Monday, 31 May 2010

An urgent appeal for the choir of Christ Church Cathedral

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, rehearsing for Choral Evensong on Trinity Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Once again I am the canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. I was preaching at the Festal Eucharist in the Cathedral yesterday morning, and took part in Choral Evensong in the afternoon.

The setting for the Eucharist on Sunday morning was Haydn’s Missa Brevis S. Johannis de Deo, and the Communion Motet was Sir John Stainer’s I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne ... majestic choices for Trinity Sunday.

Afterwards, the Friends of Christ Church Cathedral had their annual lunch in the cathedral crypt.

At Choral Evensong, I read the second lesson (John 3: 1-17), and the choir sand the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis were from Herbery Howell’s Collegium Regale. Our closing hymn was one of my favourites: John Mason’s How shall I sing that majesty?, to Ken Naylor's tune Coe Fen, written while he was teaching in Cambridge.

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... this is one of my weeks as canon-in-residence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

One of the joys of being a member of the chapter is sitting quietly in the stalls behind the choir, listening to one of the great cathedral choirs in these islands.

The choir was founded in 1480, so Christ Church Cathedral has been part of the musical and cultural life of Dublin for almost five and half centuries. The cathedral is one of the most important heritage sites in the city of Dublin and in Ireland, but depends totally on voluntary donations for its survival.

The long and glorious musical tradition at Christ Church is visibly and vocally represented at the daily round of services by excellent and committed choirs which have contributed so willingly over the years to the liturgical life of the cathedral.

However, this tradition has been challenged in recent times and the cathedral board has had to find a way to respond.

The Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, points out that it costs €1.4 million each year to maintain the fabric and life of the cathedral. The main source of income comes from the visitors who pay an entrance fee at the door. “In better times the cathedral managed to balance its expenditure with the income received from the door and other sources,” he says. However: “Financial predictions for this year indicate that income from visitors will drop by 25%.”

A combination of volcanic ash clouds and the world-wide recession has had a negative impact on the number of visitors to the cathedral, resulting in a decrease of 25% in cathedral income. Because of this fall-off in visitor numbers and loss of income, the cathedral chapter and board have put in place many stringent spending cuts.

Over the last six months, the cathedral management and structures have been restructured and streamlined to make them more cost effective, while developing an outreach programme to the diocese and to the city. Despite these cuts, the cathedral faces an end-of-year deficit of around €200,000 to maintain even the minimum of its services.

The cathedral is planning to launch a major fundraising appeal this year to ensure the survival of the cathedral in these harsh economic times.

The significant cuts in the budget relating to the cathedral choir mean the cathedral has to reduce the choir to three services from the start of the new term in September. The cathedral has also honoured its commitments to all current choir members, reflecting their dedication and loyalty to Christ Church.

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral takes a break after Choral Evensong on Trinity Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Ensuring the continuity of the choir through to the end of 2010 has resulted in a financial shortfall of €30,000. To date, the cathedral has received donations of just over €8,000 towards maintaining the choir. But this still leaves a shortfall of €22,000.

The need to raise this shortfall while also developing a plan to secure the future of the choir is urgent. If you would like to make a donation to assist the choir, please click ‘Donate’ on the cathedral website at or visit the cathedral’s Paypal page directly at:

To specify that the payment is for the choir, please select: “Add special instructions to the seller” when you are reviewing your donation in the final page and type ‘Cathedral Choir’.

Alternatively, you can contact the managing director, Bernie Murphy, at or on 00353 (0)1 677 8099.

This information is also available on the cathedral website at:

Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Trinity: an invitation to dance with God

The new icon of the Trinity, shown as the Visitation of Abraham in the style of Andrei Rublev, in the chapel in the North Transept of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 30 May 2010: Trinity Sunday

11 a.m., Festal Eucharist, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans: 5: 1-5; John 16: 12-15.

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

You’ve probably gathered this from the service sheets, the notice boards, the leaflets and a lot of other wordage around the place that this is not Christ Church Cathedral. No. We only call it that. The true name of this place is the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity.

And so Trinity Sunday is a very special day here.

Now, it’s said there is never a rush of clergy to preach on the Trinity on Trinity Sunday.

I imagine it’s no problem to find canons of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral who can tell you good yarns about slaves and snakes and shamrocks. Or in a parish church named after Saint John the Baptist they might relish on sermon illustrations provided by wild locusts, honey and Salome, or baptisms and beheadings.

But, why are the clergy so reluctant to talk about the Trinity, or so turgid and tortured when they do so? I know that for some preaching can be a difficult task. But sometimes preachers make it difficult – not only for ourselves, but for those who must listen to us.

And I wonder why so many clergy who get into the pulpit to preach on Trinity Sunday either descend to the depths of heresy or rise to the heights of lunacy.

The novelist and Anglican spiritual writer, Dorothy Sayers, wrote a humorous essay, ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ (Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos, London: Methuen, 1947), on the relevance of Christian doctrine to real life. In that essay, she drew up a kind of questionnaire with the sort of answers she felt ordinary people would give to questions like this. She wrote:

Question: What does the Church think of God the Father?

Answer: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment. He is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgment and miracles, distributed with a good sense of favouritism. He likes to be truckled to, and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

Question: What does the Church think of God the Son?

Answer: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault that the world was made like this and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did his best to reconcile man and God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it’s best to apply to him.

Question: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?

Answer: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whit Sunday. There is a sin against him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.

Question: What is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?

Answer: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible” – the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult. Nothing to do with daily life and reality.

Incomprehensible? Nothing to do with daily life and reality? Are these some of the difficulties you could imagine when it comes to thinking and talking about the Trinity?

In the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... officially known as the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Allow me to introduce us this morning to some ways of thinking of God as the Trinity.

If I were to introduce you to my world, to my story, I might invite you to visit the places that have shaped and made me.

I might invite you to imagine what it was like for a small boy to lay awake in his grandmother’s farmhouse in west Waterford, it was so bright outside on a balmy summer’s evening. Downstairs, I can hear the old clock chiming out the time: it’s ten, and a hush descends on the house as the adults settle down in their chairs to listen to the news on the wireless. I hear the old black kettle boiling over the open fire as someone prepares to make a pot of tea. Outside, a pigeon is still cooing in the thatch, I imagine I can hear the abbey bells ringing out the time across the fields, and I know I am safe and loved in this world.

Twenty or so years later, once again it’s late at night, in the top storey of a tall house in a narrow street in Wexford town.

It’s comforting to hear the clock of Rowe Street church count out the hours. Is that a late train I hear trundling along the quays? A lone voice in the Theatre Royal braving a late rehearsal for one of next week’s operas? And I am so looking forward to the Festival Service in Saint Iberius’s Church.

Let us move forward another two decades or so. I can’t sleep in this house in suburban Dublin. But I can hear my children snoring contentedly in their own rooms. Outside, the unseasonable rain is pelting down, the wind is rustling through the cherry tree outside, and I wonder whether all the cherry blossom will be shaken down and washed onto the grass below by the time morning dawns.

We can use words not only to tell our stories, but to paint pictures, to invite others into our communities, into our families, and into our lives. Now that you have heard and seen what has shaped me, where I have been formed, what made me feel loved and secure, now that you have been invited into my story, my family and know me, we are ready to sing the same songs, to sit together at the same table. Why, we might even dance.

The Trinity is an image of God, a perfect community, a community of God that invites us to share God’s story, to sit at table with God, to sing songs with God, … all the things we’re doing at this Festal Eucharist. Why, as Karen Baker-Fletcher says in her recent book, the Trinity could be God’s invitation for us to dance with God. [Karen Baker-Fletcher, Dancing With God: A Womanist Perspective on the Trinity (St Louis: Chalice Press, 2006; 2007)]

Two of the great Early Fathers of the Church, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint John of Damascus, use the term perichoresis, an image of going around, enveloping, to describe the mysterious union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Clark Pinnock writes: “The metaphor suggests moving around, making room, relating to one another without losing identity.” [Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love, A theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996)].

There is a play on words – a pun on the Greek origins of the word – that allows us to think of creative choreography, to imagine a dance of reciprocal love. This divine unity is expressed in the relationship of the three as one, for relationship is at the heart of the unity of the three-in-one. It is a relationship that is mutual and reciprocal. The Trinity tells us that shared life is basic to the nature of God: God is perfect social relationship, perfect mutuality, perfect reciprocity, perfect peace, perfect love.

“As a circle of loving relationships, God is dynamically alive.” The three persons of the Trinity are caught up in an eternal dance of reciprocity, so intertwined that at times it may appear difficult to tell who is who. They move with choreographed harmony. The love emanating from within cannot help but create, for it is the nature of love not to harbour and to hoard but to expand and to create.

God has, from the beginning, been wooing creation to dance. The community of God desires community with us. You and I are being courted, God wants to dance with you, and with me. The love that created us and our world is the same love that longs to be in fellowship with us.

When we worship in spirit and in truth, do others, does the world see us united as one, bound by love, dancing in harmony and flinging out new creation from within our midst? And do we call others to dance with us?

The Russian icon writer Andrei Rublev tried to create the same picture in a different way. In his famous icon of “The Visitation of Abraham” – a modern interpretation of which you can see in this cathedral – he depicts three visitors who arrive at Abraham’s door. The guests become the hosts, the host becomes the guest, and Abraham is invited to a meal that is past, present and future. It is every domestic meal, it is a foretaste of the Eucharist, it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. In welcoming strangers, he is entertaining angels; but in entertaining angels, he is invited into communion with God as Trinity.

It is a moment in the past, a moment in the present and a moment in the future, when we shall all be restored to being in the image and likeness of God our Creator. God, in creating us, creates out of love, making our destiny eternal life with him. We are created to experience life within the Trinitarian communion of persons.

For there are three things we all encounter in our lives: we all need to be cared for; we all encounter suffering; we all need company. God the Father creates us and cares for us; God in Christ identifies with our suffering, takes on and takes away our suffering; God the Holy Spirit enlivens our communities, gives us that divine measure. God has, in a very real way, entered into the mystery of our humanity, so that we may enter into the mystery that is his communio personarum.

“This deifying union has, nevertheless, to be fulfilled ever more and more even in this present life, through the transformation of our human nature and by its adaptation to eternal life.” [Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Press, 2002), p. 196.]

God invites us in creation, in Christ, in the Church, in the Word, and in the Sacrament, to be in union with God, to share God’s story, to sit down and dine with God, to sing and dance with God, to find our inner dwelling with God, and to be at one with God. And that is the purpose and the fulfilment of Christian life.

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


Almighty and everlasting God,
you have given us your servants grace,
by the confession of a true faith,
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity
and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity:
Keep us steadfast in this faith,
that we may evermore be defended from all adversities;
for you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
may we who have received this holy communion,
worship you with lips and lives
proclaiming your majesty
and finally see you in your eternal glory:
Holy and Eternal Trinity,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Festal Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Trinity Sunday, 30 May 2010.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Helping the Church in Tanzania to grow

Sister Lucy at the mother-and-baby clinic in Sayuni in the Diocese of South-West Tanganyika

Patrick Comerford

I spent most of the day yesterday at a meeting of the board of directors of USPG Ireland. USPG – or the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel – Anglicans in World Mission – is one of the oldest mission agencies on these islands, and was founded in 1701.

At the end of our board meeting, Linda Chambers of USPG Ireland and Bishop Michael Doe, general secretary of USPG, spoke to us about this year’s USPG Harvest Appeal, which focuses on Tanzania and the Sisters of Saint Mary in the Diocese of South-West Tanganyika, who are reaching out to their communities with God’s love and making a positive impact.

This is an exciting time for the Diocese of South West Tanganyika, whose vision is for a sustainable church, proclaiming and witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the specially-produced harvest DVD, Bishop John Simalenga of South-West Tanganyika said: “The church is helping to alleviate poverty by working with communities on social development projects.”

After studying at the USPG-supported Milo Bible School, the Sisters of Saint Mary are converting their Bible training into practical community action and say they have found a new fluency in their preaching and a fresh vision for reaching out to hard-pressed communities.

The sisters are an example of how Christians in Tanzania, and across the Anglican Communion, are embracing holistic mission, reaching out to their communities and making a positive impact.

The DVD tells how the sisters donated a dairy cow from their farm to the local church in the small village of Sayuni. The cow was sold and the money used to support local community projects. Villagers are also shown how to build biogas units and use cow manure for lighting and cooking.

Sister Lucy, who has been a member of the community for 15 years, took a nine-month course at Milo last year. She says: “I am very thankful that I was given the opportunity to train at the bible school. The courses gave me the confidence to stand in front of people and teach the word of God. It really helped me with understanding the Bible.” The Principal of Milo Bible School, Father Mathea Matwebo, says the students are taught practical skills – including farming, tailoring and carpentry – alongside church management, theology and pastoral care.

Sister Lucy helps with a range of community development programmes run by the community, which is self-sustaining and has a working farm. “We are involved in the surrounding communities,” she says. “Poverty is the biggest issue, with most people eking out a living as subsistence farmers. Consequently, most young people are leaving the area to seek jobs on tea plantations or in towns, like Njombe. So we offer training so the people can start small agricultural projects, such as a piggery, raising chickens and vegetable gardens. People come to the convent to learn practical skills so they can do it for themselves.”

The sisters run a series of weekly mother and child clinics in Sayuni and three neighbouring villages. Up to 200 mothers can gather at the clinic, patiently waiting their turn to see the nurse. Babies are weighed and monitored, inoculations are given, and both mother and child are given help with any ailments.

Another initiative set up by the sisters, Saint Mary’s Kindergarten in Njombe, is attended by over 60 children. Some of them travel up to two miles to get to the school – a difficult journey over rough terrain. The sisters also operate a tree-planting scheme – important in a region where people cut down trees for firewood – and the convent’s vehicle doubles up as the local ambulance for taking patients to the nearest hospital, a three-hour drive.

To generate income, the sisters produce communion wafers for the Anglican Church. This process is similar to making pancakes, where the mixture is put on to a hot plate, then using a cutter when the mixture has cooled to create the wafer shape.

Christina Mng’ong’o, a lay catechist and church community development leader, says: “At Milo, we learned how to lead worship, how to counsel people and how to reach out to people who are not church members. We also received practical training in gardening and farming. Now I’m involved in development activities in my village, as well as teaching religious education in a primary school.”

Bishop John Simalenga: “We wish we could do much more.”

Bishop Simalenga says: “We wish we could do much more – we would like to offer better health services, more schools, and alleviate poverty. We would like to thank USPG for giving us a helping hand in extending the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Please support USPG’s Harvest appeal and help the world church to grow.You can donate here

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Balmy evenings and cathedral joys

A balmy early summer evening in Portrane on Saturday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

It has been a busy weekend – an evening in Kilkenny for the installation of the new Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, a funeral in Rathgar, a birthday party in Portrane, the Pentecost Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Sunday lunch with friends in the city centre, and a visit to the Blessington Lakes in Co Wicklow.

But then, it’s been a busy week too.

After working through the residential weekend for NSM and part-time MTh students – including their graduation service in the chapel, with the presentation of certificates and diplomas – it was straight into a busy week, with the final meetings of the Courts of Examiners for the BTh course.

It was a tough week too, because I knew I needed another injection for my Vitamin B12 deficiency – without this the symptoms of my Sarcoidosis are compounded, and the injections, although they are only monthly at this stage, take about two days to kick in.

The Revd Elaine Murray (registrar) and Bishop Michael Burrows wait with the choir for the west doors of the the cathedral to open (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

By Friday afternoon, I was ready to head off to Kilkenny for the installation of Canon Katharine Poulton as the new Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral by Bishop Michael Burrows.

Katharine and I were installed as canons of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on the same day almost three years ago. We joked that afternoon about being the “Baby Canons.”

After parking beneath and the towers and the pinnacles of the cathedral, four of us headed off to stroll through the streets of Ireland’s most beautiful and delightful city, before sitting down to an early dinner in Café Sol in William Street.

Saint Patrick’s flag flying above Saint Canice’s Cathedral on Friday evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

It was a warm, bright evening when we arrived back at the cathedral, and it was heart-warming to see the unusual sight of Saint Patrick’s Flag fluttering in the light breeze. It was even more heart-warming to see so many clergy from Katharine’s old diocese, Dublin and Glendalough, and her new diocese, Cashel and Ossory (in shorthand) robed for the procession, and to hear an Irish Primate, Bishop David Chillingworth of the Scottish Episcopal Church, preach the sermon.

Bishop Michael Burrows and Dean Katharine Poulton after her installation in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The “bun fight” afterwards was in Kilkenny College, so it was early Friday morning rather than late Thursday night when I got home … but then, you have to peel me out of Kilkenny every time I go there.

Saturday morning was a sad occasion. I was at the funeral of my priest colleague, the Revd Wilbert Gourley, the Rector of Zion Parish, Rathgar, who had died earlier this week. The orchestra of the High School played pieces by both Fauré and Bach, and there was an impressive turn-out of clerical colleagues and friends from the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough and beyond.

I wondered whether there was going to be any space or time for a walk on the beach at the weekend?

But on Saturday evening I headed out to one of my favourite secluded corners of Ireland … Portrane in north Co Dublin.

Looking out over Tower Bay and across towards Lambay Island in Portrane on Saturday evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

My cousin was celebrating her 40th birthday with her family and friends, and it was an ideal evening for a party of this kind. Her house looks down onto a tiny beach below the Martello Tower and out east onto the Irish Sea, with views across to the north-east to Lambay Island and to the south-east to Donabate and Howth Head. A majestic half moon stood still in the blue sky, and as darkness fell softly it was a balmy evening that could have gone on … and on … and on.

This morning we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and I was the Gospeller during the liturgy. It seemed there was Pentecost red everywhere: the red cushions that have stayed on the seats since General Synod; the red vestments of the altar party; the red stole of the Revd David McDonnell, who preached one of his last sermons as a deacon before his ordination to the priesthood next week. And what a powerful and well-delivered sermon it was too.

Afterwards, four of us headed off to Bar Italia in Dublin’s Italian Quarter for lunch, sitting out in the warm summer sunshine. These have been the warmest and sunniest days we’ve had for so long in Ireland … I could have imagined I was sitting out in an Italian city.

The Blessington Lakes on a sunny summer afternoon ... like being on the shores of Lake Garda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Later this afternoon, I spent an hour two up in the Wicklow Mountains, around the Blessington Lakes. The temperatures were still in the mid to high 20s, and this was as good as spending a Sunday afternoon on the shores of Lake Garda.

The exam courts continue in the coming weeks, there’s a sermon to finish for Trinity Sunday and the Festal Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and there’s a few busy board meetings too. And I’m looking forward to it all. And I’m also looking forward to a Sunday that’s coming up when I’ve been invited to preach and celebrate the Eucharist in both Donabate and Swords, with the baptism of a baby in Donabate too. What a joy to be asked to do this. Despite the difficult symptoms of Sarcoidosis, despite the nagging problems created by the deficiency of B12, life is truly beautiful and I feel very blessed indeed.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

It is more blessed to give than to receive

The theatre at Miletus ... after it was enlarged in the Roman period it could hold 25,000 people (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

Acts 20: 28-38

28 προσέχετε ἑαυτοῖς καὶ παντὶ τῷ ποιμνίῳ, ἐν ᾧ ὑμᾶς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ἔθετο ἐπισκόπους, ποιμαίνειν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν τοῦ θεοῦ, ἣν περιεποιήσατο διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ ἰδίου. 29 ἐγὼ οἶδα ὅτι εἰσελεύσονται μετὰ τὴν ἄφιξίν μου λύκοι βαρεῖς εἰς ὑμᾶς μὴ φειδόμενοι τοῦ ποιμνίου, 30 καὶ ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν ἀναστήσονται ἄνδρες λαλοῦντες διεστραμμένα τοῦ ἀποσπᾶν τοὺς μαθητὰς ὀπίσω αὐτῶν. 31 διὸ γρηγορεῖτε, μνημονεύοντες ὅτι τριετίαν νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν οὐκ ἐπαυσάμην μετὰ δακρύων νουθετῶν ἕνα ἕκαστον. 32 καὶ τὰ νῦν παρατίθεμαι ὑμᾶς τῷ θεῷ καὶ τῷ λόγῳ τῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ τῷ δυναμένῳ οἰκοδομῆσαι καὶ δοῦναι τὴν κληρονομίαν ἐν τοῖς ἡγιασμένοις πᾶσιν. 33 ἀργυρίου ἢ χρυσίου ἢ ἱματισμοῦ οὐδενὸς ἐπεθύμησα: 34 αὐτοὶ γινώσκετε ὅτι ταῖς χρείαις μου καὶ τοῖς οὖσιν μετ' ἐμοῦ ὑπηρέτησαν αἱ χεῖρες αὗται. 35 πάντα ὑπέδειξα ὑμῖν ὅτι οὕτως κοπιῶντας δεῖ ἀντιλαμβάνεσθαι τῶν ἀσθενούντων, μνημονεύειν τε τῶν λόγων τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ ὅτι αὐτὸς εἶπεν, Μακάριόν ἐστιν μᾶλλον διδόναι ἢ λαμβάνειν.

36 Καὶ ταῦτα εἰπὼν θεὶς τὰ γόνατα αὐτοῦ σὺν πᾶσιν αὐτοῖς προσηύξατο. 37 ἱκανὸς δὲ κλαυθμὸς ἐγένετο πάντων, καὶ ἐπιπεσόντες ἐπὶ τὸν τράχηλον τοῦ Παύλου κατεφίλουν αὐτόν, 38ὀδυνώμενοι μάλιστα ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ ᾧ εἰρήκει ὅτι οὐκέτι μέλλουσιν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ θεωρεῖν. προέπεμπον δὲ αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ πλοῖον.

[Paul said:] “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’.”

When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.

Byzantine remains at Miletus ... this was no cultural backwater (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

It is more blessed to give than to receive

For our devotional reading this afternoon, I have chosen the Lectionary reading for the Eucharist today (Acts 20: 28-38), which continues from yesterday’s reading, with the Apostle Paul’s farewell discourse at Miletus (Μίλητος) to the elders of Ephesus.

Unlike Paul, I have taken the boat from Samos to Ephesus (see 20: 15) many times, and from there I have made my down to Miletus. Unlike Paul’s journey, it is impossible today to arrive in Miletus by boat, because the Maeander River has silted up at its mouth, and the ruined classical city is now 9 or 10 km inland. But it was impossible in Paul’s day to journey by land from Ephesus to Miletus.

Miletus was once at the centre of Greek philosophical and scientific thinking, when Thales and those who followed him speculated about the material constitution of the world, and to propose speculative naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.

Later, it was a prosperous classical city, with typical Roman bathhouses that survive in many ways to this day, with their apodyterium (dressing room), frigidarium (cold room), tepidarium (warm room), and caldarium (hot or steam room), with statues of the Greek gods in the halls.

The theatre of Miletus was built in the 4th century BC after Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. In the Hellenistic period, the theatre could seat 5,300 people, but after it was enlarged in the Roman period, it held 25,000 people. The theatre benches are decorated with animal legs and paws along the aisles, and many of the Greek inscriptions at the theatre are still legible, including one that reads: “To the Jews” – evidence of a considerable Jewish population there in the 1st century AD.

Many of the Greek inscriptions at the theatre in Miletus are still legible today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

So when Paul stopped by here on his way to Jerusalem, perhaps for a few days, it was no cultural backwater. Paul has spent three years in mission and ministry with the church in Ephesus (verse 31), and we can presume that by the time of this visit there was also a growing Church in Miletus. He may have met the Ephesian elders either at the steps of the Great Harbour Monument or in the theatre, and then bid them farewell on the nearby beach.

When the Ephesian elders arrive, he preaches this sermon, his only recorded sermon directed exclusively to believers (vv. 18-38). And it also provides us with the only New Testament recording of those famous words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (20: 35) – a saying of Christ that is not found in any of the four Gospels.

The part of the sermon that we read today is strongly pastoral:

● The elders of Ephesus are told that they are on their own now and must stand on their own feet (verse 26).

● They must keep watch over the flock where they have been appointed bishops or elders (verse 28).

● They must beware of those who seek to prey on members of the Church (verse 29).

● They must be prepared for the reality that some of the elders will distort the message (verse 30).

● They must be alert (verse 31).

● And they should follow his example (verses 32-36), being generous in giving and not expecting any reward in return (verse 35).

They then kneel and pray, and after that there is much weeping, not because of what Paul has said, but because they think they are never going to see Paul again. In fact, they probably did, as this was not his final farewell. We know that Trophimus, who accompanies Paul to Jerusalem (see Acts 21: 29), is left behind by Paul in Miletus on a later visit to recover from an illness (see II Timothy 4: 20). So Paul made at least one more visit to Miletus, perhaps as late as 65 or 66 CE.

There can be much weeping at the end of an era. Saying goodbye to students and lecturers after three, or maybe more, years, bringing a three-year course to a close – all these can be a cause for sentimentality and for shedding a tear or two.

But it is more important for Paul not that the elders of Ephesus grieve his departure, but that they have learned what he has taught them … that they too seek not their own reward but the good of the Church.

We brought to a close today another phase in the three-year B.Th. course with the final meeting of the Court of Examiners. Over the next few weeks, students who have been here for those three years are being ordained. But this is not a matter for grief or for shedding a tear.

Saying farewells properly is an important gift in ministry. We have each given a lot to this course, but I am sure that we each received more than we gave. For it is a Gospel truth that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was prepared for a meeting of the academic staff on Wednesday 16 May 2010.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Passion: Human and Divine

Patrick Comerford

“Passion Human and Divine” is the theme of this year’s Summer School of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, which takes place from 18 - 23 July 2010 in Sidney Sussex College Cambridge.

This is the eleventh annual Summer School of the IOCS. The brochure for the summer school includes an image of the well-known icon of Christ (right) in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

This year’s speakers include:

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “Divine Passion: Does God Suffer?” and “Human Passion: Enemy or Friend?”

Dr Sebastian Brock, “The ‘anger’ of God: some thoughts from the Syriac Fathers,” and “The passions according to John the Solitary.”

The Revd Professor Andrew Louth, “‘May the One who suffered for us and freed us from the passions, Almighty Saviour, have mercy on us!’: Reflections on the Passion and the passions.

The Revd Dr Nikolai Sakharov, “From Passion to Compassion. The Experience of the Saints according to St Silouan the Athonite.”

Dr Marcus Plested, “Removing the veil: Macarius on the Passions.”

Professor David Frost, “Blake’s Nobadaddy: The Wrath of God and the Love of Man.

The programme includes a pilgrimage to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, for the Divine Liturgy, followed by a tour of the monastery.

For further details visit:

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The harbours and castles of Dalkey

Dalkey island, seen from Coliemore Harbour this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

It has been a long weekend. I worked all through last week, co-ordinating exam results for the meetings of the Courts of Examiners that take place this week. On Ascension Day, I celebrated what was the last Eucharist for students on the BTh course, but also the closing Eucharist for students on the first year of the new MTh course.

Afterwards, we had a barbeque on the lawn, and of course it was sad to say goodbye to students who have been so close over the past three years that they have become friends.

I celebrated a quiet Eucharist on Friday morning for the Feast Day of Saint Matthias, who is a quiet reminder that much of our time in ordained ministry can go unmarked, unmentioned and without praise.

Immediately, I then found myself caught up in the busyness of the residential weekend for NSM and part-time MTh students, the last one for this academic year. On Saturday, my tutorial group went to breakfast together in Dundrum Town Centre, and later that day we had a celebratory graduation service for students on the NSM and foundation courses, with Bishop Michael Jackson of Cashel and Ossory and Bishop Michael Jackson of Clogher presenting certificates and diplomas.

There was also a special presentation to the Revd Eileen Turner of Saint John’s College, Nottingham, who retires in a few months’ time. And we had another barbeque on the lawn that evening. Eileen also preached at this morning’s Eucharist, marking the end of another term and another year for yet another group of students. Eight BTh students and eight students on the NSM course are being ordained deacon over the next few weeks,

Throughout the weekend, the symptoms of my sarcoidosis and my deficiency of Vitamin B12 have been playing up and have been difficult to cope with. I’ve had constant “pins and needles” under my feet and at the ends of my fingers; my joints – especially my knees – have been painful; my cough has been irritating; and the swelling in my lymph glands appears to have flared up once again, causing particular trouble with pains in my neck.

It has been a joyful, happy and rewarding weekend. But when we finished up at lunchtime I needed a walk on the beach. However, instead of heading out to Skerries or some my other favourite beaches, I thought instead I’d head south. At first I found myself in Seapoint and Dun Laoghaire, then regretted I had passed through Sandycove without stopping. The skies were cloudy but the sea was blue, and some people were brave enough to go swimming at Sandycove. It was only when I had passed by that I realised I should have stopped.

Bulloch Harbour on an earl summer afternoon (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Heading on towards Dalkey, I found myself at Bulloch Harbour. I cannot remember ever being in this quiet corner of south Dublin. But obviously it was once an important port. This afternoon, there were boats for hire, people were gathering around the piers watching a diver feeding the seals in an attempt to film them, and small groups were offering scuba diving lessons. There were clear views across Dublin Bay to Howth Head, and it seemed to be a perfect afternoon for sailing.

A seal swimming in the waters by Bulloch Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Above the harbour, beside the retirement home known as Our Lady’s Manor, Bulloch Castle on Ulverton Road, running from Dun Laoghaire to Dalkey, is an impressive sight.

Bulloch Castle above Bulloch Harbour, one of three surviving castles in Dalkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The castle is said to date back to the 12th century, and a tiny town grew up around it. The castle is oblong with a tower at each end, and the archway under the western tower was probably used to pass from one court to another within the boundary walls of the castle.

From there I headed on to Coliemore Harbour, located directly across from Dalkey Island, with the ruins of Saint Begnet’s church and a Martello Tower. Local lore says this was once the principal harbour for Dublin until the piers were built at Dun Laoghaire. Children were fishing at the old harbour, the coastguards were out on training exercises, Dalkey Island with its Martello Tower and ruined church was clear to see, and the waters were gently lapping against the walls of a few houses that seemed to be dangling over the water, like houses on the shores of Mykonos.

Dolphin Cottage, fronting onto Coliemore Road and “Martha’s Vineyard” dangling above the coastline south of Coliemore Harbour, like picture postcard houses in Mykonos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Only on Thursday last, one of these houses – Dolphin Cottage, fronting onto Coliemore Road and next door to Jim Sheridan’s “Martha’s Vineyard” – featured in the property supplement of The Irish Times, with an asking price of €1.25 million. Next to Dolphin Cottage, a memorial commemorates one of Ireland’s great radicals, Dr John de Courcy Ireland, my predecessor as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Dalkey and its streets have an Edwardian charm (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Dalkey feels less like a Dublin suburban village and more like an Edwardian market town, with shops with mock Tudor facades, interesting wine shops, restaurants, coffee shops and book shops, and elegant boutiques. The last time I was here was for a nephew’s wedding, but I had little time then to stroll through its streets. This afternoon, actors from Dalkey Castle and Heritage Centre were strolling through the town in mock Tudor costumes, promoting visits to Dalkey Castle.

Dalkey Castle, a fortified townhouse dating from the early 15th century, is now a tourist attraction in the town centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The castle on the appropriately named Castle Street was originally known as Goat Castle or the Tower House. It is a fine example of a fortified townhouse dating from the early 15th century, and is one of three castles remaining of the original eight castles that once stood in Dalkey – the other two being Archbold’s Castle and Bulloch Castle.

Archbold’s Castle, a few steps away from Dalkey Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Next to Goat Castle stand the ruins of Saint Begnet’s Church and an old graveyard. But the gates were locked, and after taking a look at Archbold’s Castle I headed off for a coffee.

I was tired but happy. And I’m ready to head back to work tomorrow and face the coming week. I’m looking forward to Canon Katharine Poulton’s installation as Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, on Friday, and a birthday party in Portrane on Saturday.

I may have sarcoidosis, but sarcoidosis will never have me.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Book of Revelation: an introduction

An icon of Saint John the Divine in the cave on Patmos listening to the voice that tells him to write

Patrick Comerford

In our last meeting as a tutorial group, almost all the students expressed difficulties about preaching on the Book of Revelation. Over a period of six weeks, from the Second Sunday of Easter (11 April) to tomorrow, the Sunday after the Ascension Day or the Seventh Sunday of Easter (16 May), the lectionary readings have provided us with a summary of the Book of Revelation. It was a wonderful opportunity to introduce parishes to this book, and to spend a few weeks introducing parishioners to the riches of this book, one of the great pieces of literature.

The Book of Revelation is often feared, regarded as a work full of apocalyptic imagery that we shy away from with our modern mindsets. Yet, if we leave it aside, we not only miss out on a captivating piece of Biblical literature, full of poetry, drama, imagery and challenge, we also leave it those who misinterpret it and misuse it to bolster what are frankly weird and marginal religious and theological views, or for those who have extreme religious views.

Yet it is a wonderful aspect of Biblical literature that the Bible should open with the account of creation in the Book Genesis, and close with the beautiful description in the Book of Revelation of God’s plans for that creation – God’s plans for a New Heaven and a New Earth.


The Book of Revelation is also known as the Revelation to John, the Apocalypse of John (Greek, Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰωάννου), or the Revelation of Jesus Christ. The title on some of the earliest manuscripts is “The Apocalypse of John” (Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰωάννου), and the most common title on later manuscripts is “The Apocalypse of the Theologian” (Ἀποκάλυψις τοῦ Θεολόγου). Some later manuscripts add Evangelist or Apostle to the title.

The Greek word apocalypse literally means “unveiling” but in English it is often translated as revelation. The first words of the book are effectively self-titled: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.”

This is the last book of the New Testament, and the only New Testament book that is wholly composed of apocalyptic literature. It is a fitting close to the New Testament, and to the whole Bible, for it depicts the consummation towards which the whole Biblical message of redemption is focussed.

This book has been described as “an inspired picture-book,” it draws on magnificent poetic imagery, and it makes a powerful appeal to imaginations of its readers.

The images of the seven churches, the seven lampstands, the seven seals and the seven trumpets, the sharp two-edged sword, the four horsemen, the 144,000, the Archangel Michael, the Great Tribulation, Armageddon, the Antichrist, the Hideous Beast whose number is 666, the Rapture, the Second Coming, the Day of Judgement, the Heavenly City and Tree of Life are embedded – if not fully understood – in popular culture and imagination. Indeed, the former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, under a heading “Book of Revelation,” called in The Guardian last year (17 February 2009) for a greater emphasis on teaching the Bible in schools so pupils and students would have a better foundation for cultural studies.

Some say it predicts global warming, AIDS and even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster or a coming destruction of the earth. But Biblical scholars have different – indeed a variety of different – interpretations of this Book, which over has inspired countless artists, poets, creative writers and intellectuals.


After a short introduction (1: 1-10), the book presents a brief account of the author.

The first vision (1: 11 to 3: 22) – related by “one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest,” speaking with “a loud voice like a trumpet” – is addressed to the Seven Churches of Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna (Izmir), Pergamos (Pergamon), Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (1: 4, 11). Today, the sites of all these early churches are in modern western Turkey.

The second set of visions, which makes up the rest of the book (chapter 4-22), begins with “a door … opened in the sky” and describes what some might call the end of the world – or more properly, the end of the age, in which Satan’s rule through humanity is destroyed by the Messiah.

The events that are foreseen include:

● the Great Tribulation,

● the Campaign of Armageddon,

● the Second Coming of the Messiah with the restoration of peace to the world and his 1,000-year reign,

● the imprisonment of Satan (portrayed as a dragon) until he is “loosed” for the final rebellion, God’s final judgment over Satan,

● the judgment from the Great White throne,

● the ushering in of the New Heaven and New Earth.

The structure of the Book of Revelation:

The Book of Revelation is a series of parallel, ever-progressing sections. In a climatic form, these bring before the reader, over and over again, the struggle of the Church and its victory over its enemies in God’s providence. The chapters of Revelation present a series of events, full of imagery, and metaphor, which detail the chronology of God’s judgment on the world.

The number seven is frequently as a symbol within the book, and Revelation is divided into seven cycles of events, although only five of these sections are clearly marked.

Stephen Smalley (The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse, pp 21-22) presents the following dramatic schema, which helps in reading Revelation:

The Drama: The Revelation to John

Prologue: The Oracle is Disclosed (1: 1-8)

Superscription: The Revelation to John (1: 1-3).
Salutation and Doxology (1: 4-8).

Act 1: Creation and Salvation through Judgement (1: 9 to 11: 19)

Scene 1: Seven Oracles (1: 9 to 3: 22)

Vision of the Son of Man (1: 9-18)
The Commission to Write (1: 19-20)
Letters to the Seven Churches (2: 1 to 3: 22)
Ephesus (2: 1-7)
Smyrna (2: 8-11)
Pergamum (2: 12-17)
Thyatira (2: 18-29)
Sardis (3: 1-6)
Philadelphia (3: 7-13)
Laodicea (3: 14-22)

Interval: Adoration in Heaven’s Court: God and His Christ (4: 1 to 5: 14)

Scene 2: Seven Seals (6: 1-17)

Seals 1-4: The Four Horsemen (6: 1-8)
Seal 5: The City of the Martyrs (6: 9-11)
Seal 6: The Great Earthquake (6: 12-17)

Interval: The Church Protected (7: 1-17)

Scene 3: Seven Trumpets (8: 1 to 9: 21)

Seal 7: Silence in Heaven (8: 1)
Prelude: Censing of the Saints (8: 2-6)
Trumpets 1-4: Portents of the End (8: 7-12)
The Eagle’s Warning (8: 13)
Trumpet 5 (First Woe): Locusts (9: 1-12)
Trumpet 6 (Second Woe): Fiendish Cavalry (9: 13-21)

Interval: God’s Sovereignty (10: 1 to 11: 19)

The Angel from Heaven (10: 1-11)
Measuring the Temple (11: 1-2)
The Two Witnesses (11: 3-14)
Trumpet 7 (Third Woe): Redemption through Conflict (11: 15-19)

Act 2: Salvation through Judgement, and New Creation (12: 1 to 22: 17)

Scene 4: Seven Signs (12: 1 to 14: 20)

Sign 1: The Woman (12: 1-2)
Sign 2: The Huge Dragon (12: 3-6)
Sign 3: War in Heaven (12: 7-9)
:: A Song of Praise in Heaven (12: 10-12)
Sign 4: War on Earth (12: 13-18)
Sign 5: The Beast from the Sea (13: 1-10)
Sign 6: The Beast from the Earth (13: 11-18)
:: A Vision of the Redeemed (14: 1-5)
Sign 7: Angelic Judgment (14: 6-20)

Interval: A New Exodus (15: 1-8)

Prologue (15: 1)
An Exodus Hymn (15: 2-4)
The Angelic Commission (15: 5-8)

Scene 5: Seven Bowls (16: 1-21)

Prelude: the Angelic Mission (16: 1)
Bowls 1-3: Natural Disasters of Judgment (16: 2-4)
Judgement Doxologies (16: 5-7)
Bowls 4-7: The Final Battle Heralded (16: 8-21)

Interval: The Fall of Babylon (17: 1 to 18: 24)

Introduction (17: 1-2)
Vision of the Woman and the Scarlet Beast (17: 3-6)
The Interpretation of the Vision (17: 7-18)
Lament over Babylon and a Call to Rejoice (18: 1-20)
Babylon Destroyed (18: 21-24)

Scene 6: Seven Visions (19: 1 to 20: 15)

Introduction: Rejoicing in Heaven (19: 1-5)
Vision 1: The Marriage Feast of the Lamb (19: 6-10)
Vision 2: The Warrior-Messiah (19: 11-16)
Vision 3: Antichrist Destroyed (19: 17-21)
Vision 4: Satan Bound (20: 1-3)
Vision 5: A Millennial Reign (20: 4-6)
Vision 6: Satan Destroyed (20: 7-10)
Vision 7: Final Judgement (20: 11-15)

Interval: Prelude to the Final Scene (21: 1)

The New Creation

Scene 7: Seven Prophecies (21: 2 to 22: 17)

Prophecy 1: New Covenant (21: 2-4)
Prophecy 2: New Life (21: 5-8)
Prophecy 3: New Jerusalem (21: 9-21)
Prophecy 4: New Temple (21 22-27)
Prophecy 5: New Relationship (22: 1-5)
Prophecy 6: New Advent (22: 6-9)
Prophecy 7: New Testimony (22: 10-17)


The Oracle is Complete (22: 18-21)

The author

The author of the Book of Revelation identifies himself several times as “John” (1: 1, 4, 9; 22: 8). He says that he was on the island of Patmos when he received his first vision (1: 9; 4: 1–2). As a result, the author of Revelation is referred to as John of Patmos. John explicitly addresses Revelation to seven churches of Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos (Pergamum), Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (1: 4, 11). All these church sites are located in present-day Anatolia or western Turkey.

A natural reading of the text sees John writing literally as he sees the vision (Revelation 1: 11; 10: 4; 14: 3; 19: 9; 21: 5), and that he is warned by an angel not to alter the text through a subsequent editing (Revelation 22: 18-19) do that the textual integrity of the book is maintained.

The traditional view is that John the Apostle – considered to be the author of Saint John’s Gospel and the three Johannine Letters – was exiled on the island of Patmos in the Dodecanese archipelago in the Aegean during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, and that he wrote Revelation there. He tells us that he is writing from the island of Patmos and that he is there “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1: 9).

The bells of the Monastery of Saint John on the island of Patmos

It was possible as I stood at the top of the monastic mountain that dominates Patmos, to imagine vividly and creatively that as the sun set behind me in the west and the lights began to come on in the towns scattered before me on the Anatolian mainland in the east, that the seven churches and towns to which this book is addressed were being lit up like a seven-branched candlestick, like the Menorah in the Temple.

Although the John of Revelation does not say he is one of the disciples or that he knew Jesus, we know that he was a significant figure in the early church in the Asia Minor and the details he gives us about these seven churches of Asia indicate these communities knew him and he knew them.

A common author?

Does the author’s style of writing show that Saint John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation have more differences to each other than anything they share in common?

Those in favour of a single common author for the Gospel and Revelation point to the similarities between the Gospel and Revelation. For example, both works are soteriological, referring to Jesus as the saviour, and display a high Christology, stressing the divinity of Jesus over his humanity.

In the Gospel of John and in Revelation, Jesus is referred to as “the Word of God” (Ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ), although the context in Revelation is very different from Saint John’s Gospel. In Revelation 19: 13, the Word of God is involved in judgment but in John 1: 1, the author speaks of the role of the Word in creation and redemption.

Explanations for the differences between John’s works by proponents of the single-author view include factoring in underlying motifs and purposes, the different target audiences, the author’s collaboration with or utilisation of different scribes and the advanced age of John the Apostle when he wrote Revelation.

Modern opinions on authorship

Many scholars today suggest that John the Apostle, John the Evangelist and John of Patmos were three different individuals. The author of Revelation identifies himself as John several times, but the author of the Gospel never identifies himself directly. Both works liken Jesus to a lamb, but consistently use different words for the lamb – the Gospel uses amnos, while Revelation uses arnion.

While the Gospel is written in almost flawless Greek, Revelation contains some grammatical errors and stylistic abnormalities that indicate its author may not have been as familiar with Greek as the author of the Fourth Gospel.


The dating of the Book of Revelation is still widely debated by scholars. Internal evidence seems to suggest that the Temple in Jerusalem is still standing at the time of the vision and that the mark of the beast is an allusion to Nero Caesar. Since the Temple was destroyed in AD 70 and Nero killed himself in AD 68, the vision would then date about AD 68 or 69, in the reign of Nero or shortly afterwards. The majority of modern scholars also use these dates.

Parts of the book, such as Chapter 11, may have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, but many critics date the book in its present form towards the close of the reign of Domitian (81-96), when that emperor began to demand that his subject address him as “Lord and God” and worship his image.

But early tradition in the Church said the book was written near the end of Domitian’s reign, around 95 or 96. Irenaeus, who died in the year 185, said he had received evidence from those who knew John face-to-face that John had seen the visions “at the end of the reign of Domitian,” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 5.30.3) who, according to Eusebius, had started the persecution referred to in the book.

However, recent scholars debate whether the book is situated in a time of on-going persecution and have questioned the reality of a large-scale Domitian persecution, pointing out that there is little evidence of imperial oppression during his reign. This leaves the way open to accepting the view that was popular among 19th century scholars that the Book of Revelation was written between AD 64, as a result of persecution under Nero, and AD 70, the fall of Jerusalem.

Some commentators distinguish two dates: its publication (under Domitian) and the date of the visions (under Vespasian).

The acceptance of Revelation:

The Book of Revelation can be one of the most controversial and difficult books of the Bible, with many diverse interpretations of the meanings of the various names and events in the book.

The acceptance of Revelation into the canon is the result of an historical process, and the eventual exclusion of other contemporary apocalyptic literature may help to throw some light on the historical processes that decided what was orthodox, what was heterodox, and what was heretical.

Among the Church Fathers, Justin Martyr accepted its apostolic origins. Irenaeus (178 AD) assumes that John is the author of Revelation. At the end of the second century, it was accepted in Antioch by Theophilus and in North Africa by Tertullian.

At the beginning of the third century, it is accepted by Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Methodius, Cyprian and Lactantius. However, Dionysius of Alexandria (247) rejected it for doctrinal reasons rather than on critical grounds.

Eusebius (315) was inclined to classify it as one of the spurious books. Jerome relegated it to second class. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus and other bishops argued against including this book in the canon of the New Testament, mainly because of the difficulties of interpreting it and the danger for abuse.

Eventually, most canons included Revelation. However, some, especially in the Eastern Church, rejected it and it is wholly absent from the Peshitta. Christians in Syria, for example, rejected it because of the Montanists’ heavy reliance on it. In the ninth century, Revelation was counted along with the Apocalypse of Peter among the “disputed” books in the Stichometry of Saint Nicophoros, Patriarch of Constantinople.

Although this book promises blessings on those who read it out aloud, and to those who hear it read, Revelation is the only book that is not read within the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and it was omitted from the original table of readings for the Book of Common Prayer.

Martin Luther at first considered Revelation to be “neither apostolic nor prophetic” and said that “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” Luther placed this book in his Antilegomena.

John Calvin accepted the book as canonical, yet it is the only New Testament book on which he did not write a commentary.

Literary style:

The Book of Revelation is best read by taking into account a number of considerations.

1, This book comprises the substance of real visions that repeat with kaleidoscopic variety certain great principles of God’s just and merciful government of the whole creation. By drawing attention to these central principles, the Church has been encouraged down the ages and sustained over the centuries in the face of fierce antagonism, opposition and persecution.

2, The literary genre of this book is apocalyptic style. In addition, there are other elements, so that there are seven letters in Chapters 2 and 3, and several prophetic utterances are pronounced throughout the book.

3, As this is apocalyptic literature, the message of the Book of Revelation is conveyed through typical apocalyptic symbolism such as numbers and strange beasts, and – as in reading any apocalyptic literature – it is important to make a distinction between the descriptions of the symbols and the reality conveyed by the symbols.

4, Although the key for understanding symbols is long lost, in other cases the prophetic symbolism found in Old Testament apocalyptic writings can shed light on the meanings.

5, The Book of Revelation relies heavily on the Septuagint or Greek translation of the Old Testament. The book contains more references to the Old Testament than any other document in the New Testament, so that of the 404 verses in the book, 275 of these include one or more allusions to passages in the Old Testament. Many books in the Old Testament are drawn upon, and John frequently uses Daniel (especially Chapter 7), as well as regularly echoing the prophecies of Ezekiel and Isaiah.

Interpreting the Book of Revelation:

The interpretations of the chronology of Revelation vary extensively. The work may be interpreted literally, as a chronological list of events that will occur as the time of Revelation grows near. At the same time, the imagery can be seen to contain symbolic commentaries on the world during the historical period in which Revelation was written, or “pre-commentaries” on our world today.

Throughout the course of Church history, the Book of Revelation has been interpreted in widely diverging and different ways. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive and many Christians adopt a combination of these approaches, while some churches have also established their own specific positions on Revelation.

Although by no means an exhaustive list, we can identify the following approaches to interpreting the Book of Revelation:

1, What are the views of this book within the Churches? The allegorical or mythical approach to this book is commonly held by the majority of Christians, including the majority of Anglicans, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics.

Among Anglicans or Episcopalians, the Book of Revelation is generally seen as a book of hope and also a book of warning. It gives hope to those Christians who are being persecuted, assuring them that their sufferings are not in vain, while warning others of the coming events and what will happen to them.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the book is seen as simultaneously describing contemporaneous events and as a prophecy of events to come, for which the contemporaneous events were a form of foreshadow. It rejects attempts to determine, before the fact, if the events of Revelation are occurring by mapping them onto present-day events, taking to heart the Scriptural warning against those who proclaim “He is here!” prematurely. Instead, the book is seen as a warning to be spiritually and morally ready for the end times, whenever they may come (“as a thief in the night”), but they will come at the time of God’s choosing, not something that can be precipitated nor trivially deduced by mortals.

2, For some, the Book of Revelation should be understood in its first century historical context within the genre of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. This approach considers the text as addressed to the seven named Churches that were historical communities in Asia Minor. According to this view, the assertions that “the time is near” were to be taken literally by those seven churches; and so this book is read a warning not to conform to contemporary Greco-Roman society which John “unveils” as beastly, demonic and subject to divine judgment.

3, According to some interpretations, the visions in the Book of Revelation constitutes a prophecy of events that were fulfilled in the first century AD. This view identifies either Jerusalem or Pagan Rome with the persecutor of the Church, “Babylon,” the “Mother of Harlots,” etc. Armageddon is seen as God’s judgment on the Jews, carried out by the Roman army, which is identified as “the beast.” Some people who hold this view see the second half of Revelation as changing focus to Rome, its persecution of Christians, and the fall of the Roman Empire. This view sees the Revelation being fulfilled in the year 70 AD, with the full presence of God coming to dwell with humanity. It also identifies the Emperor Nero with the number of the beast as his name equals 666 in Hebrew if using the Greek spelling of Nero’s name (Neron Caesar), but using the Hebrew symbols with their assigned numeric values (an ancient method known as gematria).

4, There are those who read the prophecy as spanning the time from the end of the first century through to the second coming of Christ. This reading applies the symbols of Revelation to the gradual division and collapse of the Roman Empire, the emergence of a divided Europe in the West and an Arabic empire in the East, and the collapse of the Eastern Empire while Europe attempts to reunite and recreate the Roman Empire.

Those who hold this view see Revelation as teaching that the Church would expand, despite persecution, until it “conquered” the whole world. But in the process, it would gradually evolve into an apostate system within which true Christians would be a persecuted minority. The apostate Church is associated with the symbols of the “Mother of Harlots” and “Babylon.” It is seen as an “Antichrist system” which exists for much of history rather than expecting a single “Antichrist” in the last days. In this interpretation, Christ defeats a confederacy of his enemies, rescues Israel from certain destruction, judges apostate Christianity, vindicates the true believers, and establishes his kingdom on earth.

Those who hold this interpretation tend to be millenarian, emphasising the literal reign of Christ on earth, and some of them use this interpretation as the foundation for an anti-Catholic polemic.

5, Another view assigns all or most of the prophecy to the future, shortly before the second coming, especially when interpreted alongside other eschatological passages in the Bible (including Daniel, Isaiah 2: 11-22 and I Thessalonians 4: 15-5: 11). Those who hold this view predict a resurrection of the dead and a rapture of the living, in which all true Christians are gathered to Christ when God’s kingdom comes on earth. They also speak of a great tribulation – a seven-year period when believers will experience world-wide persecution and martyrdom, and be purified and strengthened. But there are differences over whether those believers will be caught up in the rapture to meet Christ before the tribulation begins, half-way through the tribulation, or at the end of the Tribulation.

These views have been identified in recent years with authors like Hal Lindsey and more recently with the Left Behind novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, and movies that have done much to popularise these ideas.

6, Among interesting – I would say captivating – modern interpretations is the Paschal Liturgical view, found among Catholic and Protestant theologians who see the liturgical worship, particularly the Easter rites, of early Christianity as the background and the context for understanding this book. This view from an Anglican perspective is most cogently expressed by Massey H. Shepherd, an Episcopal scholar, in The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (2004).

Massey Shepherd was Professor of Liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, and Director of the Graduate School of Theology at the University of the South Sewanee, Tennessee. A leading liturgical scholar and church historian in the Episcopal Church (TEC), his best known work in this field is The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (London: Lutterworth Press, 1960; reprint James C Clarke, 2004), in which he relates the development of the Paschal rites of the ancient Church, from apostolic times to the end of the age of persecution, as the background and context for understanding the outline and basic theme of Revelation.

In this book, Massey Shepherd offers a new approach to the basic structure of the Book of Revelation. He surveys the development of Paschal rites and customs of the ancient Church, from apostolic times to the end of the age of persecution, as a background and context for understanding the outline and basic theme of Revelation. He opens fresh perspectives to the New Testament and early Christian literature, the liturgy and piety of the primitive Church, and the origins of the Christian Year.

From a Roman Catholic perspective, this argument is made by Scott Hahn, a former Lutheran theologian, in his The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, where he argues that Revelation, in form, is structured after creation, fall, judgment and redemption.

Those who hold this view say that the Temple’s destruction in AD 70 had a profound effect on the Jewish people, not only in Jerusalem but among the Greek-speaking Jews of the Mediterranean. They believe Revelation provides insight into the early Eucharist, and that it is the new Temple worship in the New Heaven and New Earth. The idea of the Eucharist as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet is also explored by the English Methodist, Geoffrey Wainwright, in Eucharist and Eschatology (Oxford: OUP, 1980).

7, Then there are the “radical discipleship” theologians and writers who say the Book of Revelation is best understood as a handbook for radical discipleship, or how to remain faithful to the spirit and teachings of Jesus and avoid simply assimilating to surrounding society.

For them, the book exposes the worldly powers as impostors who seek to oppose the ways of God. The chief temptation for Christians – in the first century and today – is to fail to hold fast to Christ’s teachings, instead being lured into the values of the nation or the prevailing culture, with imperialism becoming the most dangerous and insidious threat.

This perspective is close to liberation theology and its advocates include writers such as Ched Myers, William Stringfellow, Richard Horsley, Daniel Berrigan, Wes Howard-Brook and Joerg Reiger.


The image of the Apocalyptic in popular imagination is one of doom and gloom. Ask most people about the Book of Revelation, and they will instantly respond with images of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Armageddon.

But this is a positive book. It is beautiful drama and poetry, it was written to encourage the young church in Asia Minor in the face of division, schism and persecution, and it ends on a high note with positive images of the New Heaven and the New Earth, concluding with those cheering verses:

“The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’

“Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints. Amen.”

As we begin to work our way through this book, may we look forward to receiving its message, to the coming of the Lord Jesus, and to be being filled with the grace of Christ.

Some questions for discussion:

What are your received images of the Book of Revelation?

Are you comfortable with working through this book?

Do you know Christians who have been hurt by divisions within the Church or who have first-hand experience of oppression or persecution?

How do you think the Church can be a real sign or sacrament of the New Heaven and the New Earth?

Readings and references:

Beale, GK, The Book of Revelation, (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 1999, New International Greek Testament Commentary).
Boxall, Ian, (2006) The Revelation of Saint John (London: Continuum, and Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, Black’s New Testament Commentary).
Boxall, Ian, Revelation: Vision and Insight – An Introduction to the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2002).
Brown, Raymond E, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, Anchor Bible, 1997).
Ehrman, Bart D, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford/New York: OUP, 2004).
Ford, J Massyngberde, Revelation (New York: Doubleday, The Anchor Bible, 1975).
Hahn, Scott, The Lamb’s Supper: Mass as Heaven on Earth (London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 1999).
Shepherd, Massey H, The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (London: Lutterworth Press, 1960; reprint James Clarke, 2004).
Smalley, Stephen S, The Revelation to John – A commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2005).
Sweet, JPM, Revelation (London: SCM Press, and Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1979/1990).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a tutorial group of NSM and MTh students on Saturday 15 May 2010.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Saint Matthias – the walk-on apostle

Saint Matthias in a roof boss in Saint Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, Norwich

Patrick Comerford

Isaiah 22: 15-25; Psalm 15; Acts 1: 15-26; John 15: 9-17

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

Saint Matthias, our reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us, was chosen by the remaining eleven among the disciples to take the place of Judas Iscariot.

Why did they choose Matthias? After all, there is no mention of a Matthias among the lists of disciples or followers of Christ in the synoptic Gospels.

According to Acts 1, the first act of the Apostles immediately after the Ascension – and today is the day after Ascension Day – Peter proposed to the assembled disciples, who numbered about 120, that they choose one to fill the place of Judas.

So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.”

Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias. And so he was added to the eleven apostles.

And then, surprisingly – having made an unexpected entrance on the stage – Matthias walks off the scene once again. And we hear nothing more about him. There is no further information about him in the New Testament.

Even his name is variable: the Syriac version of Eusebius calls him not Matthias but “Tolmai” – not to be confused with Bartholomew, the Son of Tolmai, who was one of the original twelve. Clement of Alexandria says some identified him with Zacchaeus. And there are many more theories and speculations.

One tradition says Matthias first preached the Gospel in Judaea, then to the “barbarians and meat-eaters” or in “the city of cannibals” in Aethiopia, which is identified with present-day Georgia.

Another tradition says he was stoned to death in Jerusalem and then beheaded.

But that still does not explain why this man – who is mentioned nowhere in the Gospels, and makes no further impact on the story of the Apostolic Church in the New Testament – was chosen to join the Twelve.

Clement of Alexandria points out helpfully that none of the Twelve became apostles through their own merits. No-one earned the right to become an apostle. After all, he points out, Judas was chosen to be among them too. They are disciples not on their merits, or how other people see or judge them.

It is not that the remaining eleven went for a safe pair of hands, an easy option … What mattered in those days immediately after the Ascension, was the Matthias, who was joining the Twelve, has been a follower of Christ before anyone even recognised who he was, that he stayed with Christ when he made enemies, and that he believed in him through the events of the Passion, Death and Resurrection.

Matthias was elected not because he was worthy but because he would become worthy. Christ chooses each one of us in the same way, you and me.

What do others think of you?

Does it matter?

It does not matter whether others think you have been too early or too late in responding to the call to ordained ministry.

It does not matter whether you’re worthy in the eyes of others for any office or position you hold.

What matters more throughout your ministry is going to be: What does Christ want of you?

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 Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who in the place of the traitor Judas
chose your faithful servant Matthias
to be of the number of the Twelve:
Preserve your Church from false apostles
and, by the ministry of faithful pastors and teachers,
keep us steadfast in your truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

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

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This reflection was shared at the early morning Eucharist in the institute chapel on Saint Matthias Day, 14 May 2010.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

A place for Protestants in Ireland today

Outside the Glow: Protestants and Irishness in Independent Ireland, Heather Crawford (Dublin: UCD Press, xi + 240 pp), €28. ISBN 978-1-906359-44-7.

Patrick Comerford

In the past, many of the books published on the history of the Church of Ireland have fallen into one of two categories: they were either uncritical, hagiographical biographies of long-dead prelates and cathedral dignitaries, paying little attention to the lives of ordinary parishioners and their neighbours; or they were chronological accounts of parishes or dioceses, paying little to the wider social and political environment, and inter-action with neighbouring communities of the other traditions.

In recent years, these approaches have lost their appeal, thanks in part to collections edited by James McGuire, Kenneth Milne and Toby Barnard, or John Crawford’s pioneering study of the Church of Ireland in Victorian Dublin.

Through all these can be traced the influence of the Department of Modern History in Maynooth, where historians looking at the Church of Ireland have been encouraged by Vincent Comerford, who retired earlier this year, Jacqui Hill, Jacinta Prunty, Raymond Gillespie, Colm Lennon, Miriam Moffitt with her recent study of “Soupers and Jumpers,” and others.

Heather Crawford’s study uses a skilful and fascinating blending of the tools of history and social studies to provide an engaging study of how Catholics and Protestants have interacted with each other since in Ireland since the foundation of the Irish Free State. In her extensive research and interviews, she asks whether there are still underlying tensions or emotional legacies left over from the events of the past.

And she does it with humour and with style, questioning and challenging some of the myths that still persist among some people to this day – that there is no such thing as a poor Protestant, that there is a particular Protestant work ethic, that Protestants have small families, or that many Protestants are the descendants of “planters.” She even came across a popular myth that Protestants and Catholics can be told apart because Protestants wash fruit before eating it while Catholics do not.

She is not afraid to discuss difficult problems, such as inter-Church marriages, difference and assimilation, social differences created by or expressed through the GAA or segregated tennis clubs, old canards such “jobbery,” privilege, old boys’ networks, class differences, the Irish language and the ethos of hospitals, or the influence of the Freemasons and the Knights of Columbanus.

Inevitably, with a study like this, quoting first-hand interviews, there are times when a writer is challenged to maintain continuity and coherence. But Heather Crawford manages to do this with verve and with humour as she wrestles with literary images and stereotypes.

After discussing Brendan Behan’s description of an Anglo-Irishman as “a Protestant on a horse,” she turns John Banville’s novel, Christine Falls – penned under the pseudonym Benjamin Black – and his account of one of one groups of “horse Protestants” in the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel in the 1950s, “all tweeds and sensible shoes and braying, overbearing voices,” with at least one “displaying an equine grin.” She adds humorously: “The words ‘horsy’, ‘braying’ and equine conjure brilliantly the cluster of stereotypes – although there is some doubt in this instance as to whether the quadruped in question is equine or asinine.”

She talks gracefully and with dignity about the large Protestant working class in Dublin at the beginning of the last century, “of which most Catholics as well as middle-class Protestants appeared to be ignorant. Its members certainly countered the stereotypes of the prosperous, snooty Protestant.” Yet “Protestants further up the social scale themselves often refused to acknowledge their ‘own’ poor.”

These stereotypes persist and are resented. Many of the people Dr Crawford interviewed are not afraid to say they are hurt by the use of terms such as “West Brit” and “non-Catholic.” They feel they are perceived unfairly and relegated to a fictive category in which they feel stranded.

I was recently visiting a Church of Ireland church in a small parish outside Dublin, and was startled to see fresh graffiti scrawled on the wall in a number of paces. But I find it hard to accept that there are many people who could think today that Protestants cannot have an authentic Irish identity. But I spent much of my childhood and part of my early adulthood in the south-east, where the Fethard-on-Sea boycott was fresh in the memories of all. And the legacy of that boycott still cast dark shadows forty years later over some the 1798 bicentenary commemorations in 1998, and I found myself fencing off some inappropriate and ill-informed comment in Co Wexford that year, even in the company of Sheila Cloney, who died last summer.

And so it is compelling that those who are planning the events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising over the next few years are careful not to paint a monochrome image of Irish national identity, for there is a danger that those events will be hijacked and misused by those who would want us to think that to be truly Irish one must be Green, Gaelic and Catholic.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, where he also teaches Church History and Anglicanism. This book review was first published in The Irish Catholic