Sunday, 2 September 2018

A pilgrim visits the monasteries on
Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain

The peaks of Mount Athos reach their highest point at 2,033 metres (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

On the shores of the Chalkidiki peninsula in north-east Greece, a 14th century Byzantine castle stands above a small sandy beach at Ouranoupolis. The castle is uninhabited today, but over an 800-year history it has housed visiting Byzantine emperors, Orthodox monks and Anatolian refugees.

The castle was built in the early 14th century as part of a farm owned by the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos. Decades later, Byzantine emperors exempted the tower and the farm from taxes, and monks from Vatopedi continued to live in the tower as they farmed the surrounding countryside until 1922.

There are 20 monasteries on Mount Athos, known to Greeks as the Holy Mountain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Greek government confiscated the tower and the monastic land around it in 1922 to settle Greek-speaking refugees who had been expelled from Ataturk’s Turkey. The first boatload of refugees came from Caesarea, and refugees continued to arrive each year up to 1928.

The village was known as Prosforion until 1946, when the name was changed to Ouranoupolis, inspired by the unexplored site of an ancient town nearby founded in the reign of Alexander the Great.

Ouranoupolis remained cut off from the rest of Greece until a harsh winter forced the villagers to cut the first road out in 1959. No longer isolated from the rest of mainland Greece, Ouranoupolis was poised to take advantage of the beginning of tourism in the 1970s after the fall of the colonels’ regime.

‘City of the Heavens’

Fishing boats beached on the shore at Ouranoupolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The name Ouranoupolis means ‘City of the Heavens.’ But for most of the summer Ouranoupolis remains a haven from noisy and boisterous tourism, coming to life in the early morning as coaches arrive bringing people to catch the early morning ferries to Mount Athos, and coming back to life again when the ferries return and the cafés and restaurants do a brisk and busy trade.

I had last visited Mount Athos when I spent Easter Week in 2004 in Vatopedi, the monastery that once owned the tower and lands in Ouranoupolis. I returned to Mount Athos earlier this year while I was staying in Thessaloniki.

The Castle at Ouranoupolis was once inhabited by monks from Vatopedi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Mount Athos is known to Greeks as the Holy Mountain (Aghion Oros) and it forms its own autonomous Athonite State within the boundaries of Greece. With 20 monasteries and 12 sketes or smaller monastic houses under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Mount Athos has been the spiritual and intellectual centre of Orthodoxy for centuries.

Many of the monasteries are known for their opposition to ecumenism, and Esphigmenou, the northern-most monastery, is particularly outspoken. In an escalating conflict, the monks have defied eviction orders by both church and state, and even Orthodox visitors find anything but a warm welcome at Esphigmenou, where monks have draped a banner from the battlements declaring: ‘Orthodoxy or Death.’

A pilgrims’ journey

The offices of Mount Athos in Thessaloniki … visitors need a special permit or visa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Mount Athos is a Unesco-listed world heritage site. The monasteries and their schools of icon-writing and painting have influenced art and architecture throughout the Orthodox world, from Greece and Cyprus to Romania and Russia. Over 2,000 monks live ascetic lives in the monasteries and sketes, in secluded isolation from the rest of the world.

It was a two-hour, 140 km bus journey from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupolis. There we caught one of the many morning boats that sail along the west coast of Mount Athos as far as the southern tip, where the peaks of this mysterious and miraculous peninsula reach their highest point at 2,033 metres.

Ferries leave for Mount Athos each morning and return in the afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Only men may visit Mount Athos, all visitors need a special permit or diamoneterion priests need a special invitation from the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Holy Mountain is forbidden to women and children. On our four-hour boat trip, there were women and children on board, and no-one had a visitor’s permit. Although we could not disembark at any of the monastic piers or visit any of the monasteries, for many this was the closest they were ever going to get to the monasteries, and the journey took on the atmosphere of a pilgrimage.

Monasteries by the shore

Docheiariou has been known as a Serb monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

As we travelled along the coast, we passed a succession of bays and small harbours leading to inland monasteries that were not within sight. The port of Zographou leads inland to Zographou or Saint George the Zograf Monastery, founded by three Bulgarian monks from Ohrid in the late 9th or early 10th century.

This is still seen as a Bulgarian monastery and today it has about 15 monks. The monastery is named after a 13th or 14th century icon of Saint George, said to have mysteriously painted itself on the prepared board. A sceptical bishop is said to have tried to test the icon by touching it, but part of his finger stuck to the icon and had to be severed.

Docheiariou was the first monastery we saw on the coast on out journey. With its tall, 18th century defensive tower, it looks like a fortified castle. It was founded in the 10th century and is dedicated to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Since the late 15th century, this has been a Serb monastery, and today it is home to about 30 monks.

Xenophontos frequently suffered from pirate raids (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The second monastery was Xenophontos, founded in the 10th or 11th century by Saint Xenophon. As a monastery on the seashore, Xenophontos frequently suffered from pirate raids. The monastery fell into financial ruin but was re-established in the 18th century. The bell tower was built in 1864. Today the community has 30 monks.

Introducing the ‘Jesus Prayer’

The domes of Saint Panteleimon are a reminder of Russian influences (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Panteleimon, also known as the Rousikon or Russian monastery, is mid-way along the west coast. This is the most eye-catching monastery on Mount Athos and the largest of the 20 monasteries. The expansive, grand multi-storey buildings, many of them abandoned, the green copper onion domes and the resounding bells testify to its rich and expansive past.

For centuries, Russian and Greek monks lived together in harmony in Panteleimon. The benefactors included Byzantine emperors, Serbian princes, wealthy Romanians, Greek merchant families in Constantinople and Russian tsars.

After a long absence, Russian monks began returning in the 19th century, and they monks numbered 1,000 in 1895. But in 1913, 800 monks were sent back to Russia, and the Russian Revolution in 1917 brought to an end the flow of Russian monks for most of the 20th century.

Two monks of the monastery – Saint Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) and Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (1896-1993) – were influential in introducing the practice of the Jesus Prayer to Western spirituality.

In 2005, President Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader to visit the monastery. Today, there are about 70 Russian and Ukrainian monks at Saint Panteleimon.

Xeropotamou, a classic example of Athonite architecture, stands on a conspicuous site 200 metres above sea level. This is one of the oldest Athonite monasteries, although its early history remains obscure and the exact date of its foundation and the identity of its founder are obscured in tradition and myth. One tradition says it was founded by the Empress Pulcheria in the fifth century.

The monastery flourished until the 13th century, and like the other monasteries it has had its periods of decline, including catastrophic fires and the burden of great debts.

Today, the monastery owns the port of Daphne and its treasures include two pieces of the True Cross. The monastery now has about 25 monks.

Daphne is a small settlement between Xeropotamou and Simonopetra with fewer than 40 residents. It serves as the port and entry point to Mount Athos, with daily ferries to and from Ouranoupolis.

Daring precipice

10, Simonopetra stands on the edge of a rocky range (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Monastery of Simonos Petra venerates Saint Mary Magdalene as one of its ‘co-founders,’ despite the prohibition on women visiting the mountain. Known more simply as Simonopetra, this is the most daring construction on Mount Athos, at a height of 330 metres on the end of a rocky mountain range. It was founded around 1257, but was destroyed by fires in 1570, 1622 and again in 1891.

Decades of decline were reversed in 1973, when a new 20-member brotherhood from the Meteora on the Greek mainland moved to the monastery, which now has a community of 50 monks.

Gregoriou is built on a sea-washed rock with balconies overlooking the gulf below, Patrick Comerford, Mount Athos, 2018 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Monastery of Gregoriou is built on a sea-washed rock with balconies overlooking the gulf below. It was founded in the 14th century by Gregory, a Syrian monk from Mount Sinai. The monastery has about 70 monks today.

Dionysiou has a gilded sanctuary screen and frescoes depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Dionysiou or ‘Nea Petra,’ on the south-west tip of Mount Athos, stands on a narrow and steep rocky mass rising to a height of 80 metres above the sea. It is named after the founder, Saint Dionysius from Korysos near Kastoria.

Saint Niphon, Patriarch of Constantinople, was a monk of Dionysiou in the 15th century. The monastery’s wall paintings or frescoes, dating from around 1546, are the work of Tzortzis, an influential member of the Cretan School of Iconography. The gilded sanctuary screen and the wall-paintings of the Book of Revelation are the oldest complete portrayal of these scene in the Orthodox world. The treasures and relics include the right hand of Saint John the Baptist. The monastery has a community of around 50.

Saint Paul was endowed by the Serbian-born wife of the Sultan Murat II, who brought the gifts of the Three Wise Men (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The last monastery we reached was Saint Paul or Aghiou Pavlou, founded by Saint Paul of Xeropotamou, who also founded Xeropotamou. The monastery was deserted in the 14th century, but was restored by Serbian nobles, Byzantine emperors, Danubian princes and Romanian and Greek benefactors. Catastrophes in 20th century included a fire in 1902 and a flood in 1911.

The monastery’s oldest building, the chapel of Saint George, has frescoes painted by members of the Cretan School. The monastery treasures are said to include the gifts of the Three Wise Men, donated by the Serbian-born wife of the Sultan Murat II. She is said to be the only woman to have set foot on the shore at the monastery harbour. Other relics include the foot of Saint Gregory the Theologian, and a piece of the True Cross. The community consists of 30 monks.

Return to Ouranoupolis

Icons and religious goods made on Mount Athos on sale in Ouranoupolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

During our journey along the west coast of Mount Athos, we also saw a number of smaller houses that are dependencies of the larger monasteries, including Kelli Ayiou Modestou, Skiti Monoxilites, and Metochi Chourmitsis an outlying farm belonging to Panteleimon, where the once abandoned vineyards have been developed in recent years by the Tsantalis label, producing organic wines and spirits.

Tickets for ferry boats and speed boats to Mount Athos on sale in Ouranoupolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

We returned along the full length of the south-west coat of the Holy Mountain. In all, we had seen eight or nine of the 20 monasteries on Mount Athos.

Back in Ouranoupolis, after a late but lingering lunch, we explored the small shops along the seafront, selling icons and religious goods made by the monks in the monasteries. In one shop, a woman devoutly but proudly brought us to see the bread she had baked for the Eucharist the next day: Easter would dawn in the morning.

Bread for the Easter Liturgy prepared in Ouranoupolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A shop in Chania in Crete … one of the many shops throughout Greece selling icons and religious goods made on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Religious goods from Mount Athos in a shop in Ouranoupolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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

The difference between
what is in our hearts and
what is in our mouths

A classical Greek mask in a museum in Naxos in Sicily … the word ‘hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word for an actor who masked or hid his face as he said someone else’s words (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 September 2018,

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 17B).


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

Readings: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13; Psalm 45: 1-2, 6-9; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

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

Sometimes our comfortable differences can trip us up in ways that surprise or even embarrass us.

I was talking to a priest colleague recently, who is not from these islands. He was telling me how, within weeks, he came a cropper in a new parish. He comes from a society and a culture where people speak openly and directly. He regards this as a mark of efficiency and a sign of his honesty.

But when he arrived in that new parish, this did not go down well at all.

When he told parishioners what he wanted to do, he thought he was being frank, honest and direct.

But his parishioners immediately saw him as abrupt, abrasive and rude.

In his next parish, he knew he needed to be a little less direct and a lot more diplomatic.

We all know what diplomats mean when they say talks have been frank and honest: bruising encounters with no one behaving in what we might call a civilised manner, or behaving towards each other like Christians.

We respond instinctively as if we expect to be treated politely and that others expect us to treat them politely too.

I offer two examples of how I think Ireland and England are unique in this respect. In other countries, when people pay for a service, they feel that they are doing someone a favour, giving them their custom and their money, and so walk away when the transaction is complete. It is a bonus for them if the person at the till says as they leave, ‘Thank you.’

But here, on these islands, we respond differently: when we pay in a shop or café, or get off a bus or train, it is we, the paying customers, who say ‘Thank You!’

Or again: How often have I asked someone for information that I know or expect them to have – looking for directions on the street, or asking for information at an airport or a train station.

And every now and then we meet someone who is curmudgeonly, who got out on the wrong side of the bed, or is just downright rude. And they answer brusquely, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘Look at the timetable.’

And what do I say in reply? I say, ‘Thank You!’

I am just too Anglo-Saxon with my manners for my own good at times. I put on a polite mask, and I put up.

And sometimes we confuse those good manners with the answer we expect to that perennial question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’

Well, look at what Jesus does over in our Gospel readings over these two weeks, and we’re in for something of a shocker.

Over these two weeks, we are going to come across what appear to be interesting, front-parlour meetings with Jesus. But that’s because English is such a polite language, and the translators add their own polite priorities and good manners to how they translate what Jesus says in the original and very direct Greek into palatable, modern English.

This morning, we hear what sounds like Jesus being very rude to some very religious people, who come with real doubts and with polite questions.

How does he respond? He calls them hypocrites.

And to add to that, next week we have two more stories like this. In one, Jesus compares a woman who comes to him in distress with dogs, and he seems to call her daughter what amounts to – in the original Greek – a ‘little bitch.’

In the second story next week, he meets a man who is deaf and dumb – and he sticks his fingers in his ears and spits on him.

Hypocrites, dogs, little bitches, spitting at someone. Now, imagine if I responded in any one of these ways to someone who gives me a curt answer when I try to find my way through a busy train station or a crowded airport, or if they responded to me like that!

This morning, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a genuine question that arises from rules they apply in their religious life, and rules that are radical, reforming, and easy for us to identify with when the reasons behind them are explained.

We need to keep in mind that the Pharisees are very religious, pious and good people. Too often we forget that Saint Paul boasts he is a Pharisee, that among the different Jewish groups of the day the Pharisees are the closest in tradition and practice to Jesus, and that Pharisaic Judaism is the spiritual ancestor of all modern forms of Judaism today.

The Pharisees looked at the demands the religious law of the Book of Leviticus made on the priests in the Temple. This priestly class included some of Jesus’ own family, such as Zechariah, the father of Saint John the Baptist.

Purity and cleanliness were part of their role in the Temple. Before they ate or handled any sacred food, they had to wash their hands thoroughly. But these rules only applied when they were on the rota for priestly duties in the Temple. They took it in turn, and outside that turn, those rules did not apply. Nor did they apply to the people in general, the average, everyday Jew on the street or at home.

But after the people return from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem, the Pharisees see the whole people as a royal people, a holy priesthood. And to make the people conscious of how holy the whole nation is, they suggest people should take on those priestly practices, to show they are holy.

In time, this becomes so accepted that people who do not bother washing their hands ritually before they eat are seen as being hypocrites if, at the same time, they are supposed to be holy and religious people.

The word hypocrite comes from classical Greek drama. This word (ὑποκριτής, hypokrités) was used for an actor who on stage puts on a mask and speaks the words of someone else. The actor with the mask could have subtitles with a disclaimer: ‘These are not my words, I am only using the words of Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes … or one of the other great playwrights.’

So, a hypocrite was an actor, a pretender, a dissembler, a hypocrite puts on a mask and says something that represents someone else’s ideas, but that he does not necessarily believe himself.

Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are using someone else’s words but do not necessarily understand why those rules and regulations came about.

It is not that washing my hands before I eat is a bad idea, or that I am a hypocrite if I do so. If I habitually fail to wash my hands before I eat, I am going to get sick, quickly and often.

But if I forget why I have to wash my hands, I am a hypocrite if I then expect others to do so. And sometimes we leave ourselves in danger of going hungry if we insist on washing our hands before we eat: the facilities to wash my hands are not always to hand on a long train journey or a long flight.

The Pharisees had their own rituals, and I would be silly to think that only they had these problems. We all have our own rituals associated with eating and cleanliness.

It is said one of the principal causes of domestic arguments in the kitchen is about what way to stack the dishwasher, and how to empty it. Should the knives stand up or down? Which sides do you place the glasses and the cups on? Do you rinse the plates before they go in?

To tell the truth, it probably does not matter. But it is still irritating to open the dishwasher and to find someone else has packed it.

The level of questioning from the Pharisees is about a ritual that is probably more important than how you and I stack the dishwasher. And the level of response from Jesus is not as rude as we might first think – just as I shall explain next week why he is not being rude to the distressed woman or the disabled man.

But when he says the Pharisees are hypocrites, Jesus is challenging them to drop the mask and to own the words they speak and to own the reasons for those rituals.

Can you imagine how much more positively people at large would view the churches if every parish and church put as much care into seeing that our children are not abused or infected with racism or discrimination or hate as much as we put into seeing that the cups are clean for the tea and coffee after church, or as much as we attend to the cleanliness of the sacred vessels used for the Eucharist or Holy Communion?

If we are worried about how clean the patten and chalice are at Holy Communion, how clean the church is, how clean the coffee cup is when it comes out of the dishwasher, how much more should be worried about how clean the Church is as an institution, how worthy it is to be called – for us to be called – the Body of Christ.

I bought a T-shirt in the Plaka in Athens recently that says:

To do is to be – Socrates
To be is to do – Plato
Do be do be do – Sinatra


As Saint James says in our Epistle reading this morning, we must not merely hear the word, but also make sure that we are ‘doers of the word,’ otherwise we deceive ourselves (James 1: 22, 26), our religion is ‘worthless’ (verse 26) … a polite way of saying otherwise we are hypocrites.

And he tells us what true religion is. Of course, it can be expressed in ritual. But that is all a mask unless it finds its true expression, true religion that is ‘pure and undefiled before God’ – as he reminds us – in caring for orphans and widows in distress … in other words, those on the margins, those on the outside, those who are easy not to see but easy to forget (see verse 27).

We should beware when piety gets in the way of fulfilling the heart of the law: loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbour as yourself. Beware when our piety separates us from others, for then it also separates us from 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.

A T-shirt on sale in the Plaka in Athens … as Christians, we are challenged to bring together our needs ‘to be’ and ‘to do’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23:

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6 He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

‘There are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles’ (Mark 7: 4) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ (Mark 7: 5) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

350, For the beauty of the earth (CD 21);

630, Blessed are the pure in heart (CD 36);

601, Teach me my God and King (CD 34).

Classical masks on sale near the Acropolis in Athens … the word ‘hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word for an actor who masked or hid his face (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized 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

When I am too polite to call
someone else a hypocrite

Classical masks on sale near the Acropolis in Athens … the word ‘hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word for an actor who masked or hid his face (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 September 2018,

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 17B).


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

Readings: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13; Psalm 45: 1-2, 6-9; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

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

Sometimes our comfortable differences can trip us up in ways that surprise or even embarrass us.

I was talking to a priest colleague recently, who is not from these islands. He was telling me how, within weeks, he came a cropper in a new parish. He comes from a society and a culture where people speak openly and directly. He regards this as a mark of efficiency and a sign of his honesty.

But when he arrived in that new parish, this did not go down well at all.

When he told parishioners what he wanted to do, he thought he was being frank, honest and direct.

But his parishioners immediately saw him as abrupt, abrasive and rude.

In his next parish, he knew he needed to be a little less direct and a lot more diplomatic.

We all know what diplomats mean when they say talks have been frank and honest: bruising encounters with no one behaving in what we might call a civilised manner, or behaving towards each other like Christians.

We respond instinctively as if we expect to be treated politely and that others expect us to treat them politely too.

I offer two examples of how I think Ireland and England are unique in this respect. In other countries, when people pay for a service, they feel that they are doing someone a favour, giving them their custom and their money, and so walk away when the transaction is complete. It is a bonus for them if the person at the till says as they leave, ‘Thank you.’

But here, on these islands, we respond differently: when we pay in a shop or café, or get off a bus or train, it is we, the paying customers, who say ‘Thank You!’

Or again: How often have I asked someone for information that I know or expect them to have – looking for directions on the street, or asking for information at an airport or a train station.

And every now and then we meet someone who is curmudgeonly, who got out on the wrong side of the bed, or is just downright rude. And they answer brusquely, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘Look at the timetable.’

And what do I say in reply? I say, ‘Thank You!’

I am just too Anglo-Saxon with my manners for my own good at times. I put on a polite mask, and I put up.

And sometimes we confuse those good manners with the answer we expect to that perennial question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’

Well, look at what Jesus does over in our Gospel readings over these two weeks, and we’re in for something of a shocker.

Over these two weeks, we are going to come across what appear to be interesting, front-parlour meetings with Jesus. But that’s because English is such a polite language, and the translators add their own polite priorities and good manners to how they translate what Jesus says in the original and very direct Greek into palatable, modern English.

This morning, we hear what sounds like Jesus being very rude to some very religious people, who come with real doubts and with polite questions.

How does he respond? He calls them hypocrites.

And to add to that, next week we have two more stories like this. In one, Jesus compares a woman who comes to him in distress with dogs, and he seems to call her daughter what amounts to – in the original Greek – a ‘little bitch.’

In the second story next week, he meets a man who is deaf and dumb – and he sticks his fingers in his ears and spits on him.

Hypocrites, dogs, little bitches, spitting at someone. Now, imagine if I responded in any one of these ways to someone who gives me a curt answer when I try to find my way through a busy train station or a crowded airport, or if they responded to me like that!

This morning, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a genuine question that arises from rules they apply in their religious life, and rules that are radical, reforming, and easy for us to identify with when the reasons behind them are explained.

We need to keep in mind that the Pharisees are very religious, pious and good people. Too often we forget that Saint Paul boasts he is a Pharisee, that among the different Jewish groups of the day the Pharisees are the closest in tradition and practice to Jesus, and that Pharisaic Judaism is the spiritual ancestor of all modern forms of Judaism today.

The Pharisees looked at the demands the religious law of the Book of Leviticus made on the priests in the Temple. This priestly class included some of Jesus’ own family, such as Zechariah, the father of Saint John the Baptist.

Purity and cleanliness were part of their role in the Temple. Before they ate or handled any sacred food, they had to wash their hands thoroughly. But these rules only applied when they were on the rota for priestly duties in the Temple. They took it in turn, and outside that turn, those rules did not apply. Nor did they apply to the people in general, the average, everyday Jew on the street or at home.

But after the people return from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem, the Pharisees see the whole people as a royal people, a holy priesthood. And to make the people conscious of how holy the whole nation is, they suggest people should take on those priestly practices, to show they are holy.

In time, this becomes so accepted that people who do not bother washing their hands ritually before they eat are seen as being hypocrites if, at the same time, they are supposed to be holy and religious people.

The word hypocrite comes from classical Greek drama. This word (ὑποκριτής, hypokrités) was used for an actor who on stage puts on a mask and speaks the words of someone else. The actor with the mask could have subtitles with a disclaimer: ‘These are not my words, I am only using the words of Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes … or one of the other great playwrights.’

So, a hypocrite was an actor, a pretender, a dissembler, a hypocrite puts on a mask and says something that represents someone else’s ideas, but that he does not necessarily believe himself.

Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are using someone else’s words but do not necessarily understand why those rules and regulations came about.

It is not that washing my hands before I eat is a bad idea, or that I am a hypocrite if I do so. If I habitually fail to wash my hands before I eat, I am going to get sick, quickly and often.

But if I forget why I have to wash my hands, I am a hypocrite if I then expect others to do so. And sometimes we leave ourselves in danger of going hungry if we insist on washing our hands before we eat: the facilities to wash my hands are not always to hand on a long train journey or a long flight.

The Pharisees had their own rituals, and I would be silly to think that only they had these problems. We all have our own rituals associated with eating and cleanliness.

It is said one of the principal causes of domestic arguments in the kitchen is about what way to stack the dishwasher, and how to empty it. Should the knives stand up or down? Which sides do you place the glasses and the cups on? Do you rinse the plates before they go in?

To tell the truth, it probably does not matter. But it is still irritating to open the dishwasher and to find someone else has packed it.

The level of questioning from the Pharisees is about a ritual that is probably more important than how you and I stack the dishwasher. And the level of response from Jesus is not as rude as we might first think – just as I shall explain next week why he is not being rude to the distressed woman or the disabled man.

But when he says the Pharisees are hypocrites, Jesus is challenging them to drop the mask and to own the words they speak and to own the reasons for those rituals.

Can you imagine how much more positively people at large would view the churches if every parish and church put as much care into seeing that our children are not abused or infected with racism or discrimination or hate as much as we put into seeing that the cups are clean for the tea and coffee after church, or as much as we attend to the cleanliness of the sacred vessels used for the Eucharist or Holy Communion?

If we are worried about how clean the patten and chalice are at Holy Communion, how clean the church is, how clean the coffee cup is when it comes out of the dishwasher, how much more should be worried about how clean the Church is as an institution, how worthy it is to be called – for us to be called – the Body of Christ.

I bought a T-shirt in the Plaka in Athens recently that says:

To do is to be – Socrates
To be is to do – Plato
Do be do be do – Sinatra


As Saint James says in our Epistle reading this morning, we must not merely hear the word, but also make sure that we are ‘doers of the word,’ otherwise we deceive ourselves (James 1: 22, 26), our religion is ‘worthless’ (verse 26) … a polite way of saying otherwise we are hypocrites.

And he tells us what true religion is. Of course, it can be expressed in ritual. But that is all a mask unless it finds its true expression, true religion that is ‘pure and undefiled before God’ – as he reminds us – in caring for orphans and widows in distress … in other words, those on the margins, those on the outside, those who are easy not to see but easy to forget (see verse 27).

We should beware when piety gets in the way of fulfilling the heart of the law: loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbour as yourself. Beware when our piety separates us from others, for then it also separates us from 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.

A T-shirt on sale in the Plaka in Athens … as Christians, we are challenged to bring together our needs ‘to be’ and ‘to do’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23:

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6 He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

‘There are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles’ (Mark 7: 4) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the source of truth and love:
Keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ (Mark 7: 5) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

350, For the beauty of the earth (CD 21);

630, Blessed are the pure in heart (CD 36);

601, Teach me my God and King (CD 34).

A classical Greek mask in a museum in Naxos in Sicily … the word ‘hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word for an actor who masked or hid his face as he said someone else’s words (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized 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