Sunday, 2 June 2019

How the last Jews of Crete
perished in the Holocaust
75 years ago in June 1944

Etz Hayyim Synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the virtual annihilation of the Jewish community of Crete in 1944. Early on the morning of 9 June 1944, the Greek freighter Tanais – which was carrying 265 people, the entire surviving Jewish population of Crete – was torpedoed before it reached the port of Piraeus.

Since I started visiting Crete in the mid-1980s, I have often searched for the remains of the Jewish communities that once lived in the island’s three main cities, Chania, Rethymnon and Iraklion.

The courtyard of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania … there have been Jews in Crete for over 2,300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania, where there has been a synagogue since the Middle Ages. It is in the heart of the walled maze of alleyways and narrow streets that spread out from the harbour with its mediaeval lighthouse and the port’s surviving mosque.

There had been Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews in Crete for more than 2,300 years, and they survived wave-after-wave of invaders, including Romans, Byzantines, Saracen pirates, Venetians and Ottomans.

There are early references to the Jews in Crete in I Maccabees 15: 23. A letter from Simon Maccabee to the ruler of Crete in 142 BCE expresses support for the local Jews. Philo of Alexandria speaks of the Jews of Crete. Josephus the Jewish historian married a Jewish woman from Crete. He notes that the false Alexander, on his way to Rome in the year 4 BCE, visited the Jewish communities of Crete, who accepted him as a member of the Hasmonean dynasty and gave him money. A few decades later, the New Testament records Jews from Crete living in Jerusalem at the time of the Pentecost (Acts 2: 11).

The Emperor Theodosius II expelled the Jews from Crete in 408. But many families returned, and in the year 440 many Jews in Crete accepted the claims of Moses of Crete, a self-proclaimed Messiah.

The Jews of Rethymnon lived in a suburb outside the walls of the Byzantine city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Surviving in mediaeval Crete

The Jewish communities of Crete may have survived the Byzantine and Saracen periods, and there probably was a Jewish presence in Crete when the island was captured by Venice in 1204.

The Jews of Rethymnon are noted in 1222, when there is a reference to them during a Greek rebellion against the Venetians, and some documents give 1228 as the date for the foundation of a synagogue in Crete. By 1320, the Jews of Rethymnon lived in the old burgus or suburb, outside the Byzantine city. Sabateus Capsali was the Jewish owner of several houses abutting the walls of the suburb in Rethymnon.

In return for reopening the synagogue in 1386, the Jews of Rethymnon were obliged to pay towards building the port (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Jewish community of Rethymnon had its own institutions well before 1362, with a synagogue cantor and a shochet or ritual animal slaughterer. In return for reopening their synagogue in 1386, the Jews of Rethymnon were obliged to pay towards building the port.

A significant number of Sephardic Jews arrived in Venetian Crete in 1391, having fled recent massacres in Spain. They were soon joined by more exiles from Venice in 1394 and then from Germany. Despite tensions between the original Romaniot Jews of Crete and the new Sephardic arrivals, the two communities soon intermarried.

Meanwhile, in 1392, the Jews of Rethymnon were required to supply 12 men to guard the ramparts near the ghetto. There is a reference to this Jewish quarter in a resolution of the Venetian Senate in 1412.

The Jewish population of Crete in the 15th century has been estimated at 1,160. The Capsali family, which had lived in Rethymnon from the 14th century or earlier, included leading rabbis such as Moses ben Elijah Capsali (1420-1495), who became Hakham Bashi or Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire, and Elijah Capsali (1483-1555), who wrote histories of Crete and Venice.

When large numbers of exiles fleeing the Spanish Inquisition arrived on Crete in the early 16th century, the island’s Jewish communities sold gold ornaments in their synagogues to raise money to ransom many exiles being kept forcibly on board the ships.

In the side streets of Rethymnon on a balmy summer afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ottoman decline

After the Turks captured Rethymnon in 1647, it is said, the Jewish population left the city for economic reasons. But the Jewish communities of Crete survived in Iraklion and Chania. On the advice of the Chief Rabbi of Crete, Moses Ashkenazi, all Jews who were Greek subjects formally adopted Ottoman nationality in 1869.

The Jews of Chania were accused of a ritual murder in 1873. But, thanks to the efforts of the French consul-general, the missing child was found and the Greek authors of the plot were jailed.

The name of Kapsali Street, leading to the Cathedral, evokes memories of one of the leading Jewish families in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the beginning of the Greco-Turkish war in 1897, there were 225 Jewish families in Crete, or 1,150 people in a total population of 250,000, spread across the three cities: Chania (200 families), Iraklion (20 families), and Rethymnon (five families). But Jewish life in Crete was declining significantly, and many Jewish families left and moved to Venice and other parts of Italy and to other Jewish enclaves in the Mediterranean, including Gibraltar, Istanbul and Thessaloniki.

Recently, as I strolled through the old Venetian parts of Rethymnon, I could find no traces of the Jewish quarter or any of the former synagogues, the Jewish Quarter or a Jewish cemetery.

The minaret of the Valide Sultana Mosque behind Tombázi Street has a sculpted Star of David … was this the site of the synagogue in Rethymnon? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The minaret of the old Porta Grande or Valide Sultana Mosque, behind the shopfronts on Tombázi Street, has an inscription in Arabic and a sculpted Star of David beneath. The mosque stands near the Guora Gate, the main gate into the Venetian city, built by Jacopo Guoro, Governor of Rethymnon in 1566-1588.

The revival of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The mosque was built in 1670 and was named after the Valide Sultana Kösem (1589-1651), once of the most powerful women in Ottoman history as Valide Sultana or Queen Mother from 1623 to 1651. Kösem was of Greek birth, born Anastasia, the daughter of a priest on the island of Tinos. Perhaps the Star of David was carved on the minaret because the mosque stands on the site of the original synagogue.

Close to the mosque, the name of Kapsali Street, off Tombazi Street, evokes memories of the Capsali family, one of the leading Jewish families in Rethymnon.

The Etz Hayyim synagogue was desecrated and abandoned after World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

German occupation

Some of the remaining Jews managed to escape Crete before the Germans occupied Crete in 1941. The Nazis ordered a census of the remaining Jews on the island and found 314 Jews in Chania and 26 in Iraklion.

In 1944, the 265 remaining Jews of Crete were rounded up by the Nazis to be sent to Athens for deportation to Auschwitz. But early on the morning of 9 June 1944, the Tanais, the container ship carrying them to Athens, was torpedoed by a British submarine, the HMS Vivid, off the coast of Santorini.

In all, about 1,000 prisoners were on board the ship, including 400 Greek hostages and 300 Italian soldiers. No one survived.

The Aron Hakodesh or Ark in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a cruel twist of fate, the Jews of Crete were destroyed by fire in the Holocaust, but not in the way the Nazis had planned. The crew of the HMS Vivid believed they were sinking an enemy target, but never realised the horrific purpose of its voyage or who was on board.

The bimah or prayer platform in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reviving a synagogue

The Etz Hayyim synagogue in Chania stood empty after World War II. The building was desecrated and was used as a dump, a urinal and a kennel, damaged by earthquakes and filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikvah or ritual bath oozing mud and muck.

The revival of the synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis who grew up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete. He first learned about Crete’s lost Jews when he was a young man, and his family ties inspired many visits to this island. He returned to Crete in 1995, set about restoring the synagogue, and Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.

The synagogue’s floor plan is in the Romaniote or Greek tradition. The ark faces the eastern wall, while the bimah or platform for readings and prayers faces the western one. The rebuilt mikvah is fed by a spring. The scattered remains of the tombs of past rabbis have been recovered and have been reburied. In a hallway, a simple plaque bears the names of the Jews of Chania who were killed in 1944.

The tombs of Ottoman-era rabbis beside the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Etz Hayyim suffered two arson attacks in the same month in 2010. But there was international outage, and donations poured in for the restoration of Etz Hayyim. A synagogue in Athens, where most of Greece’s 5,000 Jews live, lent spiritual support by declaring itself a sister synagogue.

Today, barely more than a dozen Jews live in Crete, and Evraiki, the former Jewish quarter of Chania, is crammed with tavernas, cafés and souvenir shops. Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew, Greek, and English, and is home to a research library with 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who was once a student in Crete, regularly comes to Chania from Athens to help with the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin places candles in the Holocaust memorial in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was both privileged and humbled to be a guest last year at the memorial service in Etz Hayyim to mark the anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish community of Crete. The service was led by the Chief Rabbi of Athens, Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, and I was invited to join in reading the names of the 265 Jews from Crete who died on board the Tanais.

After the Haskhavah or memorial service, we lit 265 candles to remember each one of the victims. In silence the candles were placed around the synagogue, in the courtyard and in the garden, in the mikvah or ritual bath, and on the tombs of the rabbis buried there in Ottoman times. The New York-born poet Natalia Ventura, who lives in Crete, read her poem ‘Memorial Service’:

A menorah, prayer shawls and prayer books in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Your absence
perfumes the air
like incense in this house of prayer.

Through the evening service,
we listen still
for the music of your presence,

half expecting a miracle:
your voices
ringing in our ears.

Your names – at least – survive.
We say them one-by-one,
speak the being behind the name.
Whole families grouped
like sheaves of wheat –
Elchais: Chaim, Elvira, Rebecca, Leon,
Osmos: Solomon, Stella, Ketti, Mois.
A shower of names, unrelenting –
Avigades, Dientes, Depa, Evlagon, Ischakis, Cohen, Kounio.
A tide, a torrent, hailstones
hitting hard: Isaak. Zapheira. Matilda. Nisim.
Zilda. Salvador. Raphael. Rosa.

We light candles
to your memory, carry them
to every corner of the courtyard:
set them on the steps,

the Hebrew-lettered stones,
the walls round the rabbis’ tombs;
among the roses, potted palms
and jasmine; under the walnut,

under the pomegranate tree
until the courtyard’s a sea
of light, shimmering with spirit –
yours and ours entwined.

Sorrow and joy,
absence and presence,
Then and Now cross borders,
join hands, are one.


The Holocaust memorial in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Patrick Comerford with Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania

A wealthy trader and
a slave girl show how we
use and abuse religion

The head of Medusa, depicted with snakes in her hair, at the Temple of Apollo in Didyma (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 2 June 2019,

The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Easter VII)


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

Readings: Acts 16: 16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17: 20-26.

Delphi and the ruins of the Temple of Apollo … the slave-girl in Philippi was part of the cult of Apollo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

This is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, or the Sunday after Ascension Day. We are, I suppose, in some ways, caught in an in-between time, between Ascension Day, last Thursday, and the Day of Pentecost, next Sunday [9 June 2019].

In this ‘in-between time,’ the disciples and other followers of Jesus and their family members are gathered together in an upper room, devoting themselves to prayer (see Acts 1: 13-14), and there Matthias is chosen to join the Twelve (see Acts 1: 23-26).

The Gospel reading this morning (John 17: 20-26) is part of Christ’s great prayer at the Last Supper for his disciples and for the future Church after his departure, after the Ascension. All our readings are a call to look forward to being with Christ in glory, which is an appropriate preparation for the Day of Pentecost, next Sunday.

Our reading from the Book of Revelation is the promise that Christ is coming, and that with him he brings the New Jerusalem, the new Heaven and the New Earth. He is our Beginning and our End.

But how do we respond to him in this in-between time?

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 16: 16-34), Saint Paul has arrived on European soil for the first time, and he is in Philippi. We heard last Sunday how he and his companions were welcomed by Lydia, a prosperous businesswoman who becomes a Christian.

Now we hear of two miracles: the curing of a slave-girl who is possessed, which puts Paul and Silas in prison (verses 16-24), and the miraculous earthquake that leads to the conversion and baptism of the jailer and his family (verses 25-34).

The slave-girl’s cry when she realises who Saint Paul is and the response of Saint Paul to her plight are reminders of the stories of the exorcisms carried out by Christ himself. There too evil spirits recognised God and spoke the truth. Saint Paul continues what Christ began; it is Christ who cures (‘in the name of Jesus Christ,’ verse 18).

The slave-girl’s owners bring two false charges against Paul and Silas. They stir up the crowd and justice follows swiftly: Saint Paul and his companions quickly find themselves in jail.

But even this has interesting consequences, for instead of killing himself, the jailer and his family are baptised too, and they join the heavenly banquet, they share the meal, rejoicing (verse 32-34), and so they come into Communion with the whole Church.

Taken out of context, this first reading is quite stark and raises many questions.

The first woman Saint Paul meets in Europe is Lydia. She is from Thyatira, a city in the area of Lydia that was a centre of the cult of Apollo and Artemis, and one of the great Lydian temples to these twins was at Didyma, near the Lydian city of Sardis.

Lydia’s wealth, social standing and independence are unusual for a woman of her time. She and her household are baptised, and she provides lengthy hospitality for Saint Paul and his travelling companions.

Lydia’s freedom of choice when it comes to religious matters contrasts with the plight of the second woman Saint Paul meets in Europe. She is an unnamed woman, a slave-girl who is described in some translations as a ‘damsel’ (e.g. KJV). Unlike Lydia, she has no name, no wealth, no independence from men, and no freedom of religious choice.

This poor girl is possessed – the translation we read this morning says she has ‘a spirit of divination.’ And other people make money out of that. The Greek here is much more specific than this English translation: she ‘has the spirit of Python’ (εχουσαν πνευμα πυθωνος).

No, she is not possessed by the humour of Monty Python. Nor has she swallowed a snake. Πύθων in Greek mythology was the name of the Pythian serpent or dragon that guarded the oracle at Delphi and was slain by Apollo.

And so, Python became one of the names of Apollo, the Greek god of light and the sun, the fine arts, music, poetry, medicine, eloquence and prophecy, the patron of shepherds and the guardian of truth. He is the son of Zeus, and in Greek mythology he dies and rises again.

The oracle at Delphi, the priestess of Apollo, was said to be inspired by Apollo. Her words about about the future were regarded as the oracles of the god.

This possessed young woman is a minor oracle of the cult of Apollo. She is exploited by a group of men who make a pretty income from her utterances, what the reading describes as her ‘fortune-telling.’ The original word to describe her (μαντεύομαι) tells us she is not just some ‘Mystic Meg’ in a red-top tabloid or a fortune teller with a turban in a circus tent looking at the palms of hands. She is a seer, she delivers an oracle, she is a priestess of the cult of Apollo.

The priestesses of Apollo were said to give their answers from their bellies – the seat of emotions – while their mouths were closed.

How does this oracle of Apollo behave when she is confronted with the disciples of the good shepherd, the one who is the way the truth and the light, the Son of God who died and rises again?

But there is a contradiction here: if she is an oracle and slave of Apollo, why is she proclaiming that Saint Paul and his companions are the slaves of the Most High, proclaiming the way of salvation?

And I find myself asking, why does she keep on doing this, for days and days on end (see verse 18)?

Why is Saint Paul so annoyed with what she says?

Was he right to ignore her for the first few days?

Or has he come to realise her plight, the full enormity of her religious enslavement?

If she is already proclaiming, for many days, the God that Paul and Silas proclaim as the Most High God, and she is acknowledging that they are preaching salvation, surely she has already lost her value to her owners before they start blaming Saint Paul and his exorcism?

She may be stating the truth, but she is not serving the truth. How often are we deceived by people who claim to speak the truth but whose intentions are so contrary to what is truthful and wholesome?

And if the financial dependence and the religious slavery of this girl contrast with the financial independence and religious freedom of the more mature Lydia, then her slavery to exploitative religion, her imprisonment to those who make a fortune out the cult of Apollo, is in contrast with the subsequent imprisonment for Christ’s sake suffered by Paul and Silas.

The story comes between two sets of conversions and baptisms – those of Lydia and her household and of the jailer and his entire family.

Of course, later, when Saint Paul challenges the cult of Artemis in Ephesus, he is jailed by those facing financial loss, just as he is jailed in Philippi for challenging the exploitative cult of Apollo.

But this reading raises a number of questions:

Are there appropriate and inappropriate times, means and places for proclaiming the Gospel?

Is there an appropriate time or place to be annoyed or irritated by what other people are saying in the name of Christianity?

Are we aware of times when religion is used as a way of trapping and abusing vulnerable people because of their social status, their gender, their sexuality or their ethnic background?

Are there times when religion is used for making a great deal of money for others?

Do we appreciate and pray for those who suffer for the faith, sometimes in hidden and unseen circumstances, perhaps even in the silence of their own homes?

Apart from acknowledging God most high and preaching the way of salvation, which even this oracle of Apollo can acknowledge, how do we show our faith and our life in Christ in the way we live our own lives?

Is Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper for his Church, which we hear in the Gospel reading, brought to life in the way we live as the Church, in this parish, in this diocese, in this land?

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Temple of Apollo in Didyma … one of the most important shrines and temples in the classical world to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 17: 20-26 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

The Last Supper in a fresco in the Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli, between Chania and Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Colour: White

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

O God the King of Glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
Mercifully give us faith to know
that, as he promised,
he abides with us on earth to the end of time;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20: 19, 20).

The Blessing:

God the Father,
by whose glory Christ was raised from the dead,
raise you up to walk with him in the newness of his risen life:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Two Greek stamps produced in 1995 to mark the 1900th anniversary of the Book of Revelation … the series of readings from the Book of Revelation reach their climax this Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

92: How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (CD 6)
34: O worship the King all-glorious above (CD 2)
518: Bind us together Lord (CD 30)

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 is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Revelation 22: 13) … Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Two contrasting women
who tells us of the use
and abuse of religion

Delphi and the ruins of the Temple of Apollo … the slave-girl in Philippi was part of the cult of Apollo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 2 June 2019,

The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Easter VII)


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

Readings: Acts 16: 16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17: 20-26.

The Temple of Apollo in Didyma … one of the most important shrines and temples in the classical world to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

This is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, or the Sunday after Ascension Day. We are, I suppose, in some ways caught in an in-between time, between Ascension Day, last Thursday, and the Day of Pentecost, next Sunday [9 June 2019].

In this ‘in-between time,’ the disciples and other followers of Jesus and their family members are gathered together in an upper room, devoting themselves to prayer (see Acts 1: 13-14), and there Matthias is chosen to join the Twelve (see Acts 1: 23-26).

The Gospel reading this morning (John 17: 20-26) is part of Christ’s great prayer at the Last Supper for his disciples and for the future Church after his departure, after the Ascension. All our readings are a call to look forward to being with Christ in glory, which is an appropriate preparation for the Day of Pentecost, next Sunday.

Our reading from the Book of Revelation is the promise that Christ is coming, and that with him he brings the New Jerusalem, the new Heaven and the New Earth. He is our Beginning and our End.

But how do we respond to him in this in-between time?

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 16: 16-34), Saint Paul has arrived on European soil for the first time, and he is in Philippi. We heard last Sunday how he and his companions were welcomed by Lydia, a prosperous businesswoman who becomes a Christian.

Now we hear of two miracles: the curing of a slave-girl who is possessed, which puts Paul and Silas in prison (verses 16-24), and the miraculous earthquake that leads to the conversion and baptism of the jailer and his family (verses 25-34).

The slave-girl’s cry when she realises who Saint Paul is and the response of Saint Paul to her plight are reminders of the stories of the exorcisms carried out by Christ himself. There too evil spirits recognised God and spoke the truth. Saint Paul continues what Christ began; it is Christ who cures (‘in the name of Jesus Christ,’ verse 18).

The slave-girl’s owners bring two false charges against Paul and Silas. They stir up the crowd and justice follows swiftly: Saint Paul and his companions quickly find themselves in jail.

But even this has interesting consequences, for instead of killing himself, the jailer and his family are baptised too, and they join the heavenly banquet, they share the meal, rejoicing (verse 32-34), and so they come into Communion with the whole Church.

Taken out of context, this first reading is quite stark and raises many questions.

The first woman Saint Paul meets in Europe is Lydia. She is from Thyatira, a city in the area of Lydia that was a centre of the cult of Apollo and Artemis, and one of the great Lydian temples to these twins was at Didyma, near the Lydian city of Sardis.

Lydia’s wealth, social standing and independence are unusual for a woman of her time. She and her household are baptised, and she provides lengthy hospitality for Saint Paul and his travelling companions.

Lydia’s freedom of choice when it comes to religious matters contrasts with the plight of the second woman Saint Paul meets in Europe. She is an unnamed woman, a slave-girl who is described in some translations as a ‘damsel’ (e.g. KJV). Unlike Lydia, she has no name, no wealth, no independence from men, and no freedom of religious choice.

This poor girl is possessed – the translation we read this morning says she has ‘a spirit of divination.’ And other people make money out of that. The Greek here is much more specific than this English translation: she ‘has the spirit of Python’ (εχουσαν πνευμα πυθωνος).

No, she is not possessed by the humour of Monty Python. Nor has she swallowed a snake. Πύθων in Greek mythology was the name of the Pythian serpent or dragon that guarded the oracle at Delphi and was slain by Apollo.

And so, Python became one of the names of Apollo, the Greek god of light and the sun, the fine arts, music, poetry, medicine, eloquence and prophecy, the patron of shepherds and the guardian of truth. He is the son of Zeus, and in Greek mythology he dies and rises again.

The oracle at Delphi, the priestess of Apollo, was said to be inspired by Apollo. Her words about about the future were regarded as the oracles of the god.

This possessed young woman is a minor oracle of the cult of Apollo. She is exploited by a group of men who make a pretty income from her utterances, what the reading describes as her ‘fortune-telling.’ The original word to describe her (μαντεύομαι) tells us she is not just some ‘Mystic Meg’ in a red-top tabloid or a fortune teller with a turban in a circus tent looking at the palms of hands. She is a seer, she delivers an oracle, she is a priestess of the cult of Apollo.

The priestesses of Apollo were said to give their answers from their bellies – the seat of emotions – while their mouths were closed.

How does this oracle of Apollo behave when she is confronted with the disciples of the good shepherd, the one who is the way the truth and the light, the Son of God who died and rises again?

But there is a contradiction here: if she is an oracle and slave of Apollo, why is she proclaiming that Saint Paul and his companions are the slaves of the Most High, proclaiming the way of salvation?

And I find myself asking, why does she keep on doing this, for days and days on end (see verse 18)?

Why is Saint Paul so annoyed with what she says?

Was he right to ignore her for the first few days?

Or has he come to realise her plight, the full enormity of her religious enslavement?

If she is already proclaiming, for many days, the God that Paul and Silas proclaim as the Most High God, and she is acknowledging that they are preaching salvation, surely she has already lost her value to her owners before they start blaming Saint Paul and his exorcism?

She may be stating the truth, but she is not serving the truth. How often are we deceived by people who claim to speak the truth but whose intentions are so contrary to what is truthful and wholesome?

And if the financial dependence and the religious slavery of this girl contrast with the financial independence and religious freedom of the more mature Lydia, then her slavery to exploitative religion, her imprisonment to those who make a fortune out the cult of Apollo, is in contrast with the subsequent imprisonment for Christ’s sake suffered by Paul and Silas.

The story comes between two sets of conversions and baptisms – those of Lydia and her household and of the jailer and his entire family.

Of course, later, when Saint Paul challenges the cult of Artemis in Ephesus, he is jailed by those facing financial loss, just as he is jailed in Philippi for challenging the exploitative cult of Apollo.

But this reading raises a number of questions:

Are there appropriate and inappropriate times, means and places for proclaiming the Gospel?

Is there an appropriate time or place to be annoyed or irritated by what other people are saying in the name of Christianity?

Are we aware of times when religion is used as a way of trapping and abusing vulnerable people because of their social status, their gender, their sexuality or their ethnic background?

Are there times when religion is used for making a great deal of money for others?

Do we appreciate and pray for those who suffer for the faith, sometimes in hidden and unseen circumstances, perhaps even in the silence of their own homes?

Apart from acknowledging God most high and preaching the way of salvation, which even this oracle of Apollo can acknowledge, how do we show our faith and our life in Christ in the way we live our own lives?

Is Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper for his Church, which we hear in the Gospel reading, brought to life in the way we live as the Church, in this parish, in this diocese, in this land?

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The head of Medusa, depicted with snakes in her hair, at the Temple of Apollo in Didyma (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 17: 20-26 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

The Last Supper in a fresco in the Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli, between Chania and Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Colour: White

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

O God the King of Glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
Mercifully give us faith to know
that, as he promised,
he abides with us on earth to the end of time;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20: 19, 20).

Preface:

Above all we praise you
for the glorious resurrection of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
the true paschal lamb who was sacrificed for us;
by dying he destroyed our death;
by rising he restored our life:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Eternal Giver of love and power,
your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world
to preach the gospel of his kingdom.
Confirm us in this mission,
and help us to live the good news we proclaim;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

God the Father,
by whose glory Christ was raised from the dead,
raise you up to walk with him in the newness of his risen life:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Two Greek stamps produced in 1995 to mark the 1900th anniversary of the Book of Revelation … the series of readings from the Book of Revelation reach their climax this Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

92: How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (CD 6)
34: O worship the King all-glorious above (CD 2)
532: Who are we who stand and sing (CD 30)

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 is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Revelation 22: 13) … Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)