Thursday, 9 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)

Preface:

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.

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:

Hymns:

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.

A Passover story of
saving a Haggadah
and saving a life

An exhibition in the Sephardic Museum in Córdoba tells the story of how the ‘Sarajevo Haggadah’ was saved (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Passaver or Pesach began last night (8 April 2020), and so this evening I thought it was worth recalling an exhibition I saw in the Sephardic Museum in Córdoba last year telling the extraordinary story of the journey of a unique Sephardic book and the people who saved it.

The Haggadah recalls the Biblical story in the Book Exodus of how the enslaved people in Egypt were led into freedom with Moses. The Sarajevo Haggadah was made in Sefarad or Jewish Spain, possibly in Barcelona, around 1350.

When the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, some of them went first to Portugal, and brought with them this Haggadah. From Portugal, the book arrived in Venice in 1609, and its presence is noted at a later stage in Vienna.

The National Museum in Sarajevo, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, bought this book in 1896 from a Sephardic Jew, Joseph Cohen. It soon became the museum’s finest treasure.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is illuminated in silver and gold, and its extraordinary beauty is enhanced by the use of lapis lazuli, azurite and maluquite.

The ‘Haggadah’ recalls the Passover story in the Book Exodus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Before the Nazi occupation of Sarajevo, a young librarian and curator at the National Museum in Sarajevo, Dervis Korkut (1888-1969), was writing several essays criticising the worrying rise of antisemitism. He was a Muslim and he said antisemitism was alien to the Bosnian traditions of tolerance.

When the Nazis occupied Sarajevo on 16 April 1941, they began a systematic persecution of the city’s Jews, who were mainly of Sephardic descent, as well as Gypsies, Serbs and other ethic and minority groups of people.

They also set out to requisition the Sarajevo Haggadah as an important symbol of Jewish culture and demanded the Haggadah at the Sarajevo museum. However, the librarian Dervis Korkut had concealed the rare volume, hid it in his jacket and left the museum through a back door.

Korkut explained away the missing Sephardic Haggadah, saying a German office had already taken it. Throughout the rest of World War II, the book was kept in hiding in a small town in Bosnia until the end of the Nazi occupation.

Meanwhile, as Dervis Korkut was working at the museum in Sarajevo, he was introduced to Mira Papo, a young Sephardic girl in a desperate search for a hiding place. Her father Salomon Papo, a janitor in the Ministry of the Economy, had been arrested and had been sent with the rest of the family to an extermination camp.

Dervis Korkut took her into his home and told her to use the Muslim name of Amir. When he introduced her to neighbours and the local gossips, he told them she was babysitting his son Munib.

Through his bravado, Dervis Korkut had saved a valuable work of Sephardic Jewish culture, and the life of a young Jewish woman.

When World War II was over, Mira Papo moved to Israel. Dervis Korkut died in 1969, and after his death Mira wrote a letter explaining how she had survived thanks to his bravery. Because of this letter, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem, declared Dervis one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ – a gentile who had saved a Jewish life during the years of the Holocaust.

Dervis Korkut’s daughter, Lamija, who was living with her husband in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in 1994, when Serbian militias started to bomb and occupy the region, and began a programme of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that targeted Muslim people in the former Yugoslavia. Lamija and her husband now found they were refugees, and family contacts put them in touch with the Jewish community in Skopje in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – today’s North Macedonia.

On her arrival, Lamija presented a letter in Hebrew she did not understand to a member of the Jewish community in Skopje. When he read it, he was deeply moved.

Some days later, Lamija and her husband received a letter telling them they had been accepted as refugees in Israel. When they arrived at Tel Aviv Airport, Mira Papo’s son, Davor Bakovic, was waiting to welcome them.

The Talmud says, ‘Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.’

‘Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Remembering Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, 75 years
after his murder in 1945

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (seventh from left) among the ten martyrs of the 20th century above the West Door of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a German concentration camp, before even reaching the age of 40, and just weeks before the end of World War II.

This youthful pastor was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, and he is widely regarded as a modern saint and martyr. His statue by the sculptor Tim Crawley above the West Door of Westminster Abbey places him among the 10 martyrs of the 20th century.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on 4 February 1906 in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), and grew up in a comfortable professional home, where his family was nominally Lutheran. At the age of 13, he decided to study for ordination.

He studied at the University of Berlin, at the age of 18 visited Rome, and studied at Union Theological Seminary, New York (1930-1931).

Following the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Bonhoeffer saw Nazism as a counter-religion and a danger to Christianity. In October 1933, he became the pastor of two German-speaking parishes in the London area, and began his friendship with Bishop George Bell of Chichester.

On his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer ran the seminary of the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde, which was shut down by the police in 1937. He went to New York in 1939 but chose to return to Germany, aware of the costs that lay before him and fearing a Nazi victory would destroy Christian civilisation. For Bonhoeffer, true discipleship now demanded political resistance against the criminal state.

He was arrested in March 1943 and survived as a prisoner until 9 April 1945. He was executed on 9 April 2020, only a few days before the end of World War II.

For my generation, Bonhoeffer was one of the most influential theologians on our reading lists. We drew endlessly on such books as the Cost of Discipleship, No Rusty Swords and Ethics. We bandied around phrases such as ‘religionless Christianity’ and the ‘man for others,’ perhaps without fully grasping their meaning and implications.

We were quick to dismiss any church activity we deemed unfashionable as purveying ‘cheap grace.’. And we saw Bonhoeffer as a role model for our resistance to racism and apartheid, nuclear weapons and modern warfare, and even the very political and economic foundations of society.

Like all great theologians, like all great thinkers, philosophers and writers who are now dead, it was easy to quote him and to use him for our own ends: he could hardly answer back and say ‘I have been misunderstood’ or ‘you have quoted me out of context.’ Bonhoeffer has been claimed in recent years, on the one hand, by so-called ‘conservative evangelicals,’ who are happy with his theological method but unwilling to take his radical discipleship to the point of challenging social and corporate sin in our society; and, on the other hand, by radical reformers who would tear down all our received wisdom and traditions in their vain attempts to construct their own brand of ‘religionless Christianity.’

Unhappily, in recent years, theological rigour has gone out of fashion in many centres of learning. Where once students were happy to explore how faith could find understanding, many have slipped into the cold comfort of position-taking, relying on their own protestations of faith instead of warming to the challenge of new thinking and exploration. Theologians are no longer great names; even among the general public today, people are less likely to take their questions about faith and belief from the theological giants of the last century, such as Bultmann, Barth and Bonhoeffer, and more likely to be detracted by the silly, peripheral questions about truth and religion raised by Dan Browne in his Da Vinci Code.

So, 75 years after his death, we might ask reflect today on who Bonhoeffer was, and why his writings and thoughts continue to have relevance for us in our society today.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born on 4 February 1906, had the potential to become a great musician or poet and playwright. Instead, he studied theology in Tubingen, Rome and Berlin, travelled through Rome and North Africa, and later spent time in Barcelona, New York, Cuba, Mexico and London, giving him an experience of the world church that would make a leading contributor to the foundation of the modern ecumenical movement.

He was still in his 20s when Hitler came to power. In a radio address two days after Hitler assumed office in 1933, Bonhoeffer warned against the idolatry of the ‘Fuhrer’ principle. He went on to become involved in the Pastors’ Emergency League, was closely associated with those who signed the Barmen Declaration, helped to form the Confessing Church, and, outside Germany, became a close friend of the saintly Anglican bishop, George Bell.

The Barmen Declaration declared that the Church must not be allowed to become an instrument of political ideology, and rejected ‘the false doctrine that the Church should acknowledge, as the source of its message over and above God’s word, any other events, powers, figures and truths as divine revelation.’

Bonhoeffer paid the price for speaking out. His licence to teach was withdrawn, he was dismissed from his university, and eventually the Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde was closed. However, at Finkenwalde, he produced his two best-known books, The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1939).

The New Synagogue in Berlin … when synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire in 1938, Bonhoeffer declared: ‘Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argues that cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Church. The sacraments and forgiveness are thrown away at cut price. We offer grace without price and grace without cost, instead of offering costly grace, which calls us to follow Jesus Christ.

When synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire in 1938, Bonhoeffer told the Church: ‘Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.’ In his Bible, he underlined two passages in the Psalms that read: ‘They are burning the houses of God in the land,’ and, ‘No prophet speaks any longer.’ He marked the date in his Bible and wrote later: ‘The church was silent when she should have cried out.’

When World War II broke out, he became involved in the resistance, making contacts in Switzerland, Norway and Sweden. And yet he found time to write his book Ethics. His contacts with George Bell failed to stop Britain’s policy of obliteration bombing and demanding ‘unconditional surrender.’ The German opposition was left without hope, and a disappointed Bell wrote his hymn Christ is the King (Hymn 86 in the Irish Church Hymnal):

Let Love’s unconquerable might
God’s people everywhere unite
In service to the Lord of Light. Alleluia.


In prison, Bonhoeffer worked on his Letters and Papers from Prison and wrote: ‘What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed, who Christ really is, for us today … We are moving to a completely religionless time … if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that is already more or less the case … what does that mean for Christianity? How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?’

The final chapter of his last, unfinished book begins: ‘The Church is only her true self when she exists for humanity .... She must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men, but helping and serving them. She must tell men, whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.’

He was hanged at Flossenburg at dawn on 9 April 1945. An oft-quoted line from The Cost of Discipleship foreshadowed his death: ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’ His last recorded words as he was led to the scaffold were a message for George Bell: ‘Tell him that for me this is the end, but also the beginning.’

It was not the end it was only the beginning. By the 1950s and the 1960s, he was the theologians’ theologian, and his influence was immeasurable. More recently he was ‘canonised’ by having his statue placed on the west front of Westminster Abbey. In recent years, he has been the subject of a new made-for-television movie in America. But what is his relevance today?

‘Bonhoeffer is one of the great examples of moral courage in the face of conflict,’ says Martin Doblmeier, director of Bonhoeffer, that recent 90-minute film. ‘Many of the issues Bonhoeffer faced – the role of the church in the modern world, national loyalty and personal conscience, what the call to being a ‘peacemaker’ really means – are issues we continue to struggle with today.’

Firstly, I want to claim that Bonhoeffer reminds us that faith assumptions and presumptions are no substitute in the seminary and the theological college for intellectual rigour and questioning. Indeed, he shows us that this is a more effective way of building faith than by trying to impose our individual views on others, and impose them judgmentally.

Secondly, in this post-modern world, Bonhoeffer continues to challenge us when we find new ways to make our Christian faith subject to, and relevant to, the overarching fashionable political and social ideologies of our day. Is the ‘Fuhrer principle’ reflected in the calls and slogans at Trump’s rallies or in the campaigns of far-right leaders rising across Central Europe today? How often have the different brands of Christianity been called on in recent decades to justify the nation-state as it embarked on disastrous wars of pride, one after another, whether it was the Falklands War, or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or indeed whether it was Catholic Croats or Orthodox Serbs indulging in ethnic cleansing to create nation states with a single religious identity.

Thirdly, Bonhoeffer’s story of the church remaining silent when she should have spoken out as the synagogues were burned down in 1938 is a challenge to us today. Once again synagogues are being attacked and burned down, this time in America, and being daubed and attacked across Europe. The stranger is not being welcomed, the refugee is being turned back, many of our new immigrants are the victims of pernicious racism, migrants are left isolated and in cramped, dehumanising conditions on Mediterranean islands. Prisoners who tortured were being transported through Shannon Airport. Are we speaking out, speaking out now, before our silence becomes complicity in something even worse?

Fourthly, in his concern with growing secularisation, a concern so well articulated in his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer tells us we need to face up to the growing secularisation of society and of humanity. If he could see in the 1940s our need to speak about God in a secular way, how much more pressing is that need today? We are so obsessed with maintaining not so much our Church structures but our Church pomp and sense of self-importance, leaving us unable to reach out to a secular world with a ‘religionless Christianity.’ We often use Christianity as a garment to cloak and protect us, rather than accepting Christ’s charge to go out into the world. How can we find the language that enables us to speak in a secular way about God, and how can we live up to our missionary charge in the world today by being able to present to postmodern humanity Jesus who is ‘the man for others’?

Fifth and finally, how as a Church can we resist the temptation to continue dispensing cheap grace? So often, success in the Church is measured by how well we fill the pews, and whether we send them out happy and clapping. But sometimes prophetic voices can be isolated and left speaking to empty pews. A congregation that goes out into the world feeling uncomfortable but challenged may be better prepared to take the light of Christ into the world of darkness. Dispensing cheap grace should never be the task of the truly prophetic priest.

It is not easy to rejoice in these challenges. But we can accept them as blessings, and must give thanks for prophetic life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr priest and prophet, who was murdered on this day 75 years ago.


Canon Patrick Comerford’s sermon in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on 5 February 2006, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was published in ‘A Year of Sermons at Saint Patrick’s, Dublin’ (pp 19-22).

Praying through Lent with
USPG (44): 9 April 2020

The ‘Block of Women’ memorial to the women’s uprising of 1943 on the former site of the Old Synagogue on Rosenstraße in Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Maundy Thursday [9 April 2020]. The liturgical colour changes on this day from the Violet of Lent or the Red of Passiontide to White, and the Eucharist or Holy Communion is to be ‘celebrated in every cathedral and in each parish church or in a church within a parochial union or group of parishes.’

It is traditional in dioceses too to have a celebration of the Chrism Eucharist in a cathedral or church in the diocese, when the bishops, priests, deacons and readers renew their vows. This year, however, because of the Corona Virus or Covid-19 pandemic, the Chrism Eucharist is not taking place in the Diocese of Limerick and Killalow.

Later this evening, I should be presiding and preaching at the Maundy Eucharist with foot washing in Castletown Church, Kilcornan, near Pallaskenry, Co Limerick. However, these are not normal times, and on the advice of the Bishop, all services have been cancelled for the past few weeks in these dioceses. 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.’

Thursday 9 April 2020 (Maundy Thursday):

Lord, as Good Friday approaches, let us take time today to ponder what it means to take up our crosses and follow you.

Readings: Exodus 12: 1-4 (5-10, 11-14); Psalm 116: 1, 10-17; I Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35.

The Collect of the Day (Maundy Thursday):

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.

or

Almighty God,
at the Last Supper your Son Jesus Christ
washed the disciples’ feet
and commanded them to love one another.
Give us humility and obedience to be servants of others
as he was the servant of all;
who gave up his life and died for us,
yet 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.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us a memorial of your passion.
Grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
the fruits of your redemption,
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

or

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.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection

The Last Supper … a painting in the Chapel of the Holy Grail in Valencia Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)