08 January 2012

‘And a voice came from heaven ... I am well pleased.’

The Baptism of Christ ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 8 January 2012,

The First Sunday after the Epiphany,

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

11 a.m.: The Cathedral Eucharist (Choral Eucharist).

Genesis 1: 1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19: 1-7; Mark 1: 4-11.

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

I wonder this morning just how many of us have already broken our New Year’s Resolutions? It’s only a week since New Year’s Day. But what happened to all those good intentions: to walk a little each day? to eat more sensibly? to give up smoking? to be kinder in word and deed?

We all promise ourselves a new beginning, not just because I want others to think more of me, but because I think more of myself too.

Yes, I am worth it. Not because L’Oréal tells me “Because you’re worth it.” But because I am created in the image and likeness of God; because I am a new creation; because I reflect that new image and likeness, that new creation – at any time of the year, and not just in the seven or eight days after New Year’s Day.

The Birth of Christ brings the promise of the renewal of creation and the birth of a new creation. And Saint Mark’s Gospel is very blunt and direct about this. For Saint Mark, there is no account of the Birth in Bethlehem, the Visit of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, or the Childhood in Nazareth. Instead, he begins his Gospel story, as we have heard this morning, with the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. For Saint Mark, this is not just the dramatic opening that any good storyteller would like. It is, truly, a new beginning, the story of a new creation.

For both the creation account in Genesis and the new creation in Saint Mark’s Gospel, we are told about the light that comes into the darkness, the waters being separated or parted, the Spirit of God hovering over those waters, and the voice of God says this is good.

L’Oréal’s original slogan was: “Because I’m worth it.” In the middle of the last decade, this was replaced by: “Because you’re worth it.” In 2009, this was changed again to: “Because we’re worth it” – following motivation analysis and work into consumer psychology. The shift to “we” was supposed to create stronger consumer involvement and more consumer satisfaction.

But God does not see us as mere consumers to be motivated to buy into what God produces and markets. God creates, not produces. And, in Christ, at the Incarnation, on that first Christmas, God takes on our image and likeness. Because we’re worth it, you’re worth it, I’m worth it.

The Genesis account of creation goes on to say that when God looked at all he created, he said it was good. But when God looked at humanity, he declared we are very good. In Christ, we realise how very good God thinks we are.

Coming into the cathedral in the procession of the crucifer, acolytes, choir and clergy, for the Eucharist Sunday after Sunday, there are constant reminders of this new creation in Christ – divine and human.

As we emerge from the chapter house, there is a stained glass window in the north ambulatory depicting the Baptism of Christ, just as in our Gospel reading.

Then, as we make our way down the side aisle, by the Baptistery, to the West Door, there is a monument most of us pass by without noticing. Squeezed between the West Door and the guide leaflets, arrayed in a variety of languages, it recalls Thomas Abbott, a young and promising lawyer who spent all his adult life, instead of pursuing a career in law, dedicating himself to the poor in inner city Dublin.

Then we move up, through all of us, to this end of the cathedral, for the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament. And I am reminded each Sunday that Christ is among us in so many ways:

● Christ is among us at his Incarnation and at his Baptism, as God in human flesh, with the promise of a new creation, brought to fulfilment in his life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension.

● Christ is among us in our Baptism, for we are baptised into Christ, and baptism makes us all members of the Body of Christ.

● Christ is among us in Word and Sacrament, really present to us as we receive him in the Word and receive him in the Eucharist.

● Christ is present among us as we go out into the world, past that Great West Door and that monument as we who share Christ’s body live his risen life; we who drink his cup bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.

● Christ is present among us in that world, as we find him and as we serve him.

● And Christ is present among us when he comes among us again and asks us did we feed him did we clothe him, did we give him to drink, did we visit him.

The memorial to Thomas Abbott, a founder of the Mendicity Institute, beside the West Door of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

As you go out past that monument, think of how Thomas Abbott tried to bring the light he shared in the Gospel and the Eucharist out into the darkness of the world.

He could have followed the successful career paths that might have been opened up for him by his father, a city alderman, a friend of Arthur Guinness, a campaigner for repeal, and the proprietor of a leading insurance business.

He was a Trinity-educated barrister with offices in then-fashionable Saint Andrew Street, a life member of the Royal Dublin Society, a friend of bankers, brewers and leading politicians.

Instead, he gave all his adult life, from the age of 20, to serving Christ in the poor, the hungry and the marginalised of this city. As that monument tells us, he spent 17 years working every day for the relief the poor on the streets of Dublin. There was no state support for those on the streets to fall back on, no handouts, no welfare payments, no Simon Community, no Trust, no Protestant Aid or Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.

One account of the time tells how they “crowded around the doors of shops, assailing customers” – how many of us know what it is like to find someone with a hand out as we step away from an ATM or out of a shop door in the city centre.

There were few do-gooders at that time. Sermons from those pre-Victorian days, preached by good canons of this cathedral, suggested the poor should be sent back to where they came from, forced to work for what little they might be given, or forced even to wear special clothing.

In those dark days, almost 200 years ago, a few enlightened citizens founded the Mendicity Institution to provide free food, clothing, lodging, schooling for children and training. It worked in cramped and crowded slums between this cathedral and the river, where poverty drove men to drink, forced women into prostitution, abandoned children to exploitation, and thousands were forced to beg in the streets.

The Mendicity Institution was an early example too of charity challenging sectarianism and encouraging ecumenism. No-one would be discriminated against on the basis of their religion, and the institution gained widespread support across the church and political divides.

But the needs and demands broke Thomas Abbott. He died of fever at the age of 36, of a fever brought about, as that monument says, because of his “daily work of mercy.”

Today, the “Mendo” works from Island Street, providing meals for about 70 people each day. Over the years, the people it helps have changed, but the basic object remains the same: to make it unnecessary for men, women and children to beg in the streets of this city, no matter what their religion may be, no matter what their nationality is.

The patrons of the Mendicity are the two archbishops of Dublin, and the deans of Christ Church Cathedral and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Every fortnight, a dedicated team, co-ordinated from this cathedral, helps to provide food, shelter and friendship, without asking any questions. Hundreds of people benefit on those Sunday afternoons from this part of the witness, the outreach and the mission of this cathedral.

In the Psalm sung by the choir this morning, we were reminded of the various ways in which the voice of the Lord is heard. The voice of the Lord is heard too when that group of people, who are here this morning, make the love of God known among those who are so often deprived not only of food and clothing and shelter, but deprived of the assurance of God’s love.

Some of the members of this small group, working on behalf of this cathedral in the “Mendo,” are here this morning. They include Barbara (Comerford), Doug (Hammond), Larry (O’Raw), Máire (Dewar), Marie (Hammond), Philomena (O’Raw), Rachel (Colvin) and Roger (Sterling). Working alongside Charles (Richards), they are working not for themselves, but on behalf of this whole cathedral community, to serve Christ in all they find on those Sunday afternoons.

The Psalmist reminds us too of our call to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29: 2). The great missionary, Bishop Frank Weston, in a speech in 1923, reminded us that our spiritual life must be coupled with a true devotion to Christ in the poor and downtrodden:

“Christ is found in and amid matter – Spirit through matter – God in flesh, God in the Sacrament. But I say to you, and I say it with all the earnestness that I have … you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages.

“You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slums. … go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”

That is what Thomas Abbott was doing almost 200 years ago; that is what this group is doing. And that is what our common Baptism calls us to, what Christ in Word and Sacrament calls us to.

And a good New Year’s resolution might be to start with praying for them. After all, who knows what God may do then with them, with those they help, with us.

At the very least, God will look down on this sign of his new creation, and say that it is good, and that we, them, all of us are his beloved children in whom he is well pleased: ‘And a voice came from heaven ... I am well pleased’ (Mark 1: 11).

And so, may all we 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 Choral Eucharist in the Cathedral on Sunday 8 January 2012.


Eternal Father,
who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
Grant to us, who are born of water and the Spirit,
that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Refreshed by these holy gifts, Lord God,
we seek your mercy:
that by listening faithfully to your only Son,
and being obedient to the prompting of the Spirit,
we may be your children in name and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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