05 April 2020

Finding that Lichfield link
in a Larkin poem in this
time of not going to church

‘A serious house on serious earth it is’ … Saint Michael’s Church, Greenhill, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

When Philip Larkin spent a Christmas holiday with his family in Lichfield in 1940-1941, he wrote three poems: ‘Christmas 1940,’ ‘Out in the lane I pause’ and ‘Ghosts.’

I was writing yesterday – in this time of not being able to go to church – about Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘The Trees.’ But, of course, not being able to go to church on Palm Sunday because of the Covid-19 restrictions reminds me too that the first of Larkin’s great poems is ‘Church Going,’ which was published in The Less Deceived (1955), Larkin’s first mature collection of poetry. As I read this poem again, I was surprised to find confirmation for my intuitive notions that this poem is set in Lichfield, and not in Northern Ireland.

‘Church Going’ is a poem that tells us much about Larkin’s sense of being elsewhere, not committed to a particular location nor alienated from it. Larkin complained that it took him a long time to write this poem in 1954, with 19 pages of drafts, including seven pages of drafts of the last stanza.

Larkin described ‘Church Going’ as his ‘Betjeman poem,’ but it also has echoes of TS Eliot’s Little Gidding in the Four Quartets:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

There are hints too in the poem of TS Eliot’s Journey Of The Magi.

‘Church Going’ was written by Larkin almost 70 years ago in 1954, and it took him about three months to finish it. After a delay of about a year, during which the poem was lost, it was first published eventually in the Spectator on 18 November 1955. That version included some misprints that were not corrected until an edition of his poems was published in January 1962.

While he was writing this poem, Larkin asked his mother to send him her copies of the Church Times so ‘he could brush up on pyxes and stuff.’

Among the cuttings from the Church Times he kept, one from 7 May 1954 was headed ‘Save Our Churches week.’ The Archbishop of Canterbury had issued an appeal on behalf of the Historic Churches’ Preservation Trust, saying that over 2,000 churches must be helped at once, and that without immediate support about 200 churches in England were in imminent danger of ruin.

Ten years later, Larkin also said he had been inspired by a visit one Sunday afternoon, while he was working in Belfast, to a ruined country church in a town south-east of Belfast. Although he had previously seen bombed churches, this was the first church he had visited that ‘had simply fallen into disuse, and for a few moments I felt the decline of Christianity in our century as tangible as gooseflesh.’ In a later interview he recalled: ‘I’d never seen a ruined church before – discarded. It shocked me.’

‘Of course,’ as the Philip Larkin Society observes on its website, ‘Larkin’s comments on his own poems are frequently misleading and need to be treated with caution.’ His descriptions do not accord with the church he describes in this poem, with its lectern, Bible, font, ‘small neat organ,’ prayer books, flowers, rood-loft and recently cleaned and restored roof.

Larkin also related this poem to another Sunday afternoon when he was cycling and visited the church in Ashby-de-la-Zouch (about 15 miles north-east of Lichfield) in Leicestershire, where he admired the rood loft.

However, when I used two of Larkin’s poems – ‘The Dedicated’ and ‘Arrivals, departures,’ – as an Advent reflection in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in 2016, I wondered in blog posting the following day whether this poem have also been inspired by an English church, perhaps by an earlier visit to Saint Michael’s Church in Lichfield when he lived there after the Coventry Blitz and where many members of the Larkin family are buried.

I have since come across The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin’s Photographs by Richard Bradford (London: Frances Lincoln), which refers to a letter written by Larkin on 6 March 1954 that seems to confirm that intuitive speculation.

In that letter, written two months before he wrote ‘Church Going,’ Larkin recalls a week in the Midlands spent mainly with his mother, when he visited ‘family graves’ in Lichfield around February or March 1954, notably the grave of his father, Sydney Larkin, who was buried there in 1948.

Larkin says this visit to Saint Michael’s churchyard was followed by a ‘queer mixture of hell and rest cure’ – by this he meant a poorly attended service in Lichfield Cathedral.

He sent a draft of the poem to Kingsley Amis and reported to Monica Jones, his muse and mistress, that ‘Church Going didn’t interest him . . . Not a word about the poem as a whole.’ He expected constructive criticism but what he received were heedless, dismissive projections of Amis’s prejudices.

Larkin was clear that this poem is not religious. In an interview with Ian Hamilton in 1964, he said, ‘I was a bit irritated by an American who insisted to me that it was a religious poem. It isn’t religious at all. Religion surely means that the affairs of this world are under divine surveillance, and so on, and I go to some pains to point out that I don’t bother about that sort of thing, that I’m deliberately ignorant of it: ‘ “Up at the holy end,” for instance.’

However, Larkin admitted that the poem has always been well-liked and believed ‘this is because it is about religion, and has a serious air that conceals the fact that its tone and argument are entirely secular.’

The poem talks about the union of the important stages of life – birth, marriage and death – and Larkin would admit he was worried what would happen when these are dispersed into the registry office and the crematorium chapel.

I ‘run my hand around the font’ … the font in Saint Michael's Church, Greenhill, Lichfield, where generations of the Larkin family were baptised (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church Going, by Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

‘If only that so many dead lie round’ … members of the Larkin family are buried at Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield, and Philip Larkin’s parents are named on tablets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In this poem, the poet sneaks into a church after making sure the Sunday service is over and the church is empty. He lets himself in, as ‘I often do,’ lets the door ‘thud shut’ behind him, and glances around at the furnishings and decorations.

Last Sunday’s flowers are turning brown, the organ is small and neat, and even he cannot ignore the silence. Despite his protests, Larkin begins to be affected by the atmosphere and a silence ‘Brewed God knows how long.’ He now feels that as a sign of reverence he has to take something off. As he has no hat on his head, and so reverentially he takes off his bicycle clips.

In the second stanza, he runs his hand around the font and notices the condition of the roof that ‘looks almost new,’ suggesting that it has been taken care of. Clearly the parishioners are caring for this church, cleaning and maintaining it. After a short pause, he walks up to the altar, moves to the lectern and from the open Bible reads a few words aloud. Drawing on past memories of church-going, he concludes ‘Here endeth,’ only to be challenged by hearing his own mocking tone echoed back to him and is taken aback a little when the echoes ‘snigger briefly.’

He moves back to the door, and signs the visitors’ book. But, as if to remove any significance from that gesture, he then puts an Irish sixpence in the box. If this is a church near Belfast, perhaps a small coin from the Republic of Ireland is a disdainful gesture towards Northern Protestants. But if the church is in England, then perhaps he is suggesting with a worthless coin that the church is worthless too and ‘not worth stopping for’ – his compromise between giving nothing and giving real money.

However, he is still drawn to churches and wonders why this is so. He shows that he knows more about churches than he admits to the reader in the first stanza. There he talks about ‘brass and stuff’ and ‘the holy end’ in a dismissive tone; but now he talks about cathedrals with their ‘parchment, plate and pyx.’

The casual language in the first stanza shows indifference rather than ignorance. Now the visitor is more engaged, and uses the word ‘we’ when wondering what will happen when churches ‘fall completely out of use.’ What then will happen to the empty buildings? Some may be preserved, but others will fall into ruin.

Larkin presents us with a stark and bleak vision of a coming time when churches fall out of use and will come to be viewed as ‘unlucky places,’ visited by people moved by superstition rather than religious belief. There is wry humour in the suggestion that they will be let ‘rent-free to rain and sheep,’ evoking images of a new flock and a different set of pastoral needs.

In the last three stanzas, Larkin uses long sentences and a lack of clear endings or breaks between the stanzas to show how challenged he has become with his current train of thought. As the church deteriorates, it will become less recognisable and its purpose will fade from memory.

The poet wonders who will be the very last person to visit this place, understanding its significance.

The possible visitors in the future are described in dismissive terms. One is ‘one of the crew’ who are interested in architecture; another hungers for anything that is antique, a ‘ruin bibber’; while a third yearns to be part of the ceremonies that once took place here. The references to ‘a whiff / of gown-and-bands and organ pipes and myrrh’ recall Eliot once again the visit and the gifts of the Magi, gold, frankincense and myrrh, but also show this third category of visitor, with an antiquarian interest in old churches, is more interested in the symbols of the Christmas message than in the substance of its real meaning.

Churches give meaning to the key moments in life – birth, marriage and death – and link them through ceremonies, thereby giving a meaning and coherence to the participants’ lives. Without the church, such events would not be linked and would exist only in separation from one another.

Despite Larkin’s lack of interest in religion, he acknowledges that it has given meaning and consistency to people’s lives and has treated all equally. He is now pleased to stand in silence in the church.

The final stanza is more solemn than those before it. The repetition of the word ‘serious’ in the first line – ‘a serious house on serious earth’ – sets the tone. The language changes from a casual conversational tone to a more formal register: ‘blent air,’ ‘recognized and robed’, ‘gravitating to this ground’ …

Through the church, all our human ‘compulsions’ are acknowledged as important and are given the status of destinies. The church takes people and their paths through life seriously. There is a part of most people that longs to be treated with such seriousness and respect: ‘that much can never be obsolete.’

Larkin now admits that although churches are just an empty shell to him, they have played an important role in the lives of their congregations. Without the church, people will be somewhat adrift in the world and may well ‘gravitate’ to this place where life was once given meaning.

Compare his description of this church as ‘This special shell … this accoutred frowsty barn’ with TS Eliot's description of the church in Little Gidding:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all.

At the end of this poem, Larkin accepts that people will always need churches to give meaning to their lives. Even in its ruined state, a church will draw people to it. They will recognise the role it played in life and will see it as a sacred place, even if they do not believe the same things as those who once worshipped there. God and religion represent the ideal ‘happy ending’ that everyone would like to believe exists.

The poet admits that the church because it is a serious place, where serious questions can be asked. Humanity will always have a hunger to ask those big questions like ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘Where do we go when we die?’

The poem offers a serious challenge to theologians, and has been cited, for example, by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank in For the Parish, A Critique of Fresh Expressions (London: SCM, 2010. p 151).

In an interview, Larkin once said: ‘No one could help hoping Christianity was true, or at least the happy ending – rising from the dead and our sins forgiven. One longs for these miracles, and so in a sense one longs for religion.

And, the hope in Lent – whether we can go to church or not – is an Easter hope that meets all those yearnings and longings.

Sunday intercessions
on Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday greenery and a Palm Cross on the front door of the Rectory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

These intercessions were prepared for use this morning at the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2) in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, and Morning Prayer in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry. However, the churches have been closed temporarily because of the Covid-19 or Corona Virus pandemic:

Let us pray on this Palm Sunday:

Lord God, our Heavenly Father:

‘Come, O Lord, and save us we pray.
Come, Lord, send us now prosperity’ (Psalm 118: 25):

We pray this morning for people living in fear …
in fear of the Corona virus …
in fear for their health …
in fear for their families …
in fear of what the future brings …
in fear of hunger and hatred …

We pray for people who are not at home …
for refugees and those who cannot return home …
for the homeless, and those in hostels, direct provision, and refugee camps …
for all in hospitals or who are isolated …
for families finding it difficult to work at home, to stay at home …
to care for and school children at home …

We pray for the nations of the world in this time of crisis,
for our own country, Ireland north and south …
for those bearing the responsibility of government …
for those working in frontline services …
and for those who keep working on essential supply lines …

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

Lord Jesus Christ:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven (Matthew 21: 9):

We pray for the Church,
that as the Church we may be faithful to the call
to be a mother Church,
gathering God’s children together,
caring for them and nurturing them.

We pray for churches that are closed this morning,
that the hearts of the people may remain open
to the love of God, and to the love of others.

In the Church of Ireland,
we pray this month for
the Diocese of Down and Dromore and Bishop David McClay.

We pray for our Bishop Kenneth,
we pray for our neighbouring parishes
in Limerick, Adare and Tralee,
their parishioners and people,
their priests: Jim, Phyllis, Liz, and Niall,
that we may grow closer together
in mission, ministry and hospitality.

In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer,
we pray for the Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean,
for Archbishop James Richard Wong Yin Song, Bishop of the Seychelles,
for those who are disappointed
that the Lambeth Conference has been postponed.
In the Diocesan Cycle of Prayer,
we pray for the diocesan Safeguarding Trust co-ordinator, Margaret Brickenden,
Safeguarding trainers,
and members of the Safeguarding panels
in our parishes and diocesan organisations.

Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy.

Holy Spirit:

He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? …
It is the Lord God who helps me’ (Isaiah 50: 8-9):

We pray for ourselves and for our needs,
for healing, restoration and health,
in body, mind and spirit.

We pray for the needs of one another,
for those who are alone and lonely …
for those who travel …
for those who are sick, at home or in hospital …
Alan ... Ajay … Charles …
Lorraine … James …
Niall … Linda ... Basil …

We pray for those who grieve …
for those who remember loved ones …
May their memory be a blessing to us.

We pray for those who have broken hearts …
for those who live with disappointment …

We pray for all who are to be baptised,
We pray for all preparing to be married,
We pray for those who are about to die …

We pray for those who have asked for our prayers …
for those we have offered to pray for …

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

A prayer on this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Lent, Palm Sunday,
in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG,
United Society Partners in the Gospel:

Lord our God, help us to receive a fresh understanding
so that we do not always allow our past experiences to
become a hindrance for the restoration and change you
want to bring in and through us. Amen.

Merciful Father, …

Palm Sunday greenery and Palm Crosses in a window in the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

‘And I know I shall not
be put to shame; he who
vindicates me is near’

Jesus is condemned to death … an image on the façade of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 5 April 2020,

Palm Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Lent

The Readings: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2: 5-11; Matthew 21: 1-11.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard’ (Isaiah 50: 6)

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

The Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Passion (Matthew 26: 14 to 27: 66) this morning is so long that I imagine the Old Testament reading was going to be heard in few churches in normal circumstances.

And yet, the loneliness of Christ, as he is abandoned by his friends to die, as he cries out on the Cross, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ … ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27: 46) sounds like the chilling experience I imagine of many people who are dying on their own in hospitals these days, without being surrounded by those they love, forced to be without the comforts of Word and Sacrament at a time when they most need them.

And the other, Palm Sunday Gospel reading (Matthew 21: 1-11) is so familiar that few people were going to hear new reflections on the story of that well-known entry into Jerusalem.

But the lack of opportunity for many people to preach or hear a sermon this Palm Sunday morning stands in sharp contrast to the reading from the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 50: 4-9a ), which begins with those well-known words: ‘The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.’

The 19th century French writer Victor Hugo included the Prophet Isaiah in his list of the six great writers of Western literature, alongside Aeschylus, Homer, Job, Dante and Shakespeare.

This morning’s reading is well known as the third ‘Servant Song’ of Isaiah – in all, there are four servant songs of Isaiah (Isaiah 42: 1-4; Isaiah 49: 1-6; Isaiah 50: 4-11; and Isaiah 52: 13 to 53: 12).

But this third Servant Song is relatively unknown. It builds on and develops the two previous songs in chapter 42 and chapter 49 in that the Servant of God, for the first time, suffers in this reading. In words that are adapted by George Frideric Handel in his oratorio Messiah (1742): he ‘gave his back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard’ (50: 6).

So, the Servant Song in our Palm Sunday readings provides vital insights into an individual’s suffering for the sake of the nation and for the sake of the world.

There are many questions about the identity of Isaiah’s servant.

In the past, the sufferings of the Suffering Servant in the writings of Isaiah have been identified by Jewish scholars with the sufferings of the whole children of Israel, and in more recent years, by some scholars, in particular with the experiences of the Holocaust. It is an interpretation that is worth bearing in mind this year, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Holocaust.

Christians have traditionally identified Isaiah’s Suffering Servant with the suffering and crucified Christ, the Christ who is condemned to death in the Gospel reading for Liturgy of the Passion. And, for early Christians, there was only one answer. For them, Christ clearly was the one long predicted by the prophet.

Most especially, they saw him in the fourth ‘Servant Song’ (Chapters 52-53), where the servant was ‘despised and rejected’ (53: 3), ‘a man of suffering’ (53: 3), who ‘has borne our infirmities’ (53: 4), who ‘carried our diseases’ (53: 4), who ‘like a lamb was led to the slaughter’ (53: 7), who ‘bore the sin of many, and made intercession for our transgressions’ (53: 12).

For those early Christians, that fourth song was clearly about the one they had experienced in Christ’s life and particularly in his death on the cross.

So, perhaps, that fourth song in Isaiah 52-53 might seem to be more appropriate a reading this morning as we face into Holy Week – and the Old Testament reading on Good Friday [10 April 2020] is part of that fourth song (Isaiah 52: 13 to Isaiah 53: 12). So why was this passage (Isaiah 50: 4-9a), the third song, chosen instead for the Old Testament readings on Palm Sunday for Year A, B and C?

In Isaiah 50, the servant is given a clear and powerful description. But so too is God. Four times in this passage (verse 4, 5, 7, 9) the Lord is known as the ‘Lord God,’ an address that is unique in Isaiah. Other versions render this as ‘Sovereign Lord,’ and it catches attention because of the double title of God (adonai Yahweh). Perhaps, we should see this as a way of emphasising the dependence of the servant on God.

The word the servant uses to describe himself (lemudim, verse 4) has been translated ‘of a teacher,’ or ‘of those who learn,’ or ‘of the learned.’

It is not clear whether the word means that God has given the servant the tongue of a teacher or learner. But we all know that the best teachers are those who are the most eager learners. Theological teachers, in particular, need to listen to human wisdom and divine wisdom, need to listen to creation and to the Creator. To have the tongue that teaches, I must first have an ear that hears. The servant of God is one who learns and proclaims a message from God.

The prophet implies by that language that the servant is not necessarily a leader, he does not always need to be out front, but he is the one who can speak well when right speech is needed. Indeed, God’s gift of speech is given ‘that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word’ (50: 4b).

The primary role of the servant is to pay special attention to the ‘weary,’ to those who are in desperate need of encouragement and support, to those on the margins, who are neglected, who are in danger of being forgotten.

This role of listener and right speaker is given to the servant ‘morning by morning,’ again and again (50: 4c).

In contrast to other prophetic figures, who may have received the Word of God while in the Temple praying (Isaiah), while watching the flock (Amos), or in dreams or in visions (Ezekiel), the prophet here emphasises the daily inspiration that came to him.

The suffering servant was so committed to the task that he gave his ‘back to those who struck me’ and his ‘cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.’ Neither did he ‘hide (his) face from insult and spitting.’

These acts – striking, beard pulling, insulting and spitting – are harsh, demeaning actions in a shame-based culture. Each of these deeds is designed to humiliate and denigrate a person, forcing him or her to ‘turn back,’ to reject the course he or she had first decided to follow.

However, this servant is not going to be deterred from his task of being a careful listener and a true encourager, no matter what insults are heaped upon him.

Although the message will be proclaimed, it is his suffering that is emphasised here. Just as the mouth speaks what the ear hears, so the parts of the body that suffer are stressed here. His persecutors strike him on his back and, when they pull out hairs from his beard, they attack him at the front too. They hurt him physically, when they strike him, and hurt him psychologically when they taunt and insult him.

The Suffering Servant was empowered to take on his suffering and to not turn his back because ‘the Lord God helps me’ (verse 7a). Because of the presence of the Lord God, the servant feels no ‘disgrace’ and has ‘set my face like flint.’

This second image suggests the unbreakable conviction of the servant to do what he has been called for.

The remainder of the passage enumerates the absolute conviction of this servant to act on the call of the Lord God in all things:

and I know I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near (Isaiah 50: 7c-8a).

The servant can perform the work of the Lord God, however difficult and dangerous it may be, because the Lord God stands with the servant.

We live in a society and a culture where we try to avoid suffering. The Covid-19 or Corona Virus pandemic this year shows how in our culture we feel sickness and ill-health have to be avoided at all costs. We take out insurance against every inevitability and if, despite that, we end up in hospital we want what we have paid for. So much so that doctors and hospitals that fail to provide a ‘cure for every ill’ run the risk of litigation.

Until this pandemic, suffering was no longer appreciated or reflected on in our culture. We had become more interested in the exploits of the rich and famous than in the suffering of the marginalised and the global majority.

Yet, we should know, of all people, that suffering is at the heart of our experience of life, and the servant whose story we hear today is the one who leads us on the way to it. And In the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, we are invited again to be brought once more to the mystery of divine suffering.

We know that suffering and rejection must never have the last word. All suffering must eventually be put to an end, because that is the promise of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

The Suffering Servant offers us the opportunity this Palm Sunday to look forward to Easter hope and the hope of the Resurrection.

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

‘He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2: 8) … the rood beam in Saint Chad’s Church, Stafford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 21: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4 This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11 The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

‘Condemned’ … Station 1 in the Chapel at Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, Pilate condemns Jesus to die (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Red (or Violet).

Penitential Kyries (Passiontide and Holy Week):

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 (Palm Sunday):

Almighty and everlasting God,
who, in your tender love towards the human race,
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
Grant that we may follow the example
of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.


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:


235, O sacred head, sore wounded
134, Make way, make way for Christ the King
227, Man of sorrows! What a name
231, My song is love unknown

Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday … a fresco in the Analpsi Church in the village of Georgioupoli on the Greek island of Crete (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.

The Entry Into Jerusalem ascribed to Fra Angelico (1387-1455) in Saint Mark’s, Florence

This sermon was prepared for the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary's Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and Morning Prayer in Saint Brendan's Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, on Palm Sunday, 5 April 2020, but because of the restrictions introduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic it was delivered at a celebration of the Eucharist in the Rectory, Askeaton

Praying through Lent with
USPG (40): 5 April 2020

Pebbles in memory of the dead on a Holocaust memorial outside the Jewish cemetery in Mitte, Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today [5 April 2020] is Palm Sunday or the Sixth Sunday in Lent. This morning, in the normal course of parish services, I should have been presiding and preaching at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and leading and preaching at Morning Prayer in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

However, these are not normal times. On the advice of the Bishop, all services have been cancelled for the past two weeks in these dioceses on the advice of the Bishop, because of the Covic-19 or Corona Virus pandemic. This situation continues to be reviewed and monitored with the bishop and the archdeacons.

Meanwhile, during Lent this year, I am using the USPG Prayer Diary, Pray with the World Church, for my morning prayers and reflections. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Holocaust, so I am illustrating my reflections each morning with images that emphasise this theme.

USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential, and champion justice. It was founded in 1701.

This week (5 to 11 April 2020) is Holy Week, the last week in Lent. The USPG Prayer Diary takes as its theme this week, ‘The Right Time,’ which is introduced by the Revd Rana Khan, Rector of Crickhowell, Cwmdu and Tretower, in the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon, Wales:

‘Palm Sunday is a significant day for Christians including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and many other denominations. It marks the start of Holy Week and the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem.

‘There are various traditions attached to Palm Sunday but the most common is to give and receive small crosses made from palm leaves. The Gospel of John only mentions palms in connection with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. The emphasis of the gospels was not probably on tree or shrubs but on Jesus and his entrance, which wasn’t incidental. It looks planned as he gives instructions to his disciples to fetch the donkey from a certain place.

‘His entrance to Jerusalem raised concerns of those Jewish leaders who were seeing this procession in the light of the 200-year-old story of Simon Maccabeus. Sometimes certain patches of our personal experiences or communal history create fears and concerns and we don’t welcome Christ in our lives and societies. Christ is always looking for the right time but sometimes instead of allowing God to execute his plans, we react according to our human fears. Let us pray on this Palm Sunday that God gives us a fresh understanding of the restoration and change he wants to bring – both in and through us.’

Sunday 5 April 2020: Palm Sunday

Lord our God, help us to receive a fresh understanding
so that we do not always allow our past experiences to
become a hindrance for the restoration and change you
want to bring in and through us. Amen.

Readings: Liturgy of the Palms: Matthew 21: 1-11; Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29.

Readings: Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31: 9-16; Philippians 2: 5-11; Matthew 26: 14 to 27: 66 or the shorter version, Matthew 271: 1-24.

The Collect of the Day (Palm Sunday):

Almighty and everlasting God,
who, in your tender love towards the human race,
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
Grant that we may follow the example
of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection

Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday … a fresco in the Analpsi Church in the village of Georgioupoli on the Greek island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)