17 January 2016

An appropriate use for an old
former parish church in Duleek

The Spire Restaurant and the ruins of Duleek Abbey in the evening lights this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Many years ago – more than a decade ago – I was involved in a visit to a Mediterranean country by an ecumenical group of Church leaders from the islands, including a number of bishops.

Everywhere we went there was a warm welcome, from ambassadors and abbots, in monasteries and cathedrals, in small churches and at lavish dinners.

There were formal occasions when ecumenical guests and government ministers from the country we were visiting were present. At all times, the Irish and British co-operation was friendly and fruitful.

The highlight of our visit ought to have been a formal reception hosted by the Patriarch of the main Eastern Church in the country where we were guests. We had met him earlier during the visit, but only briefly, but this was a very formal occasion.

To one side I could see a large tray, resplendent with an array of glittering icons. I realised that these were presents prepared for the visitors.

There were formal introductions, and then the Patriarch began to speak about the conditions of the Church in his own country, the sufferings it had endured in the past, and the struggle that Christians had engaged in to keep their faith alive. It is a challenge I am sure Christians have faced in virtually every country I have visited in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it has shaped and formed their narrative throughout the region.

But as he continued with his recollections, the Patriarch turned to his own analysis of the churches on these islands. In his opinion, we had little understanding of suffering, we had failed to struggle to keep our churches open, and instead of engaging in mission, we had sold off our church buildings.

He chided us. If only we had known the cost Christians in his country had paid to keep their churches open, we would not have been so hasty in selling or leasing our churches and allowing them to be used as car workshops, bars and restaurants.

As I spoke, I saw his eyes beckon one of his priests.

Silently and unobtrusively, without other members of our party noticing, the tray was removed, and replaced with a smaller tray, with smaller trays. In the course of the Patriarch’s address, he had decided our delegation was of less importance than he originally believed. We were demoted, although no-one else knew it.

Reflections in the Spire Restaurant in Duleek this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

This evening, four of us went for dinner in the Spire restaurant in Duleek, Co Meath. The restaurant is housed in a former Church of Ireland parish church beside the ruins of Duleek Abbey.

The premises were in a sad state of neglect for a number of years until Aogán and Karen Dunne re-opened the Spire on 14 August 2013.

The Spire Restaurant is located in the former Saint Cianan’s Church. The atmosphere reflects its ancient locale, illuminated by nature, and enhanced by the beautifully stonemason-crafted and flood-lit spire. The interior of the restaurant has been transformed into a splendid restaurant, and the food, fare and attention made this an enjoyable evening.

I am not questioning whether Duleek might not continue to benefit from a Church of Ireland presence, and perhaps a new expression of this may be found in the future. But in the meantime, despite the words of an upset and now departed Patriarch, it is better to see an old, disused church serving the community as a good restaurant than to see it fall into decay and ruin.

Looking out onto Duleek from the Spire this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Wedding at Cana promises
us that ‘the best is yet to come’

‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ (1670-1672), by Jan Steen (1626-1679), The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 17 January 2016,

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

11 a.m.:
The Sung Eucharist.

Readings: Isaiah 62: 1-5; Psalm 36: 5-10; I Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Christmas is truly over for most people … and many of those New Year’s resolutions are truly forgotten too: who wants to be reminded this morning about exercising more, eating less, rising early, clearing out the spare room?

Most of these good intentions went out the window when we went back to work, when the children went back to school, when the decorations and the trees came down.

But, the truth is, Christmas is not over. There’s more than another two weeks to go. Christmas is a season of 40 days that ends with Candlemas on 2 February, the feastday that links Christmas and Easter, that links the cradle and the cross, that links the Incarnation and the Resurrection.

The feast of the Epiphany did not end on 6 January, but continues throughout these weeks. And so, this morning is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany.

Epiphany celebrates not one but three great Epiphany or Theophany events, reminding us what Christmas is truly about and who the Christ Child is for us.

1, We celebrated the Visit of the Magi almost two weeks ago [6 January 2016].

2, Last Sunday [10 January 2016], we read about the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.

3, Then this morning [17 January 2016], we have the Wedding at Cana, which is an Epiphany or Theophany event too when, even before his time has come, Christ shows who he is.

Finding good wine to serve at the end of the meal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Sometimes, this morning’s Gospel story is so familiar that we forget what its first impact may have been like.

The saying about serving the good wine first is so well known that we forget that this is not what happens at all.

Sometimes, we convince ourselves that at this wedding in Cana they plan to first serve the good wine, and then when people are drunk they can put up with cheap plonk.

Not so.

Think of how many festive meals finish with the good wine.

We were surprised rummaging around after Christmas to find two bottles of fine port we had forgotten about: one from Portugal and one from the cellars of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge; and beside them, a good bottle of desert wine that we have received as a present in Greece. They were such appropriate ways to finish off some good meals and celebrations at Christmas and the New Year.

No good wedding would finish without opening the champagne to toast the happy couple.

In Greece, and in other parts of the Mediterranean, where wedding celebrations can last for a few days, perhaps three days, the good wine comes out at the end, to toast the couple and to send the guests away knowing they have been welcome.

The bride arrives for a Mediterranean wedding in Amalfi in Italy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

And this wedding story is about one other, long, weekend wedding, like so many that Jesus and the Disciples would have enjoyed.

Because he enjoyed a good wedding, Jesus uses the wedding banquet as an image of the Kingdom in two other Gospels (see Matthew 22: 1-14; Luke 14: 15-24), and it helps to understand why he is referred to as the bridegroom at least 14 time in the New Testament (e.g., see Matthew 9: 14-15; Matthew 25: 1-13; Mark 2: 18-20; Luke 5: 33-35; John 3: 29; Revelation 18: 23; Revelation 19: 9; Revelation 21: 2).

And so, as with a wedding story, we might expect this morning’s Gospel story to be one about love, and one in which they all live happily ever after.

Imagine or picture in your mind’s eye the happy couple who turn up for this wedding. This should be their great day. People have come from far and wide to be with them, to celebrate with them.

And in good Mediterranean fashion, after two or three days, when everyone is about to go, there is a last dance, and a last toast: to the Bride and Groom.

Or, so it was planned.

But before they get to that stage, the wine gives out (verse 3).

Why do you think this happens?

Because everyone has had too much to drink?

Because the groom, as he ought to in that tradition, did not buy in enough wine?

Or, because the groom had bought enough wine, but someone was siphoning it off, hoping everyone would be too drunk to notice?

Embarrassing, yes. But for whom?

Certainly for Mary, she takes action immediately. You can just picture her as the concerned aunt, like so many aunts at a wedding, not wanting her nephew or his new wife to be embarrassed.

But not for Jesus.

And not for the servants either. They seem to have done just what they were told to do.

Wine fraud is one of the oldest frauds in the world. Perhaps the finger of suspicion points at the chief steward, the master of the feast, the ἀρχιτρίκλινος (architríklinos) in verses 8-10.

He has not been paying attention to what has been going on. At best, he has been negligent, at worst he was complicit, perhaps even the organiser.

Have the newly-wed couple and their guests, and their servants too, been the victims of a smart con trick by the chief steward?

Is he inefficient? Does he not realise what’s going on? Did he not buy all the wine that he charged for? Or, perhaps, has he been siphoning off the wine?

He’s certainly not a model of probity as a wedding planner. And I fear he is avoiding some potentially tough questions when he claims dismissively: “Everyone serves the good wine first” (verse 10).

That is patently not so. And he never even asks where the wine comes from. He just accepts that it’s there. Perhaps he suspects he has been caught out.

‘Fill the jars with water … and they filled them up to the brim.’ Two large jars or pithoi at the Minoan palace in Knossos, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

So often in life, ordinary people are cheated out of what is theirs, deprived of what they should be entitled, left without hope.

That’s the way of the world, that’s the experience of ordinary people in this world.

The “Queen of Mean,” the late Leona Helmsley (1920-2007), once said when she was on trial for tax evasion: “Only the little people pay taxes” (1989).

So often in life, it’s the people she dismissed as “the little people” who pay their taxes, and pay the price when it comes to cuts in public services, the collapse of banks, or bear the brunt when it comes to floods and natural disasters. There are no heads of state or CEOs from large multinationals among the Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe today.

As a former journalist, I often came across stories of workers looking forward to retirement only to find they are made redundant or the hoped-for pension pot has been siphoned off.

Barack Obama made a similar point in his State of the Nation address last Tuesday night [12 January 2016] when he told comfortable politicians who had resisted his every effort to reform health care and pension rights in the US: “Some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber.”

Imagine the embarrassment of the couple cheated out of the toast to the bride and the groom at the very end of their wedding celebrations.

But Christ is with us at the moments when we feel cheated of our hopes for the future.

It’s over 50 years since Frank Sinatra had a hit with the song. “The best is yet to come” and these are the words on his gravestone.

The Wedding at Cana, the Epiphany cycle of stories, the promise contained in the stories that compare wedding banquets with the Kingdom of God, all let us know that in God’s plans, in Christ’s hope, for “the little people” who feel cheated and marginalised, “the best is yet to come.”

As for that wedding at Cana, as with all good stories, you might well ask: Did they live happy ever after?

Well, the lectionary compilers end this story at verse 11. But the next verse, verse 12, says:

After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days (Μετὰ τοῦτο κατέβη εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ αὐτὸς καὶ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ [αὐτοῦ] καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐκεῖ ἔμειναν οὐ πολλὰς ἡμέρας).

They go to the wedding together, and they go back together, but things have changed. After the wedding, someone is a new brother-in-law, a new sister-in-law, is going to be a new aunt or a new uncle. In time to come, a new family is structured.

It was a long walk back: 18 miles or 27 km, and in the conditions of the time it would have taken a good day’s walk.

What did they talk about on the long day’s walk?

Was that your cousin? Is she your new sister-in-law? Who did he dance with? Will they fall in love? Are they really in love?

When we publicly show our love for one another, when we form new families, when we allow the ripples of love to spread out in ways that we cannot control, in ways in which we lose control, then we are truly partners in creating the Kingdom of God.

Even if the couple at Cana broke up afterwards, grandparents would continue to share the same grandchildren.

We make family at weddings, but we cannot control family. Already, I have invitations to three family weddings later this year. But I have no say over who my brothers-in-law are, who my nieces or nephews marry, and I certainly have no say about who my grandparents were, the decisions they made or the way they behaved. And that is so for the generations to come too.

I imagine the Kingdom of God is like that. Those who are invited to the heavenly banquet are going to include people I at first may be uncomfortable to sit with at the same table. But I am not the host, I am the guest, and the invitations are sent out into the side-streets and the alleyways (Matthew 22: 9-10). “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19: 9).

I cannot choose who is invited to the wedding, but I can accept the invitation to the meal, and the invitation to be part of the new family, the kingdom.

And if we accept the invitation, we have no right to pick and choose, to discriminate against my fellow guests, to cheat them out of their place at the table, to refuse to eat and drink with them.

In the Kingdom of God, the best is yet to come.

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

This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday 17 January 2016.

The Wedding at Cana … a modern icon


Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new:
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of glory,
you nourish us with bread from heaven.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit
that through us the light of your glory
may shine in all the world.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

John 2: 1-11

1 Καὶ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ γάμος ἐγένετο ἐν Κανὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ ἦν ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐκεῖ: 2 ἐκλήθη δὲ καὶ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν γάμον. 3 καὶ ὑστερήσαντος οἴνου λέγει ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πρὸς αὐτόν, Οἶνον οὐκ ἔχουσιν. 4 [καὶ] λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; οὔπω ἥκει ἡ ὥρα μου. 5 λέγει ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ τοῖς διακόνοις, Ο τι ἂν λέγῃ ὑμῖν ποιήσατε. 6 ἦσαν δὲ ἐκεῖ λίθιναι ὑδρίαι ἓξ κατὰ τὸν καθαρισμὸν τῶν Ἰουδαίων κείμεναι, χωροῦσαι ἀνὰ μετρητὰς δύο ἢ τρεῖς. 7 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Γεμίσατε τὰς ὑδρίας ὕδατος. καὶ ἐγέμισαν αὐτὰς ἕως ἄνω. 8 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἀντλήσατε νῦν καὶ φέρετε τῷ ἀρχιτρικλίνῳ: οἱ δὲ ἤνεγκαν. 9 ὡς δὲ ἐγεύσατο ὁ ἀρχιτρίκλινος τὸ ὕδωρ οἶνον γεγενημένον, καὶ οὐκ ᾔδει πόθεν ἐστίν, οἱ δὲ διάκονοι ᾔδεισαν οἱ ἠντληκότες τὸ ὕδωρ, φωνεῖ τὸν νυμφίον ὁ ἀρχιτρίκλινος 10 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Πᾶς ἄνθρωπος πρῶτον τὸν καλὸν οἶνον τίθησιν, καὶ ὅταν μεθυσθῶσιν τὸν ἐλάσσω: σὺ τετήρηκας τὸν καλὸν οἶνον ἕως ἄρτι. 11 Ταύτην ἐποίησεν ἀρχὴν τῶν σημείων ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν Κανὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἐφανέρωσεν τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ.

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4 And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5 His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6 Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

A tale from Bunclody

The following one-page feature in published on p 3 of the Bunclody Union Newsletter and the Bunclody Union e-newsletter this morning [17 January 2016, the Second Sunday after Epiphany]:

Bunclody [by Rev’d Canon Patrick Comerford]

Bunclody is a town in two parts. It’s not just that some people still refer to it with whimsical affection as Newtownbarry, which was its official name until 1950, but it is also a town with two separate parts.

The River Clody has traditionally divided the town between two counties, so that Carrigduff is in Co Carlow and Bunclody is in Co Wexford.

The two form one town for census purposes, and many of the town facilities are on the Co Carlow side of the River Clody rather than Co Wexford, including the swimming pool, the Garda station and the Bunclody branch of Wexford County Library.

Coming out of the Millrace Hotel in Bunclody last weekend, it was possible to imagine I was caught in some sort of “No Man’s Land” between Co Carlow and Co Wexford. Standing on the bridge over the mill race and the River Clody, there was a road sign to my left – on the north or west side of the road, announcing: “Welcome to County Carlow.” To my right – on the south or east side of the road, the road sign proclaimed: “Welcome to County Wexford.”

For one moment, I was tempted to think I am in the middle of nowhere, and I found myself humming Stuck In The Middle, written by Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan and recorded by their band Stealers Wheel in 1972.

But this too was the dilemma for James Annesley (1715-1760), the kidnapped heir who lost his family fortune and titles through the decadent lifestyle of his father and the cruel scheming of his uncle.

I was in Bunclody researching photographs for a magazine feature on James, who was sent to school in Bunclody in 1720-1722 while his father Arthur Annesley (1689-1727), 4th Lord Altham, was living in Carrigduff Castle, now in ruins on the Co Carlow side of the town.

The boy was born in Dunmain House, near Gusserane, outside New Ross. A few months before they moved to Bunclody, Arthur’s widowed aunt, Ursula Lady Altham, had sold off the Annesley estates in Carrigduff and Bunclody to the Barry family who later planned and built Newtownbarry on the estate.

Young James, who stood in the way of his Uncle Richard’s ambitions for wealth and titles, was kidnapped, sold into indentured labour in the colonies, and when he escaped later fought lengthy legal battle to recover his inheritance and his birth-right.

Despite favourable court rulings, the former schoolboy from Bunclody was thwarted in every effort he made to have the judgments enforced, and he died in obscurity at the age of 34.

For most of his life, he had been caught in the middle of nowhere, like that short stretch of road in Bunclody, neither in one place nor the other. But that’s a story for the Diocesan Magazine … to come.