 16: 1-13).

Why, in this story, does Jesus identify the priest who assists David as Abiathar? The Old Testament account (I Samuel 16) names the priest as Ahimelech. Who is mistaken in this passage … Jesus? Saint Mark? An unknown and unidentifiable redactor?

There are details here that are not in the original story: David was not explicitly acting from hunger, and he does not enter the house of God to eat the bread of the presence.

I have read many attempts to reconcile this Gospel account and the story of David, most of them setting out with the premise that the ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’ of Scripture must be defended at all costs, without seeking to debate the literary genre found in this passage.

Instead, Christ is displaying a sense of irony and a sense of humour here. He asks his protagonists: ‘Have you never read what David did … when Abiathar was high priest?’ (verses 25-26).

If they say no, they show they have not read this story; if they say yes, they show are not truly familiar with the details of the story?

Christ then offers a legal opinion derived from scripture itself. He argues that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favour of greater values or needs, especially when those needs involve someone’s well-being, and this can bring God’s blessings.

With his subtle sense of humour, Jesus challenges us when we are too straight-faced and humourless, and put our minor interpretations of petty values before the real needs of others, and their sense of fun and enjoyment of life.

‘He entered the house of God … and ate the bread of the Presence’ (Mark 2: 26) … 12 loaves of bread in two rows of six (see Leviticus 24: 5-9) depicted in a fresco in the 17th century Kupa Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, Christ’s attitude to the disabled man.

The second part of the Gospel reading (Mark 3: 1-5) is set once again on the Sabbath, but this time in a synagogue. But even before the healing takes place, a debate begins. This debate is not about whether Christ has the right or the power to heal the man’s withered hand, or even whether it is appropriate for him to do this in a synagogue, but whether doing this on the Sabbath shows disdain for the law of God.

Of course, the man is not dying, although his hand is withered, and this act of healing could take place on any other day, indeed at any other venue.

Even before they speak, Christ’s response to his potential protagonists is once again to ask a question: ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ (verse 4).

If they say no, they show their ignorance of the law and the rabbinical tradition; if they say yes, how could they possibly disagree with what they know he is about to do?

Once again, the irony and humour of Jesus trump suspicion and disdain on the part of those who are watching but doing nothing.

In our Collect this morning, we pray that ‘in the keeping of your commandments … we may please you, both in will and deed.’

What better day is there than the Sabbath, a day meant to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, for the restoration of a man’s malformed hand? In doing so, Christ allows him to return to work with dignity, and restores him to his full and rightful place in the community of faith that may have been denied to him by the very people who are present that day.

‘The lamp of God had not yet gone out’ ... candles in a church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In conclusion, what better way of honouring God’s great Sabbath, the coming kingdom, than seeing the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, those on the margins are restored to their place in the heart of society?

We can do this conscious of God’s great majesty, yet with a sense of Christ’s good humour.

In our epistle reading (II Corinthians 4: 5-12), Saint Paul seems to be saying that we are living in a new creation: ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ (verse 6), which is both the light of creation (see Genesis 1: 3) and the ‘light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (verse 7).

Saint Paul is saying that all that distorts and spoils our created goodness dies in Christ and that Christ’s life is manifest as the flourishing of new creation in our lives. Just as humanity is created out of the clay (see Genesis 2: 7), we are ‘clay jars’ – cheap and fragile – but in those clay jars we hold that great treasure which is our life in Christ.

Cheap and fragile we may be, but we are called to be like Christ.

In us, others will see, ‘The lamp of God had not yet gone out’ (I Samuel 3: 3).

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

‘The lamp of God had not yet gone out’ (I Samuel 3: 3) … the lights in a synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is the priest-in-charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 3 July 2018, the First Sunday after Trinity (Trinity I)

Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6

23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ 25 And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27 Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 4 Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green.

The Collect of the Day:

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

Post-Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hymns:

78, This is the day the Lord has made
104, O for a thousand tongues to sing
569, Hark, my soul, it is the Lord

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

‘You mark out my journeys and my resting place … you encompass me behind and before’ (Psalm 139: 2-4) … a lone walker on the beach at Laytown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)