30 October 2011

Bearing the yoke of Christ and ministering in his name

Rabbi Zalman Lent in the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Dublin, with tallit and teffilin, signs of keeping God’s word before us (Photograph: Orla Ryan)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 30 October 2011: The Fourth Sunday before Advent

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

11 a.m., The Eucharist

Micah 3: 5-12; Psalm 43; I Thessalonians 2: 9-13; Matthew 23: 1-12.

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

It was the year John F Kennedy was elected President, the year the ‘Wind of Change’ blew through Africa, the year of the Sharpeville Massacre, the year U2 was shot down and Gary Powers was captured, the year of the Rome Olympics, the year Khruschev took off his shoe in front of Freddie Boland, the year of the Niemba massacre, the year Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Adolf Eichmann were on trial, the year Ben Hur, Coronation Street and Mise Éire were first screened, the year an Archbishop of Canterbury first visited the Vatican ... and the year the farthing went out of circulation.

It was 1960 ... and I was eight years of age.

But what I remember most from that year is the excitement I experienced as my foster parents moved into a new family home on Rathfarnham Road.

The house was only a few doors up from the one I had been born in, and a short walk from the newly-built synagogue, built only seven years earlier.

Over fifty years later, I still feel the excitement of that growing boy as he runs around the empty rooms, delighting in the sound and the echo of his own shoes on the bare floorboards.

But there was something else that was fascinating about that house on Rathfarnham Road. In the kitchen there was a double sink, and double sets of shelves and drawers for crockery and cutlery, one for milk and one for meat. On each doorpost at every room, apart from the bathroom, there was a sloping shadow on the right-hand side, about my head height then but the height of an adult’s shoulder, where a mezuzah had once been affixed.

For this had once been the home of a pious Jewish family, who observed all the 613 commandments or mitzvot set out in the Talmud – 365 corresponding to the number of days in the year, and 248 corresponding to the limbs in a body.

And so began a long, joyful and inquisitive approach to Judaism that has lasted more than fifty years.

It is a beautiful and joyful sight to watch Orthodox Jewish families walking along Rathfarnham Road to the synagogue on Friday evenings or Saturday mornings … the men with their heads covered with hats, the women with their heads covered with hats and wigs.

In the synagogue, the men will don a prayer shawl (tallit) with fringes (tzitzit), and on weekdays a man may wear teffilin or phylacteries, sets of small boxes containing scrolls of Biblical verses. The Greek word in the Gospel reading for the fringe (κράσπεδον, kráspedon) on a prayer shawl is the same word used for a stole, worn by a priest as a reminder of my commitment to God and God’s revelation (the other Greek word for a stole is ἐπιτραχήλιον, hepitrakhélion).

One phylactery (φυλακτήριον, phylaktérion) or shel yad is worn on the upper left arm, close to the heart, with its strap wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers. The other, the shel rosh, is strapped on in a similar way to the forehead.

The mezuzot and the teffilin are traditional, visual expressions of a commandment that these are signs and reminders of how God brought their ancestors out of slavery and into freedom.

It was debatable in Christ’s time – and still is – in some Jewish circles, whether these practices are commanded in the Torah, or whether they were developed in the synagogues and by the Pharisees after the return from the Babylonian exile. But, whatever their origin, our Gospel reading this morning shows that Christ had no problems with these customs. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,” he tells the crowd and his disciples. “Do whatever they teach you and follow it” (Matthew 23: 2).

It is difficult, it is impossible, to imagine Christ reading the scroll and teaching in the synagogues in Nazareth, Capernaum and throughout Galilee (Luke 4: 16-44; see Matthew 4: 23; Mark 1; 21), without wearing his prayer shawl with fringes, and then sitting down in the most visible best seat, the cathedra (see Luke 4: 20, where the word καθίζω, kathízo, is used).

Christ’s problem in this morning’s reading is the disconnection we all make between teaching and doing. Despite how we have become confused in our vocabulary, the word Pharisee is not synonymous with hypocrite. Many of the Pharisees were saintly and holy men, a point missed when we misread the Gospels.

There was nothing wrong with mezuzot and the teffilin per se, despite some interpretations of this passage. There is a problem if what is worn on the outside does not reflect what is inside. What is on doorposts must reflect what is at the heart of the family; what is visible on the head and on the arms must reflect what is invisible in the heart and in the mind.

It is not that there is no point in wearing the best prayer shawls and having a visible seat in the congregation. But there is no point in these things if I am not truly praying, if I am not here to pray and to serve God – not just with my body, but with my heart, my soul and my mind too.

The very word here to sit in the best seat, πρωτοκαθεδρία (protokathedría), has the same root as the word cathedra for a bishop’s throne, and the word cathedral. But this is truly the seat not of the greatest, but of the principle teacher and servant, the one who facilitates and who enables our service, our ministry.

When we have processions in Anglican cathedrals, perhaps with incense, certainly with a cross, candles, robed choir, Gospel book and robed clergy, it is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to remind all of us who we are, why we are here and what we are about to do.

Cathedral processions should, paradoxically, be occasions of joy and of humility. The candles call us into the light of Christ, the cross and the Gospel go before us as reminders that we are inviting all here this morning to prepare to meet Christ, in the Word read and proclaimed, and in his Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

If we love these processions but fail to prepare all of us in this way, then we are like the Pharisees who are condemned in this morning’s Gospel reading. But if we do this properly and with reverence, then we all prepare to meet Christ in Word and Sacrament.

‘We proclaimed to you the Gospel’ (I Thessalonians 2: 9) … Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki, a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Our robes are not a burden laid on any of us (see I Thessalonians 2: 9-13), nor do they allow self-glory and aggrandisement. Instead, they are reminders of who we are serving and what we are doing in Liturgy of Word and Liturgy of Sacrament.

There are traditional Anglican prayers for priests to say while robbing before the Eucharist, each prayer drawing on Scriptural texts:

First, while washing their hands, priests have said: “Cleanse me, O Lord, from all defilement of heart and body, that I may, with clean hands and a pure heart, fulfil your work.”

Putting on the alb, the priest says: “Cleanse me, O Lord, that, made white and washed in the blood of the Lamb, I may serve you faithfully, and at last attain to everlasting joy.”

Putting on the cincture: “Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of your love, and extinguish within me the fire of all evil desire, that the grace of temperance and chastity may abide in me.”

Putting on the stole: “Grant me to so bear your yoke and minister in your name that your word may never return to you void, but may fulfil that to which you have sent it.”

And if the priest is wearing a chasuble, the words are: “Clothe me, O Lord, with the robe of your righteousness, that trusting only in your merits, and resting in your love, all that I do may be acceptable to you.”

The preparatory prayers then include, as an antiphon, words from our Psalm this morning that “I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness” (Psalm 43: 4).

These prayers remind us that as priests we “are witnesses” and that we should be “pure, upright, and blameless” in “our conduct ... towards ... believers,” as the Apostle Paul says in our epistle reading this morning (I Thessalonians 2: 10). Saint Paul reminds Church leaders in this letter to the church in Thessaloniki that we should not burden anyone while we proclaim the Gospel of God. My robes should make me anonymous, so that what I wear and do is not about me, but about Christ and Christ’s work for us in word and sacrament.

The problems arise when I become proud, when I, when we, fail to explain what is happening, when what is visible is not connected with what is happening in my heart, when we fail to give priority to the presence of Christ among us in Word and Sacrament, and the presence of Christ in the Body of Christ which is the Church.

Nowadays, some of us may shy away from wearing our clerical collars and shirts in the marketplace, not because we want to avoid being greeted and shown respect, but because we want to avoid listening to or sharing criticism that the Church often deserves or at least needs to hear.

But they are signs, not of privilege, but of service.

They are signs, not of seeking respect and honour, but of respecting people and honouring God.

They are signs that our lives are dedicated not only to God, but to God’s people.

They are signs that call us not only to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, but call us back to our commitment to facilitating, to serving God’s people so that we may all have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

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

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, 30 October 2011


Almighty and eternal God,
you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints:
Grant to us the same faith and power of love,
that, as we rejoice in their triumphs,
we may be sustained by their example and fellowship;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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