Sunday, 27 November 2011

Tender moments in the loving presence of God

‘Then they will see the Son of Man coming’ (Mark 13: 26) … the King of Kings and Great High Priest, an icon from Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 27 November 2011,

The First Sunday of Advent

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

11 a.m., the Cathedral Eucharist

Isaiah 64: 1-9;
Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20;
I Corinthians 1: 3-9;
Mark 13: 24-37

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

I was on my way to work the other morning after a beautiful sunrise, exceptional for this time of the year, and along the banks of the River Dodder in Rathfarnham I was watching the last late autumn leaves still decked out in an array of yellow, orange, brown and green.

I was stuck in traffic, but it was almost a heavenly pleasure.

And in a moment of idleness I thought how this year, throughout this year, throughout 2011, I had managed to find myself visiting places that are snatches of heaven to me – waking up looking out onto the banks of the River Slaney on a crisp early Spring morning; a few days here or a few days there back in Lichfield, in Cambridge, and in Greece; walks on the beach in Skerries, Portrane and Bettystown. And there were tender moments of love with those I love and those who love me; and prayerful moments of being conscious of and anticipating the presence of God.

Late autumn colours along the banks of the River Dodder in Rathfarnham in late November (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

And I mused, in that idle moment on Wednesday morning, that if these were my last days then this year alone I had managed to visit and to stay in places that are so close to my heart.

It is natural, as the year comes to an end, to think of final things and closing days. Earlier in the month, we had All Saints’ Day, (in some churches) All Souls’ Day, and Remembrance Sunday:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

At the end of November we then move towards thinking of the end, not in a cataclysmic way, but because with the beginning of Advent we begin to think of the world as we know it giving way to the world as God wants it to be, to the Kingdom of God.

For many people in Ireland today, the world as they know it is coming to an end. Their businesses have closed. Their jobs have been lost. Their savings and investments have withered away. A large question mark hangs over their pensions and their provisions for the future.

And watching and waiting for the Budget next week offers them no hope for the future.

There is no doubt that in this country two of the major contributors to, causes of, poverty are ill-health and inadequate access to education.

Charging more for health care and for education ensures that more people are going to join those who are in the poverty trap, those who cannot pay more for health care and access to education, and those already there, cannot find hope for the future.

They may feel they are being fed with the bread of tears and given the abundance of tears to drink (Psalm 80: 6), that they are to become the derision of their neighbours (Psalm 80: 7).

Many of us are afraid not only of the coming budget but that our whole financial and economic system is teetering on the brink of collapse. We look at what has happened in Greece, and wonder is there worse waiting around the corner not only for this country, for the whole of Europe too.

The Bank of Greece ... is every European country waiting for a similar economic collapse? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The word often used to describe these fears is apocalyptic – we talk of apocalyptic fears and apocalyptic visions.

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings are classical apocalyptic passages in the Bible. The passage in this morning’s reading in Saint Mark’s Gospel is part of what is sometimes known as the “Little Apocalypse.”

You can imagine the first readers of Saint Mark’s Gospel. They have heard of – perhaps even seen – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Like their fellow Christians in other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps the first Christians in Alexandria have been thrown out of the synagogues, have been disowned by those they once worshipped with, they have been disowned by friends, perhaps even by their closest family members, and face discrimination, loss of social standing, and perhaps even loss of income.

The world as they knew it was coming to an end. They saw their heaven and their earth torn apart (Isaiah 64: 1). And they, like us today, needed some reassurances of love and we, like them, need some signs of hope.

But the tree bearing fruit is a sign that God promises new life. In darkness and in gloom, we can know that God’s summer is always new, there are always rays of hope and glimpses of love (Mark 13: 28).

And everywhere the messengers of God’s good news, the angels, appear in the Gospel, they almost always begin to speak with the words: “Be not afraid.” These are the angel’s opening words to Zechariah in the Temple as he is about to be told of the imminent birth of John the Baptist (Matthew 1: 13). These are the angel’s words to Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1: 30). These are the angels’ opening words to the shepherds on the hillside on the first Christmas night (Luke 2: 10). They are the angel’s opening words to Joseph wondering is he facing a future of disdain and a family disaster (Matthew 1: 20).

If we believe in God’s promises, we must not only set aside our fears. But we need too to show others how we believe, how we expect and how we look forward to being the beneficiaries of hope, being the recipients, the agents and the messengers or ministering angels of love.

It is said Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he was told the world was going to end tomorrow, and he replied he would plant a tree.

The recent heavy rains destroyed an olive tree I was given this year as a present and that I was hoping to see grow in my back garden. But its leaves faded and it was taken away with the rains and the wind (see Isaiah 64: 6).

An olive grove on a hillside in Crete, looking out over the Mediterranean (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

If these were my closing days, I too would like to plant an olive tree, despite the unmeasurable variations in weather we are experiencing in Ireland in recent winters.

Some of us receive bad news from time to time. More of us know and love someone who has recently received truly bad news.

But if you were told the end is coming, if you were told there was no tomorrow, or no next week, what would you do?

Would you want to spend those last few days closing that business deal?

Would you finish a long-delayed project?

Would you want to take that world cruise?

Would you finish that great novel?

Would you join me in planting that olive tree?

Or would you rise early to glory in the sunrise, listen to the waves rolling in onto the beach, stand beneath the last autumn leaves falling from the trees by the river bank, or prayerfully watch the sunset?

Sunrise in Knocklyon a few days ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

And even though all those are true pleasures and blessings at one and the same time, I think, if I was told that the end is coming, that these are my final days, then most of all I would want to tell those I love how much I love them, and hear once again, what I know already, that I too am loved.

And I would want to tell God how much I love God and to thank God for all the blessings, all the love, that I have received throughout my life. Because of God’s generosity I have not been lacking in anything … in anything that really matters at the end of my days (I Corinthians 1: 4, 7).

So, if that’s what we would do if we were told these are the closing days, maybe we should ask: Why not do that now?

Would you tell your children, your partner, your parents, your brothers and sisters, that one last time, that you love them?

Would you wrap the person you should love the most in one long, tender embrace?

We are the doorkeepers of our souls and our hearts (Mark 13: 34-37).

And if Christ comes this evening, tonight, early in the morning, or on my way to work tomorrow, will he find me sleeping on my responsibilities to be a sign of hope and a living example of true, deep, real love? (Mark 13: 35-36).

Will he find the Church sleeping on its call, its mission, to be a sign of the kingdom, a beacon of hope, a true and living sacrament of love?

In days of woe and in days of gloom, the Church must be a sign of hope, a sign of love, a sign that if even if things are not going to be get better for me and for others in my own life time, God’s plan is that they should be better (Mark 13: 27, 31).

In a world that needs hope, in a world that is short on love, then the Church, above all else, must be a visible sign of hope, must be a visible sign of love. If we cannot love one another in the Church, how can expect to find signs of hope and love in the world?

Advent calls us again to be willing to be clay in the hands of God who is our Father and who is the potter (Isaiah 64: 8), so that we can be shaped into his vessels of hope and of love, so that we can be signs of the coming Kingdom, so that our hope and our love give others hope and love too in the dark days of our winters.

Advent calls on me to create new space and to reorder my priorities. To be still. To experience some quiet. To be reminded who we are – God’s beloved children.

Mark Twain once said: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

What would you do if the world were to end tomorrow? You do not need to wait. You can do those things now.

Finish the work you started. Be reconciled to those who need you. Be faithful to the people and tasks around you. Undertake some small and wonderful and great endeavour. Be a sign of hope. But most of all – love the ones you want to and ought to love.

Why not? For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again, in the name of love.

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


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.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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 27 November 2011.

Advent in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Advent, the beginning of the Church Year, begins today [Sunday 27 November 2011], the First Sunday of Advent. I am preaching at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 11 a.m. this morning, and taking part in the Advent Procession at 5 p.m. this evening.

The celebrant at the Cathedral Eucharist at 11 a.m. this morning is the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, and the setting is the Messe Solennelle by Louis Vierne (1870-1937), who died after a stroke or a heart attack while giving an organ recital at Notre-Dame de Paris.

The choir is singing a section of the Advent Prose in the procession, and the first candle on the Advent Wreath is being lit before the Gospel reading. The Offertory hymn is one of my favourite Advent hymns, Long ago, prophets knew, by the Revd Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), to the tune Personent hodie, a melody from Piae Cantiones (1582).

Green’s hymns reflect his rejection of fundamentalism and show his concern with social issues. Many that were written to supply the liturgical needs of the modern church, looking at topics or events for which few traditional hymns were available.

This afternoon’s Advent Procession at 5 p.m. includes carols and readings by candlelight. The music sung by the Cathedral Choirs includes:

● Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Deo Gratias: This from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols (1942), completed at the height of World War II, and is his setting of a 15th century carol.
● William Byrd (1539-1623), Rorate Colei;
● Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), Magnificat: This is one of the most extended of Finzi’s shorter choral works, and was written in 1952 for the choir of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts – the composer’s first overseas commission. It was intended for a Christmas Vespers service, rather than for standard liturgical use, concluding with an Amen and not a Gloria.
● Herbert Howells (1892-1983), A Spotless Rose: one of his Three Carol Anthems -- the other two are Here is the little door and Sing Lullaby. They were composed between 1918 and 1920, and they are the first of his choral works to “consistently display the same level of aural imagination and technical refinement as his chamber music and songs of the same period ...”
● Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988), Of a Rose is all my song: This is a setting for a 15th century traditional, anonymous text.
● Paul Manz: Peace be to you: This work draws on the words in Revelation 21: 1-4.

The works by Howells and Leighton are three of the most beloved Christmas pieces in the Anglican tradition, while Manz is a Lutheran composer.

The Special Advent and Christmas services in Christ Church Cathedral continue throughout December, and this year they include:

● A Charity Carol Service, 1.10 p.m., Tuesday 13 December.
● The Cathedral Choir Christmas Concert, 8 p.m., Thursday 15 December.
● A Service of Five Lessons and Carols with the combined cathedral choirs, 3.30 p.m., Sunday 18 December.
● A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols with the combined cathedral choirs, 8 p.m., Monday 19 December.
● The First Eucharist of the Nativity, 11 p.m., Christmas Eve, Saturday 24 December.
● The Festal Sung Eucharist for Christmas Day, 11 a.m., Sunday 25 December.

Meanwhile, Christ Church Cathedral is also hosting Christmas markets in the crypt and cathedral grounds. The first of these was yesterday [Saturday, 26 November] and the Christmas markets continue for the next three Saturdays (3, 10 and 17 December 2011).

Canon Patrick Comerford is a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute .