17 April 2019

‘… the heavens bowed their head
As from Its heart slow dripped a crimson rain’

‘O Sun, O Christ ... Thou pawnest Heaven as a pledge for Earth’ … sunset on the beach at Platanes near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Wednesday in Holy Week (‘Spy Wednesday’)

8 p.m., Compline, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Reading: John 13: 21-32.

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

I said on Sunday (Palm Sunday, 7 April 2019) that during Holy Week this year, instead of preaching each day in Holy Week I hoped to read a poem to help our reflections during this Holy Week.

In our Gospel reading this evening (John 13: 21-32), we are at the Last Supper, and Jesus has finished washing his disciples’ feet.

He now tells them that one of them is about to betray him. He then tells Judas Iscariot to go and do quickly what he is planning to do.

My choice of a Lenten poem this evening is the sonnet, ‘I saw the Sun at Midnight,’ by the 1916 leader, Joseph Mary Plunkett (1879-1916).

Although another poem by Plunkett, ‘I see his blood upon the rose,’ is well-known, Plunkett’s work as poet is often overshadowed by the memory of his role in the Easter Rising in 1916.

But Joseph Mary Plunkett was hardly the typical ‘green, Gaelic, Catholic working class hero’ that those who hijack the memory and names of 1916 today would like us to imagine. Instead, Joseph Mary Plunkett came from an aristocratic and artistic background.

He was the son of Count George Noble Plunkett (1851-1948), curator of the National Museum of Ireland, and Josephine Cranny (1858-1944), Countess Plunkett. He was born on 21 November 1887 at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, an elegant Georgian house on the Fitzwilliam or Pembroke estate, close to Merrion Square, Fitzwilliam Square and Saint Stephen’s Green.

He was sent to school in Dublin at Catholic University School and the Jesuit-run Belvedere College, before going to the Jesuit-run English public school, Stonyhurst.

In England, he studied the mystics Saint John of the Cross, Saint Theresa of Avila, and Saint Francis de Sales, and their influence permeates his poetry, although, in a short article on ‘Obscurity and Poetry,’ he later applied the term ‘mystic’ to but a very small part of his own verse.

Back in Ireland, he became friends with Thomas MacDonagh and Padraic Pearse at Saint Enda’s School, Rathfarnham. Like him, they would become signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. But ill-health made him inactive for much of his life, and he spent many winters abroad. He and his mother spent a winter travelling in Italy, Sicily and Malta, and he spent another winter in Algiers, where he studied Arabic literature and language.

When he returned from Algiers, he lived in Donnybrook, but apart from MacDonagh and Pearse he had few other literary friends in Dublin until he became interested in the Irish Review, whose contributors included James Stephens, Thomas MacDonagh and Padraic Colum, who was editor in 1912-1913. Two of his poems were published in the Review, and he became editor in June 1913.

While he was editor, the contributors included David Houston, Joseph Campbell, Conal O’Riordan, James Cousins, Lord Dunsany, Darrell Figgis, Arthur Griffith, Mary Hayden, Winifred M Letts, Susan Mitchell, Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Sir Roger Casement.

Along with MacDonagh and Edward Martyn, he also co-founded the Irish Theatre in 1914.

In 1916, he was one of the signatories of the Proclamation. He was imprisoned in Richmond Barracks. Shortly before his execution in Kilmainham Jail on the morning of 4 May 1916, he married his fiancé, Grace Gifford (1888-1955), in the jail chapel. His friend, Thomas MacDonagh, who married Grace’s sister, Muriel, was executed the day before. Grace was a member of the Church of Ireland, but she and Joseph had planned to marry in University Church, Saint Stephen’s Green. He was 28 when he died.

Two volumes of Plunkett’s poetry were published: one in 1911 and the other posthumously. They include many immature poems, but also some lasting poems he later counted among his mature work, including ‘White Dove of the Wild Dark Eyes,’ the sonnet ‘I Saw the Sun at Midnight, Rising Red,’ the poems ‘1867,’ ‘I See His Blood Upon the Rose,’ ‘My Soul is Sick with Longing,’ and ‘The Stars Sang in God’s Garden.’

This evening’s poem, which is a deep meditation on the love of God, was also included in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917), edited by DHS Nicholson and AHE Lee.

‘I saw the Sun … rising red … heavy with the stain of blood-compassion’ … a sun-streaked sky at the Rectory in Askeaton before sunrise (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I saw the Sun at Midnight, by Joseph Mary Plunkett

I saw the Sun at midnight, rising red,
Deep-hued yet glowing, heavy with the stain
Of blood-compassion, and I saw It gain
Swiftly in size and growing till It spread
Over the stars; the heavens bowed their head
As from Its heart slow dripped a crimson rain,
Then a great tremor shook It, as of pain –
The night fell, moaning, as It hung there dead.

O Sun, O Christ, O bleeding Heart of flame!
Thou givest Thine agony as our life’s worth,
And makest it infinite, lest we have dearth
Of rights wherewith to call upon Thy Name;
Thou pawnest Heaven as a pledge for Earth
And for our glory sufferest all shame.

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

John 13: 21-32 (NRSVA):

21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23 One of his disciples – the one whom Jesus loved – was reclining next to him; 24 Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25 So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ 26 Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27 After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30 So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

Liturgical Colour: Red or Violet

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you sent your Son to reconcile us to yourself and to one another.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
you heal the wounds of sin and division.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
through you we put to death the sins of the body – and live.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters,
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings
of this present time,
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Introduction to the Peace:

Now in union with Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near through the shedding of Christ’s blood; for he is our peace. (Ephesians 2: 17)


Christ draw you to himself
and grant that you find in his cross a sure ground for faith,
a firm support for hope,
and the assurance of sins forgiven:


247, When I survey the wondrous cross (CD 15)

‘The night fell, moaning, as It hung there dead’ … sunset seen through the church ruins at Kilconly in north Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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