07 December 2014

Is there an appropriate
Anglican way of speaking
of Mary at Christmas?

A Christmas scene in a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin … but who wants to be Mary in the parish or school Nativity play? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I remember a time in Wexford, forty years or more ago, when all the shops closed on 8 December because it was a Roman Catholic holiday, and many people took the train or drove to Dublin to begin their Christmas shopping.

It was just over two weeks to Christmas, but at the time few people dared to find any irony in the fact that all shops, no matter who owned them, closed and provided people less with an opportunity to go to Mass and more with an opportunity to take business out of the town.

It is an experience that must have been shared in many towns throughout Ireland at the time. Roman Catholic schools also closed that day, but not Church of Ireland schools. So 8 December served as a pre-Christmas demarcation that few understood.

Yet, at the time, few Roman Catholics realised what was being commemorated on 8 December. Most knew that it was about the “Immaculate Conception,” but they often thought, probably because Christmas was just around the corner, that this day was about the Virgin conception of Christ, rather than about the manner and means of how the Virgin Mary was conceived by her parents, Saint Joachim and Saint Anne.

For our part, many members of the Church of Ireland at the time probably looked askance at this blip in the calendar, thinking it was one of the great divisions that separated us from our neighbours ever since the Reformation. We had probably forgotten that 8 December was a celebration of her conception in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, where it was a black-letter day, and we probably paid little attention to the fact that nine months later 8 September figures in the calendar of many Anglican churches as the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Of course, we were even less likely to realise that the Immaculate Conception was not a divisive theological point at the Reformation – it was only promulgated as recently as 1854 by Pope Pius IX, and so played little role in the divisions of the 16th century.

Today, 8 December is no longer a public or shopping holiday in many parts of Ireland, and the Christmas shopping began long ago, even before summer came to an end.

Playing the part in the play

The birth of the Virgin Mary in an icon by Mihai Cocu in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In schools and parishes throughout the Church of Ireland, I imagine, many small girls are hoping to be picked to play the part of Mary in this season’s Nativity plays. We shall sing Advent and Christmas carols extolling Mary’s virginity, send Christmas carols decorated with her image, and even place small statues of her in cribs in our homes and churches.

Yet, for many Roman Catholics, with barely a superficial knowledge of Church of Ireland teaching, practice and liturgy, one of the key dividing issues seems to be what we think and believe about the Virgin Mary. How often have we heard comments such as: “But Protestants don’t believe in the Virgin Mary, do you?”

I usually ask someone in this situation what they imagine I believe. I explain politely that I do not believe that Christ had any other mother, that I read the same stories in the Gospels and that I make the same statements about her in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed.

The Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

“Oh, but you don’t say the Rosary.”

No, but I seldom draw attention to the Anglican shrine at Walsingham and the Anglican pilgrimages there. I have never been to Lourdes, Fatima or Medjugorje, but I stopped once in Knock on the journey to or from Achill Island and once visited what is known as “the House of Mary” in Ephesus.

The Lady Chapel in Christ Church was dedicated to Sancta Maria Alba (the Blessed Virgin Mary) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I sometimes point out that it is traditional to sing the canticle Magnificat (‘the Song of Mary’) at Choral Evensong daily in cathedrals with a choral tradition throughout the Anglican Communion, and that its traditional place in Evening Prayer has survived since the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.

But is there a way of talking about the Virgin Mary that remains true to Anglican tradition but also provides a culturally relevant way of talking about the woman who is the key female figure in the Bible?

Finding tradition in dedications

A statue of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child at the arch entering the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Three cathedrals in the Church of Ireland are dedicated to the Virgin Mary or Saint Mary: Sligo, Tuam and Limerick, and the original dedication of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in 1191 was to “God, our Blessed Lady Mary and Saint Patrick.” Many cathedrals have Lady Chapels, including Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, which is dedicated as “The Chapel of Sancta Maria Alba,” Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, where the Lady Chapel has been lovingly restored in recent years, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh.

In Kilkenny, the Lady Chapel in Saint Canice’s Cathedral was completed around 1285, and today serves as the Chapter Room. The restoration of the Lady Chapel in Saint Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin, was completed last summer.

A statue of the Virgin Mary at the West Door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Mary’s Church in Mary Street, Dublin, was one of the many inner city churches that closed in Dublin in the last century. There may have been a Saint Mary’s Church at one time in every major town in Ireland. Today, in these dioceses there are at least half a dozen churches dedicated to Saint Mary or the Virgin Mary in Blessington, Clonsilla, Crumlin, Donnybrook, Howth and Leixlip.

Saint Mary’s Church, Kilkenny, was one of the many parish churches in the Church of Ireland that closed in the last century, and has been restored recently. At one time, there may have been a Saint Mary’s Church in every major town in Ireland. Today in these dioceses, there are at least 20 churches dedicated to her in Ballintemple (Dundrum), Baltinglass, Bunclody, Carlow, Castlecomer, Clonmel, Dungarvan, Dunleckney (Bagenalstown), Enniscorthy, Fertagh (Johnstown), Inistioge, Kells, Kilmeadan, Littleton (Borris), New Ross, Old Ross, Rathvilly, Templemore, Thurles and Tipperary.

The Nativity scene on the carved reredos in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The two university churches in Cambridge and Oxford are known as Saint Mary’s. John Keble’s Assize Sermon in Saint Mary’s University Church, Oxford, was a response to government plans to restructure the dioceses of the Church of Ireland and marked the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Inside Great Saint Mary’s, the University Church in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The University Church of Saint Mary in Oxford, where John Keble preached his Assize Sermon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are Lady Chapels in most cathedrals in the Church of England. The architect Augustus Pugin was once found in Ely Cathedral weeping in the Lady Chapel, disturbed by the destruction of its beauty. The Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral has a wooden reredos designed by Charles Eamer Kempe and carved in Oberammergau with events in the life of the Virgin Mary, including the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Nativity.

The Virgin Mary in dialogue

Saint Mary’s Church, Dublin, where John Wesley preached and Wolfe Tone was baptised, is now a restaurant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 2004, the report of the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, noted: “In honouring Mary as Mother of the Lord, all generations of Anglicans and Roman Catholics have echoed the greeting of Elizabeth: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (Luke 1: 42).”

In a response the following year, the Church of Ireland pointed out that in recognising the role of Mary in the incarnation, we are following the Council of Ephesus (431), which used the term Theotókos (“God-bearer”) to affirm the oneness of Christ’s person by identifying Mary as the Mother of God the Word incarnate. The Church of Ireland also identified with the statement that “in receiving the Council of Ephesus and the definition of Chalcedon, Anglicans and Roman Catholics together confess Mary as Theotókos.”

The response welcomed the acknowledgement that some of the non-scriptural devotions associated with Mary have been to “excess.” On the other hand, the full significance of the role of Mary as the Theotókos or God-bearer “has sometimes been lacking in the consciousness of some Anglicans.”

Saint Mary’s Church, Kilkenny, has been restored after many years of neglect (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some widely used, unofficial Anglican office books, such as Celebrating Common Prayer, include the Angelus and Regina Coeli. But the response pointed out that language such as “co-redeemer” are “theologically impossible for members of the Church of Ireland.”

So, is there a way that Anglicans can talk about the Virgin Mary today that is theologically appropriate, without compromising key Anglican traditions and beliefs for the sake of being “ecumenically correct” or on the other hand descending into accepting a series of devotional practices that most Roman Catholics have long since come to regard as outdated, irrelevant and theologically questionable?

In responding to Roman Catholic thinking about the Virgin Mary, we often fall back on culturally defensive ways of thinking. I admit that many of the plaster cast statues and framed images of the Virgin Mary lack cultural finesse and taste. But they, like many other practices, including May processions and Rosary-based prayer cycles are recent innovations.

I am reminded that devotion to the Virgin Mary was part-and-parcel of the piety that sustained many Christians through decades of suffering and oppression in Eastern Europe. The use of icons of the Virgin Mary in the Orthodox tradition and talk about her as the Theotokos is consonant with Anglican thinking theologically if not always culturally.

Saint Mary’s Church, Callan, Co Kilkenny … there are numerous Comerford family monuments among the ruins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is easy to forget that the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are recent innovations, having been proclaimed by Popes in 1854 and 1950, and many Roman Catholics are still confused about their meaning. The site at Lourdes dates from 1858, the Knock Shrine from 1879, Fatima developed as place of pilgrimage after 1917, and the pilgrimages to Medjugorje are from after the 1980s. None shares the antiquity or history of Anglican Marian sites such as Walsingham.

Hymns and collects at Christmas

Some of the traditional canticles in the Book of Common Prayer, especially Magnificat, are Biblical and also extol the virtues and role of the Virgin Mary in ways that Anglicans seldom question. The 2000 Church Hymnal includes many hymns honouring Mary, and she is named in 180, 181 (where Mary is “singing a sweet lullaby”), 183 (“The holly and the ivy”), 184, 185, 460, 462, 470 and 472.

Hymn 472 refers to “Mary’s sorrows” and “the joys of Mary” and concludes with a reference to her “chiefest joy”:

Sing the chiefest joy of Mary
when on earth her work was done,
and the Lord of all creation
brought her to his heavenly home:
where, raised high with saints and angels,
in Jerusalem above,
she beholds her Son and Saviour
reigning as the Lord of love.

Saint Mary’s Church, Bunclody, Co Wexford … built in 1775 by Bishop Henry Maxwell of Meath, who inherited Newtownbarry and gave an acre of land for a churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the next few weeks, the Church of Ireland is using prayers that set out our approach to Mary within the context of preparing for Christmas. The Collect of the fourth Sunday of Advent reads:

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. Amen.

Greek icons of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, on sale in a shop in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Then, on Christmas Day, we pray in the words of the Christmas Collect:

Almighty God,
you have given us your only begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Incarnation on a ‘table icon’ on olive wood in Rethymnon by Eleftheria Syrianoglou (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the December 2014 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)

Christ is coming: ‘In my beginning is
my end ... In my end is my beginning’

‘Now the light falls / Across the open field, leaving the deep lane / Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon’ (TS Eliot, ‘East Coker’) … a walk in Rathfarnham on Friday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Sunday 7 December 2014,

The Second Sunday of Advent
11.30 a.m., The Community Eucharist

Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3: 8-15a; Mark 1: 1-8.

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

“To begin at the beginning” – these are the opening lines of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas (1954), who was born 100 years ago [27 October 1914].

Or I might begin with words from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol. In Chapter 12, the White Rabbit puts on his spectacles.

“Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

TS Eliot’s “East Coker,” the second of his Four Quartets, is set at this time of the year and opens:

In my beginning is my end.

It is Advent time, and he goes on to say:

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon …

The opening words at the beginning of a play, a novel or a poem – or for that matter, a sermon – can be important for holding the reader’s or the listener’s attention and telling me what to expect. Begin as you mean to go on.

That is why I am surprised that Charles Dickens waits until the second sentence in David Copperfield to say: “To begin my life with the beginning of my life …”

So Advent marks the beginning of the Church Year, preparation for the beginning of the Christ story, and expresses our hopes for the beginning of – the ushering in of – the Kingdom of God.

We might expect then that the Advent Gospel readings are all about preparing for Christmas, and so begin at the beginning.

But it is curious how each Gospel begins to tell the story, each in a different way.

Saint John begins at the beginning, at the very beginning: “In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1: 1).

Saint Luke begins with a personal explanation to Theophilus of why he is beginning to write the Gospel (Luke 1: 1-4), before moving on to the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1: 5 ff). It takes him a full chapter before he gets to tell the story of the first Christmas (Luke 2: 1-20).

Saint Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, generation after generation, with long lists of sometimes unpronouncable names (Matthew 1: 1-17) before he summarises the story of the first Christmas in seven crisp verses … and even then he seems to concentrate more on how Joseph’s fears and suspicions were allayed than on the Christmas story (see Matthew 1: 18-25).

Saint John the Baptist baptises Christ in the River Jordan ... a detail from a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

But Saint Mark’s Gospel has no Nativity narrative at all, has no story of the first Christmas.

Instead, this morning, Saint Mark begins his Gospel with his account of the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the River Jordan, an event that comes a little later on in the other three Gospels (see Matthew 3: 1-17; Luke 3: 1-21; John 1: 19-34).

Although in Year B the [Revised Common] Lectionary is taking us through Saint Mark’s Gospel, because Saint Mark has no Nativity story, the main Gospel reading on Christmas Day is either the Nativity Narrative in Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2: 1-14 or 1-10) or the Prologue to Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-14 or John 1: 1-18).

Many people think they know the Christmas story as it is told in the Gospels. Perhaps then they would be surprised to learn there is no Christmas story in either Saint Mark’s or Saint John’s Gospel. We might be even more surprised to learn that what they think is part of the Christmas story is actually found in the Old Testament reading this morning. They are familiar with it, and they immediately associate it with Christmas, because of the opening words of Handel’s Messiah:

But it is often the opening words of Handel they are familiar with and not the beginning of the Gospel story.

Saint Mark’s account of the Baptism of Christ is a story that promises that the Advent of Christ, the arrival of Christ, is the fulfilment of the Prophets – he quotes not just Isaiah but Malachi too – and is the fulfilment of the promises of Creation.

Later in this chapter, Saint Mark brings together all the elements of the creation story in [the Book] Genesis: we move from darkness into light; the shape of the earth moves from wilderness to beauty; there is a separation of the waters of the new creation as Christ and John go down into the waters of the Jordan and rise up again; and, as in Genesis, the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters of this beautiful new creation like a dove.

And then, just as in the Genesis creation story, where God looks down and sees that everything is good, God looks down in this Theophany story and lets us know that everything is good. Or, as Saint Mark tells us: And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1: 11).

God is pleased with the whole of creation; God so loves this creation, the κόσμος (kosmos), that Christ comes into it, identifies with us in the flesh, and is giving us the gift and the blessings of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah talks about the promise of the return of the people through the wilderness and the desert to Jerusalem and to freedom (Isaiah 40: 3). Saint John the Baptist calls the people from Jerusalem back out into the wilderness, where he proclaims that forgiveness and freedom is available to all who repent and are baptised. His baptism is a sign of turning to God again, of accepting God’s forgiveness and judgment.

Christ’s baptism re-establishes that link between God and humanity. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

To us, Saint John the Baptist comes to prepare for, and to announce, Christ’s coming. But if all we expect from the coming of Christ and Christ’s work among us is finding forgiveness for sin, finding a relationship with God, and joining God’s people if we are willing to repent and turn around, then – I’m sorry – we are in for a big surprise.

As the opening verse of the Gospel reading tells us, this is just the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is the beginning – and only the beginning.

During Advent, we expect the coming of Christ and the fulfilment of his reconciling work on earth. As the Epistle reading (II Peter 3: 8-15a) tells us, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home, where God’s justice is done (verse 13).

The Epistle writer says the apparent delay in Christ’s coming is merely a delusion in time, for God does not measure time in the way we do (verse 8). Instead, God wishes all to be found worthy, and does not want any to perish. He is waiting patiently for all to repent of their waywardness (verse 9), but the end will come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief (verse 10).

Today in our society, though, many people must think not that the end is near, but that the end is already here. At every level of society in Dublin today, people have been so hard pressed by austerity measures they wonder whether there is any light at the end of the tunnel.

The city has been shocked by the death of a homeless man on the streets near Dáil Éireann in the past week. But despair is not confined to the addicts, delinquents and the marginalised.

It was heart-breaking to hear Father Peter McVerry, like a voice crying in the wilderness, talk on the Late, Late Show on Friday night about the hundreds of families being made homeless in Dublin because of the squeezes in the property market – ordinary families, without any dependency problems or delinquency, forced to walk the streets by day because Bed and Breakfast provision is only for the night; parents and children sleeping in cars or in the airport because it is warm; parents forced to place their children in care so they are not sleeping on the streets and in doorways tonight.

As Giles Fraser said in his thought-provoking column in the Guardian yesterday [6 December 2014], “Christmas Christianity insists that fully to imagine God is to imagine a human child – little, weak and helpless.”

Yet, for many families, their income has dropped, their houses are in danger of being repossessed because they cannot afford rent rises or to pay the interest on their mortgages, never mind paying off some of the capital, their skilled adult children have been forced to emigrate with their grandchildren.

Who will comfort, who will comfort my people?

The proposed water charges may not seem exorbitant; however, they may yet prove to be the final straw that has broken the camel’s back. And the opinion polls indicate that the prospect for our future politically is not one of either stability or responsibility.

But this Epistle reading promises a very different future that ushers in “new heavens and a new earth.” As we wait, we should be signs of this promise, and his apparent delay is an opportunity to prepare, to become signs, to become sacraments of the “new heavens and a new earth.”

And once again, I call to mind TS Eliot in “East Coker”:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark …
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God …

Yet, in this apocalyptic, visionary, poem, Eliot is neither all doom nor all gloom. He talks about Faith

... pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

And he concludes “East Coker”:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Giles Fraser tried to summarise Advent and Christmas values in that column in the Guardian: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” is how Jesus expresses his mission in Saint John’s gospel. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” wrote Irenaeus in the second century.

“In my beginning is my end ... In my end is my beginning.”

Christ is coming, and in his birth, life, agony, death and resurrection he is reconciling the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. He is coming with a vision of a world in which all of the barriers that separate us – poor and rich, North and South, male and female, Jew and Gentile, nation and nation, home-happy and homeless – will be no more.

His coming is just the beginning of the Good News and the beginning of hope. Let us prepare the way of the Lord: cast down the mighty and raise up the lowly, let justice and righteousness go before him, let peace be the pathway for his feet, do justice and make peace. And let this be just the beginning.

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

The Baptism of Christ depicted in stucco relief in the Baptistery in the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

here you have nourished us with the food of life.
Through our sharing in this holy sacrament
teach us to judge wisely earthly things
and to yearn for things heavenly.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist on 7 December 2014, as part of a residential weekend with part-time MTh students.

Finding a Spirituality for Advent …
‘Walking backwards to Christmas’

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John Without the Barrs, Lichfield ... Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ in Majesty

Patrick Comerford

The Chapel, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

9 a.m., 7 December 2014

The Lord be with you,
And also with you

O Come O Come Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 1:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear:

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from above,
who ord’rest all things through thy love;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go:Refrain

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times didst gave the law
in cloud, and majesty, and awe:Refrain

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave:Refrain

Opening Prayer:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen


Isaiah 40: 1-11 (the Old Testament reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for this morning).

A time of preparation:

I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas by Spike Milligan and the Goons reached No 4 in the charts ... in June 1956

It is almost 60 years since Spike Milligan and the Goons recorded a hit single, I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas. It was originally sung by Spike Milligan in the show to fill in during a strike by musicians, and was one of the 14 singles released by Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan from June 1956 on.

It was released on 25 June 1956, quickly reaching No 4 in the UK singles chart. I am barely old enough to remember it, but I think it was so crazy that it inspired the title of a new Advent book by the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell: Walking Backwards to Christmas: An Advent journey from light to darkness (right).

Most people have learned the Christmas story from school nativity plays and carols, some adults think they know it, but only know because of the libretto of Handel’s Messiah. But most of the familiar tellings of the Christmas story are more concerned with light than darkness.

The backwards approach taken by Bishop Cottrell in his new book takes the journey in the opposite direction, as he explores the Advent story through the eyes of a variety of characters. He begins by seeing through the eyes of Anna, the prophetess who encounters Jesus in the Temple; followed by Rachel, who weeps for her children in Bethlehem; King Herod; the wise man Casper; a shepherd named David; Martha, the name he gives to the innkeeper’s wife; Joseph; Elizabeth; Mary; Isaiah and, finally, Moses.

Each imaginative reflection is prefaced by a Bible reading and followed by a prayer, to set it in context, as we are invited to step imaginatively into the Advent Story.

It is certainly a very different approach to preparing for Christmas this year. It is very difficult to prepare for Christmas when Santa has already arrived in every shopping centre, when the Christmas lights are already strung across the Main Street in every town and village, and many of our parish choirs are already singing Christmas carols. Indeed, it is hard to distinguish between Advent and Lent when you find Cadbury’s crème eggs are already on sale.

But even in the Church we often manage to confuse Advent and Lent, probably because they are both seasons of preparation when we change the liturgical colour from Green to Purple or Violet.

The word Advent, from the Latin word adventus, means “coming.” That Latin word is simply a translation of the Greek word παρουσία (parousía), used for the Second Coming of Christ.

This season is a reminder of the original waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But more especially it is a reminder of our waiting for Christ at his the Second Coming. This season, which began last Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent [30 November 2014], is the season when the Church marks a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, not just as a cuddly child in a Christmas crib, but his coming in glory and as king.

Throughout these four weeks, our readings, collects, post-communion prayers and the other seasonal provisions in our liturgies try to focus us – yes on Christ’s incarnation, but more particularly (if less successfully) to focus us – on Christ’s coming judgment and reign.

Because of that, the “Four Last Things” – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell – have been traditional themes for Advent meditation. The characteristic emphasis in Advent, therefore, is expectation, rather than penitence.

Purple is not a penitential colour ... it is a rich, royal imperial colour, originally derived from a very rare source. Πορφύρα (porphyra), the rare purple dye from Tyre, could command its weight in silver and was manufactured in classical antiquity from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail. As a seller of purple, Lydia was a wealthy woman of independent means. And as Judith Herrin points out in her beautiful book on the powerful woman of Byzantium, Women in Purple, a child born to a reigning emperor was πορφυρογέννητος (porphyrogénitos), “born in the purple.”

So, we change our liturgical colour in Advent to purple to signify we are preparing for the coming of Christ as the King of Kings, the ruler of all, in all his royal, imperial, majesty, splendour and glory.

Although comparisons are too often made with Lent, Advent is a time of preparation rather than a time of penitence, Lent too is a time of preparation for the completion of Christ’s majestic task, seen in his passion, death, burial and Resurrection. It was a time too, in the Early Church, of preparation for baptism, which required penitence and repentance and μετάνοια (metánoia), conversion, turning round to face Christ.

Today’s office parties, Christmas lunches, early Santas, hastily-planned carol services, and bringing the last posting day forward to the week before Advent, make it difficult to sustain this sense of being alert and watchful. Yet, can’t you remember with glee and warmth the child-like waiting and watching you experienced during the build-up for Christmas? In the cold and dark of winter, can you remember that warm glow you felt as you anticipated such a wonderful festival?

In recent times, the most common, popular observance of Advent is the use of the Advent Calendar, with one door being opened in the calendar, or one new candle being lit, on the Advent Wreath each day or each week leading up to Christmas Eve.

So I’d like to suggest customs that we can use in the Church to help restore and built-up that sense of anticipation, of watching and waiting, to cheerfully invite people into a time and a space for praying in joyful anticipation, and offer events for this time of year that can be adapted too for our prayerful preparation:

1, the Advent Calendar;
2, the Advent Wreath;
3, the Jess Tree;
4, Christingle services;
5, the Advent Prose;
6, Advent carols;
7, good old Saint Nicholas.
8, ‘Prepare a Place,’ the Advent Appeal in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough.

1, The Advent Calendar

The Advent Calendar … a choice between Christ and chocolates?

As children, many of us have watched the progression of Advent through the doors of an Advent calendar. I remember once looking for an advent calendar for our children in a shop one year and being asked cheerfully: Do you want one with the chocolates or one with the child?

You know what an Advent calendar is: it allows us to count or celebrate the days of Advent, and to build up an anticipation of Christmas. Today, most Advent calendars are made for children. But why can’t they be for adults too?

Advent Calendars do not have to be filled with chocolates and sweets. You can make a simple one in your parish, using a large rectangular card, cutting out the right number of windows, so that one can be opened each day during Advent, revealing an image, a poem, a Scripture text or part of a story related to the Nativity.

The Advent Calendar has its origins among German Lutherans, and may have been a family practice in German-speaking places from the 17th century on. From perhaps the beginning of the 19th century, many German families counted down the 24 days of Advent physically: at first, this meant simply drawing a chalk line on the door each day from 1 December. Some families had more elaborate ways to mark each day – lighting a new candle or hanging a little religious picture on the wall.

The first known Advent Calendar was handmade in 1851, the first printed Advent calendar was produced in Hamburg in 1902 or 1903, and the first commercially produced Advent Calendar, produced in Munich in 1908, had 24 little coloured pictures that could be affixed to a piece of cardboard.

The custom spread from Germany after World War II. Even though you may have put your childhood behind you, you may find an Advent Calendar a source for inspiration for prayers and intercessions over the next few weeks.

Members of all Anglican Churches are being invited to mark Advent through prayer, meditation and by contributing to a global Advent calendar on Instagram. The Anglican Communion Office and the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) are teaming up to offer Anglicans and Episcopalians around the world a daily word, meditation and beautiful image sent to their e-mail inboxes.

These Anglican monks are using technology that allows their daily Advent e-mail to arrive in inboxes at 5 a.m. wherever in the world the recipient is, so that “it’s there when you wake up.”

After reading the meditation, the monks are inviting people to take a photograph with their phones or tablets to share their interpretation of the word for that day – such as #Abide, #Thrive, #Become, #Imagine – and to post the picture to Instagram adding the day’s tag plus #Adventword.

You too can be part of this global Advent initiative. Sign up at http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm. The initiative started last Sunday [30 November]. To learn more about SSJE visit www.ssje.org/adventword.

In a similar vein, the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, has produced a calendar of Advent Devotionals for Advent this year, allowing readers to spend five minutes a day in appropriate reflections. It can be accessed here. This morning [7 December 2014], he recommends reading Isaiah 40: 1-11, and suggests: “Go to Church. Remember the times when you felt troubles had been lifted. Pray for the world’s exiles and refugees seeing a new home.”

2, The Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... the first purple candle, which was lit last Sunday, recalls the Patriarchs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This morning we lit the second of the candles on our Advent Wreath, symbolising the Prophets. Traditionally, a new candle is lit in church each week, followed by a Bible reading or selected prayers. Some say the circle symbolises the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens and lit candles signify the persistence of life in the midst of winter.

The Advent wreath is said to have been the idea of Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881), a German pastor and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor in Hamburg. In December 1838, he made a large wooden ring from an old cartwheel, with 19 small red and four large white candles. A new small candle was lit each weekday in Advent, and a large white candle was lit on Sundays. The custom spread in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles. The custom spread to Britain in the 19th century, and to North America in 1930s, so that it has global appeal today.

In most Anglican churches today, there are three purple candle and one pink candle in a ring, with a white or gold candle in the centre.

The purple candles reflect the liturgical colour of the season, while pink marks the Third Sunday of Advent, when that colour change briefly to pink.

There are many traditions about the meaning or theme of each candle. But Common Worship and Times and Seasons suggest these five themes:

Advent 1: The Patriarchs (Purple);
Advent 2: The Prophets (Purple);
Advent 3: John the Baptist (Pink);
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary (Purple);
Christmas Day: The Christ (White or Gold).

Each of these Sundays then reminds us of those who prepared for the coming of Christ. ‘The Patriarchs’ can naturally focus on Abraham, our Father in faith, and David, the ancestor in whose city the Christ Child was born. ‘The Prophets’ invites us to reflect on the way Christ’s coming was foretold. And then we recall John the Baptist, who proclaimed him as Saviour; and the Virgin Mary, who bore him in her womb and gave birth to him.

The pink candle next Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, comes from the mediaeval tradition of adopting a splash of colour on this Sunday, Gaudete Sunday or ‘Rose Sunday,’ reflecting the traditions surrounding Laetare Sunday (Refreshment Sunday), the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

In others traditions, the first candle is called the prophet’s candle and is meant to signify the hope of Christ’s coming. The second is called the Bethlehem candle in honour of the city of Christ’s birth. The third candle is the shepherds’ candle. The final candle is the angels’ candle, symbolising the angelic proclamation of joy at Christ’s birth.

In either case, the accumulation of light is an expression of the growing anticipation of the birth of Christ, the light of the world. The circular wreath represents God’s eternity and unity. Evergreens are a symbol of enduring life.

A number of carols have been written for use with the short liturgy as the Advent candles are lit. A common format is to add an extra verse each week, relating to the symbolism of that week’s candle.

3, The Jesse Tree

The West End windows in Christ Church Cathedral are another way of illustrating the Jesse Tree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At times, we have had a Jesse Tree in this chapel during Advent, and it has become a popular teaching aid in many Anglican parishes, although the earliest example probably dates from the 11th century.

The Tree of Jesse depicts the Ancestors of Christ in a tree that rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. The earliest example dates from the 11th century. But it is also inspired by that passage from Isaiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” (Isaiah 11: 1), which was the Old Testament reading in the Church of Ireland lectionary for Holy Communion last Tuesday (2 December 2014: Isaiah 11: 1-10).

The lineage of Jesus is traced by two Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. Saint Matthew’s Gospel opens with the words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” With this beginning, Matthew makes clear Jesus’ whole lineage: he is of God’s chosen people, by his descent from Abraham, and he is the “shoot of Jesse” by his descent from Jesse’s son, King David. Saint Luke describes the “generations of Christ,” beginning with Jesus himself and tracing backwards through his “earthly father” Joseph back to Adam (see Luke 3).

The figures in a Jesse Tree are drawn from the genealogies in the Gospels, although usually showing only a selection. In many churches, the traditional Jesse Tree is decorated over the course of Advent with symbols representing stories leading up to the Incarnation – for example, a burning bush for Moses, a ram for Isaac or a crown for David.

4, Christingle Services:

Christingle services … a good resource for Advent

The Moravian custom of a Christingle service was introduced to these islands in the late 20th century, and resources are available through the Children’s Society (in the Church of England). Christingle services may take place before or after Christmas, but they are a good resource for Advent.

5, The Advent Prose

The ‘O Antiphons’ … detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan Van Eyck, 1420s

In Advent, we often sing the Advent Prose or the Advent Antiphons, an antiphonal plainsong. The “Late Advent Weekdays,” 17 to 24 December, mark the singing of the Great Advent “O Antiphons.”

These are the antiphons for the canticle Magnificat at Evensong, Evening Prayer or Vespers day and mark the forthcoming birth of the Messiah. They form the basis for each verse of the popular Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel.

These antiphons, all beginning with “O ...,” were sung before and after the Canticle Magnificat at Vespers from 17 to 24 December, the seven days before Christmas.

They are addressed to God, calling on him to come as teacher and deliverer, and woven through with scriptural titles and images describing God’s saving work in Christ. This tradition was developed in the Sarum Rite in mediaeval England, and was reflected in The Book of Common Prayer, where the Anglican Reformers retained the title O Sapientia (‘O Wisdom’) as the designation for 16 December.

6, Advent carols

The Advent Carol Service in Lichfield Cathedral last year … appropriate Advent carols are not the same as Christmas carols

It is from this tradition that we have derived one of the best-known Advent carols, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), which we are signing this morning.

But there are other special Advent carols and hymns for this season. See Irish Church Hymnal, Nos 119 to 145.

7, Saint Nicholas

Santas and choristers preparing for Advent ... Saint Nicholas robed in green and other figures in the shop in the crypt in Christ Church Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is worth reminding ourselves that Saint Nicholas is commemorated not on 25 December but yesterday on 6 December, even if he does not make an appearance in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland Calendar.

Saint Nicholas was such a favourite saint in mediaeval Ireland that many our principal ports and towns have large churches named after him, including Carrickfergus, Co Antrim; Dundalk, Co Louth; Dublin (two churches); Galway; Cork; and Adare, Co Limerick.

He is an important figure, not because of the roly-poly figure hijacked by Coca-Cola and advertising.

His willingness to travel, even when his own life was at risk, makes him a role model for the church in mission.

As Bishop Nicholas of Myra, he was a key defender of Trinitarian dogma at the Council of Nicaea (325).

The stories of his bringing the victims of murder back to life is a reminder that Christmas is without meaning unless it is related to and connected with Good Friday and Easter Day, that the significance of the Incarnation is to be found in our Redemption and the Resurrection.

As a bishop who was the protector of vulnerable children and teenagers to point of risking his own place in society, he is an important challenge to some of the ways the whole church has handled some recent difficulties; as the free-giver of gifts, without expecting anything in return he is a reminder that God’s love is given freely and unconditionally at the Incarnation in his Son, Christ Jesus ... and what better sermon could we preach in the Season of Advent.

Chocolate Santas on shelves in a supermarket in Bettystown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

8, ‘Prepare a Place,’ the Advent Appeal in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough

‘Prepare a Place’ is the Advent Appeal in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough in support of al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. It was launched in Church House, Dublin, eleven days ago [25 November 2014] by Archbishop Michael Jackson, and is the initiative of the Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Council for Mission, in partnership with the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal, Us (the new name for USPG), and Friends of Sabeel.

Archbishop Jackson also introduced a prayer he has written for use throughout the Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough to accompany this Advent appeal:

throughout human history you have heard the cry of your people
when they turn to you for help and healing, for merciful belonging and for new life.
Bless those who today tend the flames of witness
To your kindly presence in the Land of the Holy One.
Give grace and protection to the bishop, the clergy and people
in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and The Middle East
who heed your command to love God and neighbour with courage and generosity.
Bless those who in the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough
build partnership, solidarity and friendship with the peoples of the Middle East
at this time of harrowing and of hope.
We ask this in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Donations can be made to Bishops’ Appeal either by envelopes that are available in all parish churches in the united dioceses or by electronic transfer to IBAN: IE BOFI 9000 1749 8394 99 BIC: BOFIIE2D (reference Gaza).

Three questions for our time of reflection:

1, Are you ready for the coming of Christ?

2, Is this a time of preparation or celebration for you, your parish?

3, Is Christmas more important than Easter in your parish?

Some resources and reading:

Stephen Cottrell, Walking Backwards to Christmas: An Advent journey from light to darkness (London: SPCK, 2014).

Nick Fawcett, A Chequered Legacy: The good the bad and the ugly: An Advent course. Book 1: The Good (Stowmarket, Suffolk: 2014).

Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).

Paul Gooder and Peter Babington, Love Life, Live Advent: Make room for the manger (London: Church House Publishing, 2014).

William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent antiphons (Dublin: Columba/APCK, 1993).

Dorothy McRae-McMahon, Liturgies for High Days (London: SPCK, 2006).

Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008; Alcuin Liturgy Guides 5).

Times and Seasons: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).

Closing poem

In the bleak mid-winter

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

(Christina Rosetti, 1830-1893, see Irish Church Hymnal, No. 162)

Closing hymn:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 2:

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery: Refrain

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight: Refrain

O come, Desire of Nations, bring,
all peoples to their Saviour King;
thou Corner-stone, who makest one,
complete in us thy work begun: Refrain

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear: Refrain

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture, on Sunday 7 December 2014, was part of the Spirituality programme in the module Pastoral Formation (TH 8841) with part-time MTh students

Hymns for Advent (8): ‘On Jordan’s bank
the Baptist’s cry’ by Charles Coffin (No 136)

Saint John the Baptist baptises Christ in the River Jordan ... a detail from a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. Today [7 December 2014] is the Second Sunday of Advent, and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for this day are: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3: 8-15a; Mark 1: 1-8. That Gospel reading provides the introduction to Saint Mark’s account of the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by Saint John the Baptist. So, this morning, on the Second Sunday of Advent, I have chosen On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry (Irish Church Hymnal, No 136).

This is one of the few Advent hymns to take account of Saint John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Coming Christ.

This hymn, which is based on the text in Luke 3: 1-18, was originally thought to be a mediaeval Latin hymn. But it was written by Charles Coffin (1676-1749), who became the Rector of the University of Paris in 1718, and first appeared in the Paris Breviary in 1736. It was translated by the Revd John Chandler (1806-1876), Vicar of Witley in Godalming, Surrey, and one of the early translators of Latin hymns into English with Anglican churches and parishes in mind.

The tune, ‘Winchester New,’ is a melody adapted from Georg Wittwe’s Musikalishes Hand-Buch (Hamburg, 1690) by Canon William Henry Havergal (1793-1870), one of the leading figures in reforming church psalmody in the Anglican tradition.

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry by Charles Coffin (No 136)

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings.

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within;
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty guest may come.

For thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without thy grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.

To heal the sick stretch forth thine hand,
and bid the fallen sinner stand;
shine forth, and let thy light restore
earth’s own true loveliness once more.

All praise, eternal Son, to thee,
whose advent doth thy people free;
whom with the Father we adore
and Holy Ghost for evermore.

The Baptism of Christ depicted in stucco relief in the Baptistery in the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

here you have nourished us with the food of life.
Through our sharing in this holy sacrament
teach us to judge wisely earthly things
and to yearn for things heavenly.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow:The angel Gabriel from heaven came’ (139)