Sunday, 23 December 2012

When he comes, when he comes, who will make him welcome?

The Christmas Tree outside Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, after Choral Evensong this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I was preaching at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning [23 December 2012], and took part in Choral Evensong this evening, reading the New Testament lesson.

The celebrant this morning was the cathedral dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, and the setting for the Cathedral Eucharist was the Missa Ave Regina Coelorum by Tomás Luis de Victoria, sung by the Cathedral Choir. We also had hymns and music by Cyril Taylor (‘Abbot’s Leigh’ for ‘Sing we of the Blessed Mother’) Fred Pratt Green (‘Long ago, prophets knew’) and John Stainer (‘All for Jesus’).

I strolled around the second-hand bookstalls in Temple Bar and had lunch in Corfu in Parliament Street before returning to the cathedral where Choral Evensong this evening was sung by Past Choristers.

This morning, we sang Fred Pratt Green’s ‘Long ago, prophets knew’ as the Offertory hymn. It seemed so appropriate after the thoughts that shaped my sermon:

Long ago, prophets knew
Christ would come, born a Jew,
come to make all things new;
bear his people’s burden,
freely love and pardon.

Ring, bells, ring, ring, ring!
Sing, choirs, sing, sing, sing!
When he comes,
when he comes,
who will make him welcome?

God in time, God in man,
this is God’s timeless plan:
He will come, as a man,
born himself of woman,
God divinely human: Refrain

Mary, hail! Though afraid,
she believed, she obeyed.
In her womb, God is laid:
till the time expected,
nurtured and protected, Refrain

Journey ends! Where afar
Bethlem shines, like a star,
stable door stands ajar.
unborn Son of Mary,
Saviour, do not tarry!

Ring, bells, ring, ring, ring!
Sing, choirs, sing, sing, sing!
Jesus comes!
Jesus comes!
We will make him welcome!

The Revd Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) was an English Methodist minister who wrote numerous plays and hymns. His hymns reflect his rejection of fundamentalism and show his concern with social issues, and they address topics and events that were seldom found in traditional hymns.

He also translated a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the hymn, “By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered.” His poem “The Old Couple” was included by Philip Larkin in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973).

The tune for ‘Long ago, prophets knew’ is the much older ‘Personent hodie,’ from a Christmas carol first published in 1582 in a Finnish collection, Piae Cantiones.

It was first translated into English in by Jane M Joseph (1894-1929):

On this day earth shall ring
with the song children sing
to the Lord, Christ our King,
born on earth to save us;
him the Father gave us.
Id-e-o-o-o, id-e-o-o-o,
Id-e-o gloria in excelsis Deo!

His the doom, ours the mirth;
when he came down to earth,
Bethlehem saw his birth;
ox and ass beside him
from the cold would hide him. Refrain

God’s bright star, o’er his head,
Wise Men three to him led;
kneel they low by his bed,
lay their gifts before him,
praise him and adore him. Refrain

On this day angels sing;
with their song earth shall ring,
praising Christ, heaven’s King,
born on earth to save us;
peace and love he gave us. Refrain

The carol first became popular in England in 1916 with an arrangement by Gustav Holst (1874–1934), whose version often forms part of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, and was part of the service broadcast from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, by BBC 2 last Christmas.

There are several recorded folk versions, but one of my favourites in by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band on their album A Tapestry of Carols (1987).

As you prepare for Christmas, join with me in singing:

Jesus comes!
Jesus comes!
We will make him welcome!

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

Plaster statue Mary, or Magnificat Mary?

The Visitation, by James B. Janknegt

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Sunday 23 December 2012, the Fourth Sunday of Advent

11 a.m., Sung Cathedral Eucharist

Micah 5: 2-5a, Psalm 80: 1-8; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-55.

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

This has been a very short Advent. Once again, I got caught, thinking there are four weeks in Advent, but this year it’s not so. Yes, there are four Sundays in Advent, but there’s just over three weeks. Now that Christmas Day is just around the corner, I’ve been caught again – I have been late in sending a number of Christmas cards, and now I realise they’re probably not going to arrive in the post until well into the New Year.

I kept on ignoring all the advertising from An Post telling me that Christmas begins when I’ve sent the first card. But it sounds so ridiculous ... as though Easter begins when I buy my first Crème Egg.

We have so hyped up the weeks before Christmas that we’ve forgotten to take account of Advent, a time of waiting, a time of preparation, a time of anticipation.

Over these past four Sundays, that time of waiting, preparation and anticipation, we have been preparing ourselves in this cathedral, with the liturgy and the music, with carol services and quiet days, with the Christmas Market and Santa’s grotto in the crypt, with the Advent Wreath and the Crib.

The four candles in a ring around the white candle on the Advent wreath – three purple and one pink candle – have reminded us, week-after-week, of those who prepared us in the past for the Coming of the Christ Child: first the Patriarchs, including Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; then the prophets of the Old Testament; last Sunday, it was John the Baptist; and this morning, the fourth and final candle reminds us of the Virgin Mary.

I find it difficult to accept the Virgin Mary of the plaster cast statues, in her demure blue and white, a strawberry blonde but sanctimonious and pious, with her eyes cast up to heaven.

Last Tuesday, we had a reception here in the crypt for board members, workers and volunteers from the Mendicity Institute. As I brought some of them around the cathedral on tour, it was surprising how many of them raised that old chestnut I so often find being raised by Roman Catholic neighbours, friends and family members.

They are surprised that we have a Lady Chapel. They are surprised that there are icons there telling the stories of key events in the life of the Virgin Mary. They are surprised that there is a statue of Mary at the arch into the Lady Chapel.

I’m sure many of us are familiar with these surprises.

And then I like to say things such as, “Well you know, we pray or sing the canticle Magnificat here in this cathedral every day, at Choral Evensong or at Evening Prayer.” There is surprise that Magnificat is one of the traditional evening canticles for Anglicans.

To paraphrase the surprise, the startled surprise, it’s expressed in words like: “I didn’t think you believe in Mary.”

But the Mary I believe in is not the Mary of those ugly statues that became popular in post-Famine Ireland, almost like some fertility symbol.

The Mary I see as a role model for belief and discipleship is the Mary who sets off in a hurry and a flurry to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the Mary with a gob on her who speaks out of turn when she comes out with those wonderful words we hear in our Gospel reading this morning, the Mary who sings the Canticle Magnificat this morning.

What a contrasting pair these two cousins, Mary and Elizabeth, are!

How much they speak to so many of the dilemmas we have in Irish society today!

Elizabeth is the older woman. She has been married for years. Because of social and family pressures, she had started to become embarrassed that after all those years of marriage she has not become pregnant.

In those days, even in many places to this day, this was an embarrassing social stigma. She had no son to inherit her husband’s lands, his family position, the place of Zechariah as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.

She reminds us too of Sarah, who is so embarrassed at the thought of becoming pregnant in her old age that she laughs in the face of the three visitors, she laughs in the face of the living Triune God.

Today, a woman who became pregnant at her stage of life might not laugh. She might quake with fear. She might ask for amniocentesis or an amniotic fluid test.

And yet Elizabeth takes control of her situation. She turns a predicament into an opportunity, a crisis of a pregnancy so late in life into a blessing for us all.

She is so filled with joy when her cousin Mary arrives that as soon as she hears the knock on the door, as soon as she hears the sound of Mary on her doorstep, her joy is infectious, so infectious that even the child in her womb – the child who would grow up to be John the Baptist – leaps with joy in her womb.

Elizabeth’s action is radical. Life is tough enough for her. Her husband has been struck dumb. A dumb priest was unlikely to be able to continue to earn a liturgical living in the Temple in Jerusalem. How was she now going to provide for her child when he was born?

But Elizabeth’s action is even more radical than that.

How many women of her age, and her respectable background, would have been so quick to rush out and welcome her much younger, single and pregnant cousin?

How many women would have been worried: “What if she stays here and has the child here? Would we ever live with the shame?”

How many women might have suggested instead that Mary goes off and finds a home where they can find someone else to take care of her child when he is born?

Instead, Elizabeth welcomes Mary with open arms. Elizabeth’s joyful greeting, “Blessed are you among women ...,” echoes the greeting of the Archangel Gabriel (see Luke 1: 28), “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

It’s almost as if she is saying: “It doesn’t matter what others think of you. It doesn’t matter how other people are going to judge you. I love you.”

Which is precisely what God is saying in the Incarnation, in the precious gift of the Christmas: “It doesn’t matter what others think of you. It doesn’t matter how other people are going to judge you. I love you.”

Mary for her part is such a wonderful, feisty person.

Her she is, what might be described in the red-top tabloid newspapers today as “a gymslip Mum.”

But instead of hiding herself away from her family, from her cousins, from the woman in her family who is married to a priest, she rushes off to her immediately, to share her good news with her.

And she challenges so many of our prejudices and our values and our presumptions today. Not just about gymslip mums and unexpected or unplanned pregnancies, but about what the silent and the marginalised have to say about our values in society today.

And Mary declares:

51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

It is almost like this is the programme or the agenda we can expect when the Christ Child is born.

The Visitation, by James B. Janknegt

What are you expecting when the Christ Child is born this Christmas, when Christ comes among us?

A plaster-cast Mary and a plastic baby-doll Jesus?

What did Mary and Elizabeth expect?

Would they have been so filled with joy if they knew what was going to happen to their sons?

Would Elizabeth have been so filled with joy if she knew that her son was going to end up not just with the lifestyle of John the Baptist, but tend up with having his head chopped off for challenging the kings and rulers and courtiers of the day?

Would Mary have been so filled with joy if she knew that her son was going to end up on the Cross, that the child she now held so tenderly in her womb she would one day cradle as a corpse at the foot of the Cross?

At the execution of their sons, they must have wondered, Mary and Elizabeth: Is that what all this joy and pain were for?

But we know the answer to that question, if they ever asked it, is “No!”

For in the Incarnation, in the joy of Christmas, God comes among us, and God says, in words that I might use to paraphrase our reading from the Prophet Micah this morning and the promise in our Psalm, again and again every Christmas: “It doesn’t matter what others think of you. It doesn’t matter how other people are going to judge you. I love you.”

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


God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer

Heavenly Father,
you have given us a pledge of eternal redemption.
Grant that we may always eagerly celebrate
the saving mystery of the incarnation of your Son.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son 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 on Sunday 23 December 2012.

With the Saints through Advent (24): 23 December, Frederick Temple

Frederick Temple (1821-1902), Archbishop of Canterbury (1896-1902) … died 110 years ago on this day (Portrait in Exeter Palace)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Fourth and last Sunday of Advent. As we come to the end of Advent today [23 December], there are no major saints in the principal calendars of the Church, and Frederick Temple, with his liberal views on theology and Biblical criticism would hardly have been regarded as a saint by many of his Victorian contemporaries in the Victorian Church of England.

Yet, Archbishop Temple’s own life span in some way symbolizes our journey through Advent: he was born on Saint Andrew’s Day (30 November 1821), and he died the day before Christmas Eve 110 years ago (23 December 1902).

He took costly and risky efforts to reconcile science and religion in his day, faced down harsh criticism from his fellow bishops and clergy, was outspoken in his efforts to promote women’s education, and sided with the working class in their demands for industrial justice.

Although he was initially attracted to Tractarianism as an undergraduate at Oxford, he was unloved by High Church Anglicans for many of his decisions as a bishop and archbishop, yet he continuously sought to maintain Anglican unity and diversity.

During his long and active ecclesiastical career, Frederick Temple (1821-1902) held some of the most important posts in the Church of England during critical periods for the Victorian Church. Temple was an undergraduate and fellow of Balliol College during the Oxford Movement, a close friend of Matthew Arnold, Benjamin Jowett, and Archbishop Archibald Tait, a noted educational reformer and headmaster of Rugby, a contributor of the lead article to the controversial Essays and Reviews, Bishop of Exeter, Bishop of London and finally Archbishop of Canterbury from 1897 to 1902.

He was involved in many crucial events in education, theology, and Church politics in the second half of the 19th century. One of his last acts as Archbishop of Canterbury was to crown Edward VII.

Temple was born on 30 November 1821 in Lefkada in the Greek Ionian Islands, where his father, Major Octavius Temple (1784-1834), was a colonial administrator. Major Temple was transferred to Corfu in 1828, and later became lieutenant-governor of Sierra Leone. When he retired moved to Devon. The archbishop’s grandfather, the Revd William Johnson Temple (1739-1796), was known for his radical views and was a friend of both Samuel Johnson (see 13 December) and James Boswell.

He was baptised in Lefkada by the Revd George Winort, a British military chaplain, on 8 December 1822. As a child in Lefkada, the young Frederick Temple became fluent in modern Greek and Italian. When the family returned to England, he was sent to Blundell’s School, Tiverton, where he earned a Blundell scholarship to Balliol College. Oxford. When he arrived at Oxford, the Oxford Movement was already under way, although Tract XC had yet to be written.

When he graduated in 1842, he was elected fellow of Balliol, and was appointed lecturer in mathematics and logic. He was ordained priest in 1847 four years later, and was appointed the head of Kneller Hall, a college for training masters of workhouses and penal schools.

The college was not a success, and in 1855 he became a school inspector. He could be considered the real designer of the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board in the 1850s. In 1856 he was appointed a chaplain to Queen Victoria, in 1857 he was the select preacher at Oxford University, and in 1858 he took the degrees BD and DD at Oxford.

From 1857 to 1869, Temple was the Dean of the Chapel Royal and Headmaster of Rugby. At Rugby, he strengthened the school’s reputation in classics, set up scholarships in natural science, built a laboratory and reformed the sporting activities. His school sermons emphasised loyalty, faith and duty.

Temple had a lifelong interest in science and religion. In 1860 at the famous meeting of the British Association when Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce engaged in a famous debate, Temple preached a sermon welcoming the insights of evolution.

The publication of the volume Essays and Reviews in 1860, a year after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, stirred controversy. In the book’s opening essay, “The Education of the World,” Temple discussed the intellectual and spiritual growth of humanity, and pointed out the contributions made by the Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and others.

Many people called for the collection of liberal essays to be banned, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford led demands that the headmaster of Rugby should also dissociate himself from his colleagues. However, Temple refused to repudiate his associates, and it was ten years before he decided to withdraw his essay. In the meantime, he published a volume of his Rugby sermons to put forward his own religious views.

Politically, Temple was associated with Gladstone, and supported educational reforms and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. In 1869, Gladstone offered him an appointment as Dean of Durham Cathedral, but Temple wanted to stay at Rugby and declined. Later that year, however, the Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, died, and once again Gladstone turned again to Temple, who accepted the nomination.

Temple’s appointment to Exeter caused a fresh controversy. Archdeacon George Denison of Taunton, Lord Shaftesbury, and others led the protests. Edward Pusey said “the choice was the most frightful enormity ever perpetrated by a Prime Minister.”

When it came to the confirmation of Temple’s election, the chapter of Exeter Cathedral was divided in its vote. But Gladstone stood firm, and Temple was consecrated on 21 December 1869. In his 16 years as Bishop of Exeter, Temple overcame the prejudices of his opponents.

He was Bampton Lecturer at Oxford University in 1884, taking for his subject “The Relations between Religion and Science.” In his eight Brampton Lectures, he states clearly that “doctrine of Evolution is in no sense whatever antagonistic to the teachings of religion.” His Bampton lectures made the theory of evolution respectable and also addressed the origin and nature of scientific, and of religious belief and the apparent conflicts between science and religion on free will and supernatural power.

In 1885, he was elected an honorary fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and he was appointed Bishop of London that year.

As Bishop of London, Temple often worked 14 or 15 hours a day, even in the face of the rapid onset of blindness. He was demanding when it came to standards of diligence and preaching among his clergy and he was a tireless temperance worker. He became known as a friend of the working class, and he attempted to mediate in the London dock strike of 1889.

As his sight continued to deteriorate, he offered to resign as Bishop of London, but when Archbishop Edward Benson died suddenly in 1896, Temple was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury at the age of 76.

Temple presided at the 1897 Lambeth Conference. In the same year, Temple and Archbishop William Maclagan issued a joint response to the papal encyclical Apostolicae Curae, in which the Pope denied the validity of Anglican orders.

In 1899, Temple and Maclagan acted together again, when they responded to an appeal from the bishops of the Church of England and ruled against the use of incense in the liturgy and against carrying candles in liturgical processions. After hearing the arguments the two archbishops decided against both practices.

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Temple was deeply distressed by the divisions within Anglicanism, and in his sermons he called repeatedly for unity.

He was a keen supporter of missionary causes, and in a sermon to mark the opening of the 20th century he said Britain had a supreme obligation to seek to evangelise all nations. He presided over the World Temperance Congress in London in 1900, and also preached on the need for women’s education.

He crowned Edward VII as king in 1902, but by then the strain at advanced age was telling on his health. While he was speaking in the House of Lords on 2 December 1902 on education, he was taken ill. He was revived sufficiently to finish his speech, but he never fully recovered. He died on 23 December 1902, and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

He was succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury by Randall Davidson. Over 100 volumes of Temple’s official papers are kept at Lambeth Palace.

Frederick Temple married Beatrice Blanche Lascelles, daughter of William Sebright Lascelles MP, on 24 August 1876 and they had two sons. His second son, William Temple, was later Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944.

Archbishop Frederick Temple’s monument in Canterbury Cathedral

Prayers of Frederick Temple:

O Lord Jesus Christ,
take us to thyself,
draw us with cords to the foot of thy cross;
for we have no strength to come,
and we know not the way.
Thou art mighty to save, and none can separate us from thy love.
Bring us home to thyself, for we are gone astray.
We have wandered: do thou seek us.
Under the shadow of thy cross let us live all the rest of our lives,
and there we shall be safe. Amen.

Let us take all our wishes, all our longings….to the feet of our Father.

God does not require you to be sinless when you come before him, but he does require you to be unceasing in your perseverance. He does not require that you shall never have fallen; but he does require unwearied efforts. He does not require you to win, but he does require you to fight.

Frederick Temple in his own words:

Am I really what I ought to be? Am I what, in the bottom of my heart, I honestly wish to be? Am I living a life at all like what I myself approve? My secret nature, the true complexion of my character, is hidden from all men, and only I know it. Is it such as I should be willing to show? Is my soul at all like what my kindest and most intimate friends believe? Is my heart at all such as I should wish the Searcher of Hearts to judge me by? Is every year adding to my devotion, to my unselfishness, to my conscientiousness, to my freedom from the hypocrisy of seeming so much better than I am? When I compare myself with last year, am I more ready to surrender myself at the call of duty? Am I more alive to the commands of conscience? Have I shaken off my besetting sins?” These are the questions which this season of Lent ought to find us putting fairly and honestly to our hearts. – Frederick Temple, Biography

We often make our duties harder by thinking them hard. We dwell on the things we do not like till they grow before our eyes, and, at last, perhaps shut out heaven itself. But this is not following our Master, and he, we may be sure, will value little the obedience of a discontented heart. The moment we see that anything to be done is a plain duty, we must resolutely trample out every rising impulse of discontent. We must not merely prevent our discontent from interfering with the duty itself; we must not merely prevent it from breaking out into murmuring; we must get rid of the discontent itself. Cheerfulness in the service of Christ is one of the first requisites to make that service Christian. – Frederick Temple, Biography

In return for the love which brought the Son of Man down from heaven, in return for the love which led him to die for us on the cross, we cannot give him holy lives, for we are not holy; we cannot give him pure souls, for our souls are not pure; but this one thing we can give, and this is what he asks, hearts that shall never cease from this day forward, till we reach the grave, to strive to be more like him; to come nearer to him; to root out from within us the sin that keeps us from him. To such a battle I call you in his name. And even if at the last day you shall not be able to show any other service, yet be sure that when thousands of his saints go forth to meet him, and to show his triumph, he will turn to embrace with arms of tenderness the poor penitent who has nothing to offer but a life spent in one never-ceasing struggle with oneself, an unwearied battle with the faults that had taken possession of his soul. – Frederick Temple, Biography

Further reading:

Peter Hinchliff, Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

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