07 January 2024

Daily prayers during
Christmas and Epiphany:
14, 7 January 2024

The Library of Celsus in Ephesus was built between 110 and 135 CE by the Consul Gaius Julius Aquilus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the First Sunday of Epiphany (7 January 2024), and if the Epiphany was celebrated yesterday (6 January), then today marks the Baptism of Christ. The lights are beginning to come down in Stony Stratford. But Christmas is not a season of 12 days, but a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

For the past week or so, we have both had Covid-like symptoms. So I think it unwise, for a second consecutive Sunday, to go to church this morning and to risk passing on anything to anyone else. However, before today begins, I am taking some time for reading, reflection and prayer.

My reflections each morning during the seven days of this week include:

1, A reflection on one of the seven churches named in Revelation 2-3 as one of the recipients of letters from Saint John on Patmos;

2, the Gospel reading of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the classical world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Churches of the Book of Revelation: 1, Ephesus:

Ephesus is one of the seven churches in Asia Minor to receive a letter from Saint John as he describes his revelation on Patmos: Ephesus (Revelation 2: 1-7), Smyrna (Revelation 2: 8-11), Pergamum (Revelation 2: 12-17), Thyatira (Revelation 2: 18-29), Sardis (Revelation 3: 1-6), Philadelphia (Revelation 3: 7-13) and Laodicea (Revelation 3: 14-22).

Of these seven, Ephesus alone is also one of the seven places to give its name to the titles of nine letters or epistles by Saint Paul: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki.

The Letter to the Ephesians is the tenth book in the New Testament. According to tradition, the Apostle Paul wrote the letter while he was in prison in Rome, ca 62 CE, about the same time as his Letter to the Colossians and his Letter to Philemon. However, many critical scholars question its authorship and suggest it may have been written between 80 and 100 CE.

I reflected on the Ephesus of Saint Paul in this prayer diary back on 22 November 2023. However, Ephesus is associated more with the life of Saint John the Evangelist, the author of the Fourth Gospel, the Johannine Letters and the Book of Revelation.

The first letter from Patmos is, appropriately, for the Church in Ephesus, for Ephesus (Ἔφεσος) was the most important city at the time in Asia Minor, boasting the title of Supreme Metropolis of Asia.

For centuries, Ephesus had been a centre for the worship of Artemis. The magnificent Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and its reputation and the cult at the sanctuary of Artemis brought visitors, trade and prosperity to Ephesus. It is said that on the day Alexander the Great was born, a lunatic named Herostratus set fire to and destroyed the Temple of Artemis. Later Alexander offered to rebuild the temple, but the Ephesians declined his offer on the ground that it was inappropriate for one god to dedicate a temple to another.

Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals, moved the site of Ephesus when he rebuilt and refounded the city about the year 289 BCE. By the beginning of the Christian era, Ephesus was a major centre of trade, industry and finance in the East Mediterranean, with a population of 200,000 – neither Paris nor London reached this size until after the 15th century. It was home too to the Library of Celsus, one of the greatest libraries in the classical world.

A stall outside the Isa Bey Camii in Selçuk near Ephesus selling souvenir statues of Artemis, Greek philosophers and the Virgin Mary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When the Apostle Paul arrived in Ephesus about 53 CE, on his return from his second missionary journey, the city had a Jewish population of about 10,000, making it the largest Jewish centre in western Anatolia.

Saint Paul worked with the Church in Ephesus for more than two years, organising missionary activity into the hinterlands (see Acts 19: 8-10). He became embroiled in a dispute with the city’s traders and artisans, whose livelihood depended on selling small, souvenir-like statues of Artemis (Diana) in the Temple of Artemis (see Acts 19: 23-41). A riot ensued and Paul decided to leave.

Paul also wrote I Corinthians from Ephesus, perhaps from the ‘Paul Tower,’ close to the harbour, where he was a prisoner for a time. Later, he wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians to the Christian community at Ephesus around 62 AD, while he was a prisoner in Rome.

The Basilica of Saint John the Theologian gave the later name of Ayasoluk to the area overlooking Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ephesus is particularly associated with Saint John the Divine. According to tradition, he lived above the city and above the Temple of Artemis on the hill of Ayasuluk – a modern Turkish name derived from the Greek Aghios Theologos (Holy Theologian). He is said to have written the Fourth Gospel there around 90 to 100 AD, to have died there at the age of 120, and to have been buried on the site of the later basilica in a grave that he had dug himself.

Two decades later, the Church at Ephesus was still important enough to be addressed by a letter written by Ignatius of Antioch in the early 2nd century CE, beginning: ‘Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia, deservedly most happy, being blessed in the greatness and fullness of God the Father, and predestined before the beginning of time, that it should be always for an enduring and unchangeable glory.’

Many of the ancient religious sites were destroyed after the Emperor Constantine’s conversion in the third century. Ephesus was sacked by the Goths in 262, but soon recovered and was the venue for the Third Ecumenical Council in the year 431, when the Nestorians were condemned. The Second Council of Ephesus in 449 came to be known to its opponents as the Robber Council of Ephesus.

Remains of the basilica in Ephesus … the third Ecumenical Council of the Church met there in the year 431 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The city was sacked again by the Sassanians in 614, and by the Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries. Meanwhile, as the centuries passed, the Cayster River continued to silt up. By the ninth century, Ephesus was an inland city, with Phygela and Scala Nuova (the modern resort town of Kusadasi) serving as its harbours.

Soon, the population began to move out of city onto the hill of neighbouring Ayasuluk, around the Basilica of Saint John.

By the 15th century and the Turkish conquest, Ephesus had been abandoned.

‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance’ (Revelation 2: 2) ... flowers in the grounds of the basilica in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the Book of Revelation, we read that the early Christians in Ephesus were known for their toil and patient endurance, and for separating themselves from the wicked. But they are admonished for having abandoned their first love (2: 4).

Verse 1:

In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, John introduces Christ in the same way as he does in the introduction to the Book of Revelation: he is holding the seven starts, representing the seven angels of the seven churches, in his right hand, and walking among the seven golden lampstands, the symbol of the seven churches. The metaphor confirms that Christ is ever-present in each of the churches. In the New Testament, the disciples are often described as lights or lamps in the world. As the lamp on the candlestick lights up the surrounding darkness, so the disciples are to have an illuminating effect on all around them.

Verse 2:

The phrase, ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance,’ is repeated at the beginning of each of these letters and refers to the work and weariness in this world that will be over one day. Christ commends the Ephesian Christians for their zeal in the face of enemies and their faithful testing of those who claim they are apostles but are not and are false. In the past Paul had warned the elders of Ephesus about the danger of false teachers who would distort the truth (see Acts 20: 29-31), and Timothy too had to deal with false teachers in Ephesus (see I Timothy 1: 3-11, 4: 1-9, 6: 3-0).

Verses 3 and 4:

But despite their patient endurance, and their unwavering commitment, the Ephesians have lost that first spark of love that they had as young Christians. A lack of love is inconsistent with the truth of Christianity (see I John 3: 14).

Verse 5:

If they do not work at recovering that loving commitment, they are in danger of their light being quenched. But before the light goes out, they can repent and renew that flame of love.

Verse 6:

To hate evil is the Biblical counterpart of loving good. Whatever the failings of the Christians in Ephesus may have been, they are praised for resisting the heresies of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans denied the incarnation and victory of Christ, taught that what one did in the body made no difference at all because the body was mortal while the soul was immortal, and so they taught that they were free to eat food offered to idols and to practice immorality in the name of religion, both of which were real temptations in every-day Ephesus at the time.

Verse 7:

The letter to Ephesus ends with the promise that whoever shares with Christ as conquerors will eat of the tree of life that is in the paradise of God (see Genesis 2: 9 and Revelation 22: 1-2).

As with all seven churches, the church in Ephesus is called on to hear the message: ‘Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ (Revelation 2: 7).

The Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist (see Mark 2: 4-11) … a panel in a window in Saint Mary’s Church (‘The Hub’), Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mark 2: 4-11 (NRSVA):

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with[b] water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

The Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist (see Mark 2: 4-11) … an icon in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 7 January 2024, Epiphany I):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is: ‘Whom Shall I Send’ – Episcopal Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. This theme is introduced today by the Revd Davidson Solanki, USPG Regional Manager, Asia and the Middle East:

In August 2023, after two years of working with the Province – listening to, and discerning their needs and desires for the future – USPG were delighted that the Episcopal Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East launched their new programme ‘Whom Shall I Send’.

The youth training programme has been created in part to tackle gaps in leadership and encourage youth participation in the Province’s mission. With the recent conflict erupting between Israel and Palestine in October 2023, the complex history emphasises the importance of investing in future leaders and equipping young people to handle these sensitivities.

The training programme is structured to equip lay and ordained persons for mission in local churches alongside parish priests. The training will take the form of practical workshops so that the beauty around the complexities of the area within which the youth will be working can be understood, and their worship and fellowship can support the mission. There will be a focus on justice, climate change and persecution. This is an innovative and encouraging programme, and USPG is honoured to be accompanying them on this journey.

As we write this prayer diary piece, we weep as we witness the violence that continues to unfold in Israel and Palestine. We uphold in prayer all who are suffering due to the hostilities. We join with churches and religious organisations around the world in a call for peace and an end to the violence. We pray that this programme may be able to continue to bring hope and light amid despair.

A carved relief of Nike, the goddess of victory, on a paved street in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The USPG Prayer Diary today (7 January 2024, Epiphany I) invites us to reflect on these words:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’
And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’
(Isaiah 6:8)

The lone remaining column of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, seen from the streets below the hill of Aysoluk in Selçuk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Eternal Father,
who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit,
that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord of all time and eternity,
you opened the heavens and revealed yourself as Father
in the baptism of Jesus your beloved Son:
by the power of your Spirit
complete the heavenly work of our rebirth
through the waters of the new creation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Heavenly Father,
at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son:
may we recognize him as our Lord
and know ourselves to be your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Yesterday’s reflection (Epiphany)

Continued tomorrow (Smyrna)

Sunset on a beach at Kusadasi near Ephesus (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

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