Wednesday, 8 April 2020

‘Our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory
over that dry, flaky taste of death’

Ashes (1894), by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 8 April 2020

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 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 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.

On this final Wednesday in Lent, my choice of a Poem for this evening in Holy Week is ‘Marked by Ashes,’ by Walter Brueggemann, in which he says:

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes


This poem is included in his book Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), pp 27-28. This is a poem, not only for Ash Wednesday, but for every Wednesday in Lent:

We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death


Walter Brueggemann, who born in Nebraska in 1933, is a distinguished Old Testament scholar and theologian. An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, he is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament Studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and now lives in retirement in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He is the author of over 100 books, hundreds of articles, and several Biblical commentaries, and is known for his brilliant method of combining literary and sociological modes in reading the Bible.

Throughout his academic and writing career and a life of ministry, Walter Brueggemann has combined the best of critical scholarship with his love for the local church and its service to the kingdom of God. His experience as a long-standing member of his local church gave rise to his book Prayers for a Privileged People, which includes this poem.

The Dean of Wakefield, the Very Revd Simon Cowling, in a blog posting some years ago while he was Canon Precentor of Sheffield Cathedral, said: ‘At first reading the prayer, with its striking and insistent use of ‘Easter’ as an imperative verb, appears to be less about Lenten penitence and fasting than about Resurrection joy and feasting. Digging more deeply, we begin to understand that the prayer is an exploration of an archetypal, perhaps the archetypal, New Testament theme: the mysterious space between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’; between Christ’s resurrection victory and his coming again at the consummation of all things.’

In Brueggemann’s prayer, it is Ash Wednesday, or just ‘Wednesday’, that stands for this space. And God’s ‘eastering’ of this space continually reminds us that, even in the midst of our Lenten disciplines, the fruits of Christ’s resurrection continue to be known in our lives and the life of the Church.

Marked by Ashes by Walter Brueggemann

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day ...
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

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)

Blessing:

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:

Hymn:

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

‘This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility’ … a late summer sunset at Rethymnon in 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.

Why, this year, this night is
different from all other nights

The Four Questions (Ma Nishtanah) from Arthur Szyk’s ‘Haggadah,’ Łódź, 1935

Patrick Comerford

Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from slavery into Egypt, and is holiday that celebrates redemption, resilience, community and regrowth. Faced with today’s global uncertainty, these themes seem especially important to celebrate.

Pesach or Passover this year is being celebrated from sundown this evening [8 April 2020] until Thursday 16 April.

The Passover story, with its accounts of slavery, hardship and ten plagues, is particularly poignant this year with the fears and isolation created by the coronavirus and the hope for liberation and freedom.

The traditional Passover Seder or dinner, celebrated in family homes on this evening, includes specific symbolic foods and biblical references to what happened with Moses and Pharaoh before God freed the enslaved Jews more than 3,000 years ago.

The Seder is the most commonly celebrated of all Jewish rituals takes place in much the same way among Jews all over the world.

‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ … a painting in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Traditionally, during the meal, the youngest person present asks the Four Questions, Ma Nishtana (מה נשתנה), beginning, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’

1, On all other nights we eat either bread or matzah. Why, on this night, do we eat only matzah?

2, On all other nights we eat herbs of any kind. Why, on this night, do we eat only bitter herbs?

3, On all other nights, we do not dip our herbs even once. Why, on this night, do we dip them twice?

4, On all other nights, we eat either sitting or leaning. Why, on this night, do we eat while leaning?

The questions are answered in this way:

1, We eat only matzah because our ancestors could not wait for their breads to rise when they were fleeing slavery in Egypt, and so they were flat when they came out of the oven.

2, We eat only maror, a bitter herb, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery that our ancestors endured while in Egypt.

3, The first dip, green vegetables in salt water, symbolizes the replacing of our tears with gratitude, and the second dip, maror in charoses, symbolises the sweetening of our burden of bitterness and suffering.

4,We recline at the Seder table because in ancient times, a person who reclined at a meal was a free person, while slaves and servants stood.

But this year is different from all other years: Jewish mourners cannot form a minyan, or quorum of 10 adults required for saying kaddish, a prayer in honour of the dead, because of the lockdown forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

And this night is different from all other nights in another way, for Jewish families all over the world are wrestling with how to celebrate Passover in the midst of this lockdown.

Traditionally, Passover has been the one time of the year when people expect to see or visit their whole extended family. But even video calls and streaming on Zoom and other social media platforms are difficult for Jews in traditions where using electricity on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays is rejected. However, some prominent groups of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis in the US who have approved the use of video chat just for this year.

In addition, because food supplies and shopping trips have been limited, some people are suggesting replacing the a shankbone with a roasted carrot – long the practice of Jewish vegetarians. But how many supermarkets are selling matzo?

It is no consolation to remind families that the very first Seder meal was celebrated in hiding, by families locked away in their own homes, full of fear in the dark of night.

Families are also missing the day of bustle before the Seder, with people: crowding into the kitchen, laying out tables, lighting candles, opening wine bottles, turning over the pages of colourfully illustrated Haggadot, preparing to play their parts.

The meal begins with blessings and the first cups of wine (קדש, kadesih), followed by the traditions surrounding handwashing (ורחץ, urchatz). Judaism considers the washing of hands to be a sacred act. The Torah has many references to the priests washing their hands during ritual sacrifices, and in Jewish law washing hands with a blessing is an obligation before eating.

Of course, these rituals were developed centuries before modern medicine prescribed handwashing for protection against germs and infection. The global pandemic has made handwashing sacred on another level, for it is one of the most basic things everyone can do to ensure the well-being of the community.

The Jewish principle known as pikuach nefesh (פיקוח נפש) rules that saving life is paramount, and this precept supersedes all other commandments. Politicians need to agree that saving lives is always more important than saving an economy. Washing hands before continuing with the Seder has become a life-enhancing observance.

A traditional Seder plate in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Seder (סֵדֶר) literally means ‘order’ and the sequence is the same from year to year: sanctifying the wine, washing hands, dipping the karpas or bitter herb, breaking the middle matzoh, telling the Exodus story, the invitation, the Four Questions, and so on.

Seder customs include telling the story, discussing the story, drinking four cups of wine, eating matza, eating symbolic foods placed on the Passover Seder Plate, and reclining in celebration of freedom.

Eating matzah is a reminder that the fleeing slaves did not have enough time to let their bread dough rise when they left Egypt. However, when you think about it, as Rabbi Brant Rosen points out on his blog, there is nothing hasty about making matzah.

Baking unleavened bread is a process that demands great care and attention. Tradition says matzah dough must be baked no more than 18 minutes after the exposure of cut grain to moisture. If left to sit longer, airborne yeast bacteria will interact with the sugar molecules in the flour mixture and multiply by the billions. The yeast microorganisms will then release carbon dioxide gas that causes the dough to ferment.

This complex process illustrates how during a time of pandemic, we must follow very specific protocols to lessen the chances of contracting and spreading viral infection. Care in our personal behaviour is important because it has a direct impact on the greater good. Eating matzah on this Passover may remind many the sacred discipline required of each of us to ensure our mutual well-being and survival.

There is an obligation to drink four cups of wine during the Seder. The Mishnah says (Pesachim 10: 1) that even the poor are obliged to drink the four cups. Each cup is imbibed at a specific point in the Seder. The first is for Kiddush (קידוש), the second is for Maggid (מגיד), the third for Birkat Hamazon (ברכת המזון) and the fourth for Hallel (הלל).

The Four Cups represent God’s four promises of deliverance given to people as they are being liberated: ‘I will free you,’ ‘I will deliver you,’ ‘I will redeem you’ and ‘I will take you as my people’ (see Exodus 6: 6-7).

A traditional Seder plate in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Seder plate (קערה, ke’are) contains symbolic foods, with each of the six items arranged on the plate to convey special significance in the Exodus story. The six items on the Seder plate are:

Maror: bitter herb symbolises the bitterness and harshness of slavery in Egypt; many people use freshly grated horseradish or whole horseradish root.

Chazeret: romaine lettuce, whose roots are bitter-tasting; sometimes green onions, celery leaves, or parsley are used, with traditions varying among Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Persian and other traditions.

Charoset: a sweet, brown, pebbly paste of fruits and nuts, representing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build storehouses in Egypt; Ashkenazim traditionally make apple-raisin based charoset, Sephardim often make date-based recipes that include orange, lemon or even banana.

Karpas: a vegetable other than bitter herbs, usually parsley but sometimes celery or cooked potato, dipped into salt water (Ashkenazim) or vinegar (Sephardim) at the beginning of the Seder.

Zeroa: a roasted lamb bone, symbolising the korban Pesach or Passover sacrifice).

Beitzah: a roast egg, usually a hard-boiled egg, symbolising the korban chagigah or festival sacrifice.

The seventh symbolic item during the meal – a stack of three matzot, symbolising ‘the bread of affliction’ – is placed on its own plate on the Seder table.

Jewish children learn the words, denoting the order of the Seder, with a rhyme and tune: Kaddesh (קדש). Urchatz (ורחץ). Karpas (כרפס). Yachatz (יחץ). Maggid (מגיד). Rachtzah (רחצה). Motzi Matzah (מוציא מצה). Maror (מרור). Korech (כורך). Shulchan Orech (שלחן עורך). Tzafun (צפון). Barech (ברך). Hallel (הלל). Nirtzah (נרצה).

The Cup of Elijah in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The traditional singing includes Dayenu (דַּיֵּנוּ), ‘It would have been enough,’ a rousing song that expresses gratitude to God for leading the Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt out of bondage and for the 15 gifts he has given, concluding with the Shabbat, Mount Sinai, the Torah, the Promised Land and the Temple. The door is opened to welcome Elijah, and then all rush in for the children to see whether Elijah drank from Elijah’s cup.

An important function of the Seder is handing on the story from one generation to the next. It recalls a night when families and households took refuge in their homes because of an invisible, deadly force that raged outside.

During the Holocaust and the decades that followed, the previous generation added Hitler and the Nazis to the list of plagues.

The Four Questions (Ma Nishtanah) in a page from Arthur Szyk’s ‘Haggadah,’ Łódź, 1935

The Polish-American artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), whose work I was introduced to through a recent visit to the Jewish East End in London, originally intended his Passover story of persecution and deliverance, told through the traditional text of the Haggadah, to be a strong statement against the Nazis.

However, no publisher in his native Poland dared to take on a project with strong anti-Nazi iconography. Eventually, he found a publisher in England.

His page with the Hebrew text of the Four Questions has an illustration showing an older bearded man listening as a young boy asks the traditional ‘Four Questions’ of the Seder.

In the top right corner is a red snake – understood to be Nazism – coiled as if ready to strike. The illustration is framed by a Hebrew letter מ (mem). In the upper left corner, there is a small letter ה (he), which completes the word Ma (מַה), the first word in the Hebrew text.

This year, this will be a Pesach like no other. People will sing traditional songs with traditional tunes remembered from childhood. But, just as a previous generation added Hitler and the Nazis to the list of plagues, the coronavirus will be added to the list of plagues in many homes this evening.

In a recent blog posting, Rabbi Brant Rosen writes: ‘When disasters such as pandemics occur, it can feel as if the world has been suddenly, brutally shattered. In truth, however, it is generally those with privilege and power who tend to react this way. Those who are oppressed or disenfranchised don’t need a disaster to remind them that the world has long been profoundly broken. Still, history has repeatedly demonstrated that when these fissures and cracks are ignored, they will inevitably spread to affect those who previously considered themselves invulnerable.’

In my night prayers, I often use the 'Prayers Before Sleep at Night’ in Authorised Daily Prayer Book, which includes Psalm 91 among the night prayers:

He will save you … from the deadly pestilence.
With his pinions he will cover you,
and beneath his wings you will find shelter;

You need not fear terror by night,
nor the arrow that flies by day;
not the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the plague that ravages at noon. (Psalm 91: 3-6)

As in years before, this evening’s meals will end with the acclamation, ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ It recognises that we live in an imperfect world this year, but we hope for more than a temporal city, we hope for a future of peace, prosperity and freedom.

Passover this year – like so many years in the past – is a reminder that we should never take our freedoms for granted. And it is a reminder too that we are not going to live in fear for ever.

‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ … the Four Questions (Ma Nishtanah) in a page from Arthur Szyk’s ‘Haggadah,’ Łódź, 1935

Praying through Lent with
USPG (43): 8 April 2020

Stolpersteine or Stumbling stones on Rosenthaler Straße 39, Berlin-Mitte, remembering members of the Salinger family murdered by the Nazis in Auschwtiz and Riga during the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is Holy Week. This evening, in the planned Holy Week services in this group of parishes, I should have been leading Compline in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

However, these are not normal times. On the advice of the Bishop, all services have been cancelled for the past few 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 continuing to use 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, is the last week in Lent. The USPG Prayer Diary takes as its theme this week, ‘The Right Time,’ which was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Rana Khan, Rector of Crickhowell, Cwmdu and Tretower in the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon, Wales.

In his introduction, he wrote, ‘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 … that God gives us a fresh understanding of the restoration and change he wants to bring – both in and through us.’

Wednesday 8 April 2020:

Lord, help us not to be so stuck on the past that we fail to notice what great things you are looking to do in the present.

Readings: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 70; Hebrews 12: 1-3; John 13: 21-32.

The Collect of the Day (Wednesday in Holy Week):

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.

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.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection