29 September 2013

Michaelmas blessings in Skerries
with sunshine, sea and sand

Afternoon sunshine casts a silver glow across the harbour waters in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

It feels like ages since I was last in Skerries for a walk on the beach and lunch in the Olive. In fact it is over three months since I was there – on the afternoon of Bloomsday [16 July 2013], a rare rainy day in what has been long and a beautiful, sunny summer.

After celebrating the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and coffee in the crypt, two of us headed through a packed and jammed city centre, and out past the airport through Lusk to Skerries.

I had forgotten that the Skerries Soundwaves Festival was coming to an end today, and that Strand Street would be closed off. However, the Skerries Soundwaves Music and Arts Festival is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and the street party, with street stalls, music and the presence of characters from what was billed as the ‘Goldilocks Show’ added the joys of a warm, sun-filled afternoon, with temperatures still in the high teens.

Afternoon Fare in the Olive in Skerries thisafternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Through the afternoon crush, we found a table in the Olive in Strand Street and there we shared a plate of bread and dips, including black olive tapenade, red pepper Harissa dip and humus, and a goat’s cheese salad. After an absence of more than three months, I can still claim that in the Olive they make the best double espresso in Fingal.

As we strolled up through the town, we stopped briefly in the charity shop run by Skerries Trust, and in a tiny hidden corner I found shelf-after-shelf stacked high with second-hand books. I left pleased with my find and weighed down with an interesting collection, including a book by the American radical evangelical theologian Jim Wallis and another on Jewish liberation theologian.

Rowers in the afternoon silver sunshine in the harbour in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In the bright autumn sunshine, the restaurants, caf├ęs and bars lining the harbour were buzzing with life. Out in the harbour, in between the sails and trawlers, a lone crew was practising rowing skills on the silvery, shining water.

At the pier, we queued at ‘Storm in a Teacup’ and sat for a while, enjoying two ‘Espresso Swirls’ (ice cream in a cup, with a double espresso poured over it, and dressed with a crumbled chocolate flake and cinnamon) as we watched the ebb and flow of the tide and of harbour life, and noted sadly the loss of Shenanigans.

Remembering the victims of the sea at Red island in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

At Red Island, children were climbing the new Skerries Seapole Memorial, which had been unveiled earlier in the morning by President Michael D Higgins. This new memorial is fashioned from the old ‘Pole’ used by lifeboat crews and the Coast Guard as a viewing platform to watch for sailors in difficulty. This has been incorporated into a newly designed plinth with over 270 individual plates with the names of ships and people who have drowned at sea in this area.

The original pole was a local landmark, climbed by generations of Skerries residents and visitors. However, it fell into disrepair and was removed by Fingal County Council for health and safety reasons about a decade ago. But a community-driven campaign to “Bring Back the Pole” was initiated last year by award-winning designer Shane Holland.

Local companies, community leaders and politicians backed the campaign to reinstate the pole. Now the redesigned pole has been installed at the bandstand on Red Island Skerries with individual plates of stainless steel set out around the plinth, marking each loss.

The memorial now forms one of Ireland’s largest registers of marine victims, naming ships, fishermen, U-boats, sailors, swimmers, rescuers and war-time maritime casualties from 12 nations or more over 250 years.

Sea, sand and lingering sunshine on the South Beach in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

From Red Island, we went back to Skerries Sailing Club, and out onto the South Beach, where the waves were rolling in onto the sand. There were few people walking the beach. But one lone surfer had braved the waves, and as we watched he was joined by two kitesurfers.

It was a good afternoon to be back in Skerries after an absence of so many months. We drove back through Rush to join the M50. Later, as we approached Tallaght, the setting sun was shining on the windows as they glittered in silver and gold. Yes, it is true that all that glitters is not gold – or, as Shakespeare tells us in The Merchant of Venice, “All that glisters is not gold.” But this was a beautiful Michaelmas afternoon, blessed by the angels with silver and golden sea, sand and autumn sunshine.

A sandy pathway down to the South Beach (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Welcoming strangers and entertaining
angels without knowing it

The Congregation of All Angels, an icon by a nun from the Monastery of Saint Irene, in an exhibition in Rethymnon earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity [29 September 2013]. I am presiding at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 11 a.m., and the preacher is the Archdeacon of Glendalough, the Ven Ricky Rountree, Rector of Powerscourt and Kilbride, Co Wicklow.

The setting is Judith Bingham’s Missa Brevis ‘Awake My Soul’, and some of the hymns music this morning also recall that today is also the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, including the Processional Hymn, ‘Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels’ (tr Athelstan Riley), the Offertory Hymn, ‘Angel-voices ever singing’ (Francis Pott), and the Post-Communion Hymn, ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’ (Athelstan Riley).

The Gospel reading (Luke 16: 19-31) tells the story of Dives and Lazarus, and both the Epistle reading (I Timothy 6: 6-19) and this morning’s Gospel reading contain severe warnings about the dangers of enjoying wealth and riches without considering the needs of others.

The Apostle Paul is often misquoted as saying money is the root of all evil. But as our Epistle reading this morning reminds us, what he actually tells Timothy is that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and that, “in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Surprisingly, God is not named nor does God feature in this morning’s Gospel story. But then, there is one complete book in the Bible, Esther, in which there is no reference to God at all.

Most people will be surprised to learn too that Dives is not named in this Gospel story either, nor do we have names for any of his five brothers who are also mentioned.

Abraham is named; Moses is named; but the name Dives is one given to the rich man in popular Christian tradition – it is not there in Saint Luke’s telling of the story.

The loss of Dives’ humanity is symbolised by his loss of a personal name. I am baptised with a personal name, and so incorporated into the Body of Christ; that name is how I am known to God and to others – God calls me and you recognise me by my name. Without a name, can Dives remain in the image of God? Can he be called on by others as a fellow human being?

On the other hand, we seldom think of the significance of the name of name Lazarus. The original Hebrew name, Eleazar, means “the Lord is my help,” which is an interesting name when I consider that the rich man in his castle was certainly of no help to the poor man at his gate.

But wealth and poverty are not the only indicators of how we marginalise people, and leave them outside the gate, leave them outside our boundaries, leave them beyond the scope of our welcome.

Who is Lazarus to me today? Who do I exclude, who do I make a stranger at the gate?

We are told that when the poor man in the Gospel reading died, he “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”

The angels who come to welcome Lazarus into the heavenly home call to mind the advice: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13: 2).

An icon of Saint Michael in the Icon Exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon which continued until the beginning of this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

And, of course, those angels in both this morning’s Gospel reading and that passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews remind me that today [29 September] is also Michaelmas, the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, although its celebration is probably being transferred in many places to tomorrow [Monday, 30 September 2013].

The Communion motet at the Cathedral Eucharist this morning is Richard Deering’s ‘Antiphon to Benedictus at Lauds on Michaelmas Day’:

Factum est silentium in coelo dum committeret bellum draco, cum Michaele Archangelo audita est vox milia milium dicentium. Salus, honor et virtus, omnipotenti; Deo. Alleluia (“There was silence in heaven whilst the dragon joined battle with the Archangel Michael. A cry was heard – thousands of thousands saying: ‘Salvation and honour and power be to Almighty God’ Alleluia”).

Angels were the subject of this year’s summer school organized by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and icons of angels featured throughout the Icon Exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon which continued until the beginning of this month.

John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral, reflecting the ruins of the old, bombed cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I am reminded too that Coventry Cathedral is entered through John Hutton’s “Screen of Saints and Angels,” with tall glass panels inspired by Basil Spence’s plans for the new cathedral, rising up from the ruins of the bombed cathedral, and by his vision of a new church rising through a screen of angels and saints, linking the old and the new.

Gazing at this screen, especially on a sunny summer’s day, picking out the angels and archangels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, you see a vivid reflection in the glass of the ruins of the old bombed cathedral behind you.

This morning we can pray that we remain open to welcoming strangers and that we may be pleasantly surprised to find we are entertaining angels. For a Church that marginalises certain identifiable groups of people will be surprised that when we are “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” to find that the marginalised and the excluded are there already.

A Musical Endnote

Last night on Facebook, Professor Brendan McConvery of Maynooth drew my attention to this YouTube clip of Maddy Prior singing Dives and Lazarus during a live performance from Nettlebed Folk Club in Oxford on the ‘Seven For Old England’ tour. The song is on the album of the same name, Seven For Old England.

The tune, which sounds like the air for the Star of the County Down, comes from Vaughan Williams’s Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus for Strings and Harp, which had their first performance in New York in 1939, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult during the World’s Fair.

This performance also comes from New York, given by the CBS Radio Orchestra on 7 February 1954 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, who was a student with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in the 1890s and a long-time champion of the composer’s music.


Almighty and everlasting God:
Increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

All praise and thanks, O Christ,
for this sacred banquet,
in which by faith we receive you,
the memory of your passion is renewed,
our lives are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory given,
to feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.

Saint Michael above the main door in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect of Saint Michael’s Day:

Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted the ministries
of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
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.