09 April 2020

‘Didn’t you see how the demons vanished
the second they saw me make
the holy sign of the cross?’

‘I’m frightened, friends. I want to leave. / Didn’t you see how the demons vanished / the second they saw me make / the holy sign of the cross?’ (CP Cavafy) … venerating the Cross in the parish church in Tsesmes in Rethymnon on the evening of Maundy Thursday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Thursday 9 April 2020

Maundy Thursday in Holy Week

Castletown Church, Castletown, Co Limerick.

8 p.m.: The Maundy Eucharist with Washing of Feet

Readings: Exodus 12: 1-4; Psalm 116: 1, 10-17; I Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35.

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

I was planning during Holy Week this year, like last year, instead of preaching each evening, 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 is washing his disciples’ feet. He shows them that at the heart of Christian life is not what others think of us but how we serve others, sacrificial love.

Tomorrow is Good Friday, he is to show finally what sacrificial love is with his death on the Cross.

My Poem for Holy Week this evening is ‘Julian at the Mysteries’ by the Greek poet Constantine P Cavafy (1863-1933), who lived in Alexandria and worked as a journalist and a civil servant.

Cavafy was instrumental in the revival and recognition of Greek poetry both at home and abroad, and his best-known poems include ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ (1904) ‘Ithaca’ (1911), ‘The City,’ and ‘The god abandons Antony’ (1911).

Cavafy wrote 12 poems on the theme of Julian the Apostate, and his reading notes on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall show how obsessed he was with the apostate fourth century emperor. Five of these Julian poems only came to light in the late 1970s, but the full collection shows how preoccupied the poet was with Julian, who was raised a Christian and became a pagan.

However, Cavafy shared none of the late romantic admiration for the last of the pagan emperors. Instead, he was obsessed with removing the glamour and exposing the fraud of this hero of latter-day pagans.

This seems to be a paradox in a Greek poet who was among the first in modern times to write outstanding poetry on sensuality and sexual encounters. GW Bowersock, in his paper ‘The Julian Poems of CP Cavafy’ (Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 7, 1981), suggests Cavafy found that his researches into the Early Church spoke to some degree to his own personal needs, and found greatest in the 1890s in the solitary struggles of the Early Fathers.

Cavafy’s experience of Christianity was complicated by his feelings of guilt and distress over his sexual orientation, which he tried to confront alone, writing a series of private confessions in which he tried to reconcile his sexuality and his Christianity.

This evening’s poem, ‘Julian at the Mysteries’ (O Iουλιανός εν τοις Mυστηρίοις), was written in November 1896 and was published posthumously. The story of Julian making the sign of the cross when he encountered demons in an underground cavern was first recounted by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, whose original text was familiar to Cavafy. The cross became a recurrent motif in Cavafy’s Julian poems.

The infant Julian and his half-brother Gallus were saved during the massacre of their family after the death of Constantine the Great. Later, when he became emperor (from 361 to 363), Julian abandoned Christianity and tried to establish a new pagan religion underpinned by Neo-Platonist principles.

All of the twelve Julian poems, in one way or another, address Julian’s encounter with Christianity. Cavafy sees Julian as a figure marked by hypocrisy and a pagan, puritanical intolerance, an ascetic who demanded strict adherence to the principles of his new pagan church.

This evening’s poem, ‘Julian at the Mysteries,’ had first been given the title ‘Julian at Eleusis’ (Ο Ιουλιανός εν Ελευσίνι). It seems the initial title was inspired by Gibbon’s inference from Saint Gregory of Nazianzus that Julian was at Eleusis: ‘He [Julian] obtained the privilege of a solemn initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis …’ However, there is no evidence to suppose that Julian was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and so Cavafy gave a new title to his old poem.

The satirical account of Julian’s fright at the mysteries and the potent sign of the cross which Julian made by reflex was written in November 1896, when Cavafy was critically reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. At the same time, Cavafy had a particular concern with the Early Church, and the story of Julian making the sign of the cross when he encounters demons in an underground cavern is told by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus.

This evening’s Holy Week poem, as we prepare for Good Friday, reminds us of the power of the sign of the cross, even for those whose faith is weak or who have rejected the message of Christ.

Julian at the Mysteries, by CP Cavafy

But when he found himself in darkness,
in the earth’s dreadful depths,
accompanied by unholy Greeks,
and bodiless figures appeared before him
with haloes and bright lights,
the young Julian momentarily lost his nerve:
an impulse from his pious years came back
and he crossed himself.
The Figures vanished at once;
the haloes faded away, the lights went out.
The Greeks exchanged glances.
The young man said: “Did you see the miracle?
Dear companions, I’m frightened.
I’m frightened, friends. I want to leave.
Didn’t you see how the demons vanished
the second they saw me make
the holy sign of the cross?”
The Greeks chuckled scornfully:
“Shame on you, shame, to talk that way
to us sophists and philosophers!
If you want to say things like that,
say them to the Bishop of Nicomedia
and his priests.
The greatest gods of our glorious Greece
appeared before you.
And if they left, don’t think for a minute
that they were frightened by a gesture.
It was just that when they saw you
making that vile, that crude sign,
their noble nature was disgusted
and they left you in contempt.”
This is what they said to him,
and the fool recovered from
his holy, blessed fear, convinced
by the unholy words of the Greeks.

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

CP Cavafy, by David Hockney

John 13: 1-17, 31b-35 (NRSVA):

1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7 Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8 Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9 Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10 Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

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. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

Liturgical Colour: White

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:

God our Father,
you have invited us to share in the supper
which your Son gave to his Church
to proclaim his death until he comes:
May he nourish us by his presence,
and unite us in his love;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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)


Through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who, for the redemption of the world,
humbled himself to death on the cross;
that, being lifted up from the earth,
he might draw all people to himself:

Post Communion Prayer:

O God,
your Son Jesus Christ has left us this meal of bread and wine
in which we share his body and his blood.
May we who celebrate this sign of his great love
show in our lives the fruits of his redemption;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


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:


431, Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour (CD 26)
432, Love is his word, love is his way (CD 26)
515, ‘A new commandment I give unto you’ (CD 30)

‘Julian … crossed himself. The Figures vanished at once; the haloes faded away, the lights went out’ … a crucifix icon from the Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Ο Iουλιανός εν τοις Mυστηρίοις, Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

Πλην σαν ευρέθηκε μέσα στο σκότος,
μέσα στης γης τα φοβερά τα βάθη,
συντροφευμένος μ’ Έλληνας αθέους,
κ’ είδε με δόξες και μεγάλα φώτα
να βγαίνουν άυλες μορφές εμπρός του,
φοβήθηκε για μια στιγμήν ο νέος,
κ’ ένα ένστικτον των ευσεβών του χρόνων
επέστρεψε, κ’ έκαμε τον σταυρό του.
Aμέσως οι Μορφές αφανισθήκαν•
οι δόξες χάθηκαν — σβήσαν τα φώτα.
Οι Έλληνες εκρυφοκοιταχθήκαν.
Κι ο νέος είπεν• «Είδατε το θαύμα;
Aγαπητοί μου σύντροφοι, φοβούμαι.
Φοβούμαι, φίλοι μου, θέλω να φύγω.
Δεν βλέπετε πώς χάθηκαν αμέσως
οι δαίμονες σαν μ’ είδανε να κάνω
το σχήμα του σταυρού το αγιασμένο;»
Οι Έλληνες εκάγχασαν μεγάλα•
«Ντροπή, ντροπή να λες αυτά τα λόγια
σε μας τους σοφιστάς και φιλοσόφους.
Τέτοια σαν θες, εις τον Νικομηδείας
και στους παπάδες του μπορείς να λες.
Της ένδοξης Ελλάδος μας εμπρός σου
οι μεγαλύτεροι θεοί φανήκαν.
Κι αν φύγανε, να μη νομίζεις διόλου
που φοβηθήκαν μια χειρονομία.
Μονάχα σαν σε είδανε να κάνεις
το ποταπότατον, αγροίκον σχήμα
σιχάθηκεν η ευγενής των φύσις,
και φύγανε και σε περιφρονήσαν».
Έτσι τον είπανε, κι από τον φόβο
τον ιερόν και τον ευλογημένον
συνήλθεν ο ανόητος, κ’ επείσθη
με των Ελλήνων τ’ άθεα τα λόγια.

(Από τα Κρυμμένα Ποιήματα 1877;-1923, Ίκαρος 1993.)

Preparing the Cross for Good Friday on Maundy Thursday in the parish church in Tsesmes in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The English translation of ‘Julian at the Mysteries’ is by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard in CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, edited by George Savidis (revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992).

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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