Saturday, 10 March 2012

Staying over in Virginia

The Park Hotel, Virginia ... once the hunting lodge of the Taylour family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the special Church of Ireland conference in the Slieve Russell Hotel, Ballyconnell this [Friday and Saturday], I have been blessed to be a guest in Virginia, Co Cavan, of a long-time friend, the Ven Craig McCauley, who is Archdeacon of Kilmore and Rector of Lurgan.

Lurgan is the name of the Church of Ireland parish in Virginia, a small town on the Cavan/Meath border with a population of about 4,000. The town stands close to the shores of Lough Ramor, and is planning later this year to mark the 400th anniversary of its foundation in August 1612.

Virginia is on the N3, about 85 km north-west of Dublin. Although Virginia is known in Irish as Aghanure (Achadh an Iúir, “field of the yew”), its origins lie in the Plantation of Ulster and the town was named Virginia after the “Virgin Queen,” Queen Elizabeth I, who also gave her name to Virginia in the US.

Virginia began as a part of the Ulster Plantation in August 1612, when an English adventurer, John Ridgeway, was granted a Crown Patent to build a new town mid-way between Kells and Cavan. The conditions of settlement included introducing English settlers to the area and building the town to incorporated borough status.

However, Ridgeway found it difficult to attract sufficient English trades-people and settlers to a hostile territory outside the Pale. He passed his patent on to Captain Hugh Culme, who already held lands on the shores of Lough Oughter in Co Cavan. Culme persuaded the Plantation Commission to move Virginia to its present location close to the Blackwater River. However, he too failed to meet the Commission’s time frame for developing the town and gave up on the task.

In November 1622, the Virginia estate passed to Lucas Plunkett, Earl of Fingall, who held extensive lands around Co Meath and who undertook to complete the project. But in 1638, Virginia’s residents complained to the Commission about slow progress, and Christopher Plunkett, 2nd Earl of Fingall, was ordered to submit a substantial bond with the Commission court and to build the church in Virginia or forfeit his Co Cavan lands.

The Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore, William Bedell, undertook to lay out the town, but the events that led to the Rebellion of 1641and Irish Confederate subsequent wars enveloped Virginia, with widespread destruction and depopulation. In 1642, government forces destroyed the castle and burned of stocks of hay, corn and turf in a bid to punish the outlawed Earl of Fingall for besieging of the garrison at Drogheda. When the wars came to an end in 1660, Virginia was left with a tiny resident community.

The Virginia estate was sold around 1750 by the Plunkett family to pay off mounting debts, and was bought by Thomas Taylor, Lord Headfort, who had plans to continue developing the town that others had failed to build.

The Taylor (later Taylour) family turned their attention to making the unproductive lands around Virginia into profitable farms through land drainage and afforestation. The town also became a strategic staging and resting point for coaches between Enniskillen and Dublin,

These improvements brought employment along with markets and fairs to Virginia, and the population soon doubled in population. On the shores of Lough Ramor, the heirs of the Taylour family, which held the titles of Lord Headfort, Earl of Bective and Marquess of Headfort, created their own private demesne and a hunting lodge, now the Park Hotel.

The Headfort family built their hunting lodge on the shores of Lough Ramor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Virginia recovered quickly after the Famine, and in the following years a Butter market was built in 1856, and a railway line opened between Kells and Oldcastle in 1863.

Virginia’s most famous Virginia emigrant was Philip H. Sheridan, who left Ireland around 1830 and became a famous general in the American Civil War. Other famous people associated with Virginia are Dean Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels while staying nearby at Quilca, the home of his clerical friend and colleague, the Revd Thomas Sheridan, later became headmaster of Cavan Royal School. The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was descended from the same family.

The Church of Ireland parish is known as Lurgan. Admiral Sir Josias Rowley was a brother of the Revd John Rowley, Rector of Lurgan, and helped to finance rebuilding the parish church after a major fire on Christmas Night 1830.

Virginia has been home to the Virginia Agricultural Show for over 60 years, has twice won the Tidy Towns Competition in the mid-1960s. The local industry today consists mainly of farming and milk processing, including cream for Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur, and is home to Ireland’s only Pumpkin Festival.

Light and darkness in Saint John’s Gospel (John 3: 14-21)

Nicodemus visiting Christ in the dark ... where did the light shine through?

Patrick Comerford

Sunday week [18 March 2012], is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) are: Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2: 1-10; John 3: 14-21.

There is a typographical error in the Church of Ireland Directory 2012, which gives the Old Testament reading as Numbers 24: 4-9, although the correct reading is given in The Book of Common Prayer (2004) (see p. 36), and on the Church of Ireland website.

However, there are other provisions for that Sunday. The lectionary provisions for Mothering Sunday are: Exodus 2: 10 or I Samuel 1: 20-28; Psalm 34: 11-20 or Psalm 127: 1-4; II Corinthians 1: 3-7 or Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 33-35 or John 19: 25-27.

I am enough of a realist to realise that many parishes are going to opt for those readings, and some may even use the readings provided for Saint Patrick’s Day (17 March), which falls the previous day: Tobit 13: 1b-7 or Deuteronomy 32: 1-9; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38.

But if either of these sets of readings is used, then we miss the opportunity for continuity in our Lenten readings and the opportunity for continuity in Lent itself. So, for our Bible study in our tutorial group this morning, I have prepared notes on the Gospel reading provided for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, John 3: 14-21.

John 3: 14-21

[ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ,]

14 καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, 15 ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλ' ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ. 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται: ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ. 19 αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ κρίσις, ὅτι τὸ φῶς ἐλήλυθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον καὶ ἠγάπησαν οἱ ἄνθρωποι μᾶλλον τὸ σκότος ἢ τὸ φῶς, ἦν γὰρ αὐτῶν πονηρὰ τὰ ἔργα. 20 πᾶς γὰρ ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων μισεῖ τὸ φῶς καὶ οὐκ ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ: 21 ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα φανερωθῇ αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα ὅτι ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα.

[Jesus answered him,]

14 ‘[And j]Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’


The full story that provides the context for this reading, John 3: 1-21, is one that contains two of the most oft-quoted passages in Saint John’s Gospel: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (or “born again”) (verse 5); and “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (verse 16).

The placing of this story in Saint John’s Gospel is one of the keys to understanding it.

Already, in this Gospel, we have heard about the incarnation and the Word made flesh; John has borne witness to him as the Lamb of God; Christ has begun to gather disciples as witnesses to him as the Messiah; the first sign, at the wedding in Cana, presupposes the transcendence of all the established religion of the day in the self-offering of the Lamb of God, symbolised in the Eucharist; an the cleansing of the Temple shows that the sacrificial system is being replaced by the one true sacrifice in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Now we have an encounter with someone whose immediate concern is with the interpretation and the application of the law, for Nicodemus is both a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin.

Saint John’s Gospel is the only Gospel to tell the story of Nicodemus. He is not mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, although some commentators have tried to identify him also with the rich young ruler in Saint Mark’s Gospel (see Mark 10: 17 ff) or with other figures in the synoptic Gospels.

The setting:

Verse 1: Nicodemus, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων, is a leader of the Jews, in other words a member of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes and elders, presided over by the High Priest.

Verse 2: Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Perhaps, as a leading member of society, a very worldly figure perhaps, he did not want to be seen consulting this newly-arrived rabbi who has already caused a stir in Jerusalem. But remember the poetic and dramatic way in which John draws on contrasting images: heaven and earth, water and wine, seeing and believing, faith and understanding, truth and falseness. Here we have the contrast between darkness and light. The world that is in darkness is being brought into the light of Christ.

Nicodemus opens the conversation by referring to the signs, an important theme and key to understanding the Fourth Gospel. And he confesses a simple faith in Jesus as a teacher sent by God. But John the Baptist has already been described as a man sent by God (John 1: 6). So that is not enough – that is simply an understanding of Christ without the crucifixion and the Resurrection. At this point, Nicodemus has seen but he does not believe; he has insight but does not have faith.

Verse 3: The reply of Jesus puts the emphasis back on faith rather than understanding, on believing more than seeing. The Kingdom of God is not entered because of moral achievement, but because of transformation brought about by God.

There is a contrast between what Nicodemus sees and what those of faith may see. To “see” the Kingdom of God is not possible literally at that moment in time. For Christ, in this saying, to see is to experience. To experience the world in the light of the insights of the New Testament is so radically different an experience that it is like being born anew, being born once again.

The key word here is ἄνωθεν which as the double meaning of “from above” and “again.” The words translated as “being born from above” in NRSV (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) could also be translated as “born anew” (RSV). Or it may mean “from the upper country” (physically or geographically) or “from above,” “from heaven.”

A new birth, a second birth, getting a whole new take on life, a new beginning, a fresh, refreshing start … what do you think is meant here? What has been your experience?

Verse 4: As we go on in the story, we see how difficult it was for Nicodemus to understand what Jesus was saying.

Verse 5: Entry into the kingdom experience, birth into the new order, is through water, or baptism (see John 1: 33; Ephesians 5: 26), through the Spirit (see Ezekiel 36: 25-27), and through water and the Spirit (Titus 3: 5-7). These are not separate actions – remember how the Spirit descended and remained on Christ at his Baptism by John (see John 1: 32-34).

Verse 6: Like begets like.

Verse 7: You – the Greek pronoun here (ὑμᾶς) is in the plural, or as it might be written in Dublin slang, “yous.”

Verse 8: The wind (πνεῦμα): the Greek word here means both spirit and wind, while the word “sound” can also be translated as “voice.” See Ezekiel 36: 25-27, where it says: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

Verse 9: Nicodemus has floundered around, he really fails to grasp what Jesus is saying and its implications. His question is phrased “How can this be?” (RSV) or “How can these things be?” (NRSV). Others suggest his question should be translated as: “How can these things happen?” or even more literally: “How is it possible for these things to happen?”

Verse 10: A teacher ought to be aware of the truth. But Nicodemus is behaving like a weak pupil.

Verse 11: In this verse, the first use of the word “you” is singular … “you yourself” as opposed to “yous,” but the second use is plural. Notice how Jesus moves from the second person singular to the first personal plural, from you to we, then you (plural) and our. Who is the “we” here, who owns what is “our” testimony?

Verse 12: We have here a contrast between earthly things, such as the parable of the wind (see verse 8), and heavenly things, as in supreme spiritual realities. And Nicodemus is offered choice. Which choice does he make?

Verse 13: Christ descended from heaven to bring eternal life, participation in God’s life. This is the first of John’s three sayings about the Son of Man being lifted up, comparable to three passages in Saint Mark’s Gospel on the Son of Man’s passion (see Mark 8: 31; Mark 9: 31; Mark 10: 33).

The Sunday Gospel reading:

Verse 14: The word “lift up” refers to both Christ being lifted up on the Cross and Christ being lifted up into heaven … the cross is the first step on the ladder of the ascension. For the imagery being drawn on here see the Old Testament reading provided for the same Sunday (Numbers 21: 4-9). The writer of the Book of Wisdom calls the serpent a symbol of salvation (Wisdom 16: 6). But this verse also recalls the earlier remark to Nathanael that he would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (see John 1: 51).

“God so loved man (humanity)” ... Guizhou Theological Training Centre in Guiyang Province in central China (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2005)

Verse 16:

For many, this verse is a summary of the whole Gospel. Martin Luther called this much-quoted verse “the Gospel in miniature.”

This passage is a favourite inscription to place on the outside walls of churches in China. But it is often translated in Chinese as “God so loved man (humanity) …” It is not that God so loved the saved, or even all of humanity, or even the world, but that God so loved the cosmos (κόσμος), the whole created order, that he gave, or rather sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

The statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris (1989) on the harbour front in Pythagóreio on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In Pythagorean thinking – and remember that John was in exile on Patmos, the neighbouring island of Samos, where Pythagoras was born – the cosmos (κόσμος) includes the arrangement of the stars, “the heavenly hosts,” as the ornament of the heavens (see I Peter 3: 3); it is not just the whole world, but the whole universe, the whole created order; it is earth and all that encircles the earth like its skin.

And this love is the beginning of Missio Dei, God’s mission – he sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

To perish and to have eternal life are absolute alternatives.

By now the dialogue has become a monologue.

Verse 17:

The same Greek verb (κρίνω) can means to separate, to select or to condemn, and to approve and to judge. God’s purpose is not to condemn but to save.

Verses 18-19:

Individuals judge themselves by hiding their evil deeds from the light of Christ’s holiness.


So what happened to Nicodemus?

This is his first of three appearances in this Gospel. We shall meet him again a second time when he states the law concerning the arrest of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:45-51).

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea claim the Body of Christ before dark falls

The third time follows the Crucifixion, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Christ down from the cross before dark, and preparing the body for burial (John 19: 39-42).

So in the story of Nicodemus, we find birth is linked with death, new birth is linked with new life, and before darkness falls Nicodemus really comes to possess the Body of Christ, to hold the Body of Christ in his hands.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible Study with part-time M.Th. students on Saturday 10 March 2012.

Poems for Lent (15): ‘Desert Places,’ by Robert Frost

White landscape after a snowstorm in desert near Tabuk, north-west Saudi Arabia (Photograph: Mohamed Alhwaity/Reuters)

Patrick Comerford

Lent is a reminder of our own Desert Places – desert places that we make for ourselves and that we have made for us.

I found myself waiting twice this week for injections and medical tests – once for four hours after a long working day. Those four hours became my own little desert for a whole evening.

I was both a patient and patient, as I sat waiting and reading. As I read through the Guardian that evening, I thought of how easy it is to say we make our own deserts and wildernesses and that they are what we make of them.

A photograph that Monday on page 18 of child refugees from Syria, who had fled to border village of Qaa in Lebanon, brought home how people are having desert places made for them in Homs and other parts of Syria. And I recalled what Tacitus once said and how it could be applied to the regime in Damascus: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

The woes of the people in Syria have been compounded in the past week by heavy falls of snow. I had forgotten too that the desert could be place of snow until I turned to page 19 of Monday’s Guardian and then saw a photograph of a Bedouin with camels in the snow in Tabuk in north-west Saudi Arabia. Sitting, waiting for injections and tests, my thoughts turned to Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Desert Places,’ with his images of snow falling, animals in their lairs, and his reminder that:

I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) is one of the most popular American poets of his generation, and received four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. The poet and critic Randall Jarrell said Frost, along with Wallace Stevens and TS Eliot, “seems to me the greatest of the American poets” of the last century.

Frost draws on settings from rural life in New England in the early 20th century to examine complex social and philosophical themes, and he combines his realistic depictions of rural life with language and phrases drawn from American colloquial speech.

This poem, which I have chosen as my Poem for Lent this morning, was first published in A Further Range (1936). Some regard this as one of Frost’s bleaker poems, but it is an appropriate poem for contemplation on a Saturday morning in Lent.

Snow blankets Firhouse and Knocklyon at the end of 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Desert Places, by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

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