Sunday, 3 February 2019

‘The fast-gaining waves …
beat, like passing bells,
against the Stones of Venice’

Tourists on the duck walks in Saint Mark's Square … is Venice drowning under a sea of tourists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford; click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

The success of the Wild Atlantic Way, and new plans to attract 175,000 Chinese tourists a year to Ireland show how proud Irish people are in our tourism sector. Tourism was almost non-existent until the 1960s, but today it accounts for just over 10% of global GDP. With cheap flights and increased disposable income, tourists are proving impossible to keep away.

Tourism promotes Ireland as a country, raises awareness of Irish culture, wins Ireland friends on the international stage, and is a major source of foreign revenue. On the other hand, many Italians now resent the place of tourism in their economy and the presence of tourists in their cities.

The Duomo in Florence … Italy is the fifth most-visited country in the world, and with 52.4 million tourists a year it can no longer cope (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Last month, in an effort to stem the rising tide of visitors, Venice announced a plan to charge a €10 entrance tax for day-trippers, and the Mayor of Florence is considering something similar. Two years ago, the Cinque Terre region in Liguria introduced a ticketing system to limit the number of tourists to 1.5 million a year.

Victim of its own success?

The Cinque Terre region in Liguria has introduced a ticketing system to limit the number of tourists to 1.5 million a year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In an effort to stem the rising tide of visitors, Venice plans to charge day-trippers a €10 entrance tax (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Perhaps Italy is a victim of its own success – it is the fifth most-visited country in the world, and with 52.4 million tourists a year it can no longer cope. But the problem is not just numbers. Many people also resent the crass superficiality of visitors who wander around with selfie sticks, as keen to see themselves in a city as to see the city itself.

The scorn for tourists has been created by environmental damage caused by the growing number of cheap flights, the increased popularity of cruise ships and the damage caused by litter, erosion, vandalism, congestion, pollution and climate change. This scorn becomes a lethal cocktail with the added ingredients of racism and xenophobia introduced by far-right activities, so that foreigners, tourists, migrants, immigrants and refugees are all put together in the minds of the mindless.

Tourists, for their part, often feel welcome only because they are cash cows. There are regular reports of tourists claiming they have been overcharged for a coffee in Saint Mark’s Square and signs throughout Venice warn them against eating in public.

Mobile barriers to withstand exceptional flooding are expected to be in place in Venice by 2021 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The new Venetian tax is less likely to cut tourist numbers and more likely to increase the resentment among tourists who feel exploited and welcome only for their money. Indeed, turnstiles at the city gates may only increase the impression that Venice is just one more large theme park rather than a living city, with real-life inhabitants and pressing problems that need sympathy as well as money in the search for a solution.

Sunset at Santa Maria della Salute … the base rate for flooding in Venice was established in 1871 at the Punta della Salute Observatory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Rising sea levels

A study by Kiel University shows projected sea-level rises for the Mediterranean may affect the 49 Unesco World Heritage sites. The most threatened are on the Adriatic coast: Venice, Aquileia, Ravenna and Ferrara, followed by the episcopal complex at Porec in Croatia. The list also includes coastal sites in Tunisia such as the Medina of Tunis, Carthage and Sabratha, as well the Amalfi coast, the Roman city of Arles, the Greek temples south of Naples, the crusader city of Acre, ancient Ephesus and Tel Aviv.

According to the study, published in the journal Nature, the highest number of sites at risk is in Italy (14), followed by Croatia (7) and Greece (4). In addition, almost all the Aegean coast of Turkey with its important Hellenistic sites is also in the higher risk range.

However, turning knowledge into effective action is a lengthy and fraught process, as shown by the long-delayed and incomplete actions of the Italian government to protect the city of Venice.

High waters in the Lagoon at Torcello … erosion is caused by the lagoon losing sediment into the Adriatic with every low tide (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Venice floods frequently, sometimes to considerable depth. Flooding begins at 80 cm, and shortly before I visited late last year, the water level reached 156 cm above the base rate established in 1871 at the Punta della Salute Observatory.

The report puts Venice in the highest risk category because of both erosion and sea-level rises, with storm surges of up to 2.5 metres projected by 2100. Erosion is caused by the lagoon losing sediment into the Adriatic with every low tide, while the water level in the city is already 30 cm higher than in 1871.

The report says Venice will be protected by mobile barriers intended to withstand an exceptional flooding event of up to 3 metres. They are expected to be in place in 2021, but even then they are 10 years late. Nor can they save Venice from the chronic rise in sea-levels that will lead to flooding at every high tide by the end of the 21st century unless the barriers are kept almost permanently closed – and this, in turn, will cause serious pollution in the Lagoon.

A gondola with tourists passes the Palazzo Contarini Fasan (left), said to have been the home of Desdemona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

More tourists, fewer residents

Meanwhile, Venice is drowning. For days before my visit last November, daily news reports showed Saint Mark’s Square covered in high waters, with tourists using duck walks or wading through the acqua alta up to their hips or even up to their waists in water.

The Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, has proposed a cap on day-trippers. Before the summer season began last year, crowd-control gates were installed at pinch-points in May to control the flow of tourists. When the crowds got too large, police closed the main entrances, limiting access to local residents and workers with a special pass.

Saint Mark’s Basilica … Venice has always been a popular destination, even before the ‘Grand Tours’ of the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today, there are more tourists and fewer residents in Venice, making many wonder whether Venice is in danger of drowning, not just under the waters of the Adriatic but under the flood of visitors who rise in numbers year after year.

In a recent feature on tourism headed ‘Wish you weren’t here,’ the Economist recalled a study in 1988 that found Venice could hold at most 20,750 visitors a day – a figure that is about a quarter of tourist traffic 30 years later. Yet the increased demand has not been met by building better public transport.

Venice has lost more than half its population in the past 50 years. Those who stay are left wondering how they can fight to reclaim and preserve their city. The resident population has dropped below 55,000 as Venetians find themselves priced out of their home city. If Venice is in danger of sinking, then it is in more imminent danger of shrinking.

Venice has always been a popular destination, even before the ‘Grand Tours’ of the 18th century. Ever since the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, local people have complained that Venice is being overrun by visitors. Napoleon wanted to own Venice, and ever since the Victorian era writers and artists have sought inspiration – and romance – in its waters and in its architecture.

But the city is groaning under the weight of tourism and in recent years tension has grown between visitors and local people, who fear their city is becoming just another Disneyland.

Ryanair, ‘selfies’ to post on Facebook and Instagram, cheap flights, and towering cruise ships now mean that on any given day that there are more visitors than residents in Venice. But the majority of visitors are day-trippers, and few stay overnight in the city. This means most of them spend their time and their money in the same small areas.

Venice is a timeless city where no one has any real time for her (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No time for a timeless city

Venice is a timeless city where no one has any real time for her. Many of the 30 million visitors a year are grab-and-go day-trippers, who seldom venture off the tourist trail to explore side streets and quieter piazzas.

Venice is dwindling away. Around 1,000 residents move to the mainland every year, unable to afford rising rent demands, pushed to find employment outside tourism, or unwilling to live in a city that is losing a sense of community.

Angry local people recently plastered Venice with graffiti and flyers that scream out, ‘Tourists Go Home!’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Small businesses and local shops are being replaced by souvenir stalls with cheap imports and fast food restaurants to cater for the day-trippers who prefer to munch rather than lunch and who are gone once darkness begins to fall.

It is all too easy for me to descend into snobbery about other tourists. I like to think that I have visited Venice because of my cultural tastes, including architecture, history, Byzantine churches and palaces, its influence on shaping the cultural identity of Europe today.

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence … the Mayor of Florence is considering entrance tax for day-trippers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I had been to Venice on three or four day-trips in the past before staying for the best part of the week late last year. I watched dismissively what I could too easily see as hordes who had been disgorged from coaches and cruise liners early in the morning, follow the coloured umbrellas and flags from San Marco to Rialto, stopping only to buy cheap Chinese-made reproduction masks, and then leave in the early evening, imagining someone is going to switch off the lights when they leave.

But why should the music of Vivaldi, the architectural musings of Ruskin and an interest in Byzantine art and history make my visits more culturally acceptable than the group of young women from northern Europe who want to enjoy a hens’ weekend in Venice or the young men who have come for a stag night or a football match?

Traditional crafts, small businesses and local restaurants are being squeezed out of business in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Day-trippers are important in any society. They go home with positive impressions, many want to read and learn more, and some will return.

On a recent visit to Tangier, I realised that for many in the group it was their first encounter with a Muslim-majority or Arabic-speaking society. I had no doubts that they would return home with different attitudes, and perhaps even return to Morocco for a longer visit.

Day-trippers seldom venture off the tourist trail to explore side streets and quieter piazzas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

However, in Venice frustration with visitors has grown to the point that last summer angry locals plastered the city with graffiti and flyers that scream out, ‘Tourists Go Home!’ Venice is dwindling away: around 1,000 residents move to the mainland every year, unable to afford rising rents, pushed to find employment outside tourism, or unwilling to live in a city that is losing a sense of community.

Recent measures introduced to control tourism and protect the city include bans on new hotels and takeaway food joints in the historic centre. But Unesco’s concerns about cruise ships, mass tourism and damage to the fragile lagoon ecosystem have been met with empty promises and no concrete proposals.

The Grand Canal seen from under Rialto Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tourism could be the problem, but it could also be a solution, not only keeping businesses alive but also making people aware of the crises that Venice faces and that must be addressed if Venice is to be saved.

In the 1850s, John Ruskin warned that Venice was being so abused and neglected that it would eventually melt into the lagoon ‘like a lump of sugar in hot tea.’ In an alarm signal that is still resonant, he heard ‘the fast-gaining waves … beat, like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice.’

Vivienne Westwood once asked: ‘If we can’t save Venice, how do we save the world?’

John Ruskin once said ‘The Ducal Palace of Venice … is the central building of the world’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

The pivotal day that
links birth and death,
Christmas and Easter

The Presentation in the Temple … a fresco in Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 3 February 2019,

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, The Presentation of Christ


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

Readings: Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40.

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

This morning we are celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas. This feast falls 40 days after Christmas, and it is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It is a feast that is rich in meaning, with several contrasting images.

In our Gospel story (Luke 2: 22-40), we have contrasts between the poverty of this family and the richly-endowed Temple; the young Joseph and Mary with their first-born child and the old Simeon and Anna who are probably childless; the provincial home in Nazareth and the urbane sophistication of Jerusalem; the glory of one nation, Israel, and light for all nations, the Gentiles; the birth of a child and the expectation of death; darkness and light; new birth and impending death.

So what is going on in this Gospel reading?

Like all Jewish boys, the Christ Child was circumcised eight days after his birth, marking him as a member of God’s people. Then, 40 days after the birth of her first son, a mother could be purified before a priest in the Temple. Exodus required that every first-born boy be consecrated to God (see Exodus 13: 2, 12; Numbers 3: 13).

The expected offering was a lamb, along with a turtledove or a pigeon. But if the family was poor, two turtledoves or pigeons would suffice.

This family fulfils these religious expectations when they bring the Christ Child to the Temple in Jerusalem. But did you notice how this is a poor family? Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary are so poor that they bring two cheap doves or pigeons – the price of a sacrificial lamb is too much for the child who is the Lamb of God.

But, like Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna stand before God, in God’s presence, in humility and in equality.

Simeon is an old man who knows he is near his dying days. His words are familiar to many in our canticle this morning, Nunc Dimittis. He begins by saying that God is setting him free. He knows now that this child is the fulfilment of God’s promise not only to the Children of Israel, but to all children, all people.

Simeon blesses the family and tells the Virgin Mary that this Christ Child is destined for death and resurrection. He speaks in prophetic words of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will piece the Virgin Mary’s heart. His words remind us sharply that the birth and Christmas are meaningless without the death and Easter.

Traditionally, Candlemas is the end of the Christmas season. The liturgical colour is going to change from the White of rejoicing to the Green of ordinary, everyday life. This is the day that bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent, that bridges the gap between a time of celebration and a time of reflection, a time of joy and a time for taking stock once again.

This is an opportunity to take stock of where we are. After two decades of the darkness of recession and austerity, politicians and economists are hoping for light at the end of the tunnel.

For many of us, we moved long ago from a time of financial certainty that allowed us to celebrate easily to a time of reflection and uncertainty. Now, the debates about ‘Brexit’ leave the majority of us with a new set of anxieties and uncertainties.

The lights of Christmas and its celebrations seem dim and distant now. Now, at Candlemas, most people in Ireland are living very ordinary days with uncertainty, wondering how long we must remain in the dark, trying to grasp for signs of hope.

How Mary must have wept in her heart as in today’s Gospel story the old man Simeon hands back her child and warns her that a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2: 35).

How many mothers are weeping in their hearts and clinging on to the rock of faith just by the end of their fingertips as their hearts, their souls, are pierced by a sword?

Mothers whose lives were held in slavery by fear (see Hebrews 2: 15).

Mothers who see their special needs children denied special needs assistants in our schools.

Mothers who see their children waiting, waiting too long, for care in our hospitals or to move from the uncertainty of hotel rooms or hostels to a house and a home.

Mothers who saw their graduate daughters and sons unable to find employment and have not yet returned home.

Mothers whose silent weeping is not going to bring home their adult emigrant children and the grandchildren born in Australia or the US.

Mothers whose gay sons and lesbian daughters are beaten up on the streets just for the fun of it and are afraid if they come out that our Church can only offer tea and sympathy, at best, but moralising prejudice most of the time.

Mothers whose husbands are on low pay or dismissed as mere statistics in the figures for poverty.

Mothers whose adult children are caught up in substance abuse and have lost all hope for the future – for a future.

These mothers know what TS Eliot calls ‘the certain hour of maternal sorrow.’ Like the Prophet in TS Eliot’s poem A Song for Simeon, these mothers ‘Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.’ And they know too how true Simeon’s words are for them this morning: ‘and a sword will pierce your soul too.’

If the Virgin Mary had known what grief would pierce her soul, would she have said ‘Yes’ to the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation?

And in the midst of all this heartbreak, these mothers still cling on to the edge of the rock of faith by the edges of their fingernails. Wondering who hears their sobbing hearts and souls.

If they had known what grief would pierce their souls they would still have said yes, because they love their children, and no sword can kill that. They know too their children are immaculate conceptions, for their children too are conceived in a love for their world, our world, that is self-giving and sinless. And they continue to see the reflection and image of Christ in their children as they look into their eyes lovingly. Is that too not a truth and a hope at the heart of the Incarnation?

So often it is difficult to hold on to hope when our hearts are breaking and are pierced. So often it is difficult to keep the lights of our hearts burning brightly when everything is gloomy and getting dark. But Simeon points out that the Christ Child does not hold out any selfish hope for any one individual or one family ... he is to be a light to the nations, to all of humanity.

Simeon is blind to poverty, ethnicity, religion, social class, place and time of birth – they are of no concern for Simeon, he sees the child as God sees the Child. In this Child, God is breaking down the barriers we have between one another and between us and God.

And as our leaders – political, social, economic and financial leaders – search in the dark for the hope that will bring light back into our lives, we can remind ourselves that this search will have no purpose and it will offer no glimmer of hope unless it seeks more than selfish profit. This search must seek the good of all, it must seek to bring hope and light to all, not just here, but to all people and to all nations.

This feast of Candlemas bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent; links the joy of the Christmas candles with the hope of the Pascal candle at Easter; invites us to move from celebration to reflection and preparation, and to think about the source of our hope, our inspiration, our enlightenment.

Our third hymn this morning is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn that draw on Simeon’s prophetic words in the Canticle Nunc Dimittis. To paraphrase that hymn, as we watch and wait in our faithful vigil for Christ’s glory in that Easter hope, may our doubting cease, may God’s silent, suffering people find deliverance and freedom from oppression, may his servants find peace, may he complete in us his perfect will.

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

The Presentation or Candlemas … a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 2: 22-40:

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

‘Candlemas 2012’ (York Minster) by Susan Hufton … from the exhibition ‘Holy Writ’ at Lichfield Cathedral in 2014 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White.

Bidding Prayer:

Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people.

As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified according to the custom of the time, and we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory.

On this morning, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.

So let us pray that we may know and share the light of Christ.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty and everliving God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the temple
in the substance of our mortal nature:
May we be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God
the dayspring from on high has broken upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (cf Luke 1: 78, 79)
(Common Worship, p. 306)

Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will:

The Presentation in the Temple, carved on a panel on a triptych in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Suitable intercessions:

In peace let us pray to the Lord.

By the mystery of the Word made flesh
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the birth in time of the timeless Son of God
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the baptism of the Son of God in the river Jordan
Good Lord, deliver us.

For the kingdoms of this world,
that they may become the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ
We pray to you, O Lord.

For your holy, catholic and apostolic Church,
that it may be one
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the witness of your faithful people,
that they may be lights in the world
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the poor, the persecuted, the sick and all who suffer;
that they may be relieved and protected
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the aged, for refugees and all in danger,
that they may be strengthened and defended
We pray to you, O Lord.

For those who walk in darkness and in the shadow of death,
that they may come to your eternal light
We pray to you, O Lord.

Father, source of light and life,
Grant the prayers of your faithful people,
and fill the world with your glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymns:

52, Christ, whose glory fills the skies (CD 4)
119, Come, thou long-expected Jesus (CD 8)
691, Faithful vigil ended (CD 39)

‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’ … a window in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Material from The Book of Common Prayer (the Church of Ireland, 2004) is copyright © Representative Body of the Church of Ireland 2004.

Material from Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

‘A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ … a January sunrise at the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

‘For my eyes have seen your
salvation, which you have prepared
in the presence of all peoples’

The Presentation or Candlemas … a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 3 February 2019,

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, The Presentation of Christ


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

Readings: Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40.

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

This morning we are celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas. This feast falls 40 days after Christmas, and it is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It is a feast that is rich in meaning, with several contrasting images.

In our Gospel story (Luke 2: 22-40), we have contrasts between the poverty of this family and the richly-endowed Temple; the young Joseph and Mary with their first-born child and the old Simeon and Anna who are probably childless; the provincial home in Nazareth and the urbane sophistication of Jerusalem; the glory of one nation, Israel, and light for all nations, the Gentiles; the birth of a child and the expectation of death; darkness and light; new birth and impending death.

So what is going on in this Gospel reading?

Like all Jewish boys, the Christ Child was circumcised eight days after his birth, marking him as a member of God’s people. Then, 40 days after the birth of her first son, a mother could be purified before a priest in the Temple. Exodus required that every first-born boy be consecrated to God (see Exodus 13: 2, 12; Numbers 3: 13).

The expected offering was a lamb, along with a turtledove or a pigeon. But if the family was poor, two turtledoves or pigeons would suffice.

This family fulfils these religious expectations when they bring the Christ Child to the Temple in Jerusalem. But did you notice how this is a poor family? Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary are so poor that they bring two cheap doves or pigeons – the price of a sacrificial lamb is too much for the child who is the Lamb of God.

But, like Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna stand before God, in God’s presence, in humility and in equality.

Simeon is an old man who knows he is near his dying days. His words are familiar to many in the canticle Nunc Dimittis. He begins by saying that God is setting him free. He knows now that this child is the fulfilment of God’s promise not only to the Children of Israel, but to all children, all people.

Simeon blesses the family and tells the Virgin Mary that this Christ Child is destined for death and resurrection. He speaks in prophetic words of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will piece the Virgin Mary’s heart. His words remind us sharply that the birth and Christmas are meaningless without the death and Easter.

Traditionally, Candlemas is the end of the Christmas season. The liturgical colour is going to change from the White of rejoicing to the Green of ordinary, everyday life. This is the day that bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent, that bridges the gap between a time of celebration and a time of reflection, a time of joy and a time for taking stock once again.

This is an opportunity to take stock of where we are. After two decades of the darkness of recession and austerity, politicians and economists are hoping for light at the end of the tunnel.

For many of us, we moved long ago from a time of financial certainty that allowed us to celebrate easily to a time of reflection and uncertainty. Now, the debates about ‘Brexit’ leave the majority of us with a new set of anxieties and uncertainties.

The lights of Christmas and its celebrations seem dim and distant now. Now, at Candlemas, most people in Ireland are living very ordinary days with uncertainty, wondering how long we must remain in the dark, trying to grasp for signs of hope.

How Mary must have wept in her heart as in today’s Gospel story the old man Simeon hands back her child and warns her that a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2: 35).

How many mothers are weeping in their hearts and clinging on to the rock of faith just by the end of their fingertips as their hearts, their souls, are pierced by a sword?

Mothers whose lives were held in slavery by fear (see Hebrews 2: 15).

Mothers who see their special needs children denied special needs assistants in our schools.

Mothers who see their children waiting, waiting too long, for care in our hospitals or to move from the uncertainty of hotel rooms or hostels to a house and a home.

Mothers who saw their graduate daughters and sons unable to find employment and have not yet returned home.

Mothers whose silent weeping is not going to bring home their adult emigrant children and the grandchildren born in Australia or the US.

Mothers whose gay sons and lesbian daughters are beaten up on the streets just for the fun of it and are afraid if they come out that our Church can only offer tea and sympathy, at best, but moralising prejudice most of the time.

Mothers whose husbands are on low pay or dismissed as mere statistics in the figures for poverty.

Mothers whose adult children are caught up in substance abuse and have lost all hope for the future – for a future.

These mothers know what TS Eliot calls ‘the certain hour of maternal sorrow.’ Like the Prophet in TS Eliot’s poem A Song for Simeon, these mothers ‘Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.’ And they know too how true Simeon’s words are for them this morning: ‘and a sword will pierce your soul too.’

If the Virgin Mary had known what grief would pierce her soul, would she have said ‘Yes’ to the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation?

And in the midst of all this heartbreak, these mothers still cling on to the edge of the rock of faith by the edges of their fingernails. Wondering who hears their sobbing hearts and souls.

If they had known what grief would pierce their souls they would still have said yes, because they love their children, and no sword can kill that. They know too their children are immaculate conceptions, for their children too are conceived in a love for their world, our world, that is self-giving and sinless. And they continue to see the reflection and image of Christ in their children as they look into their eyes lovingly. Is that too not a truth and a hope at the heart of the Incarnation?

So often it is difficult to hold on to hope when our hearts are breaking and are pierced. So often it is difficult to keep the lights of our hearts burning brightly when everything is gloomy and getting dark. But Simeon points out that the Christ Child does not hold out any selfish hope for any one individual or one family ... he is to be a light to the nations, to all of humanity.

Simeon is blind to poverty, ethnicity, religion, social class, place and time of birth – they are of no concern for Simeon, he sees the child as God sees the Child. In this Child, God is breaking down the barriers we have between one another and between us and God.

And as our leaders – political, social, economic and financial leaders – search in the dark for the hope that will bring light back into our lives, we can remind ourselves that this search will have no purpose and it will offer no glimmer of hope unless it seeks more than selfish profit. This search must seek the good of all, it must seek to bring hope and light to all, not just here, but to all people and to all nations.

This feast of Candlemas bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent; links the joy of the Christmas candles with the hope of the Pascal candle at Easter; invites us to move from celebration to reflection and preparation, and to think about the source of our hope, our inspiration, our enlightenment.

Our third hymn this morning is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn that draw on Simeon’s prophetic words in the Canticle Nunc Dimittis. To paraphrase that hymn, as we watch and wait in our faithful vigil for Christ’s glory in that Easter hope, may our doubting cease, may God’s silent, suffering people find deliverance and freedom from oppression, may his servants find peace, may he complete in us his perfect will.

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

‘Candlemas 2012’ (York Minster) by Susan Hufton … from the exhibition ‘Holy Writ’ at Lichfield Cathedral in 2014 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 2: 22-40:

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

The Presentation in the Temple … a fresco in Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Colour: White.

Bidding Prayer:

Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people.

As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified according to the custom of the time, and we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory.

In this Eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.

So let us pray that we may know and share the light of Christ.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty and everliving God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the temple
in the substance of our mortal nature:
May we be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God
the dayspring from on high has broken upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (cf Luke 1: 78, 79)
(Common Worship, p. 306)

Preface:

And now we give you thanks
because, by appearing in the Temple,
he comes near to us in judgement;
the Word made flesh searches the hearts of all your people,
to bring to light the brightness of your splendour:
(Common Worship, p. 306)

Post-Communion Prayer:

God, for whom we wait,
you fulfilled the hopes of Simeon and Anna,
who lived to welcome the Messiah.
Complete in us your perfect will,
that in Christ we may see your salvation,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will:

The Presentation in the Temple, carved on a panel on a triptych in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Suitable intercessions:

In peace let us pray to the Lord.

By the mystery of the Word made flesh
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the birth in time of the timeless Son of God
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the baptism of the Son of God in the river Jordan
Good Lord, deliver us.

For the kingdoms of this world,
that they may become the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ
We pray to you, O Lord.

For your holy, catholic and apostolic Church,
that it may be one
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the witness of your faithful people,
that they may be lights in the world
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the poor, the persecuted, the sick and all who suffer;
that they may be relieved and protected
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the aged, for refugees and all in danger,
that they may be strengthened and defended
We pray to you, O Lord.

For those who walk in darkness and in the shadow of death,
that they may come to your eternal light
We pray to you, O Lord.

Father, source of light and life,
Grant the prayers of your faithful people,
and fill the world with your glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymns:

52, Christ, whose glory fills the skies (CD 4)
119, Come, thou long-expected Jesus (CD 8)
691, Faithful vigil ended (CD 39)

‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’ … a window in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Material from The Book of Common Prayer (the Church of Ireland, 2004) is copyright © Representative Body of the Church of Ireland 2004.

Material from Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

‘A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ … a January sunrise at the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)