Sunday, 6 April 2014

A day to enjoy the warm weather and
sing about the Meeting of the Waters

Full colours in the flower beds at Avoca in Kilmacanogue, Co Wiclow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I served as Deacon at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning (6 April 2014), the Fifth Sunday in Lent, reading the Gospel (John 11: 1-45) and assisting with the chalice at the administration of the Holy Communion.

The celebrant was the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, the Revd Robert Lawson assisted as sub-deacon, and the preacher was Canon William Deverell of Saint Maelruain’s Parish, Tallaght.

The setting for the Eucharist was the Messe en sol majeur by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), sung by the Cathedral Choir.

Trees in flower at Avoca in Kilmacanogue, Co Wiclow, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later, after coffee in the cathedral crypt, two of us went for lunch in Avoca in Kilmacanogue, near Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.

I know a publican in Lichfield who says people have natural, in-built thermostats because once the temperatures reach 16 they start to move outdoors to eat or drink.

The temperatures had reached 16 this afternoon, the sun was shining, the skies were blue, the flowers and the buds on the trees were in radiant bright colours, and people were sitting out on the tables on the terrace on Avoca, lingering over lunch and coffee.

Walking along the sea defences at the North Beach in Arklow, Co Wicklow, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later, we drove on south through the Glen of the Downs, and our plan was originally to go for a walk on the beach at Brittas Bay. But we continued on instead as far as Arklow, at the southern edge of Co Wicklow.

Close to the Bridgewater Shopping Centre on the north side of Arklow Bay, we went for a walk along the sea defences above the North Beach, close to the Arklow Bay Hotel.

Reeds at the small lake by the North Beach im Arklow, Co Wicklow, (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

There was a high tide, and the waves were beating strongly against the large rocks and boulders on the sea defences. The sun was still shining, and below us, on the other side of the defences, a small boating lake was filled with swans, geese and ducks and families were enjoying the walks along the nature trail.

Colourful and picturesque Avoca was the location for the television series Ballykissangel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

From Arklow, we drove west into the Wicklow Mountains, and the village of Avoca, which had once been used as the location for the television series Ballykissangel … and once even had its own Greek restaurant.

We turned south to Woodenbridge, to photograph the hotel where John Redmond made a famous speech in 1914 urging Irish men to volunteer for the British Army at the beginning of World War I.

At the meeting of the Waters … an inspiration for the poet and songwriter Tom Moore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

We then made our way back north through Avoca to the Meeting of the Waters, where the River Avonmore and River Avonbeg meet at a confluence that once inspired Thomas Moore. Here the two rivers join and flow on south as the Avoca River, though Avoca and Woodenbridge to the sea at Arklow Bay.

Ardavon House … once a Comerford family home in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, but now in a sad state of decay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Our last stop was in Rathdrum. Although it was long after 6, the sun was still shining and it looked deceptively like summer with people sitting outside the village pubs enjoying the exceptional weather.

We stopped briefly at Ardavon House, once home to generations of a branch of the Comerford family.

Ardavon House once occupied a prominent site at the northern end of the village, facing the junction of the Main Street with the roads to Lowtown and to Clara, Laragh and Glendalough.

This had been a Comerford family home until 1958, when it was acquired by the Wicklow County Vocational Education Committee (VEC). It was a school until the end of 1991 when it was superseded by the newly built Avondale Community College. The woodwork used in the construction of Ardavon was pitch pine, said to have been salvaged from a vessel wrecked off the Wicklow coast.

Ardavon House was badly destroyed in a fire in 1997. Despite local authority undertakings to rebuild it, the house stands derelict, a sad reminder of former days.

We turned back through the village, and returned through the Glen of the Downs and Kilmacanogue as the bright sunshine continued.

What is the legacy of Brian Boru and
the Battle of Clontarf after 1,000 years?

A carving behind the bar in Clontarf Castle depicting the Battle of Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The date 1014 has the same place in Irish memories as 1066 in England, 1776 in the United States, 1789 in France or 1917 in Russia, so that the Battle of Clontarf holds as many inherited memories as Hastings in England, Bannockburn in Scotland, Bunker Hill in America, or the Bastille in France.

1014 ... a date deeply etched in Irish memories from schooldays (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The events planned to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf and the death of Brian Boru on Good Friday 1014, include battle re-enactments, exhibitions, lectures and tours. The National Museum of Ireland has an exhibition on the Viking Age in Ireland, the O’Brien Clan is holding a major family reunion in Co Clare, an O’Brien banquet is being hosted in Dublin Castle on 23 April, and there is an ecumenical service that morning in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Other events include a two-day conference in Trinity College Dublin, a three-day conference in Cashel, a lecture series in Dublin City Hall, and a public recital on the ‘Brian Boru Harp.’ There are new books on the Battle of Clontarf by Dr Seán Duffy of TCD and Darren McGettigan, and a special edition of History Ireland.

Separately, a new exhibition in the British Museum, London, is offering a revaluation of the Vikings and their contribution to civilisation on these islands.

Asking some questions

Brian Boru in battle on a pub sign at Cross Guns, the centre of the battlefield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Battle of Clontarf is often presented as a victory of Gaelic Irish forces over the Vikings, who are pilloried as uncivilised plunderers. Yet fundamental questions must be asked. Have the inherited memories of Clontarf and 1014 distorted facts and perpetuated myths?

The battle is seen as a great victory for the Christian king of Ireland, Brian Boru, who defeated the pagan Vikings and drove them out of Ireland. But this was not a battle between the Irish and the Vikings. Gaelic Irish forces fought alongside the Vikings, the supposedly victorious Brian was slain at the end of the day, and he was buried neither in Clontarf nor in his native Killaloe, but far further north in Armagh.

Even the main battle scenes are not concentrated in Clontarf, but spread across a vast swathe of Dublin, from Kilmainham, through Oxmantown, Phibsboro and Glasnevin to Drumcondra, Ballybough, Fairview and Clontarf.

The Viking arrival in Ireland

King Sitric Silkenbeard is remembered in a well-known restaurant in Howth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first Viking raids on Ireland were in 795. Viking fleets soon appeared on the major rivers, and they fortified bases for more extensive raids. The principal targets of the raiders were the monasteries, where they plundered gold, silver, chalices, crosses and manuscripts, captured slaves and pillaged the harvests.

Gradually, the Vikings established settlements and engaged in trade and commerce, with towns in Limerick (812), Dublin (841), Wexford (800 or 888), Waterford (914), and Cork (915/922).

Irish society was still overwhelmingly rural, with a mixed farming economy. But the Vikings opened new trade routes into the rich markets of the Byzantine empire and Muslim central and western Asia. The range of personal ornaments found in the Christchurch Place area of Dublin reflects the wealth and trade contacts of the city’s Vikings.

By the end of the 10th Century, the Vikings in Ireland had adopted Christianity and it is difficult to distinguish between Viking and Irish artefacts. The culture of the Viking-founded towns and cities in the 11th and early 12th centuries is often described as Hiberno-Norse.

However, there was significant opposition to their presence in Ireland, not least in Munster where King Brian Boru had defeated their armies on several occasions. Brian’s aim was to unite all the warring Celtic kingdoms, with himself as the High King.

Who was Brian Boru?

An image of Brian Boru? ... a carving of a king’s head at the main door of Saint John the Baptist Church of Ireland parish church in Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Brian Boru rose from modest beginnings to become King of Ireland. His nickname Boru may come from the Old Irish bóruma, “of cattle tribute,” or “of Bél Bóraime,” a ringfort at Killaloe, Co Clare, where he had his royal residence.

Despite the pious Irish portrayals of him as an ageing saint praying privately in his tent, Brian was a single-minded and vengeful warlord. He had at least four wives and two or three concubines – more partners than Henry VIII – yet had his own sister executed for adultery.

Brian was born about 941, near Killaloe, into the upwardly mobile petty royal family of Dál Cais. By 967, Brian’s older brother Mathgamain was King of Cashel or Munster, the first King of Munster in five centuries who did not belong to the great Eóganachta tribe, ancestors of the MacCarthy, O’Sullivan, O’Callaghan, O’Mahony, O’Donoghue and other families.

Mathgamain took control of the Norse city in Limerick in 967. However, the Norse of Limerick were instrumental in his downfall and murder in 976. Brian avenged his brother’s death, attacking Limerick and killing its king, Ívarr.

When the Dál Cais and the Eóganachta fought for the kingship of Munster in 978, Brian emerged victorious. By 982, he was seeking to extend his rule beyond the borders of Munster, challenging the King of Tara and High King of Ireland, Máel Sechnaill II of the O’Neill Clan.

By the 990s, Brian’s fleets and forces were raiding southern Ulster, he subdued Leinster and gained control of the southern half of Ireland, and in 997, Brian and Máel Sechnaill agreed to divide Ireland between them.

Late in 999, Brian marched on Dublin and banished King Sitric Silkenbeard, his Viking son-in-law. He then tore up his treaty with Máel Sechnaill, forced the submission of the High King and marched north to demand the submission of the northern leaders.

In 1005, he arrived in Armagh, where he had insertion inscribed in the ninth century Book of Armagh, with its narratives of Saint Patrick, describing himself as “Brian, Emperor of the Irish (imperatoris Scotorum).” Now in his 70s, Brian forced the O’Neills of Ulster to submit before returning in triumph to Kincora, his royal residence at Killaloe.

But Brian’s extended power soon began to crumble, and King Sitric of Dublin and King Máelmórda of Leinster rebelled in 1013.

The Battle of Clontarf

As the tide receded, it took the Scandinavian vessels with it and scattered them about the bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a bid to force Dublin and Leinster to submit, Brian marched on Dublin with 4,900 troops, made up of 2,000 Munster men, 1,400 Dalcassians, and 1,500 Connacht clansmen. He was opposed by Mael Mordha’s army of 4,000 Leinster men and 3,000 Vikings led the King Sitric of Dublin. The Dublin and Leinster armies rallied first at Howth and were reinforced by troops from the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and the Orkneys.

The main battlefield was in Glasnevin and Phibsboro, at Cross Guns and on the banks of the River Tolka (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Battle began at first light on Good Friday, 23 April 1014, and raged all day. Although only a small segment of the battle was fought near the seafront at Clontarf, it is known as the Battle of Clontarf because some 2,000 Vikings had sailed out from Dublin in longboats at sunrise and landed at Clontarf that morning.

The Vikings and the Leinster men lined up across the sloping plains bounded by the sea and the River Tolka. Brian’s army occupied the rising ground near Tomar’s Wood in Phibsboro. But as the tide receded, it took the Scandinavian boats with it and scattered them about the bay.

The centre of battle, the ‘Bloody Acre,’ is within the bounds of Glasnevin Cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The main battlefield was in Glasnevin and Phibsboro, at Cross Guns and on the banks of the River Tolka. One centre of battle, the “Bloody Acre,” is within the bounds of Glasnevin Cemetery. The most ferocious fighting was at the Battle of the Fishing Weir, probably the site of the former DWD Whiskey Distillery on Richmond Road, Drumcondra.

The most ferocious fighting was at the site of the former DWD Whiskey Distillery on Richmond Road, Drumcondra (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It was the bloodiest day in Ireland for centuries: 4,000 of Brian’s troops lay dead on the battlefield, and 6,000 Leinster men and Vikings were slaughtered, including every single Viking leader.

The battle scene

Clontarf Weir may have been a fishtrap on the tidal shoreline between Clontarf and Clontarf Island, on the site of Fairview Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Clontarf is not mentioned in the early annals. The earliest certain reference in the 12th century Book of Leinster refers to “the Battle of Clontarf Weir.” The weir may have been a fishtrap on the tidal shoreline between Clontarf and Clontarf Island, which survived until the 19th century and now forms part of Fairview Park.

In the old heart of Clontarf, the Viking and Leinster forces were pushed downhill towards the sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the modern landscape, Seán Duffy imagines the defeated forces at the old heart of Clontarf, between Castle Avenue and Seaview Avenue and Stiles Road. From there, they were pushed downhill towards the sea.

To escape, they had to cross what is now Fairview Strand, but it was submerged by the incoming tide. In the other direction, a wooded area to the east of Vernon Avenue offered them protection, but that route was blocked too by the inundation of the area around Oulton Road and Belgrove Road.

Clontarf Castle ... the first castle on the site was built two centuries after the Battle of Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

They had no option but to stand with their backs to the sea and fight. As they were beaten back towards the sea at Clontarf, they found the tide had carried away their ships. There they were drowned in great numbers and “lay in heaps and in hundreds.”

To the west, as Brian’s enemies fled, they were slaughtered too. The last 20 fleeing Dubliners were killed at Dubgall’s Bridge, named perhaps after Dubgall mac Amlaíb, brother of King Sitric, who remained inside Dublin that day to defend the city. The bridge may have crossed the Liffey near the present Four Courts, or crossed the Tolka at Ballybough.

Pub names in Glasnevin and street names in Clontarf recall Brian Boru and his army (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Brian took no part in the battle. Instead, he pitched camp on a green area west of Dublin, either in Kilmainham or near Cross Guns. Although this was his greatest victory, he did not live to enjoy it. At the hour of victory, as he knelt praying in his tent, the fleeing Viking leader from the Isle of Man, Brodir, was hiding in the woods nearby. Brodir stole into Brian’s tent and killed Brian with his axe before he too was captured and was ritually disembowelled.

The last fleeing Dubliners were killed at a bridge that may have crossed the Liffey near the present Four Courts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After the battle, the bodies of Brian and his son Murchad were brought ceremoniously first to Swords and then to Armagh, where they were waked for twelve nights before being buried in a new tomb.

Evaluating Clontarf

After the battle, Brian was buried with great ceremony at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Brian Bóru’s final victory was Pyrrhic – indeed, the Welsh annals and Viking sagas present it as a defeat for Brian and a victory for Sitric. His death brought to an end his claims to the title of High King of Ireland and plans for Irish unity. Máel Sechnaill recovered his throne and the O’Brien dynasty only held the crown intermittently afterwards. By the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion a century and a half later, Rory O’Connor was High King.

After the battle, a period of relative peace followed in which Celtic chieftains and Vikings lived in relative harmony in Ireland.

But while Clontarf may have averted a major new Viking offensive in Ireland, the Danish King Knut and his family took control of England successfully in 1013-1017. Dublin triumphed as a Viking city, Dublin became a diocese in 1028 with Christ Church as its cathedral, and Sitric reigned unchallenged until his abdication in 1036.

After Clontarf, Dublin triumphed as a Viking city, where Christ Church became its cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and vthese photographs were first published in April 2013 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Art for Lent (33): ‘The Raising of Lazarus’
(ca 1510-1518), by Juan de Flandes

The Raising of Lazarus, Juan de Flandes, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Patrick Comerford

This Sunday [6 April 2014] is the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8: 6-11; John 11: 1-45.

John 11: 1-45

1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8 The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9 Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11 After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’12 The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24 Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25 Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27 She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37 But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40 Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

The story in the painting

This Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. He dies of a disease after being seen by Christ. His sisters Martha and Mary are convinced that Lazarus would still be alive if Christ had not left. Christ, deeply touched by their sadness, raises Lazarus from the dead.

The Jewish high priests may be the men looking on from underneath a wicket door. When they hear of this miracle they conclude that Christ has become a threat to their position. They decide that the insurgent must be removed, once and for all.

I have chosen as my work of Art for Lent this morning ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ by Juan de Flandes. This painting, which was completed ca 1510-1518, is in oil on panel, measures 110 × 184 cm (43.3 × 72.4 in) and is in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Juan de Flandes (ca 1460-1519) was a Flemish painter who was probably trained in Ghent ca 1480. He produced many paintings in Spain, from 1496 until he died in 1519. He is considered a master of the High Renaissance, working in a style like that of Van der Goes.

His best-known religious paintings include ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ (1518, Museo del Prado, Madrid), ‘The Revenge of Herodias’ (Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp), and ‘The Capture of Christ’ (1500, Palazzo Reale, Madrid).

The name Juan de Flandes means John of Flanders, but his actual name is unknown. However, an inscription Juan Astrat on the back of one work suggests a name such as Jan van der Staat. The name of Jan Sallaert, who became a master in Ghent in 1480, has also been suggested.

Juan de Flandes was born ca 1460 in Flanders, in present-day Belgium, and probably trained in Ghent. His work shows similarities to that of Joos van Wassenhove, Hugo van der Goes and other artists in Ghent.

He became an artist in the court of Queen Isabella I of Castile ca 1496, and by 1498 he is described as a “court painter.” He continued to work for Queen Isabella until she died in 1504.

He painted many portraits of members of the royal family, as well as panels for an altarpiece for the queen.

After Queen Isabella died in 1504 began painting for churches in Salamanca (1505-1507), and then in Palencia, where he painted a large reredos in the cathedral.

Most of his work is now held in collections outside Spain and they are mainly religious themes. Panels from a large altarpiece from a church in Palencia are divided between the Prado and National Gallery of Art, Washington, who have four panels each.

In this painting, Lazarus comes out of his tomb. Around him, we see two groups: Jesus and his disciples, and the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

Christ holds out his hand while he commands Lazarus to come out. His disciples are listening to him but they remain passive while the women are weeping and kneeling or prostrate.

The scene takes place in the open, in front of the house. Some of the onlookers put their hands to their faces because, as this Gospel reading tells us, the corpse already stinks.

The Risen Lazarus is looking at Christ as if struck with astonishment.

Rembrandt, The raising of Lazarus, ca 1630, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Reading the story:

This story is well-known because it once contained the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept (John 11: 35, AV). Of course, the word used for Jesus weeping is not the same word used to describe formal weeping at a Jewish funeral. It means to shed tears, and indicates that Jesus is not just formally acknowledging the death of his friend, but is sharing in the human emotions of grief and sorrow.

Jesus loved Lazarus, who had died in Bethany. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he finds Lazarus has been dead four days. Jesus comes to his tomb, and despite the objections of Martha, he has the stone rolled away, prays, and calls on Lazarus to come out. This Lazarus does, wrapped in his grave clothes.

The Raising of Lazarus illustrates the two natures of Christ: his humanity in weeping at the death of his friend and in asking: “Where have you laid him?” (John 11: 35); and his divinity in commanding Lazarus to come forth from the dead (John 11: 43).

The name Lazarus means “God helps,” the Greek Λάζαρος (Lazaros) being derived from the Hebrew Eleazar, “God’s assistance,” or “God has helped.” So, already the name of the principal character in the story introduces us to expectations of God’s actions.

When the news of Lazarus is brought to Jesus, it is brought with no specific request to come or to act. His reply is enigmatic, and we are offered a comparison between physical death, which is inescapable, and spiritual death, which comes by choice.

There is a tenderness here that counters any harsh interpretation of Christ’s words – we are told Christ loves Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus. Christ does not delay going to Bethany out of callous disregard for the plight of Mary and Martha. What he is going to do is not as a reaction, but on his own initiative, so that Christ is proactive rather than reactive.

We are confronted too with the Johannine contrast between light and dark, a Johannine theme we encountered in recent weeks in the lectionary readings, for example, about Nicodemus and the blind mean healed at the pool of Siloam.

We are confronted too with the Johannine theme of seeing and believing. We can contrast Thomas’s apparent faith at this point, with his refusal to believe until he sees for himself after the Resurrection.

Here, as in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Martha is the active sister, while Mary is the contemplative member of the household in Bethany (see Luke 10: 38-42). Martha has moved beyond personal interest in seeking for her brother; now she moves beyond even that wider but limited circle of want and need to accepting what God wills.

Martha addresses Jesus as “Lord.” But notice then how she uses three distinct titles in affirming her faith in Christ: Messiah, Son of God, and “the one coming into the world.” After that, the title “the Teacher” appears to be quite a mundane title for Martha to use. Yet this is also the title Mary Magdalene uses at the tomb on Easter morning (John 20: 16).

When Jesus asks: “Where have you laid him?” he asks precisely the same question the women ask when they arrive at the empty tomb on Easter morning (John 20: 2), and when Mary approaches Jesus in the garden (John 20: 13). So can we draw parallels between what is happening at this grave, and what we can expect two weeks later on Easter Day?

This chapter also includes the fifth of the “I AM” sayings in this Gospel: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11: 25). This incident also reminds us that death is not the end. Indeed, I am reminded of how Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say that there are things that are worse than death for a Christian … including the loss of values, commitment and faith.


Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
Grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross,
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of hope,
in this Eucharist we have tasted
the promise of your heavenly banquet
and the richness of eternal life.
May we who bear witness to the death of your Son,
also proclaim the glory of his resurrection,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

Tomorrow: ‘The Bosworth Crucifix’