Sunday, 6 January 2019

An old Cold War frontier
has fallen but continues
to tell a story of division

The railway station at the Slovenian side of Europa Square, the crossing point between Italy and Slovenia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I have visited many divided cities: Nicosia in Cyprus remains Europe’s only divided capital; Berlin has been reunited, but I was still conscious recently of where the border once ran between east and west when I visited the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie; and Strabane in Co Tyrone and Lifford in Co Donegal, are really one town, as are Blacklion in Co Cavan and Belcoo in Co Fermanagh, but they are divided between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Recently, I visited the divided town of Gorizia, both Gorizia and Nova Gorica, crossing the border between Italy and Slovenia a number of times, arriving and leaving from one railway station in Italy, and having lunch in another in Slovenia.

It might be just too easy to compare the once divided Gorizia with Berlin during the Cold War. But even at the height of the Cold War, Yugoslavia was nonaligned, and Italy and Yugoslavia shared many cultural and sporting events until 1991.

A crossing point that has become a matter of curiosity since the end of the Cold War and became possible with the Schengen Agreement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The frontier dividing Gorizia remained in place until Slovenia became part of the Schengen Agreement on 21 December 2007.

Today, the border between Italy and Slovenia is almost invisible, an artificial line that runs between Gorizia in Italy and Nova Gorica in Slovenia. The most celebrated border crossing is at Europa Square, an open pedestrian square in front of the Transalpina railway station. But there are other border crossings between Gorizia and Nova Gorica, for the border is a straight line that ignores the natural contours and bends in the streets and buildings, still seen in the remains of a fence that once ran across streets and even divided gardens.

The old border fence divided houses from their gardens and streets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A colourful past

Gorizia is at the foot of the Julian Alps and just two hours by train from Venice. Over the centuries, it has been ruled by the Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, the Venetians, the Habsburgs of Austria, and was a place of refuge for the exiled Bourbon family when they lost their throne in France.

Gorizia stands where the Isonzo and Vipava valleys meet, in a plane overlooked by the Gorizia Hills. Its name comes from the Slovene word gorica, meaning ‘little hill.’ The town first emerged as a watchtower controlling a crossing on the River Isonzo, and was a village near Via Gemina, the Roman road linking Aquileia and Emona, or present-day Ljubljana.

Gorizia grew up beneath the slopes of the mediaeval castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The name Gorizia is first recorded in 1001, when the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III granted the castle and village of Goriza to John II, Patriarch of Aquileia, and Count Verihen Eppenstein of Friuli. By 1127, Count Meinhard was calling himself Graf von Görz. From the 12th to the early 16th century, the town was the centre of an independent county, with a village around the upper castle district and a lower village.

The family of the Counts of Gorizia died out in 1500, when Leonardo, the last Count of Gorizia died in 1500, and was buried in the church that would become the cathedral.

Strolling through the side streets of Gorizia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

After a short period of rule from Venice in 1508-1509, Gorizia came under the Austrian Habsburgs. Under the Habsburgs, the town spread out below the castle, and many people moved there from neighbouring parts of northern Italy. Gorizia quickly became a multi-ethnic town where Friulian, Venetian, German and Slovene were spoken.

A cathedral for Prince-Bishops

The neoclassical façade of Gorizia Cathedral dates from the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The cathedral or duomo, behind Piazza Cavour, dedicated to Saint Hilary (Ilario) and Saint Tatian (Taziano) dates from 1296 and the first reference to the church is in 1342. The church was enlarged at the end of the 14th century, and a new Gothic building was finished in 1525.

During extensive rebuilding in 1688-1702, the Gothic nave was replaced by a Baroque church with a nave and two side aisles, galleries and a choir and organ loft. The neoclassical façade dates from the 19th century.

The baroque interior of Gorizia Cathedral replaced an earlier Gothic design (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The 17th-century interior has with rich baroque decorations, 17th and 18th century altars, an 18th-century decorated pulpit, and the tomb of Count Leonardo, who died in 1500. The altarpiece in the apse by Giuseppe Tominz (1825) depicts the Virgin Mary with Saint Hilary and Saint Tatian.

At the end of the right aisle, the Gothic Chapel of Sant’Acazio, built by the Counts of Gorizia, was incorporated into the cathedral in the early 1400s. The elegant angels depicted as musicians on the ceiling date back from the mid-15th and early 16th century.

During the Reformation, the prominent Slovene preacher Primož Trubar visited and preached in Gorizia. By the end of the 16th century, however, the Catholic Counter-Reformation had gained force in Gorizia.

In a side aisle in Gorizia Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

When the Patriarchate of Aquileia was abolished in 1751, the Archdiocese of Gorizia was formed in Habsburg territory, with suffragan dioceses in Trieste, Trento, Como and Pedena. A new town developed around the cathedral, many new baroque villas were built, and a new synagogue symbolised the multi-ethnic, tolerant life in the town.

The Church of Saint Hilary and Saint Tatian became the cathedral of Gorizia in 1751, and from 1766, the archbishops were also Princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The new diocese was suppressed in 1788 but was restored in 1797 and had an archbishop once again from 1830.

Churches and palaces

The former Franciscan cloisters and the Church of Saint Anthony in Piazza Sant’Antonio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Close to the cathedral, Piazza Sant’Antonio is lined on three sides by airy colonnades that were once part of the cloister of a Franciscan convent founded in the 13th century by Saint Anthony of Padua.

On the square, the Palazzo dei Baroni Lantieri dates from the Middle Ages. The oldest part is the 13th-century tower with a drawbridge, part of the city walls later incorporated into the Schönhaus (‘La casa bella’), home of the Counts of Gorizia. The guests in the past included Pope Pius VI, Napoleon, Casanova and the playwright Carlo Goldoni.

A café in the colonnades at Piazza Sant’Antonio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

On the same square, the Palazzo dei Conti Strassoldo, now a hotel, was the home from 1836 of the exiled French Bordon monarchs, Charles X and Louis XIX, who lived here as the Duke of Angoulême.

The Casa Torriana and the Fountain of Neptune in Piazza della Vittoria (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The largest square in Gorizia is the Piazza della Vittoria (Victory Square). Here, the Casa Torriana, dating from the 16th-century, is now the seat of the prefecture or local government. Giacomo Casanova who stayed here in 1773 and describes his sojourn in Gorizia in his Memories.

In the centre of the square, the Fountain of Neptune (1700) is the work of Marco Chiereghin of Padua, and the Column of Saint Ignatius was donated by Count Andrea di Porcia in 1687.

The façade of Saint Ignatius Church, built by the Jesuits in 1654-1747 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The piazza is dominated by Saint Ignatius Church, built by the Jesuits between 1654 and 1747. The imposing façade is the work of the Austrian Jesuit Christoph Tausch. Three niches hold statues of Saint John the Baptist, Saint Ignatius and Saint Joseph, and the two bell towers are surmounted by two bronze onion domes.

The church was rebuilt in the 1760s and was consecrated by Karl Michael von Attems, Prince-Archbishop of Gorizia, in 1769. However, the church was destroyed 23 years later when war broke out between Austria and France and many of its original treasures were stolen.

Wars and divisions

Approaching Slovenia from Italy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

During the Napoleonic era, Gorizia was under French rule in 1809-1813. After the restoration of the Austrian rule, Gorizia became a popular summer residence for the Austrian nobility and was known as the ‘Austrian Nice.’ When the French Bourbons were deposed in 1830, the last Bourbon king, Charles X, moved to Gorizia.

In mid-19th century, Gorizia had regional autonomy and was a multi-ethnic and tolerant town, with a flourishing cultural life and Italian, Venetian, Slovene, Friulian and German were all spoken in the streets.

On the eve of World War I, Gorizia had about 31,000 residents, with another 14,000 people in the suburbs.

The first victim of World War I in Gorizia was Countess Lucy Christalnigg, who was shot on 10 August 1914 while driving her car on a mission for the Austrian Red Cross. Italy entered World War I on 24 May 1915, and the hills west of Gorizia soon became the location of fighting between Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops.

Most of the inhabitants of Gorizia were evacuated by early 1916, the Italian army captured Gorizia in August 1916, but the town returned to Austro-Hungarian control at the end of 1917.

At the end of World War I, Gorizia was occupied by Italian troops again in early November 1918, and in 1927 Gorizia became a provincial capital.

With the rise of Fascism, many Slovenes fled Gorizia to Yugoslavia and South America, the town borders were expanded, and Mussolini visited the town twice. After the Italian armistice in 1943, the town was shortly occupied by Slovene partisans, but then fell to Nazi Germany.

The entire region was at the heart of a territorial dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia after World War II. When the new boundaries were drawn up in 1947, the old town was part of Italy, and Nova Gorica was on the Yugoslav side.

No passport needed

Approaching Italy from Slovenia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Today, the two towns form one conurbation that also includes the Slovenian municipality of Šempeter-Vrtojba. Since May 2011, these three towns are joined in a common trans-border metropolitan zone, administered by a joint administration board.

As I stepped between three towns and two countries, no-one asked me for a passport, no one asked me to take my place in a queue, asking for identity, or my opinion on who should be in the European Union and who should be out.

At one point, a Slovenian policeman at a former checkpoint seemed to be amused by my enthusiasm for taking a photograph looking back into the Italian side. At the bar in the Slovenian train station, they called a taxi for me without asking which side of the town I was going to. The taxi driver between one train station and the next worked comfortably in both Italian and Slovene, but only charged in one currency.

Borders in Europe have become meaningless. They respect cultural variety and celebrate difference. It is so sad that they could become a point of political argument and dissent that forget the peace that we have worked so hard to build in Europe not only since the end of World War II in 1945, but since the end of World War I.

The Holocaust Memorial at the Italian train station in Gorizia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A memorial to the victims of the Holocaust at the train station on the Italian side of the town lists the concentration camps where the Jews of Gorizia were murdered … Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Mauthusen, Flossenburg, Ravensbruck, Risiera San Sabba.

Gorizia, with its meaningless border crossings and fences and its Holocaust memorial is a reminder of rise of populist nationalism in Europe in the past and the divisions it brought with it. The Holocaust Memorial is a call to never forget the horrors of racism, the destruction that war brings, and the dangers of erecting new borders in Europe.

Hands across the border at Europa Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This feature was first published in January 2019 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)

‘They saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage’

The visit of the Magi in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 6 January 2019

The Feast of the Epiphany

11.30 a.m.: The Epiphany Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

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

We have completed the 12 days of Christmas.

‘On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

‘12 drummers drumming …
‘11 pipers piping …
‘10 lords a-leaping …
‘9 ladies dancing …’

And on and on it goes. Not very useful gifts at all, as Frank Kelly reminded us in his parody of this song as Gobnait Ó Lúnasa.

But this morning, in our Epiphany Gospel reading (Matthew 2: 1-12), we remember the Three Wise Men, the Three Kings or the Three Magi, who brought their true gifts to the Christ Child in the Manger.

In many parts of Ireland, today is also known as both ‘Little Christmas’ and as Nollaig na mBan or ‘Women’s Christmas.’

This makes it appropriate to refer to a popular joke on social media that asks: ‘Do you know what would have happened if it had been Three Wise Women instead of Three Wise Men?’

The answer is:

‘They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts … and there would be Peace On Earth.’

Many of us have probably put Christmas behind us at this stage. We’ve probably taken down the tree, the decorations and the holly. Why, we have probably even forgotten our New Year’s resolutions too.

So, why should we remember this morning’s story of the visit of the three Wise Men? And how practical were their gifts?

Although Saint Matthew does not mention the number of wise men, the number of gifts they gave to the Christ Child has given rise to the popular tradition that there were three Magi.

I received Christmas greetings a few weeks ago from a friend, an icon-writer, who lives in Crete. For fun, I decided to run her message in Greek through Google Translate. And I was disturbed that it translated the three Magi as the three Wizards.

Our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60: 1-6) and Psalm (Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14) speak of gifts given by kings and of the Messiah being worshipped by kings.

Saint Matthew’s account was reinterpreted in the light of these prophecies, and so the magi became kings rather than Persian wise men or priests. Perhaps this interpretation was influenced by the negative image of magi not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament.

The magi were members of the Persian priestly or religious caste. In the Old Testament, for example, the magi or wise men are led by Daniel (see Daniel 2: 48). But the same term later has negative connotation when it is used in the Acts of the Apostles to describe the sorcery of Simon Magus (Acts 8: 9-13) and the magic of Elymas (Acts 13: 6-11).

As the tradition developed, the three wise men in this Gospel story were transformed into kings who have been named as:

● Melchior, a Persian scholar;

● Caspar, an Indian scholar;

● Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.

In Western art from the 14th century on, they are portrayed in these ways:

● Caspar is the older man with a long white beard, who is first in line to kneel before the Christ Child and who gives him the gift of gold.

● Melchior is a middle-aged man, giving frankincense.

● Balthazar is a young man, very often black-skinned, with the gift of myrrh.

Saint Matthew names their gifts as: gold, frankincense, and myrrh: χρυσον (chryson), λιβανον (libanon) and σμυρναν (smyrnan) (Matthew 2: 11). These are ordinary offerings and gifts – for a king. But from Patristic times these gifts have been given spiritual meanings:

● Gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship;

● Frankincense as a symbol of worship and so of Christ’s deity;

● Myrrh as an anointing oil for his priesthood, or as an embalming oil and a symbol of his death.

Saint John Chrysostom suggests that these gifts were appropriate not just for a king but for God.

Origen summarises it in this way: ‘Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God’ (Contra Celsum).

Sometimes this is described more generally as:

● Gold symbolising virtue;

● Frankincense symbolising prayer;

● Myrrh symbolising suffering.

These interpretations are alluded to by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), the son of a Dublin-born Episcopalian bishop, in our carol We Three Kings (Hymn 201), in which the last verse summarises this interpretation:

Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God and Sacrifice
.

Do you think the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph took these gifts with them as they fled into exile in Egypt?

Do you think they sent thank-you cards when they got to Egypt, or when they eventually got back to Bethlehem?

Several traditions have developed about what happened to these gifts.

There is a tradition that suggests Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance them when they fled.

Another story says the gold was stolen by the two thieves who are later crucified alongside Christ. Yet, another says the gold was entrusted to Judas, who misappropriated it.

But in the Monastery of Saint Paul on Mount Athos, there is a 15th century golden case that is said to contain the Gift of the Magi.

And another story says the myrrh was used to anoint Christ’s body after his crucifixion, before his burial.

But whatever the traditions, whatever the myths, whatever the legends may say, the truth they are trying to get across is that Christmas and Epiphany find their full meaning and their fulfilment in Good Friday and Easter Day, in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when we see the Suffering and Risen Christ fully revealed to us as Prophet, Priest and King.

And they challenge us to ask whether we are offering our best, or merely our second best to Christ – to Christ in the suffering world, to Christ in the Church, to Christ who is to come again.

What gifts do we have to offer Christ?

If strangers came offering gifts to the Church, would we allow them to do so?

What gifts do you have that you think the Church is not recognising, but that are gifts for Christ, that could help the whole Church to look forward in the Easter hope?

Christmas is not over yet. It does not end with our Epiphany readings this morning. There are two more important Epiphany events in the coming weeks:

● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, which we read about next Sunday [Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22; 13 January 2019]

● the Wedding Feast in Cana, which we read about on Sunday week [John 2: 1-11; 20 January 2019].

In fact, Christmas continues as a season in the Church until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation on 2 February, and which we read about on the first Sunday in February [Luke 2: 22-40 or 21-30; 3 February 2019].

On the feast of the Presentation, Mary and Joseph bring the Christ Child to the Temple, along with their meek gifts to offer to God, two turtle doves or two pigeons.

Their simple, poor gifts are acceptable to God, and the old priest Simeon realises that the Christ Child is born as ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2: 32).

No matter what gifts we bring, how rich or humble we are, they are acceptable to God. And the Christ Child is God’s gift to all humanity.

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

‘Star of Bethlehem’ (1887-1890) by Edward Burn-Jones (1833-1898) … the largest watercolour of the 19th century, and now in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

The Collect:

O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
Mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
May we, who with the wise men
have been drawn by your light,
discern the glory of your presence in your incarnate Son;
who suffered, died, and was buried,
and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

Hymns:

202, What child is this, who laid to rest (CD 13)
201, We three kings of Orient are (CD 13)
189, As with gladness men of old (CD 12)

‘Chalking the Doors’ on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Chalking the Doors: an Epiphany tradition

We introduced the Epiphany tradition of ‘Chalking the Doors’ at Saint Mary’s Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick, last year. I was first introduced to this Epiphany tradition when I was visiting Westcott House, the Anglican theological college in Cambridge some years ago.

The formula for this traditional rite – adapted for Epiphany 2019 – is simple. Take chalk and write these letters and figures above the doors into the Church or the house: 20 + C + M + B + 19.

The letters have two meanings. Firstly, they represent the initials of the Three Wise Men or Magi – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – who came to visit the Christ Child in his first home.

Secondly, they also abbreviate the Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘May Christ bless the house.’

The ‘+’ figures signify the cross, and the figures ‘20’ at the beginning and ‘19’ at the end mark the year.

Taken together, this inscription is a request for Christ to bless the building that has been marked, church or home, and that he may stay with those who worship or live there throughout the entire year.

The chalking of the doors is a centuries-old practice throughout the world, though it appears to be somewhat less well-known in Ireland. But it is an easy tradition to adopt, and a good symbol of dedicating the New Year to God from the beginning, asking his blessing on our homes and on all who live, work, or visit here.

The timing for chalking the doors varies from place to place. In some places, it happens on New Year’s Day. More commonly, though, it takes place on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

In many places, the chalking takes place after the Epiphany Eucharist or Liturgy, and it can be carried out at any church, home or dwelling. Traditionally, the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can involve simply writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water.

After many Epiphany Masses, satchels of blessed chalk, incense, and containers of Epiphany water, blessed with special blessings for Epiphany, are distributed. These are then brought home and used to perform the ritual.

Another common practice is to save a few grains of the Epiphany incense until Easter, so that it can be burned along with the Easter candle.

The Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem … a scene at the ‘Live Crib’ in Astee, near Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Prayers and blessings:

Blessing the Chalk:

Priest: Our help is the name of the Lord:

All: The maker of heaven and earth.

Priest: The Lord shall watch over our going out and our coming in:

All: From this time forth for evermore.

Priest: Let us pray.

Loving God, bless this chalk which you have created, that it may be helpful to your people; and grant that through the invocation of your most Holy Name that we who use it in faith to write upon the door of our church the names of your holy ones Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, may receive health of body and protection of soul for all who dwell in or visit our church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing the Church:

Using the blessed chalk, mark the lintels of the doors as follows: 20 + C + M + B + 19, while saying:

The three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar followed the star of God’s Son who became human two thousand and nineteen years ago. May Christ bless our home and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.

Then this prayer:

Visit, O blessed Lord, this church with the gladness of your presence. Bless all who live or visit here with the gift of your love; and grant that we may manifest your love to each other and to all whose lives we touch. May we grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of you; guide, comfort, and strengthen us in peace, O Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.

Christus mansionem benedictat.

May Christ bless the church.

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



‘When they saw that the star had stopped,
they were overwhelmed with joy’

‘Star of Bethlehem’ (1887-1890) by Edward Burn-Jones (1833-1898) … the largest watercolour of the 19th century, and now in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 6 January 2019

The Feast of the Epiphany

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

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

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

We have completed the 12 days of Christmas.

‘On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

‘12 drummers drumming …
‘11 pipers piping …
‘10 lords a-leaping …
‘9 ladies dancing …’

And on and on it goes. Not very useful gifts at all, as Frank Kelly reminded us in his parody of this song as Gobnait Ó Lúnasa.

But this morning, in our Epiphany Gospel reading (Matthew 2: 1-12), we remember the Three Wise Men, the Three Kings or the Three Magi, who brought their true gifts to the Christ Child in the Manger.

In many parts of Ireland, today is also known as both ‘Little Christmas’ and as Nollaig na mBan or ‘Women’s Christmas.’

This makes it appropriate to refer to a popular joke on social media that asks: ‘Do you know what would have happened if it had been Three Wise Women instead of Three Wise Men?’

The answer is:

‘They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts … and there would be Peace On Earth.’

Many of us have probably put Christmas behind us at this stage. We’ve probably taken down the tree, the decorations and the holly. Why, we have probably even forgotten our New Year’s resolutions too.

So, why should we remember this morning’s story of the visit of the three Wise Men? And how practical were their gifts?

Although Saint Matthew does not mention the number of wise men, the number of gifts they gave to the Christ Child has given rise to the popular tradition that there were three Magi.

I received Christmas greetings a few weeks ago from a friend, an icon-writer, who lives in Crete. For fun, I decided to run her message in Greek through Google Translate. And I was disturbed that it translated the three Magi as the three Wizards.

Our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60: 1-6) and Psalm (Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14) speak of gifts given by kings and of the Messiah being worshipped by kings.

Saint Matthew’s account was reinterpreted in the light of these prophecies, and so the magi became kings rather than Persian wise men or priests. Perhaps this interpretation was influenced by the negative image of magi not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament.

The magi were members of the Persian priestly or religious caste. In the Old Testament, for example, the magi or wise men are led by Daniel (see Daniel 2: 48). But the same term later has negative connotation when it is used in the Acts of the Apostles to describe the sorcery of Simon Magus (Acts 8: 9-13) and the magic of Elymas (Acts 13: 6-11).

As the tradition developed, the three wise men in this Gospel story were transformed into kings who have been named as:

● Melchior, a Persian scholar;

● Caspar, an Indian scholar;

● Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.

In Western art from the 14th century on, they are portrayed in these ways:

● Caspar is the older man with a long white beard, who is first in line to kneel before the Christ Child and who gives him the gift of gold.

● Melchior is a middle-aged man, giving frankincense.

● Balthazar is a young man, very often black-skinned, with the gift of myrrh.

Saint Matthew names their gifts as: gold, frankincense, and myrrh: χρυσον (chryson), λιβανον (libanon) and σμυρναν (smyrnan) (Matthew 2: 11). These are ordinary offerings and gifts – for a king. But from Patristic times these gifts have been given spiritual meanings:

● Gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship;

● Frankincense as a symbol of worship and so of Christ’s deity;

● Myrrh as an anointing oil for his priesthood, or as an embalming oil and a symbol of his death.

Saint John Chrysostom suggests that these gifts were appropriate not just for a king but for God.

Origen summarises it in this way: ‘Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God’ (Contra Celsum).

Sometimes this is described more generally as:

● Gold symbolising virtue;

● Frankincense symbolising prayer;

● Myrrh symbolising suffering.

These interpretations are alluded to by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), the son of a Dublin-born Episcopalian bishop, in our carol We Three Kings (Hymn 201), in which the last verse summarises this interpretation:

Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God and Sacrifice
.

Do you think the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph took these gifts with them as they fled into exile in Egypt?

Do you think they sent thank-you cards when they got to Egypt, or when they eventually got back to Bethlehem?

Several traditions have developed about what happened to these gifts.

There is a tradition that suggests Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance them when they fled.

Another story says the gold was stolen by the two thieves who are later crucified alongside Christ. Yet, another says the gold was entrusted to Judas, who misappropriated it.

But in the Monastery of Saint Paul on Mount Athos, there is a 15th century golden case that is said to contain the Gift of the Magi.

And another story says the myrrh was used to anoint Christ’s body after his crucifixion, before his burial.

But whatever the traditions, whatever the myths, whatever the legends may say, the truth they are trying to get across is that Christmas and Epiphany find their full meaning and their fulfilment in Good Friday and Easter Day, in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when we see the Suffering and Risen Christ fully revealed to us as Prophet, Priest and King.

And they challenge us to ask whether we are offering our best, or merely our second best to Christ – to Christ in the suffering world, to Christ in the Church, to Christ who is to come again.

What gifts do we have to offer Christ?

If strangers came offering gifts to the Church, would we allow them to do so?

What gifts do you have that you think the Church is not recognising, but that are gifts for Christ, that could help the whole Church to look forward in the Easter hope?

Christmas is not over yet. It does not end with our Epiphany readings this morning. There are two more important Epiphany events in the coming weeks:

● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, which we read about next Sunday [Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22; 13 January 2019]

● the Wedding Feast in Cana, which we read about on Sunday week [John 2: 1-11; 20 January 2019].

In fact, Christmas continues as a season in the Church until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation on 2 February, and which we read about on the first Sunday in February [Luke 2: 22-40 or 21-30; 3 February 2019].

On the feast of the Presentation, Mary and Joseph bring the Christ Child to the Temple, along with their meek gifts to offer to God, two turtle doves or two pigeons.

Their simple, poor gifts are acceptable to God, and the old priest Simeon realises that the Christ Child is born as ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2: 32).

No matter what gifts we bring, how rich or humble we are, they are acceptable to God. And the Christ Child is God’s gift to all humanity.

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 Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem … a scene at the ‘Live Crib’ in Astee, near Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

The Collect:

O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
Mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
May we, who with the wise men
have been drawn by your light,
discern the glory of your presence in your incarnate Son;
who suffered, died, and was buried,
and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

Hymns:

202, What child is this, who laid to rest (CD 13)
201, We three kings of Orient are (CD 13)
189, As with gladness men of old (CD 12)

‘Chalking the Doors’ on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Chalking the Doors: an Epiphany tradition

We introduced the Epiphany tradition of ‘Chalking the Doors’ at Saint Mary’s Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick, last year. I was first introduced to this Epiphany tradition when I was visiting Westcott House, the Anglican theological college in Cambridge some years ago.

The formula for this traditional rite – adapted for Epiphany 2019 – is simple. Take chalk and write these letters and figures above the doors into the Church or the house: 20 + C + M + B + 19.

The letters have two meanings. Firstly, they represent the initials of the Three Wise Men or Magi – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – who came to visit the Christ Child in his first home.

Secondly, they also abbreviate the Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘May Christ bless the house.’

The ‘+’ figures signify the cross, and the figures ‘20’ at the beginning and ‘19’ at the end mark the year.

Taken together, this inscription is a request for Christ to bless the building that has been marked, church or home, and that he may stay with those who worship or live there throughout the entire year.

The chalking of the doors is a centuries-old practice throughout the world, though it appears to be somewhat less well-known in Ireland. But it is an easy tradition to adopt, and a good symbol of dedicating the New Year to God from the beginning, asking his blessing on our homes and on all who live, work, or visit here.

The timing for chalking the doors varies from place to place. In some places, it happens on New Year’s Day. More commonly, though, it takes place on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

In many places, the chalking takes place after the Epiphany Eucharist or Liturgy, and it can be carried out at any church, home or dwelling. Traditionally, the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can involve simply writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water.

After many Epiphany Masses, satchels of blessed chalk, incense, and containers of Epiphany water, blessed with special blessings for Epiphany, are distributed. These are then brought home and used to perform the ritual.

Another common practice is to save a few grains of the Epiphany incense until Easter, so that it can be burned along with the Easter candle.

The visit of the Magi in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayers and blessings:

Blessing the Chalk:

Priest: Our help is the name of the Lord:

All: The maker of heaven and earth.

Priest: The Lord shall watch over our going out and our coming in:

All: From this time forth for evermore.

Priest: Let us pray.

Loving God, bless this chalk which you have created, that it may be helpful to your people; and grant that through the invocation of your most Holy Name that we who use it in faith to write upon the door of our church the names of your holy ones Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, may receive health of body and protection of soul for all who dwell in or visit our church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing the Church:

Using the blessed chalk, mark the lintels of the doors as follows: 20 + C + M + B + 19, while saying:

The three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar followed the star of God’s Son who became human two thousand and nineteen years ago. May Christ bless our home and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.

Then this prayer:

Visit, O blessed Lord, this church with the gladness of your presence. Bless all who live or visit here with the gift of your love; and grant that we may manifest your love to each other and to all whose lives we touch. May we grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of you; guide, comfort, and strengthen us in peace, O Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.

Christus mansionem benedictat.

May Christ bless the church.

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