Saturday, 23 April 2011

Waiting at the tomb on Holy Saturday (3)

The Taking down from the Cross

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 23 April 2011 (Holy Saturday):

Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham Co Dublin.

Reading 3:
John 19: 38-42.

Reflection 3: TS Eliot, Journey of the Magi (1927).

We have just been considering how Candlemas is a link, a bridge between Christmas and Easter, between birth and death.

The same link between birth and death can be found in the Feast of the Epiphany, although it first it may be difficult to contemplate because of the way we have conflated our celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany.

The link, of course, has been popularised in folklore and popular celebrations through our notions of the Twelve Days of Christmas. But the link between Epiphany and Easter has been expressed poetically by TS Eliot in his poem, Journey of the Magi.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

Eliot wrote this poem after his conversion to Christianity and his confirmation as an Anglican on 29 June 1927. The poem was published in 1930 in Ariel Poems, along with our earlier poem, A song for Simeon. Later, Eliot became churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s in Gloucester Road, London, and he remained a lifelong Anglo-Catholic.

The Journey of the Magi is a truly Anglican poem, for the first five lines are based on the 1622 Nativity Sermon of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who oversaw the translation and publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible 400 years ago in 1611, and who is buried by the High Altar in Southwark Cathedral.

It was Lancelot Andrewes who summarised Anglicanism in the dictum “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.”

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In his sermon on the Epiphany at Christmas 1622, “Of the wise men come from the East,” Andrewes opens with the words:

“It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter’.”

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. It picks up his consistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

But, instead of a being a celebration of the wonders of the journey, the wise man in the poem recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that “this was all folly.”

At first, it appears, the Wise Man from the East was not impressed by the new-born infant. But he came to realise that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?


On the journey, they saw “three trees against a low sky” – a vision of the future Crucifixion. The Incarnation points to Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The “running stream” may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is an Epiphany moment.

The “six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, which is also recalled at Epiphany time.

The early morning descent into a “temperate valley” evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death? A witness of historical change, does he manage to rise above his historical moment? With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings? Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

The Adoration of the Magi ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Journey of the Magi – T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


King’s College, Cambridge ... John Rutter says the ideals of beauty and calm reverence he associates with King’s Choir “represent inspiration and hope in an often heart-breakingly cruel and disordered world” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Music 3: Pie Jesu, John Rutter, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 3’ 32”.

Four our final musical reflection this evening, I invite us to listen to Pie Jesu, from John Rutter’s Requiem, and sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, directed by Stephen Cleobury and accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia.

The English composer John Rutter says the ideals of beauty and calm reverence he associates with King’s Choir “represent inspiration and hope in an often heart-breakingly cruel and disordered world.”

He has been director of music at Clare College, Cambridge, and is the founder of the Cambridge Singers. His compositions are chiefly choral, and include Christmas carols, anthems and extended works such as a Gloria, a Magnificat, and a Requiem. He is known in many circles in this country for his arrangement of the Wexford Carol.

Unlike most of Rutter’s work up to this point, his Requiem was not commissioned – a personal bereavement was the immediate reason for writing it.

Rutter’s Requiem was completed in 1985 and lasts about 40 minutes. It is a lyrical choral piece with an orchestral accompaniment, and contains many dissonant chords. Three of the pieces were written specially for King’s, and the full Requiem was first performed in 1985 in Dallas, Texas; movements 1, 2, 4, and 7 had been performed earlier in Sacramento, California. Rutter conducted both performances. The Lord is my Shepherd was first written in 1976 as a separate anthem.

The first movement consists of the Introit from the Requiem Mass (Requiem aeternam) and the Kyrie. The second movement, Out of the Deep, is based on Psalm 130, often used at Anglican funerals.

The third movement is the motet Pie Jesu. It begins with a lyrical soprano soloist singing with a very light accompaniment, with only a slight involvement by the chorus echoing the words: “Dona eis requiem, Dona eis sempiternam requiem.”

Pie Jesu is a motet derived from the final couplet of the Dies Irae and it is often included in musical settings of the Requiem Mass and funerals. Requiems by Cherubini, Fauré, Duruflé, Rutter, Jenkins and others include a Pie Jesu as an independent movement. Of all these, by far the best known is Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Reuiem. Saint-Saens said of it: “Just as Mozart’s is the only Ave verum corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu.”

The original text, derived from the Dies Irae sequence, is:

Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem,
dona eis requiem.

Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem sempiternam

Kind Lord Jesus,
grant them rest,
grant them rest.

Kind Lord Jesus,
grant them everlasting rest.


Later, Rutter composed his Mass of the Children after the sudden death of his son, Christopher, while he was a student at Clare College, Cambridge – where Rutter himself had studied.

He describes the Pie Jesu in his Requiem as a personal prayer to Christ. He translates the Latin text as:

Blessed Lord Jesus, grant them rest.
Blessed Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest.


And so, we listen to our final piece of music this evening knowing that we can take our rest in Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the third of three reflections for a service of readings, meditations, art poetry and music at the grave on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.

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