22 November 2015

Reflections of the Blood of Christ
in sacrament and in suffering

The High Altar in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, before this morning’s Sung Eucharist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

We celebrated the feast of the Kingship of Christ or Christ the King in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning [22 November 2015]. I served as deacon at the Cathedral Eucharist, reading the Gospel (John 18: 33-37) and assisting at the administration of the Holy Communion.

The Revd Robert Lawson presided at the Eucharist, and the Revd Garth Bunting, Priest-Vicar in the Cathedral, preached.

The last Sunday before Advent was traditionally known in these islands as ‘Stir-up Sunday’ because of the words of the traditional collect. The Feast of Christ the King is a recent innovation in the Church calendar. It was first suggested at the end of 1925 when Pope Pius XI published an encyclical castigating secularism in Europe and calling on the secular powers to recognise Christ as King and to recapture his teachings.

At the time, the entire idea of kingship was quickly losing credibility in western societies, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and a wave of fascism was about to sweep across central Europe.

The mere mention of kingship and monarchy today may evoke images of either the extravagance of Louis XVI in Versailles, or the anachronism of pretenders in Ruritanian headdress, sashes and medals claiming thrones and privilege in Eastern Europe.

But since 1925, the celebration of Christ the King or the Kingship of Christ has become part of the calendar of the wider Western Church. It took on an ecumenical dimension from 1983 on with its introduction to Anglicans and other traditions in the Revised Common Lectionary.

For me, this feast remains a challenge to the way power, particularly political power, is exercised in the world, and how it used to consolidate power rather than serve and protect people.

As I stood at the High Altar in the cathedral this morning, just as we were about to administer the Sacrament, I unconsciously stared into the chalice before me, and found my own reflection staring back at me.

The usual words of administration at the Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday mornings are: “The Body of Christ” and “The Blood of Christ.”

So often, we are used to expecting to encounter Christ in the Word proclaimed, both at the reading of the Gospel and in the sermon, in each other at the Peace when we realise that as the Church we are the Body of the Christ, and when we receive the Eucharist, when we say Amen to those words of administration: “The Body of Christ.”

But how do we expect to come face-to-face with and the Blood of Christ at the Eucharist?

How is the Church also the Blood of Christ?

How is the Blood of Christ being shed today?

Who is the Blood of Christ shed for today?

I could not but think this morning that Christ is suffering today in the people of Syria seeking to escape persecution and taking great risks with in the choppy waters of the Aegean Sea between the coast of Turkey and the Dodecanese islands of Greece.

I thought too that those seeking to bind up the wounds of Christ today are those who are working as volunteers, often by night, on islands like Leros, Lesvos, Samos and Rhodes.

With Father Koshy Vaidyan of Saint George Orthodox Syrian Church in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, before this morning’s Sung Eucharist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

There was a reminder of the sufferings of the people of Syria after the Eucharist when I met Father Koshy Vaidyan of Saint George Orthodox Syrian Church in the Diocese of Kollam. The Indian Orthodox Church is in communion with and has close ties with the Syrian Orthodox Church.

Father Koshy worked with the Orthodox Student Movement in Kerala (1999-2001) and was a parish priest in Kerala (2001-2006) before coming to Ireland, where he studied at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where he studied for his MTh (2008) and his PhD in liturgy (2012).

While he was a student n Maynooth, he also served as Parish Priest of Saint Thomas Indian Orthodox Parish in Dublin (2006-2012). The parish uses Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin’s City Centre, and I got to know many of the priests and members of the congregation through my work with the Discovery Service in the church.

Since returning to India, Father Koshy has been back in Ireland a few times to research the life of Bishop Herbert Pakenham Walsh (1871-1959).

The Indian Orthodox Church, or Malankara Church has its main numerical strength in the southern Indian state of Kerala. It is an ancient Church, tracing its origins back to AD 52, when the Apostle Thomas is said to have arrived in India.

The Saint Thomas Christians or the Indian Syrian Christians have many different churches and denominations. But a major section of the parent body of Saint Thomas Christians have maintained their independence from the Orthodox Church under the Catholicate of the East on the Apostolic Throne of Saint Thomas and the Malankara Metropolitan with headquarters at Devalokam in Kerala.

The Church says it is modern in its vision and outlook, but keeps the traditional Oriental Orthodox faith, which accepts the first three Ecumenical Councils of the Church. It uses a translation of the liturgy adopted from the Church of Antioch.

Historically, this Church was part of the Church of the East, which was based in Persia and with great centres of learning in Edessa, Tigris and Selucia, and missions that reached as far as China. However, the liturgical rites are uniquely Indian, and today the Church uses the Malayalam, Syriac, Hindi, Kannada, German and English languages in the liturgy.

The Indian Orthodox diaspora in Ireland is scattered across the island, with parishes and congregations in Waterford, Cork, Sligo, Drogheda and Belfast.

From the 16th century, Portuguese Jesuits tried to bring the community fully into the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. But these efforts were seen as forceful and created such resentment that the majority of the community joined their archdeacon, Father Thomas, and 1653 they took an oath never to submit to the Portuguese.

The part of the church that supported Father Thomas is known as the Malankara Church. Following the arrival of Bishop Gregorios Abdul Jaleel of Jerusalem, Archdeacon Thomas forged a relationship with the Syriac Orthodox Church and gradually adopted West Syrian liturgy and practices.

Over time, however, relations became difficult between the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs and the local hierarchy, particularly after Patriarch Ignatius Peter IV (1872-1894), began demanding registered deeds for the transfer of properties.

In 1912, a synod led by the Patriarch Ignatius Abdul Masih II, who had been deposed by the Ottoman government, consecrated Bishop Evanios as Catholicos of the East with the name of Baselios Paulose I.

The dioceses that supported Bishop Baselios Paulose became what is now the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, while those who supported the Patriarch became the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church.

The two groups were briefly reunited in 1958=1975, but attempts by Church leaders and two Supreme Court decisions were unable to resolve the contention, and the two churches are independent of each other today.

Theologically and traditionally, the Indian Orthodox Church is part of the Oriental Orthodox communion of churches, and it shares the Alexandrian Christology of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt

Father Koshy reminded me that the Indian Orthodox Church regards Bishop Herbert Pakenham-Walsh as a saint, and that his grave is a centre of pilgrimage. He was a missionary in Bangalore (1907-1908), was warden of Bishop Cotton Boys’ School in Bangalore (1907-1913), and the first Bishop of Assam (1915-1924). An ashram he was associated with is now a monastery of the Indian Orthodox Church.

The bishop was the third son of William Pakenham-Walsh (1820-1902), Bishop of Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin in Ireland (1878- 1897), whose portrait hung over my desk for many years and is now hanging in the Music Room in the Chapter House in Christ Church Cathedral.

After coffee in the crypt, I brought Father Koshy on a tour of Christ Church Church Cathedral. Before he left he reminded me today how his Church continues to pray Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi of the Orthodox Church of Antioch and Metropolitan Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who are still missing since they were kidnapped in Syria in April 2013.

Winter waves beating the seashore in Bray, Co Wicklow, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Those prayers, and the suffering of fleeing Syrians and the dangers they face on the Aegean Sea came to mind later this afternoon as I walked along the shore at the seafront in Bray and watched the choppy, winter waves beat against the coast.

For our Post-Communion hymn this morning, we sang ‘Christ is the King! O friends, rejoice,’ a stirring call to discipleship written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s friend, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, at the suggestion of Canon Percy Dearmer. It was Bell, while he was Dean of Canterbury, who also invited TS Eliot to write Murder in the Cathedral.

My prayers on the beach this afternoon were strengthened by the two closing verses of the version we sang of that hymn this morning:

Christ through all ages is the same;
Place the same hope in his great name,
With the same faith his word proclaim:

Let Love’s unconquerable might
God's people everywhere unite
In service to the Lord of light:


Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
Keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that plenteously bearing the fruit of good works
they may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The side altar in the North Transept in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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