Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Nine Lessons and Carols ... a Christmas tradition

‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak mid-winter’ ... snow falling on Christ’s Pieces, Cambridge, in the early morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Some readers have asked me how they might organise a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at this time of the year, and what readings they should use.

I was reminded of this request during this week’s visit to the Church of Ireland Theological Institute by the Bishop of Truro, the Right Rev Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro, Bishop John Ford of Plymouth and Archdeacon Roger Bush of Cornwall, for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols has its origins in Truro Cathedral and with the first Bishop of Truro.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols tells the story of the fall, the promise of the Messiah and the birth of Christ in nine short Bible readings, interspersed with carols, hymns and other season music.

The tradition dates back to a service first devised by Bishop Edward White Benson (1829-1896) of Truro, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for use on Christmas Eve 1880. It is said he organised the 10 p.m. service that evening in the hope of keeping working men out of the pubs on Christmas Eve. At the timne, he was using a temporary wooden shed as his cathedral, for the foundation stone of Truro Cathedral had only been laid, and the new Gothic Revival Cathedral would not be consecrated until 1887.

Since then, his idea has been adapted around the world, and the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols has become a traditional and well-loved expression of Anglican spirituality in the run-up to Christmas.

The Chapel of King’s College Cambridge ... the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols as we know it found its shape here on Christmas Eve 1918 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The best-known version of the service is broadcast annually from the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, where the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was held on Christmas Eve 1918, adapting Bishop Benson’s outline first used in Truro.

The Dean of King’s College, Eric Milner-White (1884-1963), was a liturgist and hymn writer who later became Dean of York. He had been a distinguished and decorated army chaplain on the Western Front and in Italy during World War I, and those experiences shaped his belief that the Church of England needed a more imaginative to liturgy and worship.

The music at that first service in King’s College was directed by the organist of King’s Chapel, Arthur Henry Mann (1850-1929), a composer and hymn-writer who is also remembered for his hymn O Jesus, I have promised (see Irish Church Hymnal, No 593).

The BBC first broadcast the service from King’s in 1928. Since then, the service has been broadcast every year, Apart from 1930, even through the years of World War II, and each year millions of people around the world listen to the service live on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, or watch it on television on BBC 2 and BBC 4.

The format of the service and the order of the lessons have changed little since 1919, and it always opens with the hymn Once in Royal David’s City (see Irish Church Hymnal, No 177) as the processional hymn. This hymn was written by the Irish hymn-writer, Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), whose husband was Bishop of Derry and later Archbishop of Armagh. Traditionally in King’s, the first verse of this hymn is sung unaccompanied by a solo boy chorister.

The Dean of King’s College then begins the service with the traditional bidding prayer:

“Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels: in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and with the Magi adore the Child lying in his Mother’s arms.

“Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child; and let us make this chapel, dedicated to his pure and lowly Mother, glad with our carols of praise:

“But first let us pray for the needs of his whole world; for peace and goodwill over all the earth; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, within the dominions of our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth, within this University and City of Cambridge, and in the two royal and religious Foundations of King Henry VI here and at Eton: And let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; and all who know not the loving kindness of God.

“Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom we for evermore are one. These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the throne of heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath taught us: Our Father ...”

The Nine Lessons, which are the same each year, are read by representatives of the college and of the City of Cambridge, reading from the Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) and following the same sequence each year: a chorister; a choral scholar; a representative of Cambridge churches; a representative of Cambridge City; a representative of Eton College, which has close links with King’s College; the Chaplain of King’s College; the Director of Music of King’s College Chapel; a fellow of King’s College; and the Provost of King’s College.

The singing is divided into carols sung by the Choir of King’s College and hymns sung by the choir and congregation.

The carols vary from year to year, although some music is repeated. Each year since 1982, the Director of Music at King’s College, Stephen Cleobury, has commissioned a new carol on behalf of the college for the choir. The service ends with Charles Wesley’s hymn, Hark! the herald-angels sing (see Irish Church Hymnal, No 160).

The pattern of readings is:

Genesis 3: 8-15, 17-19;
Genesis 22: 15–18;
Isaiah 9: 2, 6–7;
Isaiah 11: 1–3a, 4a, 6–9;
Luke 1: 26–35, 38;
Luke 2: 1, 3–7;
Luke 2: 8–16;
Matthew 2: 1–12;
John 1: 1–14.

The demand for seats always exceeds the number available in chapel. Members of the public are admitted to King’s College through the main gate on King’s Parade from 7.30 a.m., but people usually start queueing the night before.

Those who join the queue before 9 a.m. usually get in, although this is not guaranteed. As they queue, they are often entertained by members of Collegium Regale, Choral Scholars of King’s College Choir, singing carols.

The doors of the chapel opened at 1.30 p.m., and the service begins just after 3 p.m., concluding around 4.30 or 4.45 p.m.

More about this service, including the order for this year’s service and for previous years, is available at: http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/events/chapel-services/nine-lessons.html

The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, with the combined cathedral choirs, takes place at 8 p.m. on Monday 20 December 2010. Free tickets are available from the cathedral office (01-877-8099).

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

Hot cross buns in November?

Patrick Comerford

30 November 2010:

Saint Andrew the Apostle

Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 19: 1-6; Romans 10: 12-18; Matthew 4: 18-22.

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

Sunday marked the beginning of the New Church Year. We marked it in Christ Church Cathedral, where we celebrated the First Sunday of Advent at the Cathedral Eucharist and with the Advent Procession.

Although we are using red today, the seasonal liturgical colours have changed from green to violet, we have lit the first candle on the Advent Wreath, and we have turned to the Year A readings in the Lectionary.

But in the midst of change and in the midst of new beginnings, it is important to maintain the link between Saint Andrew and Advent, the beginning of the Church Year. For Saint Andrew is the first-called of the Apostles, the patron saint of mission work. And without mission, there is no church, without discipleship how can people live in the Advent hope, be prepared for the coming of Christ?

Last Wednesday, the mission agencies were represented in strength at our Community Eucharist, and their packs reminded us of the vital link between mission and ministry, the vital link between mission and the Church.

In my work with mission agencies, I have constantly been engaged in that question about the link between mission and the Church. Which came first, the chicken or the egg, church or mission?

The Apostle Andrew may not have realised that he was preparing for the coming of Christ, the Advent of Christ. He was a fisherman, working on the Lake of Galilee with his brother Simon Peter. But he was a disciple of John the Baptist, and as we are going to be reminded once again in next Sunday’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist was the forerunner, the one who prepared the way for the coming of Christ.

In hearing the call of Christ to follow him in the Fourth Gospel, Andrew hesitated for a moment, not because he had any doubts about his call, but because he wanted to bring his brother with him. Recognising his duty to bring others to Christ, he went to Peter and told him: “We have found the Messiah … [and] he brought Simon to Jesus” (John 1: 41, 42).

In answering our call to ministry and mission, we must not forget those who are closest to us, those in our families and those who have worked with us.

But, at the same time, like Andrew, we must be happy about leaving behind the nets of yesterday and not getting caught up in them.

Caught up in the minutiae of commercial life and shopping the other day, I once noticed how they were selling cinnamon-flavoured hot cross buns in Marks and Spencer in Dundrum at the beginning of November. Hot cross buns! At this time of the year? Hot cross buns with a sell-by and best-before date of 29 November!

And yet there is a direct connection. In the end, this first Apostle’s life reached its climax when he met his death through crucifixion. He may have left behind no Gospel or Epistles. But Andrew, the first-called of the Apostles, literally took up his cross and followed Jesus. And he called others to do the same.

Christmas is meaningless without looking forward to the Cross and the Resurrection. Mission and Church must always go together. And this morning Saint Andrew, the first-called of the Apostles, reminds us of the meaning of our call to ministry and mission.

And so, may all praise, honour and glory be to God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in the chapel at the Eucharist on Tuesday 30 November 2010.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Spirituality for Advent: waiting for Christ in all his majesty

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John Without the Barrs, Lichfield ... Advent is a time preparation for the coming of Christ in Majesty

Patrick Comerford

The Lord be with you,
And also with you

O Come O Come Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 1:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear:

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from above,
who ord’rest all things through thy love;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go:Refrain

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud, and majesty, and awe:Refrain

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave:Refrain

Opening Prayer:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.Amen


Matthew 21: 1-11 (the Church of Ireland Lectionary reading for Morning Prayer).

A time of preparation:

It is very difficult to prepare for Christmas when Santa has already arrived in every shopping centre, when the Christmas lights are already strung across the Main Street in every town and village, and many of our parish choirs are already singing Christmas Carols. Indeed, it is hard to distinguish between Advent and Lent when you find Cadbury’s crème eggs are already on sale.

But even in the Church we often manage to confuse Advent and Lent, probably because they are both seasons of preparation when we change the liturgical colour from Green to Purple or Violet.

The word Advent, from the Latin word adventus, means “coming.” That Latin word is simply a translation of the Greek word παρουσία (parousía), used for the Second Coming of Christ.

This season is a reminder of the original waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But more especially it is a reminder of our waiting for Christ at his the Second Coming. This season, which began yesterday, the First Sunday of Advent [28 November], is the season when the Church marks a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, not just as a cuddly child in Christmas crib, but his coming in glory and as king.

Throughout the next four weeks, our readings, collects, post-communion prayers and the other seasonal provisions in our liturgies try to focus us – yes on Christ’s incarnation, but more particularly (if less successfully) to focus us – on Christ’s coming judgment and reign.

Because of that, the “Four Last Things” – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell – have been traditional themes for Advent meditation. The characteristic emphasis in Advent, therefore, is expectation, rather than penitence.

Purple is not a penitential colour ... it is a rich, royal imperial colour, originally derived from a very rare source. Πορφύρα (porphyra), the rare purple dye from Tyre, could command its weight in silver and was manufactured in classical antiquity from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail. As a seller of purple, Lydia was a wealthy woman of independent means. And as Judith Herrin points out in her beautiful book on the powerful woman of Byzantium, Women in Purple, a child born to a reigning emperor was πορφυρογέννητος (porphyrogénitos), “born in the purple.”

So, we change our liturgical colour in Advent to purple to signify we are preparing for the coming of Christ as the King of Kings, the ruler of all, in all his royal, imperial, majesty, splendour and glory.

Although comparisons are too often made with Lent, Advent is a time of preparation rather than a time of penitence, Lent too is a time of preparation for the completion of Christ’s majestic task, seen in his passion, death, burial and Resurrection. It was a time too, in the Early Church, of preparation for baptism, which required penitence and repentance and μετάνοια (metánoia), conversion, turning round to face Christ.

Today’s office parties, Christmas lunches, early Santas, hastily-planned carol services, and bringing the last posting day forward to the week before Advent, make it difficult to sustain this sense of being alert and watchful. Yet, can’t you remember with glee and warmth the child-like waiting and watching you experienced during the build-up for Christmas? In the cold and dark of winter, can you remember that warm glow you felt as you anticipated such a wonderful festival?

In recent times, the most common, popular observance of Advent is the use of the Advent Calendar, with one door being opened in the calendar, or one new candle being lit, on the Advent Wreath each day or each week leading up to Christmas Eve.

So I’d like to suggest seven customs that we can use in the Church to help restore and built-up that sense of anticipation, of watching and waiting, to cheerfully inviting people into a time and space for praying in joyful anticipation:

● the Advent Calendar;
● the Advent Wreath;
● the Jess Tree;
● Christingle services;
● good old Saint Nicholas;
● the Advent Prose;
● Advent carols;

The Advent Calendar

As children, many of us have watched the progression of Advent through the doors of an Advent calendar. You know what an Advent calendar is: it allows us to count or celebrate the days of Advent, and to build up an anticipation of Christmas. Today, most Advent calendars are made for children. But why can’t they be for adults too?

Advent Calendars do not have to be filled with chocolates and sweets. You can make a simple one in your parish, using a large rectangular card, cutting out the right number of windows, so that one can be opened each day during Advent, revealing an image, a poem, a Scripture text or part of a story related to the Nativity.

The Advent Calendar has its origins among German Lutherans, and may have been a family practice in German-speaking places from the 17th century on. From perhaps the beginning of the 19th century, many German families counted down the 24 days of Advent physically: at first, this meant simply drawing a chalk line on the door each day from 1 December. Some families had more elaborate ways to mark each day – lighting a new candle or hanging a little religious picture on the wall.

The first known Advent Calendar was handmade in 1851, the first printed Advent calendar was produced in Hamburg in 1902 or 1903, and the first commercially produced Advent Calendar, produced in Munich in 1908, had 24 little coloured pictures that could be affixed to a piece of cardboard.

The custom spread from Germany after World War II. Over the last few days, I have placed in the sacristy an Advent Calendar produced by USPG (Anglicans in World Mission) with a mission theme. You might like to find inspiration from this for prayers and intercessions over the next few weeks.

The Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath in Christ Church Cathedral ... the first purple candle, lit yesterday, recalls the Patriarchs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

This morning we lit the first of the candles on our Advent Wreath. Traditionally, a new candle is lit in church each week, followed by a Bible reading or selected prayers. Some say the circle symbolizes the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens and lit candles signify the persistence of life in the midst of winter.

The Advent wreath is said to have been the idea of Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881), a German pastor and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor in Hamburg. In December 1838, he made a large wooden ring from an old cartwheel, with 19 small red and four large white candles. A new small candle was lit each weekday in Advent, and a large white candle was lit On Sundays. The custom spread in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles. The custom spread to Britain in the 19th century, and to North America in 1930s, so that it has global appeal today.

In most Anglican churches today, there are three purple candle and one pink candle in a ring, with a white or gold candle in the centre.

The purple candles reflect the liturgical colour of the season, while pink marks the Third Sunday of Advent, when that colour change briefly to pink.

There are many traditions about the meaning or theme of each candle. But Common Worship and Times and Seasons suggest these five themes:

Advent 1: The Patriarchs (Purple);
Advent 2: The Prophets (Purple);
Advent 3 John the Baptist (Pink);
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary (Purple);
Christmas Day: The Christ (White or Gold).

Each of those Sundays then reminds us of those who prepared for the coming of Christ. ‘The Patriarchs’ can naturally focus on Abraham, our Father in faith, and David, the ancestor in whose city the Christ Child was born. ‘The Prophets’ invites us to reflect on the way Christ’s coming was foretold. And then we recall John the Baptist, who proclaimed him as Saviour; and the Virgin Mary, who bore him in her womb and gave birth to him.

The pink candle on the Third Sunday comes from the mediaeval tradition of adopting a splash of colour on this Sunday, Gaudate Sunday or ‘Rose Sunday,’ reflecting the traditions surrounding Laetare Sunday (Refreshment Sunday), the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

In others traditions, the first candle is called the prophet’s candle and is meant to signify the hope of Christ’s coming. The second is called the Bethlehem candle in honour of the city of Christ’s birth. The third candle is the shepherds’ candle. The final candle is the angels’ candle, symbolising the angelic proclamation of joy at Christ’s birth.

In either case, the accumulation of light is an expression of the growing anticipation of the birth of Christ, the light of the world. The circular wreath represents God’s eternity and unity. Evergreens are a symbol of enduring life.

A number of carols have been written for use with the short liturgy as the Advent candles are lit. A common format is to add an extra verse each week, relating to the symbolism of that week’s candle.

The Jesse Tree

The West End windows in Christ Church Cathedral are another way of illustrating the Jesse Tree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

This is the first time we have had a Jesse Tree in this chapel, I think, but it is a popular teaching aid in many Anglican parishes, although the earliest example probably dates from the 11th century.

The Tree of Jesse depicts the Ancestors of Christ in a tree that rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. The earliest example dates from the 11th century. But it is also inspired by that passage from Isaiah, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” (Isaiah 11: 1), which is quoted in next Sunday’s lectionary readings.

The lineage of Jesus is traced by two Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. Saint Matthew’s Gospel opens with the words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” With this beginning, Matthew makes clear Jesus’ whole lineage: he is of God’s chosen people, by his descent from Abraham, and he is the “shoot of Jesse” by his descent from Jesse’s son, King David. Saint Luke describes the “generations of Christ,” beginning with Jesus himself and tracing backwards through his “earthly father” Joseph back to Adam (see Luke 3).

The figures in a Jesse Tree are drawn from the genealogies in the Gospels, although usually showing only a selection. In many churches, the traditional Jesse Tree is decorated over the course of Advent with symbols representing stories leading up to the Incarnation – for example, a burning bush for Moses, a ram for Isaac or a crown for David.

Christingle Services:

The Moravian custom of a Christingle service was introduced to these islands in the late 20th century, and resources are available through the Children’s Society (in the Church of England). Christinlge services may take place before or after Christmas, but they are a good resource for Advent.

The Advent Prose

In Advent, we often sing the Advent Prose or the Advent Antiphons, an antiphonal plainsong. The “Late Advent Weekdays,” 17 to 24 December, mark the singing of the Great Advent “O Antiphons.”

These are the antiphons for the canticle Magnificat at Evensong, Evening Prayer or Vespers day and mark the forthcoming birth of the Messiah. They form the basis for each verse of the popular Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel.

These antiphons, all beginning with “O ...,” were sung before and after the Canticle Magnificat at Vespers from 17 to 24 December, the seven days before Christmas.

They are addressed to God, calling on him to come as teacher and deliverer, and woven through with scriptural titles and images describing God’s saving work in Christ. This tradition was developed in the Sarum Rite in mediaeval England, and was reflected in the Book of Common Prayer, where the Anglican Reformers retained the title O Sapientia (‘O Wisdom’) as the designation for 16 December.

Advent carols

It is from this tradition that we have derived one of the best-known Advent carols, O Come O Come Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), which we are signing this morning.

But there are other special Advent carols and hymns for this season. See Irish Church Hymnal, Nos 119 to 145.

Saint Nicholas

Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves that Saint Nicholas is commemorated not on 25 December but on 6 December.

Saint Nicholas was such a favourite saint in mediaeval Ireland that many our principal ports and towns have large churches named after him, including Carrickfergus, Dundalk, Dublin, Galway, Cork and Adare.

He is an important figure, not because of the roly-poly figure hijacked by Coca-Cola and advertising.

His willingness to travel, even when his own life was at risk, makes him a role model for the church in mission.

As Bishop Nicholas of Myra he was a key defender of Trinitarian dogma at the Council of Nicaea (325).

The stories of his bringing the victims of murder back to life is a reminder that Christmas is without meaning unless it is related to and connected with Good Friday and Easter Day, that the significance of the Incarnation is to be found in our Redemption and the Resurrection.

As a bishop who was the protector of vulnerable children and teenagers to point of risking his own place in society, he is an important challenge to some of the ways the whole church has handled some recent difficulties; as the free-giver of gifts, without expecting anything in return he is a reminder that God’s love is given freely and unconditionally at the Incarnation in his Son, Christ Jesus ... and what better sermon could we preach in the Season of Advent.

Three questions for our time of reflection:

1, Are you ready for the coming of Christ?

2, Is this a time of preparation or celebration for you, your parish?

3, Is Christmas more important than Easter in your parish?

Some resources and reading:

Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).

William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent antiphons (Dublin: Columba/APCK, 1993).

Dorothy McRae-McMahon, Liturgies for High Days (London: SPCK, 2006).

Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008; Alcuin Liturgy Guides 5).

Times and Seasons: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).

Closing poem

In the bleak mid-winter

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

(Christina Rosetti, 1830-1893, see Irish Church Hymnal, No. 162)
Closing hymn:

O Come O Come Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 2:

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery: Refrain

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight: Refrain

O come, Desire of nations, bring,
all peoples to their Saviour King;
thou Corner-stone, who makest one,
complete in us thy work begun: Refrain

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear: Refrain

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture, on Monday 29 November 2010, was part of the Spirituality programme with MTh students.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

‘To make an end is to make a beginning’

‘To make an end is to make a beginning’ ... tangled bicycles abandoned in the snow in Temple Bar, Dublin, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

I was preaching at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral this morning [Sunday 28 November 2010], the First Sunday of Advent. Recalling that Advent marks the beginning of the Church Year, although it comes at the end of the calendar year, I quoted TS Eliot’s East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, which is set in late November. The poem opens with the words: “In my beginning is my end ...” and it ends: “In my end is my beginning.”

So it was delightful to read the programme for the Advent Procession this evening, at which I was reading one of the Old Testament readings. The programme talks about how at the beginning of things we think about the end of things.

The readings reflected “this emphasis on Christ’s second coming, and include themes of accountability, judgement, and the hope of eternal life. The course of the service traces the witness of the prophets, of John the Baptist and of Mary, all of whom point us towards the birth of Jesus.”

The programme then said that all we had heard this afternoon was summed up in Charles Wesley’s hymn towards the end of the service, as the cathedral choirs processed to the West End of the Nave, Lo, he comes; with clouds descending.

That hymn reminds us of the paradox of our faith, the programme says, recalling the words of TS Eliot in the fourth and final poem of the Four Quartets, Little Gidding, published in 1942:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from ...

With snow and sleet, winter truly arrived in Dublin this weekend.

Advent has truly started too. We had a day of preparation for Advent in the cathedral yesterday, as the Revd Garth Bunting and Celia Dunne led a group of us in prayer through the labyrinth in the south transept.

Tomorrow [Monday], I’m speaking in the chapel at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on ‘Spirituality for Advent,’ and we celebrate our Advent Eucharist on Wednesday evening at 5 p.m.

Meanwhile, the labyrinth remains available in the south transept of Christ Church Cathedral throughout Advent for prayer, penitence, preparation, reflection and meditation.

“Come Lord Jesus, do not delay; give new courage to your people who trust in your love.” In the concluding words of this evening’s Advent Procession: “May the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting.”

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in the snow this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

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

‘In my beginning is my end’

‘Now the light falls ... I said to my soul, be still, and wait ...’ autumn sunsets turn to winter at Skerries Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 28 November 2010

The First Sunday of Advent

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

11 a.m.: The Cathedral Eucharist

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44.

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

The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the Church Year.

How do we begin our beginnings?

In Alice in Wonderland (Chapter 12), the White Rabbit put on his spectacles.

“Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Advent is the beginning of a new Church year. But this morning we seem to start at the end. As we set out on another year of following Christ, from the manger to the grave and beyond, we are at the end of the calendar year and in the lectionary we are at the end of Christ’s life.

But this is our beginning. For Advent is the time we prepare for the coming of Christ, not just as the cuddly child in the Christmas crib, but for the coming of Christ as king, and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God.

Our end is in our beginning.

TS Eliot’s “East Coker,” the second of his Four Quartets, is set in late November and ends: “In my end is my beginning.”

But it opens:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation …

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane …

Wait for the early owl.

The geographical setting for our Gospel reading this morning is the Mount of Olives. Christ has been with the disciples in the Temple in Jerusalem, where he has been teaching each day in that closing week.

Now we move to the end of the day, when he is on the Mount of Olives, looking back across the valley towards the City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. In the valley below are the tombs of prophets, priests and kings, one of the most breath-taking scenes I have seen.

Even to this day it is the burial place of pious Jews and political Jews, rabbis and radicals, prime ministers and monarchs, buried there waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, so that they can rise up with him on his arrival and join him as he makes his way down from the Mount of Olives, sweeps across the Valley, and up into the city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

It is a setting that provides the dramatic backdrop for this reading, which is full of apocalyptic imagery as Christ talks about his imminent return. Christ warns the disciples to be ready for him, to be constantly on the watch and waiting, to stay awake and alert, to be prepared and ready. Sleepers awake! Yet, these same disciples will fall asleep in the garden, even when he asks them to “stay awake with me” (Matthew 26: 36-46).

How often do we live our lives in a carefree, happy-go-lucky manner? Careless and without a worry about what the future might bring? Almost asleep and oblivious to what is going on around us? Asleep while the world groans, content while the world suffers?

And so the Gospel reading is linked with what we should be waiting for, awake for, hoping for: for out of Zion, from Jerusalem, shall come the word when Christ comes to judge between the nations, and arbitrate for many peoples: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (see Isaiah 2: 3-4).

But this is apocalyptic literature. And, like all apocalyptic literature, hope comes with a warning; merely waiting for peace, rather than preparing for it and working for it, augurs doom. And this visionary expectation is conveyed through drama and poetry and poetic language.

The words of Christ in our Gospel reading this morning are rich with the language and the rhythms of poetry and drama.

For example, there is poetry in verses 40-41, which is missed in translations that treat these verses as prose and narrative, and run them together as consecutive sentences:

δύο ἔσονται
ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ,
εἷς παραλαμβάνεται
καὶ εἷς ἀφίεται:

δύο ἀλήθουσαι
ἐν τῷ μύλῳ,
μία παραλαμβάνεται
καὶ μία ἀφίεται.

Saint Matthew invites us to be ready for the coming, the παρουσία (parousia, verses 37 and 39), a word used by him alone among the Gospel writers. Translated into Latin it gives us the word from which we derive the name of this season, Advent.

Παρουσία means the presence, or the coming, the arrival, the advent, the future visible return of Christ, to raise the dead, to sit at the last judgment, to judge between the nations, to arbitrate for many peoples, to set up formally and gloriously the kingdom of God.

The coming of the Son of Man is going to be divisive for all society. Kingdom values are not merely counter-cultural – they are socially divisive. For the values of this world should never be confused with nor identified with the values of the Kingdom of God.

The visionary images in this passage can be compared with the apocalyptic visions throughout the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament.

But these images are full of promise too. The wedding feast is a recurring image of the heavenly banquet and the coming kingdom. The parting of pairs, whether in the field or on the threshing floor, is a reminder that the word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4: 12). In the apocalyptic language used by Saint John, writing on Patmos, from the mouth of God comes a “sharp, two-edged sword” (Revelation 1: 16; 19: 15).

The division cuts through visible and apparent distinctions. We can stay with the values of this world, or be taken into the values of the Kingdom of God. But we cannot have both. Take it or leave it – destruction or the kingdom?

Watch, therefore, and be alert.

What is capable of stealing away your heart, your commitment, your values? Be alert for these.

What, in the midst of uncertainty, can rob you of hope?

Be alert for this too.

Be aware of making comfortable choices when it comes to the poor and the unemployed, the marginalised and the minorities, the oppressed and the stranger, small children and the elderly – for these are the ones Christ uses in his teachings as examples of the Kingdom of God.

The future holds apocalyptic fear for many in our society today when we consider the civic and political and economic disturbances that are possibilities and potentials.

For the widow who has lost her savings as she saw the value of her bank shares collapse; for the pensioner who worries that the coming budget may take away his health care; for the middle class couple who fear losing their home as they fail to meet their mortgage payments yet face having to pay a property tax too regardless of their ability to pay; for the student who knows her unemployed parents cannot afford next year’s fee increases; for the low-paid worker who sees his job under threat or his wages losing further value because of the misbehaviour of politicians and bankers; for these and for the many, waiting and watching means waiting and watching in fear.

Is the coming future a comfort or a challenge?

The radical author, professor and preacher, Robin Meyers – once described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “scholarly, pastoral, prophetic, and eloquent” – has written: “Life itself passes daily judgment on the idea that [God is in control], that good deeds and righteous living exempt us from mindless tragedy, or that the meek will inherit anything other than a crushing debt and a dead planet.”

But in a sermon some years ago in the First [Congregational] Church in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on this day, the First Sunday of Advent, his colleague, Mary Luti of Andover Newton Theological School, responded:

“Nonetheless, and hoping against hope, today’s scriptures emphatically encourage us to stand firm, to refuse to throw in the towel. God really is in charge, they assert, and one day you won’t have to take that on faith … the first Sunday of Advent intends to make a pre-emptive strike on despair as the Church sets out on another year of following Christ from manger to grave, and beyond.”

And once again, I call to mind TS Eliot in “East Coker”:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God …

And yet, in this apocalyptic visionary, poem, Eliot is neither all doom nor all gloom:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

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

A terrace of almshouses in East Coker ... the village that inspired TS Eliot was his ancestral home and his ashes are buried at the parish church ... “In my beginning is my end”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached in Christ Church Cathedral on the First Sunday of Advent, 28 November 2010.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Preparing for Advent in Christ Church Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

Advent, the beginning of the Church Year, begins tomorrow [Sunday 28 November 2010], the First Sunday of Advent. I am the canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral for this first week of Advent, preaching at the Cathedral Eucharist at 11 a.m. tomorrow morning, and taking part in the Advent Procession at 5 p.m. tomorrow evening.

As part of the development of a spirituality programme at Christ Church Cathedral, today [Saturday 27 November] is being marked as an Advent Preparation quiet day from 10 a.m. to 12 noon and again from 2 to 4 p.m.

During the day, we will be invited to explore prayer through walking in a labyrinth located in the south transept of the cathedral.

The two-hour sessions will be led by the Revd Garth Bunting and Celia Dunne, who will introduce the idea of walking a labyrinth while praying. They will be available too for prayer guidance.

The labyrinth will remain in the South Transept throughout Advent and you are free to come and use it any time during cathedral opening hours.

Special Advent and Christmas services in the Cathedral include a Charity Carol Service (1.15 p.m., Tuesday 7 December), a Christmas Concert with the combined cathedral choirs (8 p.m., Wednesday 15 December), a Service of Five Lessons and Carols with the combined cathedral choirs (3.30 p.m., Sunday 19 December), a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols with the combined cathedral choirs (8 p.m., Monday 20 December), the First Eucharist of Christmas (11 p.m., Friday 24 December), and the Festival Eucharist on Christmas Day (11 a.m., Saturday 25 December).

Meanwhile, Christ Church Cathedral is also having a Christmas market in the crypt today [Saturday, 27 November] and on three successive Saturdays (4, 11 and 18 December) 2010. Santa will arrive at the gates of the cathedral today in a horse-drawn carriage and then make his way to Santa’s Grotto in the cathedral crypt.

Labyrinth Prayer

As I make my labyrinth journey,
teach me Lord,
to see myself as I really am;
a pilgrim in this world,
a Christian called to love and respect;
let my conscience be clear,
my conduct without fault,
my speech blameless,
and my life well ordered.
Help me to remember that true happiness comes from you;
lead me safely through the troubles of this life;
so that I may join with you in the endless joy of Heaven.
Grant this through Christ our Lord, Amen.

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

Friday, 26 November 2010

A book launch with Colm Tóibín in Enniscorthy

Peter Pearson’s Enniscorthy 1500, which illustrates the cover and endpapers of the new book, is also available in a limited print edition for €65

Patrick Comerford

I was in Enniscorthy last night for the launch of a new book, A History of Enniscorthy, edited by the acclaimed author Colm Tóibín. I first got to know Colm when I was living in Wexford and he was living in Enniscorthy. He was a student at Saint Peter’s College, Wexford, and later at UCD, and hitched-hiked to some of the early poetry readings I organised in both Wexford and Gorey in the early and mid-1970s.

After returning to Ireland from Spain in 1978, Colm worked as a journalist in Dublin, and from 1982 to 1985 he was the editor of Magill. But he has always been loyal to his Wexford roots, and his “Wexford” novels, The Heather Blazing and the The Blackwater Lightship, use his native Enniscorthty and Co Wexford as narrative material. Last year he published Brooklyn, which tells the story of a woman who emigrates from Enniscorthy to Brooklyn – the book was listed for the Booker Prize and was awarded the 2010 Costa Prize.

He now teaches at Princecton, but last night, Colm was back in Enniscorthy for the launch of A History of Enniscorthy, which he has edited and which is published by Wexford County Council Public Library Service as part of the celebrations marking the 1,500th anniversary of Enniscorthy Town.

The book’s assistant editor is Celestine Rafferty, who works with the Wexford County Council Public Library Service and who edits the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society. Colm and Celestine can be truly proud of a sumptuous and elegant volume, which is a real treasure store for both Wexford people and historians. The contributors to the book include Isabel Bennett, Aidan Breen, Billy Colfer, Catherine Cox, Virginia Crossman, Rita Edwards, Daniel Gahan, Henry Goff, William Murphy, Ben Murtagh, Eva Ó Cathaoir, Peter Pearson, Jacinta Prunty, Paul Rouse, Eithne Scallan, Eamonn Wall, Dan Walsh and Seán Whelan.

The illustration on the cover and endpapers is Peter Pearson’s Enniscorthy 1500, which is also available in a limited print edition for €65. The print is a memento of this year’s 1500 celebrations – 250 signed copies are available for sale from Enniscorthy Library, Wexford Library and Enniscorthy Town Council’s offices in Market Square, at €65 for individuals and €100 for institutions.

Sir Henry Wallop’s monument in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010

My contributions to this book (pp 122-123) are a photograph and a description of Sir Henry Wallop’s monument in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Wallop bought Enniscorthy Castle, manor and friary lands in 1586, and they became the principal Irish estates of his descendants, the Earls of Portsmouth.

Enniscorthy’s Town Clerk, Padraig O’Gorman, was the MC for the evening. The Wexford County Manager, Eddie Breen, spoke of his pride in reading the contributions made to the work by Enniscorthy and Co Wexford historians. Colm Tóibín emphasised the way modern history has reclaimed the stories of the ordinary men and women from the past, and spoke too of how this book celebrates the institutions and individuals who created the society of today.

With Nicky Furlong at the launch of A History of Enniscorthy in the Riverside Park Hotel

Many of the authors and photographers were at last night’s launch, and it was good to meet Colm and Celestine again and to spend time with some old friends and colleagues, including historian Nicholas Furlong (we once worked together on the Wexford People and the Enniscorthy Guardian), Billy Colfer, Seán Whelan of the Enniscorthy Echo, Pat O’Connor of the Wexford People, Bernard Browne, Father Richard Lawless of Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy (Pugin’s great Irish gem), and my cousin Father Bernard Cushen of Adamstown.

As I was leaving, Michael Freeman from Galbally was still recalling those poetry readings and many late-night debates in School Street and High Street, Wexford, in the mid-1970s about the theologies of Teilhard de Chardin and John Robinson.

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

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Liturgy 8: Baptism and Eucharist (3): the contemporary life and mission of the Church; worship and inculturation

The ‘U2Charist’ in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church, Dublin ... what do we mean by the inculturation of the liturgy?

Baptism and Eucharist (3): the contemporary life and mission of the Church; worship and inculturation

Patrick Comerford

EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 09:00 to 11:00, Thursdays, Hartin Room:

Liturgy 8: 25 November 2010

This week:

Baptism and Eucharist (3): the contemporary life and mission of the Church; worship and inculturation.

8.2: Seminar: the ‘Word’ expressed in music and art.

8.1: Baptism and Eucharist (3): the contemporary life and mission of the Church; worship and inculturation.

What is liturgical inculturation?

And what does inculturation mean for the contemporary life and mission of the Church?

The term “inculturation” is used to speak about “the incarnation of the Gospel in autonomous cultures and at the same time the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church.” [see Varietates Legitimae – Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy, the Fourth Instruction for the Correct Application of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy (Nos. 37-40), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 29 March 1994, §4.]

Inculturation signifies “an intimate transformation of the authentic cultural values by their integration into Christianity and the implementation of Christianity into different human cultures.”

We have inherited a rich and deep liturgical heritage from the Church of Ireland, the wider Church experience in Ireland, the wider Anglican Communion, and through twenty centuries of Church history.

But we also have a cultural heritage that needs to integrate that liturgical heritage, to express that liturgical heritage, and that is expressed in and interpreted in our liturgy. And yet the Church is different from all other gatherings and communities in every culture and every age.

1, The Church is not gathered together by a human decision, but is called through Christ by God in the Holy Spirit and responds in faith to this gracious call.

2, The Church Catholic is called to gather all peoples, to speak all languages, to penetrate all cultures.

3, The Church, as a pilgrim people on this earth, and in this Advent time bears the marks of this present time in its sacraments, its liturgies and its institutions and structures as we await the coming of Christ in hope.

The Church universal, the Church Catholic, finds its particular expression, is made present and signified, in particular Churches. As the 39 Articles remind us, the Church is visible in “a congregation of faithful men” (i.e., faithful people gathered together in the diocese), “in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered ...” (Article 19).

Every particular expression of the Church is united with the universal Church, across the barriers of time and of space, not only in belief and sacramental life, but also in those practices the Church has inherited down through the generations, dating back to the Apostolic tradition.

What are some examples of these universal Church practices?

They include, for example, daily prayer, the sanctification of Sunday and the rhythm of the week, the celebration of Easter and the unfolding of the mystery of Christ throughout the liturgical year, and the sacraments.

What about the Liturgy?

We have talked over the past few weeks about Liturgy as the place where Christians meet God in Christ.

Christian worship finds its most fundamental expression when every Sunday, throughout the whole world, Christians gather around the altar or the table in word and sacrament, listening to the Word of God, celebrating the Eucharist, and recalling the death and resurrection of Christ, while awaiting his coming in glory.

As the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004) says:

“All Sundays celebrate the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.” On Sundays and the nine Principal Holy Days (Christmas Day, Easter Day, the Day of Pentecost, The Presentation of Christ, Maundy Thursday, the Ascension Day, Trinity Sunday and All Saints’ Day), “it is fitting that the Holy Communion be celebrated in every cathedral and in each parish church or in a church within a parochial union, or group of parishes … The liturgical provision for the above days may not be displaced by any other observance” (Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 18).

The Liturgy is both the action of Christ the Priest and the action of the Church which is his body. In the Liturgy, the Church, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, gives the Father the worship which is pleasing to him.

There is an unchangeable aspect of the Liturgy. But the Church adapts that the Liturgy, according to the constraints of time and space, for the good of the people, for the good of the people who are the Body of Christ, according to circumstances, times and places.

But how do we strike the balance between inculturating the sacraments that Christ has instituted, and emptying them of their substance? What is essential when it comes to liturgical change?

Our agreements on the Liturgy ensure orthodoxy of worship, not only because we must avoid errors, but because we must pass on the faith in its integrity. There is theological maxim that “rule of prayer” must correspond to the “rule of belief” – lex orandi, lex credendi.

But what about the different needs of the Church in particular places, at particular times? How are these to be addressed?

For example, what about a place that does not have a Christian tradition?

Should missionaries who bring the Gospel with them also bring their liturgical traditions with them?

And how do they modify, adapt or inculturate those liturgical traditions?

Other places have a long-standing Western Christian tradition, where the culture is already embedded with the language of the faith and the expresses of the liturgy. If the liturgy is changes, does it lose its cultural relevance and its ability to speak to the people?

In some places, several cultures coexist. How then is it possible to inculturate liturgical practices?

Any adaptations, modification and changes must bear in mind the need for people to understand the Liturgy with ease, to take part fully, and to relate it actively to their lives and the society in which they live.

For example, there is no point in making adaptations that then need numerous explanations in order to be understood.

How far can we go with inculturation?

The missionary tradition of the Church has always sought to bring the Christian faith to people in their own language. The translation of the Bible and the Liturgy are the first steps in the process of inculturation.

The first significant measure of inculturation at the Reformation was the translation of the Bible, liturgies and liturgical books into the language of the people.

But each translation both shaped and respected literary genres without altering the content of the texts. The translated works had to be understandable by those for whom they were being translated. So, the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible were translated into the English of the 16th and 17th centuries, but they also shaped the English language of the time.

In English, to talk about being saved by the “skin of my teeth” is inexplicable without a glimpse of the Book of Job in the Authorised Version. Phrases like “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” from the Book of Common Prayer have passed into common parlance. How many of you remembered old traditions when you realised that last Sunday was “Stir-Up Sunday”?

For example, on my visits to China with the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, I became conscious of how the differences between the “Protestant” and “Catholic” traditions, in their various forms, is exaggerated for non-Christian Chinese when they see that Catholics and Protestants cannot agree on a common translation of the Bible, or even on the same word for God, so that they are seen by many as two completely different religions.

The Catholic Church historically favoured Tīanzhǔ (literally “Heavenly Lord,” or “Lord of Heaven”), and so “Catholicism” is most commonly rendered Tīanzhǔ jìao, although Chinese Catholics also a literal translation of “catholic,” Gōng jiào.

The earliest Protestant missionary in China, Robert Morrison, arrived in 1807. Before this time, Bibles were not printed for distribution. Protestantism is colloquially referred to as Jīdū jìao (“religion of Christ”) but this term can sometimes refer to all Christians, so Xīnjìao (“new religion”) is also used to distinguish Protestants as a group separate from Roman Catholics. Their translators, coming to China later and separately, chose to use the older terminology “Shangdi,” apparently believing “Shangdi” was a valid or preferable representation of the “Most High God.”

In addition, the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter pronunciation of the name of God from the original Hebrew often rendered as YHWH, is rendered in different ways. Catholics have translated this into Yǎwēi (“Elegant Powerful”). Protestants originally rendered it as Yéhuǒhuá (“[old] Gentleman of Fiery Magnificence”). A modern Protestant usage is Yēhéhuá. Some versions translate this term as Shàngzhǔ (literally “Above Lord”), similar to the translation decision to use a capitalised “LORD” by both Catholics and traditional Protestants.

To complicate matters, Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans particularly use Shàngzhǔ in their Eucharistic Prayers.

If people are going to listen to the Gospel being proclaimed, to join in the Canticles, Psalms, responses and hymns, they must be in a language that they can understand and that is culturally pertinent.

And that language is not merely words. The late Archbishop Trevor Huddleston once spoke of Anglican liturgies in Africa that were translated into the words of African languages by CMS, SPG and UMCA missionaries, but were not successful because they retained the Anglo-Saxon and English rhythms and cadences that are part and parcel of the Book of Common Prayer.

And all peoples and cultures have a religious language that is suitable for expressing prayer, and a liturgical language that has its own special characteristics.

Words like liturgy, mystery, ecclesia, evangel, sacrament, Baptism and Eucharist pre-exist Christianity. But they took on a new meaning when they were adapted to the needs of the Church and the liturgy.

Even at the level of liturgical words, translations are always inculturated or they fail to have sign, significance.

Each society and each culture, in the languages of their day, have literary qualities that relate to the living language of the people.

What about newly-created texts for liturgy?

The qualities needed for liturgical translations apply too to new liturgical compositions.

The principle of the Book of Common Prayer is that we share a common liturgical life. But how do new liturgical translations or new liturgical compositions move beyond what is shared, and in their efforts to be inculturated become so localised, so particular, that they are no longer part of the shared, common liturgy of the Church?

And to what degree is the Book of Common Prayer in its various and previous editions over the centuries, the benchmark or standard by which all other liturgies are to be judged?

In its report, Renewing the Anglican Eucharist, the Fifth International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, which met in Dublin (1995), says that as Anglicans “we have until recently identified our liturgical unity in a more or less uniform set of texts derived from the historic Books of Common Prayer. Today that unity is to be found in a common structure of eucharistic celebration.”

Last week, we looked at how the Church of South India had created a new Eucharistic rite, drawing on elements of Anglican, Orthodox, Indian and Mozarabic Liturgies, and in turn how the that Liturgy of the Church of South India has influenced the liturgies of Anglican Churches throughout the world.

The Anglican Church in New Zealand and, nearer to home, the (Anglican) Church in Wales, have lived liturgically for some decades acknowledging and giving liturgical expression to the cultural realities, differences and diversities in their dioceses.

But at what point does diversity sacrifice or even lose unity?

Are there any general principles to help or guide the inculturation of liturgies and rites?

How do we maintain the orthodoxy of the faith while respecting celebrating diversity in culture?

How do we even assess or discern whether a particular culture or tradition should be celebrated and calls for diversity?

Liturgical inculturation includes satisfying and respecting the needs of traditional culture, and at the same time taking account for the needs of those in new cultural settings.

These include the needs of urban and industrial cultures, of post-Christian as well as pre-Christian cultures, the needs of modern and post-modernist cultures, the needs of local people and immigrants too.

Was the introduction of inclusive language in the liturgy enough to eradicate exclusivism? Are there other ways in our language (both verbalised language and body language, as well as our choices of music, symbols, &c.) that serve to make the Church appear exclusive rather than inclusive?

The Discovery services in inner city Dublin ... “Anglican liturgies with African flavours”

I have taken part in many of the “Discovery” liturgies in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in Inner City Dublin – described as Anglican liturgies with African – and sometimes Indian – flavours. Some years ago, I was also invited to preside at what was called a “U2Charist” in the same church.

In preparing for it, I was helped by the writings of two Episcopal churches in the US: Raewynne J. Whiteley and Beth Maynard, Get Up Off Your Knees, preaching the U2 catalog (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2003).

It was obvious to me, as people came forward to receive the Eucharist, that many of those who took part had not been to Communion, had not been to church at all, for a long, long time. But this Eucharist spoke to them in their modern and post-modern language.

Liturgy can not just borrow but adapt and find meaning in the social and religious rites of a people, and their culture can positively enrich their understanding of liturgical actions.

But are there negative elements of a culture should not be incorporated into the liturgy?

Of course there are dangers of reductionism or being trite and there are the dangers of syncretism. There are times when we need to make a break with the past. There are times when we can have layers and layers of meaning and nuance, and there are times we need to avoid ambiguity to avoid a process of inclulturation that stoops to politicisation of the liturgy, to superstition, to vengeance or to sexual connotations.

How is the unity of Anglicanism expressed in the liturgy?

True inculturation does not create new traditions beyond Anglicanism. Instead, it responds to the needs of a particular culture and leads to adaptations that still remain part of our tradition and communion.

But they need to take account of the historical, anthropological, exegetical and theological character of the expressions of faith of the people and culture with whom the liturgy is being adapted.

They need to be attuned to the pastoral experience of the church and of the people where the changes are taking place.

It’s not just about the hymns and the music.

Many cultures have a great collection of wisdom in the form of proverbs and stories. This literature is a store of wisdom set in a cultural context that people understand very well. The proverbs of the people may be more familiar to them than the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. But while this literature is full of wisdom, it can never be a substitute for the inspired word of God in the liturgy, and certainly not in the name of inculturation.

On the other hand, we one can use it to explain the word of God, for instance in the sermon, or outside the liturgy in teaching. But the liturgy of the word within the context of liturgical celebration is irreplaceable.

For example, the story is told that it had been observed that in some African traditions before people dined at an important meal they poured libation to the ancestors. Drawing on this observation, it was suggested that it would be appropriate to pour a libation of the consecrated wine before the Eucharistic meal. But this is a total misunderstanding of the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, reducing Christ’s presence in the Eucharist to mere drink. It also raises questions about why people think the dead need material nourishment.

Colours and postures all have different significance in different cultures. White is associated with death in China. What about blue, purple, pink, green, orange? In some cultures it is only acceptable to kneel for prayer, in others to stand, but in many it is rude to sit for prayer. Other culturally-charged language and body language includes standing for the Gospel. But what about having your hands in your pockets?

Who welcomes and who dismisses are culturally-charged tasks. An illustration from the Gospel is found at the meal Christ has in the house of Simon the Pharisee. The woman anoints Jesus, but Simon failed to greet him properly, to offer him the opportunity wash his feet and hands before sitting at the table.

What about:

● The texts of opening dialogues?
● The ways in which the altar and the Book of the Gospels are venerated?
● The exchange of peace?
● Who brings up and who receives the offering?
● Who prepares the altar/table?
● The words and actions at the preparation of the gifts and at the communion?
● The type of bread and wine we use?
● The materials for the construction of the altar/table and liturgical furnishings?
● The material and form of sacred vessels – pottery or silver?
● The shape, texture and colour of liturgical vestments?
● The way in which we distribute the Holy Communion – who distributes and what words do we use?
● Who dismisses? Who sends out?

And the questions we ask about the Eucharist should be asked too the rites of Christian initiation (Baptism and Confirmation), marriages, funerals, the blessings of persons, places or things, and the liturgical calendar?

And when we do change and inculturate the public worship of the Church, to what degree do we need to exercise prudence and discretion so we avoid breaking up of the local Church into little “churches” that become closed in on themselves?

When the Church introduces changes, those changes need to be gradual, and adequate explanations must be provided with good and sensitive teaching so that we avoid the danger of rejection or simply an artificial grafting on to previous forms.

Of course, there must be innovations when the good of the Church and the needs of the people genuinely demand them.

But care must be taken too to ensure that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.

What do you think are some of liturgical actions that might be adapted?

Many elements may be open to adaptation, including language, music and singing, gesture and posture, art and images, and popular devotions.

Liturgical language must express the truths of the faith, and the grandeur and holiness of the mysteries which are being celebrated. But it must be language that is both sacred and culturally relevant for people, not merely in its vocabulary but also in its cadences, rhythms, poetry and drama.

Music and singing should have pride of place in the liturgy. A text that is sung is more deeply embedded in our memories when it is read. We must be demanding about the biblical and liturgical inspiration and the literary quality of the texts we want sung.

The liturgy is not merely words: it is work, which means it is actions and movements too. Gesture and posture are especially important. Gestures are culturally embedded, yet they express the attitude of humanity before God and our attitude to one another.

For example, the gestures and postures of the celebrating or presiding priest at the Eucharist have to express his or her special function: He/she presides over the assembly both in the person of Christ and on behalf of the people. The gestures and postures of the congregation are signs of our unity, express our active participation, and foster our spiritual attitudes.

What about liturgical dance, for instance?

Among some peoples, singing is instinctively accompanied by hand-clapping, rhythmic swaying and dance movements. These are valid liturgical expressions, not simply performances, and they can express true communal prayer, adoration, praise, offering and supplication.

To summarise:

Basically there are three principles of liturgical inculturation:

● compatibility with the Gospel;
● union with the Church;
● localising the faith and worship of the Universal Church in the incarnational situation of the local church.

The Church is called to overcome the barriers that divide humanity. By baptism, we all become children of God and form in Christ Jesus one people where “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).

For inculturation this means that whatever measure is taken, while it helps Christianity to penetrate in a particular culture, it should not on the other hand alienate others, and so divide the unity that is essential to the Church.

Appendix 1:

In its report, Renewing the Anglican Eucharist, the Fifth International Anglican Liturgical Consultation in Dublin (1995) asked what is important in the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist and suggested a scheme that should be varied in keeping with liturgical seasons and special seasons and occasions.

The following table indicates the relative importance of the various elements in the Eucharist:

1 = indispensible.
2 = integral, but not indispensable.
3 = would not be omitted in principle, may be limited or varied in accordance with liturgical seasons or special occasions.
4 = not necessary but may be desirable at times.

* An asterisk indicates elements of the liturgy that may appear at one point or another in the rite. Their placement, however, has significant implications and requires careful attention.

I, The Gathering of God’s People:

Greeting [1]
* Penitential Rite [3]
Song / Act of Praise [1]
Opening Prayer (Collect) [1]

II, Proclaiming and Receiving the Word:

First Reading [1]
Psalm [2]
Second Reading [2]
Gospel [1]
Sermon [1]
Creed [3]
* Silence, songs and other responses [2]

III, Prayers of the People:

Prayers [1]
* The Lord’s Prayer [1]
* Penitential Rite [3]
Peace [1]

IV, Celebrating at the Lord’s Table:

Preparing the Table [1]
Prayer over the gifts [4]
Eucharistic Prayer [1]
* The Lord’s Prayer [1]
Silence [1]
The Breaking of the Bread [1]
Invitation [2]
Communion [1]

V, Going out as God’s People:

Silence [1]
Hymn [4]
Prayer after Communion [2]
Blessing [4]
Dismissal [1]

Compare this with the headings and structures for the Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp 201-221.

Supplemental reading:

Tissa Balasuruya, The Eucharist and Human Liberation (London: SCM Press, 1979).
Paul Bradshaw and John Melloh (eds), Foundations in Ritual Studies: A reader for students of Christian worship (London: SPCK, 2007).
Stephen Burns, Living the Thanksgiving: exploring the Eucharist (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006).
Nell Challingsworth, Liturgical Dance Movement, a practical guide (London and Oxford: Mowbray, 1982)
Patrick Comerford, ‘The Reconstruction of Theological Thinking – implications for the Church in China,’ Search 29/1 (Spring 2006), pp 13-22.
Vivienne Faull and Jane Siclair, Count us in – inclusive language in the liturgy (Bramcote: Grove, 1986, Grove Liturgical Study No 46).
Richard Giles, Creating Uncommon Worship, transforming the liturgy of the Eucharist (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004).
David R. Holeton (ed), Renewing the Anglican Eucharist (Cambridge: Grove, 1996, Grove Worship Series 135).
Graham Hughes, Worship as Meaning, A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge Universty Press, 2003, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine series).
Kevin W. Irwin, Models of the Eucharist (New York/Mahwah NJ: Paullist Press, 2005).
Harold Miller, Making an Occasion of it (Dublin: Church of Ireland Literature Committee, 1994).
Michael Perham (ed), The Renewal of Common Prayer (London: SPCK, 1993).
Varietates Legitimae – Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy, the Fourth Instruction for the Correct Application of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy (Nos. 37-40), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 1994.
Raewynne J. Whiteley, Beth Maynard (eds), Get Up Off Your Knees, preaching the U2 catalog (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2003).


Seminar/Workshop: the ‘Word’ expressed in music and art.

Some links for this seminar:

Keeping score

Douglas Galbraith charts important landmarks in the history of English church music


[The Church Times, 24 September 2010]

Voices raised, hearts lifted

To mark the publication of Sing Praise, the Church Times and the Royal School of Church Music asked people to nominate the best hymns. Jeremy Davies looks at the top five:


[The Church Times, 24 September 2010]

Keeping art and soul together

Pat Ashworth finds that the art of commissioning works for churches has changed a great deal since the swashbuckling days of Walter Hussey


[The Church Times, 19 November 2010]

Let’s have a show of hands

To mark the centenary of the birth of Dean Walter Hussey, Chichester Cathedral has commissioned Jaume Plensa’s sculpture Together for its main aerial space. Anthony Cane’s diary tells the inside story of the commissioning process.


[The Church Times, 19 November 2010]




Next week:

Rites of passage, e.g., Marriages, Funerals

9.2: Seminar: homiletics and homiletics in history: readings may include Augustine, Cranmer, Andrewes, Wesley, Martin Luther King.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on 25 November 2010 in the Module EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality on the MTh course.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Preparing the way for the coming kingdom

The Peaceable Kingdom (ca. 1848), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), oil on canvas, expresses a vision for the kingdom of God, found in Isaiah 11 and anticipated in Matthew 3

Patrick Comerford

Matthew 3: 1-12:

1 Ἐν δὲ ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις παραγίνεται Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστὴς κηρύσσων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τῆς Ἰουδαίας

2 [καὶ] λέγων, Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. 3 οὗτος γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ῥηθεὶς διὰ Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,

Φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ,
Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου,
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ.

4 Αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ Ἰωάννης εἶχεν τὸ ἔνδυμα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τριχῶν καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ, ἡ δὲ τροφὴ ἦν αὐτοῦ ἀκρίδες καὶ μέλι ἄγριον. 5 τότε ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία καὶ πᾶσα ἡ περίχωρος τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, 6 καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ' αὐτοῦ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.

7 Ἰδὼν δὲ πολλοὺς τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων ἐρχομένους ἐπὶ τὸ βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς; 8 ποιήσατε οὖν καρπὸν ἄξιον τῆς μετανοίας: 9 καὶ μὴ δόξητε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸν Ἀβραάμ, λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται ὁ θεὸς ἐκ τῶν λίθων τούτων ἐγεῖραι τέκνα τῷ Ἀβραάμ. 10 ἤδη δὲ ἡ ἀξίνη πρὸς τὴν ῥίζαν τῶν δένδρων κεῖται: πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.

11 ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι εἰς μετάνοιαν: ὁ δὲ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἰσχυρότερός μού ἐστιν, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς τὰ ὑποδήματα βαστάσαι: αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί: 12 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ διακαθαριεῖ τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ, καὶ συνάξει τὸν σῖτον αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ.

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

2 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’

4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’


Our Bible study this morning is the Gospel reading for Sunday week [5 December], the Second Sunday of Advent. The Revised Common Lectionary readings for that Sunday are: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12.

Our Sunday readings for Advent this year are drawn from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, and prepare us for the coming of Christ in glory and majesty, which is far more important a theme for Advent than sending out Christmas cards and preparing for the office Christmas party.

The context:

The Old Testament reading (Isaiah 11: 1-10) looks to the promise of the Coming Messiah, filled with the Spirit of God, ushering in a kingdom in which the wolf shall live with the lamb, the calf with the lion, “and a little child shall lead them” (verse 6) – a Messianic image that has inspired poets, painters and hymn writers throughout the generations.

You may find resonances of these images in both the Psalm (Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19) and the Epistle reading (Romans 15: 4-13) too.

The Gospel reading develops these themes. It may seem out of place in some parishes using the Advent Wreath, for it is customary to recall John the Baptist on the Third Sunday of Advent; the sequence for the Advent Wreath normally follows this pattern:

Advent 1: The Patriarchs;
Advent 2: The Prophets;
Advent 3: John the Baptist;
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary;
Christmas Day: Christ.

But the Gospel reading for the following Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent [17 December] returns to John the Baptist, and explains how his mission has pointed to Christ (see Matthew 11: 2-11).

On the other hand, this Gospel reading links with the Old Testament reading by once again prophesying, anticipating the coming of the Messiah, telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near (see verse 2), and quoting the Prophet Isaiah.

The reading:

The introductory verses (1-3) emphasise John’s preaching, not his baptising. John first and foremost is a preacher, calling us to repentance, μετάνοια (metánoia), true conversion, turning around and reorienting ourselves (see verses 1-2). Compare this with Mark 1:4, “John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism if repentance for the forgiveness of sin.”

John is the one described by Isaiah who is “the voice … crying out in the wilderness” (verse 3). Yes, we go on to hear a description of John’s baptising, but this reading does not include the verses describing the Baptism by John of Christ; instead, it places a greater emphasis on the meaning of that baptism and on the message of John.

In this passage, parallels are drawn constantly between John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah, as we have seen, and Elijah.

The description of John’s clothing of “camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist” (verse 3) draws on descriptions of Elijah as “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist” (see II Kings 1: 8). Although John positively denies that he is Elijah (see John 1: 21), later in this Gospel, Christ speaks of John in terms of the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11: 14; compare with Matthew 17: 10-13).

Unlike Elijah, though, John performs no miracles; it is because of his preaching that John is identified as a latter-day Elijah. He fearlessly confronts the powers of the day, both secular (compare Ahab and Herod) and religious (compare the prophets and priests of Baal with the Pharisees and Sadducees). But John also heralds the coming Day of the Lord – which is part of the prophesy drawing on Elijah at the very end of the Old Testament (see Malachi 4: 5-6). In this way, John acts as a bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

John’s preaching emphasises the coming of the Kingdom of heaven (βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, basileía tou ouranou, see verse 2). The Greek word for kingdom, βασιλεία (basileía), points first and foremost to God’s rule or reign, not to the realm over which he rules. As the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, where God’s will is done, there his kingdom comes (see Matthew 6: 10). When God’s kingdom comes, his will indeed shall be done on earth as in heaven, and justice shall be firmly and truly established. And Advent is a time to prepare for, to anticipate, to look forward to the coming of those days.

Because the kingdom is at hand, John calls those who hear him to repentance (verse 2). The Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια (metánoia), means a change of direction, a change of heart, a change of mind. Those who take John’s preaching seriously must reorient their thinking, their priorities. Their whole outlook must changed once realise the nearness and the demands of God’s reign.

They express that change by confessing their sins and being baptised (verse 6).

What about the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to the baptism (see verse 7). Did they receive John’s baptism? The phrase ἐπὶ τὸ βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ (epí tó báptisma autou, verse 7) means literally “to his baptism” rather than “coming for baptism” (NRSV) or “to where he was baptising” (NIV). Were they spectators, or were they baptised? Did they receive the baptism to signal that they were ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God, or were they hypocrites who had failed to repent?

Is John trying to shock them Pharisees and Sadducees out of their false sense of security (verse 9), and into spiritual awareness by the strong language he uses: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (verse 7).

Christ has not yet arrived at the Jordan, but John’s message already is not primarily about himself, but about the one who is to come (see verse 11-12), who is spoken of in apocalyptic images of the final judgment.

Some questions for discussion:

Did Isaiah actually prophesy anything about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God?

At what point in the life of Christ does Saint Matthew place these events? Is this timing significant? Why?

What was the content of John’s preaching? How does John’s preaching compare to Christ’s?

Do confession and repentance prepare people for the coming of the kingdom?

What does the coming of the kingdom have to do with making the Lord’s paths straight (see verse 3)? How do we make the Lord’s paths straight?

Is John too judgmental of the Pharisees and Sadducees? Would you be so harsh with people who come to church to look and learn?

Why did Jesus have to be baptised?

Did he have to be baptised for repentance?


Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with Year I and Year II MTh students on 24 November 2010.