Monday, 27 November 2017

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 3 December 2017

‘Then they will see the Son of Man coming’ (Mark 13: 26) … the King of Kings and Great High Priest, an icon from Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next, 3 December 2017, is the First Sunday of Advent.

The First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new Church year, and we begin a new cycle of readings. There is a three-year cycle in the Revised Common Lectionary, and we are about to begin reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel in Year B, which begins on Sunday. But instead of beginning at the beginning, with the first coming of Christ at his Incarnation, we begin with looking forward to his Second Coming.

The readings for next Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary and set out in the Directory of the Church of Ireland are: Isaiah 64: 1-9; Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; and Mark 13: 24-37.

There is a direct link to the readings here.

Introduction

A colourful early winter sunrise at the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

With the onset of winter, the sunsets are earlier each evening, and the sunrises are later each morning. So late that most mornings most of us are awake and having breakfast before the sunrise begins to down.

Most mornings these weeks, the sunrise is shrouded in grey clouds and the sky is filled with rain. But some mornings we can see a clear sunrise in the east, when the clouds in the sky are streaked with distinctive shades of pink and purple, with tinges of red and orange.

A dawn like this is always a heavenly pleasure.

Try to take a moment as you read these notes to think back on the places you have visited this year, on family breaks or on holidays, that have been snatches of heaven for you.

I am just back from a city break in Bologna, in warm autumn sunshine in Italy. But in a moment of idleness one recent winter morning, I thought how throughout this year, throughout 2017, I have managed to find myself visiting places that are snatches of heaven to me – waking up looking out onto the banks a river in autumn; a few days here and a few days there back in Lichfield, in Cambridge, and in Crete and Athens; there walks in the countryside in Limerick and Wexford in Ireland, and Staffordshire and East Anglia in England; walks on beaches in theses diocese, including Ballybunion, the Dingle Peninsula and Kilkee, beaches I was introduced to for the first time this year following my move to the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes.

There were tender moments of love with those I love and those who love me; and prayerful moments too of being conscious of and anticipating the presence of God.

And I mused, in an idle moment one recent morning, that if these were my last days then this year alone I had managed to visit and to stay in places that are so close to my heart.

It is natural, as the year comes to an end, to think of final things and closing days. Earlier in the month, we had All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day in some churches, and Remembrance Sunday:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.


At the end of November we then move towards thinking of the end, not in a cataclysmic way, but because with the beginning of Advent we begin to think of the world as we know it giving way to the world as God wants it to be, to the Kingdom of God.

What does the future hold?

A colourful sunset over Limerick seen from the tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral … what does the future hold? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

For many people in Ireland today, the future is full of uncertainties. Although the government and economists assure us we have come out of the recession and there are many signs of economic growth, there is an incalculable number of homeless families – adults and children – living on our streets. Many ordinary people are still leaving under mountainous burdens of debt, with uncertainty about paying bills, families who have no many left at the end of the month, which means they cannot plan for the future, they have been robbed of hope for their future.

Since the economic collapse of 2018, businesses have closed, jobs have been lost, savings and investments have withered away, and for many people large question marks still hang over their pensions and their provisions for the future.

There is no doubt that in this country two of the major contributors to, causes of, poverty are ill-health and inadequate access to education.

Charging more for health care and for education ensures that more people are going to join those who are in the poverty trap, those who cannot pay more for health care and access to education, and those already there, cannot find hope for the future.

They may feel they are being fed with the bread of tears and given the abundance of tears to drink referred to in the Psalm in these readings (Psalm 80: 6), that they are to become the derision of their neighbours (Psalm 80: 7).

Many economists warn that we may still be teetering on the brink of collapse. And when I look at the poverty on the streets of Greece this year, away from the gaze of most tourists, I realise what was waiting around the corner for this country only ten years ago, for the whole of Europe, and wonder whether we have had a fortuitous escape, or whether it is still threatening us.

The Bank of Greece ... is every European country still waiting for a similar economic collapse? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Readings:
The word often used to describe these fears is apocalyptic – we talk of apocalyptic fears and apocalyptic visions. Our Old Testament and Gospel readings for Sunday morning are classical apocalyptic passages in the Bible. A set of resources for next Sunday’s readings is easily accessible here.

Isaiah 64: 1-9

This part of the Book of Isaiah was probably written ca 530-510 BC, soon after the Jews had returned from exile to Israel. In Chapter 63, the writer recalls God’s action in delivering the slaves from Egypt to freedom. God has always been with them, even when he seems to have deserted them.

Now, the prophet asks to God reveal himself as you did during the Exodus. God replies that he was always ready for those who sought him, but no one came seeking him.

In Advent, are we seeking God, and looking for his coming among us?

Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20

This psalm is a cry for help to God, asking him to save us with his steadfast love, to deliver us and to care for us.

When we call on God for God’s help, are we prepared to live as though God is already present among us?

I Corinthians 1: 3-9:

Those difficult questions raised in our Old Testament reading and the Psalm are answered in our Epistle reading when the Apostle Paul assures his readers in Corinth that ‘God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (verse 9).

Saint Paul greets them with grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and he encourages them to look forward to ‘the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ God will help us prepare for that day, so that they may be blameless at this second coming.

Mark 13: 24-37:

Winter trees at sunset in the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The passage in the reading in Saint Mark’s Gospel is part of what is sometimes known as the ‘Little Apocalypse.’

You can imagine the first readers of Saint Mark’s Gospel in, say, Alexandria. They have heard of – perhaps had even seen – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Like their fellow Christians in other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps these first Christians in Alexandria have been thrown out of the synagogues, have been disowned by those they once worshipped with, they have been disowned by friends, perhaps even by their closest family members, and face discrimination, loss of social standing, and perhaps even loss of income.

The world as they knew it was coming to an end. In words in the Old Testament reading, they saw their heaven and their earth torn apart (Isaiah 64: 1). And they, like us today, needed some reassurances of love and we, like them, need some signs of hope.

But the tree bearing fruit is a sign that God promises new life. In darkness and in gloom, we can know that God’s summer is always new, there are always rays of hope and glimpses of love (Mark 13: 28).

And everywhere the messengers of God’s good news, the angels, appear in the Gospel, they almost always begin to speak with the words: ‘Be not afraid.’

These are the angel’s opening words to Zechariah in the Temple as he is about to be told of the imminent birth of John the Baptist (Matthew 1: 13).
These are the angel’s words to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1: 30).

These are the angels’ opening words to the shepherds on the hillside on the first Christmas night (Luke 2: 10).

These are the angel’s opening words to Joseph wondering whether he is facing a future of disdain and a family disaster (Matthew 1: 20).

If we believe in God’s promises, we must not only set aside our fears, we need too to show others how we believe, how we expect and how we look forward to being the beneficiaries of hope, being the recipients, the agents and the messengers or ministering angels of love.

Planting for the future

If the world was going to end tomorrow, would you plant a tree? … old olive trees in an olive grove in the hills above Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A few weeks ago, we marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. It is said that Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he was told the world was going to end tomorrow, and he replied he would plant a tree.

Some years ago, I was given a present of an olive tree and I was hoping to see it grow in my back garden. But heavy rains soon fell in the garden, and as winter closed in its leaves faded and it was taken away with the rains and the wind (see Isaiah 64: 6).

The dead olive tree was replaced with another one, and six years later it is in a much better state of health. But, if these were my closing days, I too would like to plant an olive tree, despite the unmeasurable variations in weather we are experiencing in Ireland in recent winters.

Some of us receive bad news from time to time. More of us know and love someone who has recently received truly bad news.

But if you were told the end is coming, if you were told there was no tomorrow, or no next week, what would you do?

Would you want to spend those last few days closing that business deal?

Would you finish a long-delayed project?

Would you want to take that world cruise?

Would you finish that great novel?

Would you join me in planting another olive tree?

Or would you rise early to glory in the sunrise, listen to the waves rolling in onto the beach, stand beneath the last autumn leaves falling from the trees by the river bank, or prayerfully watch the sunset?

And even though all those are true pleasures and blessings at one and the same time, I think, if I was told that the end is coming, that these are my final days, then most of all I would want to tell those I love how much I love them, and hear once again, what I know already, that I too am loved.

And I would want to tell God how much I love God and to thank God for all the blessings, all the love, that I have received throughout my life. Because of God’s generosity I have not been lacking in anything … in anything that really matters at the end of my days (I Corinthians 1: 4, 7).

So, if that is what we would do if we were told these are the closing days, maybe we should ask: Why not do that now?

Would you tell your children, your partner, your parents, your brothers and sisters, that one last time, that you love them?

Would you wrap the person you should love the most in one long, tender embrace?

We are the doorkeepers of our souls and our hearts (Mark 13: 34-37).

And if Christ comes this evening, tonight, early in the morning, will he find me sleeping on my responsibilities to be a sign of hope and a living example of true, deep, real love? (Mark 13: 35-36).

Will he find the Church sleeping on its call, its mission, to be a sign of the kingdom, a beacon of hope, a true and living sacrament of love?

In days of woe and in days of gloom, the Church must be a sign of hope, a sign of love, a sign that if even if things are not going to be get better for me and for others in my own life time, God’s plan is that they should be better (Mark 13: 27, 31).

In a world that needs hope, in a world that is short on love, then the Church, above all else, must be a visible sign of hope, must be a visible sign of love. If we cannot love one another in the Church, how can expect to find signs of hope and love in the world?

Advent calls us again to be willing to be clay in the hands of God who is our Father and who is the potter (Isaiah 64: 8), so that we can be shaped into his vessels of hope and of love, so that we can be signs of the coming Kingdom, so that our hope and our love give others hope and love too in the dark days of our winters.

Last Monday [20 November 2017], at our training day in Askeaton for clergy and readers, we were discussing ‘Preparing for Advent.’ Advent calls on us to create new space and to reorder our priorities. To be still. To experience some quiet. To be reminded who we are – God’s beloved children.

Mark Twain once said: ‘The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.’

What would you do if the world were to end tomorrow? You do not need to wait. You can do those things now.

Finish the work you started. Be reconciled to those who need you. Be faithful to the people and tasks around you. Undertake some small and wonderful and great endeavour. Be a sign of hope. But most of all – love the ones you want to and ought to love.

Why not? For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again, in the name of love.

Lighting the Advent Wreath ... the first purple candle recalls the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Advent Wreath on the First Sunday of Advent (Purple Candle):

The prayers at the Advent Wreath on the Sundays in Advent can help us to continue our themes from the previous Sunday [26 November 2017], which we marked in these dioceses as Mission Sunday, supporting projects in Swaziland in co-operation with the Anglican mission agency, the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG).

As we light our Advent candles in anticipation of celebrating the coming of the Christ child, USPG is inviting churches and parishes to pray for mothers and children who are served by the mission world church in Tanzania, Ghana, Bangladesh and Palestine.

The first candle to light on the Advent Wreath on the First Sunday of Advent is the Purple Candle that recalls the Patriarchs and Matriarchs

USPG suggests this prayer when lighting the first candle:

O God of Abraham and Sarai,
whose promise was fulfilled in the birth of Isaac;
we pray for mothers in Tanzania whose hope for their unborn
children is tainted by the threat of preventable disease.
Bless those who work to overcome this threat
so that children can be born healthy and full of potential.


‘Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light’ … sunset and winter lights in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Liturgical resources:

The liturgical provisions suggest that the Gloria may be omitted during Advent, and it is traditional in Anglicanism to omit the Gloria at the end of canticles and psalms during Advent.

These additional liturgical resources are provided for Advent in the Book of Common Prayer (2004):

Penitential Kyries:

Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)

Preface:

Salvation is your gift
through the coming of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and by him you will make all things new
when he returns in glory to judge the world:

Blessing:

Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:

Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Suggested hymns:

‘Drop down, ye heavens, from above’ … sunset at ‘World’s End’ in Castleconnel, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

These are among the hymns suggested in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:

Isaiah 64: 1-9

122: Drop down, ye heavens, from above
336: Jesus, where’er thy people meet
132: Lo! he comes with clouds descending
594: O Lord of creation, to you be all praise

Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20

10: All my hope on God is founded
695: God of mercy, God of grace
614: Great Shepherd of your people, hear
305: O Breath of life, come sweeping through us

I Corinthians 1: 3-9

327: Christ is our corner stone
508: Peace to you
531: Where love and loving–kindness dwell

Mark 13: 24-37

119: Come, thou long–expected Jesus
567: Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go
668: God is our fortress and our rock
125: Hail to the Lord’s anointed
126: Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding
127: Hark what a sound and too divine for hearing
130: Jesus came, the heavens adoring
132: Lo! he comes with clouds descending
369: Songs of praise the angels sang
197: Songs of thankfulness and praise
678: Ten thousand times ten thousand
73: The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended
140: The Lord will come and not be slow
142: Wake, O wake with tidings thrilling
145: You servants of the Lord

‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ … sunset in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Advent Wreath and praying
with the World Church in Advent

Lighting the Advent Wreath ... the first purple candle recalls the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the two discussions on ‘Preparing for Advent’ yesterday [20 November 2017], there were requests for prayer resources suitable for using at the lighting of the candles on the Advent Wreath on each Sunday in Advent.

A new resource on this theme is produced each year by the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). USPG, which was founded in 1701, is supporting churches around the world in their mission to bring fullness of life to the communities they serve. Theologically, practically and financially, USPG encourages and enables churches in the Anglican Communion to act as the hands and feet of Christ.

As we light our Advent candles in anticipation of celebrating the coming of the Christ child, USPG is inviting churches and parishes to pray for mothers and children who are served by the mission world church in Tanzania, Ghana, Bangladesh and Palestine.

For example, despite political unrest and horrific terrorist activities in Bangladesh, the USPG-supported Bollobphur Hospital is an oasis of peace. Families of different faith backgrounds – Muslim, Hindi and Christian – live and work together in peace and harmony.

Tiny babies of different faith backgrounds often share together the warmth and comfort of the same incubator – they do better if they have a companion and keep each other warm when a sudden power cut shuts off the electricity supply.

These prayers at the Advent Wreath on the Sundays in Advent could also help continue our themes next Sunday in Mission Sunday, which supports projects in co-operation with USPG.

First Sunday of Advent (Purple Candle):

The Patriarchs and Matriarchs


O God of Abraham and Sarai,
whose promise was fulfilled in the birth of Isaac;
we pray for mothers in Tanzania whose hope for their unborn
children is tainted by the threat of preventable disease.
Bless those who work to overcome this threat
so that children can be born healthy and full of potential.

Second Sunday of Advent (Purple Candle):

The Prophets


O God of history,
who has spoken through the prophets;
we pray for mothers in Ghana
who have learned to protect their children from cholera.
Bless those who bring life-saving knowledge
and bless families whose children are now healthy and full of life.

Third Sunday of Advent (Pink Candle):

Saint John the Baptist


O God of justice,
whose servant John prepared the way for Jesus’ coming;
we pray for the medical mission of the Church of Bangladesh
as it prepares the way for prematurely born children.
Bless the babies from different faiths who share the warmth
of a common incubator.
May their world become a fair and just home for all.

Fourth Sunday of Advent (Purple Candle):

The Virgin Mary


O God of promise,
whose mother Mary carried your Christ in an occupied land;
we pray for mothers in the Holy Land
who today live with restrictions and violence.
Bless the church-run hospitals that serve them and their children
regardless of race, religion or financial status.

Christmas Day (White Candle):

Jesus Christ

Holy God, your only son was born with
no home and laid in a manger;
fill us with compassion for all in need today.
Bless your church as it works for dignity,
healing and peace across the world.
And give us generous hearts
to respond to your most generous gift,
of Jesus Christ our Lord.

A gift to USPG in Advent could help to bring health, hope and prosperity to a child whose future would otherwise be very different.

For further copies of this prayer card and to download Advent resources visit:

www.uspg.org.uk/advent

Monday, 20 November 2017

‘Walking backwards to Christmas’:
preparing for Advent in parishes

‘On the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty Christ in Majesty’ (the Advent Collect) ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John Without the Barrs, Lichfield

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick

A day with clergy and readers in the Diocese of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert:

20 November 2017


11 a.m., Introductions:

The Lord be with you,
And also with you

O Come O Come Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 1:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear:

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


O come, thou Wisdom from above,
who ord’rest all things through thy love;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go:Refrain

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times didst gave the law
in cloud, and majesty, and awe:Refrain

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave:Refrain

Opening Prayer:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Reading:

Matthew 17: 1-13 (the New Testament reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for this morning).

A time of preparation:

I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas by Spike Milligan and the Goons reached No 4 in the charts ... in June 1956

It is 60 years since Spike Milligan and the Goons recorded a hit single, I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas. It was originally sung by Spike Milligan in the show to fill in during a strike by musicians, and was one of the 14 singles released by Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan from June 1956 on.

It was released on 25 June 1956, quickly reaching No 4 in the UK singles chart. I am barely old enough to remember it, but I think it was so crazy that it inspired the title of a new Advent book by the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell: Walking Backwards to Christmas: An Advent journey from light to darkness (right).

Most people have learned the Christmas story from school nativity plays and carols, some adults think they know it, but only know because of the libretto of Handel’s Messiah. But most of the familiar tellings of the Christmas story are more concerned with light than darkness.

The backwards approach taken by Bishop Cottrell in his new book takes the journey in the opposite direction, as he explores the Advent story through the eyes of a variety of characters. He begins by seeing through the eyes of Anna, the prophetess who encounters Jesus in the Temple; followed by Rachel, who weeps for her children in Bethlehem; King Herod; the wise man Casper; a shepherd named David; Martha, the name he gives to the innkeeper’s wife; Joseph; Elizabeth; Mary; Isaiah and, finally, Moses.

Each imaginative reflection is prefaced by a Bible reading and followed by a prayer, to set it in context, as we are invited to step imaginatively into the Advent Story.

It is certainly a very different approach to preparing for Christmas this year. It is very difficult to prepare for Christmas when Santa has already arrived in every shopping centre, when the Christmas lights are already strung across the Main Street in every town and village, and many of our parish choirs are already singing Christmas carols. Indeed, it is hard to distinguish between Advent and Lent when you find Cadbury’s crème eggs are already on sale.

But even in the Church we often manage to confuse Advent and Lent, probably because they are both seasons of preparation when we change the liturgical colour from Green to Purple or Violet.

The word Advent, from the Latin word adventus, means ‘coming.’ That Latin word is simply a translation of the Greek word παρουσία (parousía), used for the Second Coming of Christ.

This season is a reminder of the original waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But more especially it is a reminder of our waiting for Christ at his the Second Coming. This season, which begins on Sunday week, the First Sunday of Advent [3 December 2017], is the season when the Church marks a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, not just as a cuddly child in a Christmas crib, but his coming in glory and as king.

Throughout these four weeks, our readings, collects, post-communion prayers and the other seasonal provisions in our liturgies try to focus us – yes on Christ’s incarnation, but more particularly (if less successfully) to focus us – on Christ’s coming judgment and reign.

Because of that, the ‘Four Last Things’ – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell – have been traditional themes for Advent meditation. The characteristic emphasis in Advent, therefore, is expectation, rather than penitence.

Purple is not a penitential colour ... it is a rich, royal imperial colour, originally derived from a very rare source. Πορφύρα (porphyra), the rare purple dye from Tyre, could command its weight in silver and was manufactured in classical antiquity from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail. As a seller of purple, Lydia was a wealthy woman of independent means. And as Judith Herrin points out in her beautiful book on the powerful woman of Byzantium, Women in Purple, a child born to a reigning emperor was πορφυρογέννητος (porphyrogénitos), ‘born in the purple.’

So, we change our liturgical colour in Advent to purple to signify we are preparing for the coming of Christ as the King of Kings, the ruler of all, in all his royal, imperial, majesty, splendour and glory.

Although comparisons are too often made with Lent, Advent is a time of preparation rather than a time of penitence, Lent too is a time of preparation for the completion of Christ’s majestic task, seen in his passion, death, burial and Resurrection. It was a time too, in the Early Church, of preparation for baptism, which required penitence and repentance and μετάνοια (metánoia), conversion, turning round to face Christ.

Today’s office parties, Christmas lunches, early Santas, hastily-planned carol services, and bringing the last posting day forward to the week before Advent, make it difficult to sustain this sense of being alert and watchful. Yet, can’t you remember with glee and warmth the child-like waiting and watching you experienced during the build-up for Christmas? In the cold and dark of winter, can you remember that warm glow you felt as you anticipated such a wonderful festival?

In recent times, the most common, popular observance of Advent is the use of the Advent Calendar, with one door being opened in the calendar, or one new candle being lit, on the Advent Wreath each day or each week leading up to Christmas Eve.

So I’d like to suggest customs that we can use in the Church to help restore and built-up that sense of anticipation, of watching and waiting, to cheerfully invite people into a time and a space for praying in joyful anticipation, and offer events for this time of year that can be adapted too for our prayerful preparation:

1, the Advent Calendar;
2, the Advent Wreath;
3, the Jess Tree;
4, Christingle services;
5, the Advent Prose;
6, Advent carols;
7, good old Saint Nicholas.
8, the Readings, Collects and Post-Communion Prayers: working our way through Revised Common Lectionary in Advent.

1, The Advent Calendar

The Advent Calendar … a choice between Christ and chocolates?

As children, many of us have watched the progression of Advent through the doors of an Advent calendar. I remember once looking for an advent calendar for our children in a shop one year and being asked cheerfully: Do you want one with the chocolates or one with the child?

You know what an Advent calendar is: it allows us to count or celebrate the days of Advent, and to build up an anticipation of Christmas. Today, most Advent calendars are made for children. But why can’t they be for adults too?

Advent Calendars do not have to be filled with chocolates and sweets. You can make a simple one in your parish, using a large rectangular card, cutting out the right number of windows, so that one can be opened each day during Advent, revealing an image, a poem, a Scripture text or part of a story related to the Nativity.

The Advent Calendar has its origins among German Lutherans, and may have been a family practice in German-speaking places from the 17th century on. From perhaps the beginning of the 19th century, many German families counted down the 24 days of Advent physically: at first, this meant simply drawing a chalk line on the door each day from 1 December. Some families had more elaborate ways to mark each day – lighting a new candle or hanging a little religious picture on the wall.

The first known Advent Calendar was handmade in 1851, the first printed Advent calendar was produced in Hamburg in 1902 or 1903, and the first commercially produced Advent Calendar, produced in Munich in 1908, had 24 little coloured pictures that could be affixed to a piece of cardboard.

The custom spread from Germany after World War II. Even though we may have put your childhood behind us, we may find an Advent Calendar a source for inspiration for prayers and intercessions during the next few weeks in our parishes throughout these dioceses.

Some years ago [2014], members of all Anglican Churches were invited to mark Advent through prayer, meditation and by contributing to a global Advent calendar on Instagram. The Anglican Communion Office and the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) is teaming up to offer Anglicans and Episcopalians around the world a daily word, meditation and beautiful image sent to their e-mail inboxes.

These Anglican monks were using technology that allows their daily Advent e-mail to arrive in inboxes at 5 a.m. wherever in the world the recipient is, so that ‘it’s there when you wake up.’

After reading the meditation, the monks invited people to take a photograph with their phones or tablets to share their interpretation of the word for that day – such as #Abide, #Thrive, #Become, #Imagine – and to post the picture to Instagram adding the day’s tag plus #Adventword.

In a similar vein, the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, has produced a calendar of Advent Devotionals for Advent in different years, allowing readers to spend five minutes a day in appropriate reflections.

2, The Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... the first purple candle recalls the Patriarchs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In some of our parishes, we may have Advent Wreaths. Traditionally, a new candle is lit in church each week, followed by a Bible reading or selected prayers. Some say the circle symbolises the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens and lit candles signify the persistence of life in the midst of winter.

The Advent wreath is said to have been the idea of Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881), a German pastor and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor in Hamburg. In December 1838, he made a large wooden ring from an old cartwheel, with 19 small red and four large white candles. A new small candle was lit each weekday in Advent, and a large white candle was lit on Sundays. The custom spread in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles. The custom spread to Britain in the 19th century, and to North America in 1930s, so that it has global appeal today.

In most Anglican churches today, there are three purple candle and one pink candle in a ring, with a white or gold candle in the centre.

The purple candles reflect the liturgical colour of the season, while pink marks the Third Sunday of Advent, when that colour change briefly to pink.

There are many traditions about the meaning or theme of each candle. But Common Worship and Times and Seasons suggest these five themes:

Advent 1: The Patriarchs (Purple);
Advent 2: The Prophets (Purple);
Advent 3: John the Baptist (Pink);
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary (Purple);
Christmas Day: The Christ (White or Gold).

Each Sunday in Advent, then, reminds us of those who prepared for the coming of Christ:

1, ‘The Patriarchs’ can naturally focus on Abraham, our Father in faith, and David, the ancestor in whose city the Christ Child was born;

2, ‘The Prophets’ invite us to reflect on the way Christ’s coming was foretold;

3, Saint John the Baptist proclaimed Christ as Saviour;

4, The Virgin Mary bore him in her womb and gave birth to him.

The pink candle on the Third Sunday of Advent comes from the mediaeval tradition of adopting a splash of colour on this Sunday, Gaudete Sunday or ‘Rose Sunday,’ reflecting the traditions surrounding Laetare Sunday (Refreshment Sunday), the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

In other traditions, the first candle is called the prophet’s candle and is meant to signify the hope of Christ’s coming. The second is called the Bethlehem candle in honour of the city of Christ’s birth. The third candle is the shepherds’ candle. The final candle is the angels’ candle, symbolising the angelic proclamation of joy at Christ’s birth.

In either case, the accumulation of light is an expression of the growing anticipation of the birth of Christ, the light of the world. The circular wreath represents God’s eternity and unity. Evergreens are a symbol of enduring life.

A number of carols have been written for use with the short liturgy as the Advent candles are lit. A common format is to add an extra verse each week, relating to the symbolism of that week’s candle.

3, The Jesse Tree

The West End windows in Christ Church Cathedral are another way of illustrating the Jesse Tree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Jesse Tree has become a popular teaching aid in many Anglican parishes, although the earliest example probably dates from the 11th century.

The Tree of Jesse depicts the Ancestors of Christ in a tree that rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. The earliest example dates from the 11th century. But it is also inspired by that passage from Isaiah: ‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,’ (Isaiah 11: 1), which is in the Old Testament reading in the Church of Ireland lectionary for the first Tuesday in Advent this year (5 December 2017: Isaiah 11: 1-10).

The lineage of Jesus is traced by two Gospel writers, Saint Matthew and Saint Luke. Saint Matthew’s Gospel opens with the words: ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ With this beginning, Saint Matthew makes clear Jesus’ whole lineage: he is of God’s chosen people, by his descent from Abraham, and he is the ‘shoot of Jesse’ by his descent from Jesse’s son, King David. Saint Luke describes the ‘generations of Christ,’ beginning with Jesus himself and tracing backwards through his ‘earthly father’ Joseph back to Adam (see Luke 3).

The figures in a Jesse Tree are drawn from the genealogies in the Gospels, although usually showing only a selection. In many churches, the traditional Jesse Tree is decorated over the course of Advent with symbols representing stories leading up to the Incarnation – for example, a burning bush for Moses, a ram for Isaac or a crown for David.

4, Christingle Services:

Christingle services … a good resource for Advent

The Moravian custom of a Christingle service was introduced to these islands in the late 20th century, and resources are available through the Children’s Society (in the Church of England). Christingle services may take place before or after Christmas, but they are a good resource for Advent.

5, The Advent Prose

The ‘O Antiphons’ … detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan Van Eyck, 1420s

In Advent, we often sing the Advent Prose or the Advent Antiphons, an antiphonal plainsong. The ‘Late Advent Weekdays,’ 17 to 24 December, mark the singing of the Great Advent ‘O Antiphons.’

These are the antiphons for the canticle Magnificat at Evensong, Evening Prayer or Vespers day and mark the forthcoming birth of the Messiah. They form the basis for each verse of the popular Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel.

These antiphons, all beginning with ‘O ...,’ were sung before and after the Canticle Magnificat at Vespers from 17 to 24 December, the seven days before Christmas.

They are addressed to God, calling on him to come as teacher and deliverer, and woven through with scriptural titles and images describing God’s saving work in Christ. This tradition was developed in the Sarum Rite in mediaeval England, and was reflected in The Book of Common Prayer, where the Anglican Reformers retained the title O Sapientia (‘O Wisdom’) as the designation for 16 December.

6, Advent carols

A recent Advent Carol Service in Lichfield Cathedral … appropriate Advent carols are not the same as Christmas carols

It is from this tradition that we have derived one of the best-known Advent carols, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135).

But there are other special Advent carols and hymns for this season. See Irish Church Hymnal, Nos 119 to 145.

7, Saint Nicholas

Santas and choristers preparing for Advent ... Saint Nicholas robed in green and other figures in the shop in the crypt in Christ Church Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is worth reminding ourselves that Saint Nicholas is commemorated not on 25 December but yesterday on 6 December, even if he does not make an appearance in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland Calendar.

Saint Nicholas was such a favourite saint in mediaeval Ireland that many our principal ports and towns have large churches named after him, including Carrickfergus, Co Antrim; Dundalk, Co Louth; Dublin (two churches); Galway; Cork; Adare, Co Limerick; and, in the mediaeval era, on Nicholas Street, close to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

He is an important figure, not because of the roly-poly figure hijacked by Coca-Cola and advertising.

His willingness to travel, even when his own life was at risk, makes him a role model for the church in mission.

As Bishop Nicholas of Myra, he was a key defender of Trinitarian dogma at the Council of Nicaea (325).

The stories of his bringing the victims of murder back to life is a reminder that Christmas is without meaning unless it is related to and connected with Good Friday and Easter Day, that the significance of the Incarnation is to be found in our Redemption and the Resurrection.

As a bishop who was the protector of vulnerable children and teenagers to point of risking his own place in society, he is an important challenge to some of the ways the whole church has handled some recent difficulties; as the free-giver of gifts, without expecting anything in return he is a reminder that God’s love is given freely and unconditionally at the Incarnation in his Son, Christ Jesus ... and what better sermon could we preach in the Season of Advent.

Chocolate Santas on shelves in a supermarket in Bettystown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

8, The Readings, Collects and Post-Communion Prayers: working our way through the Advent readings in the Revised Common Lectionary

Advent 1 (3 December 2017):

Readings:

Isaiah 64: 1-9; Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13: 24-37.

Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.. Amen.

Note: This collect is said after the Collect of the day until Christmas Eve.

Advent 2 (10 December 2017):

Readings:

Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3: 8-15a; Mark 1: 1-8.

Collect:

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Advent 3 (17 December 2017):

Collect:

O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or the Canticle Magnificat; I Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28.

Advent 4 (24 December 2017, Christmas Eve):

Note: At the time of preparing these notes, the Collect, Readings and Post-Communion Prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent were not available on the Church of Ireland website.

Collect:

God our redeemer
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Readings:

II Samuel 7: 1-11, 16; the Canticle Magnificat or Psalm 89: 1-14, 19-26; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38.

Points for discussion:

Note how at Advent we begin a new cycle of lectionary readings, beginning to read the Gospel according to Saint Mark.

Note the themes in the Old Testament readings.

How do the collects and Gospel readings relate to the themes symbolised in the Advent wreath?

Three questions for our time of reflection:

1, Are you ready for the coming of Christ?

2, Is this a time of preparation or celebration for you, your parish?

3, Is Christmas more important than Easter in your parish?

Some resources and reading:

Stephen Cottrell, Walking Backwards to Christmas: An Advent journey from light to darkness (London: SPCK, 2014).

Nick Fawcett, A Chequered Legacy: The good the bad and the ugly: An Advent course. Book 1: The Good (Stowmarket, Suffolk: 2014).

Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).

Paul Gooder and Peter Babington, Love Life, Live Advent: Make room for the manger (London: Church House Publishing, 2014).

William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent antiphons (Dublin: Columba/APCK, 1993).

Dorothy McRae-McMahon, Liturgies for High Days (London: SPCK, 2006).

Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008; Alcuin Liturgy Guides 5).

Times and Seasons: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).

Closing poem

In the bleak mid-winter

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.


(Christina Rosetti, 1830-1893, see Irish Church Hymnal, No. 162)

Closing hymn:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 2:

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery: Refrain

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight: Refrain

O come, Desire of Nations, bring,
all peoples to their Saviour King;
thou Corner-stone, who makest one,
complete in us thy work begun: Refrain

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear: Refrain

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Director of Education and Training in the Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert. These notes were prepared for a training day with Clergy and Readers in the Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert in Saint Mary’s Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick, on Monday 20 November 2017.

Next: Monday 22 January 2018, Preparing for Lent and Easter.

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 26 November 2017

A scene of Christ in Majesty at the Last Judgment in a fresco in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next [Sunday 26 November 2017] is the Sunday before Advent, which is now marked in the Church Calendar as the Kingship of Christ. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and the Church of Ireland Directory are: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1: 15-23; and Matthew 25: 31-46.

These readings can be found here.

Sunday next is also being marked in the Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe, Ardfert and Clonfert as Mission Sunday.

Whichever reading you decide to emphasise next Sunday, in your sermon, your intercessions, or your choice of hymns you may seek to make connections with each of the readings. You may decide, for example, to preach on the Gospel reading. But it may be one of the other readings that has caught the imagination of the people you need to reach.

Making connections helps to bring people on the journey with us. So, these notes include ideas for the readings for the Sunday before Advent, including the Gospel reading, as well as themed hymns, the Collect and Post-Communion Prayer, suggested hymns, and images that may be downloaded to use on parish bulletins and in service sheets.

In addition, there are extra resources to help plan around the theme of Mission Sunday, with an introduction to this year’s theme, the appropriate Collect and Post-Communion Prayer, suggested hymns

Introduction

Waiting for Santa … or waiting for Christ the King? A shop porch in O’Connell Street, Limerick, earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Already the Christmas decorations, including trees and lights, are up in the streets and the shops. The Shopping Centres would have us believe that Christmas has already arrived as shop owners and traders try to breathe a festive air into our lives.

Unlike some friends in England who have already got their first Christmas card, I have yet to receive my first Christmas card. But already An Post and the Royal Mail have posted warnings on their websites about the latest dates for posting for Christmas – and some of those dates for surface mail have already passed!

Plans for carol services and Christmas services are well advanced in most parishes. We all look forward to Christmas … it is holiday time, it is family time, it is a time for gifts and presents, for meeting and greeting, for family meals.

In every Church, we shall see more people coming through the doors than at any other time of the year. People love the carols, the tradition, the goodwill and the good feelings we get from even just thinking about Santa Claus and the elves, the tree and the lights, the crib and the Baby Jesus.

Even the most secular of revellers will admit, without much compulsion, that Christ is at the heart of Christmas, and that waiting for Christ, anticipating Christ, should be at the heart of the Advent season, which begins on Sunday 30 November.

Preparing for Christ’s coming

Christ the King portrayed in the reredos in Lurgan Church of Ireland parish church in Virginia, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Gospel reading on Sunday morning may seem to be a little out of sequence for some. We are preparing for Christmas, they may think, not for Easter. But we forget that so easily. On all the radio chat shows, people are already talking about this being the Christmas Season … before Advent has even started.

But Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, and in the weeks beforehand we even prepare for Advent itself, with Lectionary readings telling us about the Coming of Christ.

We have made Christmas a far-too comfortable story. It was never meant to be, but we have made it comfortable with our Christmas card images of the sweet little baby Jesus, being visited by kings and surrounded by adoring, cute little animals. The reality, of course, is that Christmas was never meant to be a comfortable story like that.

Christmas is a story about poverty and about people who are homeless and rejected and who can find no place to stay.

It is a messy story about a child born surrounded by the filth of animals and the dirt of squalor.

It is a story of shepherds who are involved in dangerous work, staying up all night, out in the winter cold, watching out for wolves and sheep stealers.

It is a story of trickery, deceit and the corruption of political power that eventually leads to a cruel dictator stooping to murder, even the murder of innocent children, to secure his own grip on power.

But these sorts of images do not sell Christmas Cards or help to get the boss drunk under the mistletoe at the office party.

That is why in the weeks before Advent we have readings reminding us about what the coming of Christ into the world means, what the Kingdom of God is like, and how we should prepare for the coming of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The Feast of Christ the King

Looking out from the Church of Christ the King onto Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On Sunday [26 November 2017], we are marking the Kingship of Christ. There are few Anglican churches dedicated to Christ the King, but they include the Church of Christ the King in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, now used by Forward in Faith.

The Feast of Christ the King is a recent innovation in the Church calendar. It was first suggested at the end of 1925 when Pope Pius XI published an encyclical, Quas Primas, in which he castigated secularism in Europe and declared that the secular powers ought to recognise Christ as King and that the Church needed to recapture this teaching.

At the time, the entire idea of kingship was quickly losing credibility in western societies, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and a wave of fascism was about to sweep across central Europe.

The mere mention of kingship and monarchy today may evoke images of either the extravagance of Louis XVI in Versailles, or the anachronism of pretenders in Ruritanian headdress, sashes and medals claiming thrones and privilege in Eastern Europe.

But since 1925, the celebration of Christ the King or the Kingship of Christ has become part of the calendar of the wider Western Church. It took on an ecumenical dimension from 1983 on with its introduction to Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others through the Revised Common Lectionary.

The statue of Cristo-Rei or Christ the King in the distance, on the southern banks of the Tagus, overlooking Lisbon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Wherever one goes through Lisbon, it is impossible not look across the River Tagus to the south and see the large statue of Christ the King, standing 75 metres high and erected in 1951 in Alamada above the southern banks of the river estuary.

This statue was inspired by the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro after the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon visited the more famous statue in Brazil, a former Portuguese colony. The project was inaugurated in 1959, when Portugal was still under the dictatorial rule of Salazar. Although the idea for the statue was first put forward in 1934, it was later said the giant cement statue was erected to give thanks that Portugal stayed out of World War II.

The end of the Church Year

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Putting the Christmas trees up too early or hanging up the lights and frosting the windows ahead of Advent do not help to encourage a true Christmas spirit because they help us forget what Advent is all about.

Christ comes not just as a cute cuddly babe wrapped up in the manger and under the floodlights of a front window in a large department store in a shopping centre or city centre.

Marking the Sunday before Advent by crowning Christ as King helps us to focus on Advent from the following Sunday, and Advent is supposed to be a time and a season of preparing for the coming of Christ.

Kingship may not be a good role model in this part of the island or for people living in modern democratic societies where the heads of state are elected. Nor are the models of kingship in history or in contemporary society so good. It is worth considering three examples:

● We are familiar with a model of monarchy that paradoxically appears to be benign on the one hand and appears aloof and remote on the other hand, at the very apex of a class system defined by birth, title and inherited privilege.

● In other northern European countries, the model of monarchy is portrayed in the media by figureheads who are slightly daft do-gooders, riding around on bicycles in parks and by canals in ways that threaten to rob kingship of majesty, dignity and grace.

● Or, take deposed emperors from the 20th century: Halie Selassie, who died in 1975, sat back in luxury as his people starved to death; Emperor Bokassa, who died in 1996, was a tyrant accused of eating his people and having them butchered at whim.

Is it any wonder that some modern translations of the Psalms avoid the word king and talk about God as our governor?

The setting:

In the lectionary readings for Year A, we have arrived at the last Sunday of readings in Saint Matthew’s Gospel about Christ’s days in Jerusalem immediately after Palm Sunday, although the actual account of Palm Sunday in Matthew 21: 1-22 was passed over in recent Sundays.

The Sunday before Advent now gives us time to pause and reflect on the why, over the past few months, we have been following Christ on his journey to Jerusalem. For it is there that he will be revealed in glory as the Son of Man and the King.

Dividing the sheep and the goats

Giovanni da Modena’s fresco of the Last Judgment in Bologna … inspired by Dante’s descriptions of heaven and hell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Gospel reading for the Feast of Christ the King tells the story of Christ coming in glory as the Son of Man (verse 31), as the king (verses 34 and 40), and as Lord (verses 37 and 44).

This parable is unique to Saint Matthew and has no parallel in the other Gospels. It brings to a close the whole of the discourse that began in Chapter 23.

This is a stark and challenging parable that forces us to ask what the coming of Christ, the second coming, will be like, and what Christ has to say to us about the way we live and the way we should be living in the world today.

The division of people into sheep and goats is well known. We all constantly love to divide people into two groups, the insiders and the outsiders, us and them, friends and foes, Manchester United supporters and ABU fans. We do it all the time, and sheep and goats are a good short-hand term for what we do.

Sheep and goats behave differently, but in Palestine they were fed together. In Palestine in Christ’s time, and even to this very day, throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, sheep and goats are often difficult to tell apart until they have been separated. And when it came to insiders and outsiders, the goats were definitely the insiders and the sheep the outsiders.

Goats are lively animals and very curious. They are happy living either in herds with other goats or by themselves, while sheep are more docile, easily led, and always stay in groups.

Sheep are greedier than goats – they are more likely to overeat than goats if they have access to more food than they need. Sheep are destructive grazers, while goats are browsers. This means sheep eat grass and other plants all the way down to the ground, while goats, on the other hand, despite popular misconceptions, simply nibble here and there, sampling a variety of bushes and leaves, chewing on a lot of things without actually eating them.

Goats are among the best climbers in the world: they almost never fall or slip, while sheep, on the other hand, are much less sure-footed and can easily fall and get stuck upside down.

We all know the parable of the lost sheep, but the parable of the lost goat just would not have had the same resonance, would it?

Sheep, on the one hand, can and will stay out all night, and are more resilient in bad weather, which is why the shepherds on that first Christmas were out on the hillsides looking after their flocks.

Goats, on the other hand, need warmth at night, so might even have been in the stable alongside the ox and the ass.

So: sheep are outsiders, goats are insiders. And what happens to the insiders and the outsiders in this parable would be a shocking end to the story for those who heard it for the first time in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Tympanum in Saint Saviour’s Church, Limerick … based on mediaeval images of the Last Judgment and doom paintings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

This is a parable or story that is so stark and so challenging that it has inspired many of the great works of art.

Doom walls were often painted in English mediaeval churches, on the inside, Western or back wall, and it is a traditional image that is still popular in some Greek churches.

The earliest portrayal of the Last Judgment in art is a sixth century mosaic in Ravenna that shows a seated Christ flanked by two large Byzantine-style angels, all three seated in a way that prefigures Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham, or the Old Testament Trinity. To his right are three perky-looking sheep and balanced on his left are three more sober-looking goats.

Giovanni da Modena’s fresco of the Last Judgment in Bologna was inspired by Dante’s description of heaven and hell. Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment (ca 1425) is now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (1534-1541), caused controversy because of its muscular, beardless Christ. And it is, perhaps, because of the poetry of Sante and the work of Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, and other great artists that we often see this story of the Last Judgment as a story about individual judgment and individual condemnation, rather than the judgment of the nations that we read about in this Gospel reading.

Searching questions

Christ the King … Graham Sutherland’s tapestry in Coventry Cathedral

The story opens with Christ coming again in glory, sitting on his throne of glory (verse 31), and the nations gathered before him (verse 32). They are not atomised, isolated individuals who are gathered before the throne of Christ: they are the nations – all the nations – that are assembled and asked these very searching questions.

These are questions that are directly related to the conditions that surrounded that first Christmas; questions that directly challenge us as to whether we have taken on board the values of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 3-11; Luke 6: 20-31); questions that ask whether we really accept the values Christ proclaimed at the very start of his ministry when he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 16-19).

We should be aware of the poetry that is part of this passage too. In verses 35-36, when the king calls in those on his right hand, he emphasises four times that when they ministered to the needy they ministered to him, and he does this by emphasising ‘I’ and ‘me’ rather than the verbs: the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ are emphasised, rather than the verb, in the words μοι and με. This poetic emphasis is missed if our translations are laid out in narrative rather than poetic form.

Similarly, in verses 37-39, in the questions put to king, the emphasis in on ministering to the king, on the ‘you,’ rather than the action: note the –μεν ending in the key words in the questions, another poetic structure in this passage.

The poetry is part of the drama, but how do we get this across to congregations when it is being read as the Sunday Gospel reading?

Meanwhile, the questions posed here are questions put to us not just as individuals and as Christians. They are also questions that are put to the nations, to all of the nations (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, pánta ta ethne), each and every one of them. The word ἔθνος (ethnos) is used in the Bible to refer to a tribe, nation, people or group, and especially to foreign nations that were not Jewish.

And that is where Christ comes into the world, both at Christmas and at the second coming, with the Kingdom of God. At his birth, the old man in the Temple, Simeon, welcomes him as the light for revelation to the nations, φῶς εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν (phos eis apokálypsin ethnon), ‘a light for revelation to the nations’ (Luke 2: 32).

Which nations on earth, at this very moment, would like to be judged by how enlightened they are, to be compared with the Kingdom of God when it comes to how each nation treats and looks after those the enthroned Christ identifies with himself: those who are hungry; those who are thirsty; those who are strangers and find no welcome on our shores; those who are naked, bare of anything to call their own in this world, or whose naked bodies are exploited for profit and pleasure; those who are sick, and left waiting on hospital trolleys or on endless lists for health care because they cannot afford it; those who are imprisoned because they spoke out, or because they are from the wrong political or ethnic group, or because they did not have the right papers when they arrived at Dublin Airport as refugees seeking asylum?

When did we ever see Christ in pain on hospital a trolley or being mistreated at the passport control kiosks in the arrivals area at the airport?

But – as long it was done in the name of our nation, we did it to Christ himself.

In his Second Coming, Christ tells us the kind of conduct, of morality, towards others that is expected of us as Christians, but also tells us of the consequences of not caring for others.

A recent illustration

Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Whatever your view was of the protests in Paternoster Square in front of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, six years ago, they were a reminder to the Church of the centrality and importance of these questions.

Writing in the Church Times at the time (Friday 4 November 2011), Canon Giles Fraser – who resigned as Canon Chancellor of Saint Paul’s because of the cathedral’s response to these protests – said: ‘For too long the Church has been obsessed with its own internal workings and with silly arguments about sex. Now is the time for a new debate and a new emphasis. For if we are not fully involved with complex discussions about the relationship between financial justice and the way our financial institutions work, then we might as well give up on being a proper Church and admit that we are the spiritual arm of the heritage industry.’

As the Gospel reading we are looking at makes a direct connection with the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, it is interesting that Canon Fraser began that comment piece with a reflection on Saint Luke’s account of the Beatitudes.

Describing how the lectionary can be a cruel mistress, he recalled that the Evensong readings set for what was his last sermon in Saint Paul’s included: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation’ (Luke 6: 20, 25).

He argued that the ‘whole point of having a lectionary is that it obliges the preacher not to avoid the hard bits of the Bible. Were the readings up to me, I would have chosen something much safer. But that is the whole point of having a lectionary: it stops you retreating into safety. There are some things that just must stay on the agenda, however uncomfortable.’

Conclusions:

Christ in Majesty … a window in Saint Mary's Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

This Gospel reading challenges us in a way that is uncomfortable, but with things that must stay on our agenda as Christians and on the agenda of the Church.

We are challenged in the epistle reading for this Sunday to ask ourselves:

What are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints (Ephesians 1: 18)?

What is the immeasurable greatness of his great power (verse 19)?

The genius of power is revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice is not to gratify those who want a worldly king, whether he is benign or barmy. Instead, he displays supreme majesty in his priorities for those who are counted out when it comes to other kingdoms.

Christ rejects all the dysfunctional models of majesty and kingship. He is not coming again as a king who is haughty and aloof, daft and barmy, or despotic and tyrannical. Instead he shows a model of kingship that emphasises what majesty and graciousness should mean for us today – giving priority in the kingdom to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner (verses 35-36).

As we prepare for Christmas we should be preparing to enjoy time with our families and friends, time for a good winter’s holiday. But we should also remember the reason we have Christmas, the reason Christ came into the world, and the reason he is coming again.

We can look forward to seeing the Christ child in the crib and to singing about him in the carols. But let us also look forward to seeing him in glory. So let us be prepared to see him in the hungry, the thirsty, the unwelcome stranger, those who are naked and vulnerable, those who have no provisions for health care, those who are prisoners, those who have no visitors and those who are lonely and marginalised.

Kings among the saints on the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect:

Eternal Father, whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
Keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that plenteously bearing the fruit of good works
they may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The figures of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor at the main door into Glenstal Castle in Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Suggested hymns:

These are among the hymns suggested in Sing to the Word> (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:

Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24:

644: Faithful Shepherd, feed me
670: Jerusalem the golden
442: Praise the Lord, rise up rejoicing
598: Take this moment, sign and space
20: The King of love my shepherd is

Psalm 100:

683: All people that on earth do dwell
334: I will enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart
701 Jubilate, eve’ybody

Ephesians 1: 15-23:

250: All hail the power of Jesus’ name
643: Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
326: Blessèd city, heavenly Salem
(Christ is made the sure foundation, omit verse 1.
296: Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
693: Glory in the highest to the God of heaven
324: God, whose almighty word
266: Hail the day that sees him rise
267: Hail the risen Lord, ascending
300: Holy Spirit, truth divine
99: Jesus, the name high over all
588: Light of the minds that know him
275: Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious
281: Rejoice, the Lord is King!
491: We have a gospel to proclaim
476: Ye watchers and ye holy ones

Matthew 25: 31-46

517: Brother, sister, let me serve you
86: Christ is the King! O friends, rejoice
39: For the fruits of his creation
89: God is love – his the care
520: God is love, and where true love is, God himself is there
91: He is Lord, he is Lord
523: Help us to help each other, Lord
495: Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love
427: Let all mortal flesh keep silence
281: Rejoice, the Lord is King!
527: Son of God, eternal Saviour
314: There’s a spirit in the air
114: Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown
499: When I needed a neighbour, were you there
531: Where love and loving kindness dwell

Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland with Bishop Kenneth Kearon at his consecration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mission Sunday:

In the United Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe, Ardfert and Clonfert, the Diocesan Council for Mission has sent resources to all parishes in the hope that Sunday 26 November 2017 is also marked in parishes as Mission Sunday. These resources include a poster, an A4 leaflet outlining the Mission Sunday Project 2017, and envelopes for a designated collection.

This project involves working with the Diocese of Swaziland in southern Africa, continuing links with Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya who visited this diocese in 2013. With the help of parishes in the diocese, the council hopes to fund water harvesting and storage such as a 5,000-litre water tank supplied to the Learning Tree Pre-School in the Fonteyn Community in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. It harvests whatever rain falls on the roof of the school to give 41 learners and five staff members access to clean water for drinking and sanitation.

In due course, the council will be asking schools and/or youth clubs in the diocese for their support by adopting a particular school in need of water storage facilities in Swaziland, and to encourage individual contact with headteachers and pupils.

Mission Collect:

Almighty God,
who called your Church to witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Eternal Giver of love and power,
your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world
to preach the gospel of his kingdom.
Confirm us in this mission,
and help us to live the good news we proclaim;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A Prayer for Mission in the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst give commandment to the apostles, that they should go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature; Grant to us, whom thou hast called into thy Church, a ready will to obey thy Word, and fill us with a hearty desire to make thy way known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations. Look with compassion on all that have not known thee, and upon the multitudes that are scattered abroad as sheep having no shepherd. O heavenly Father, Lord of the harvest, have respect, we beseech thee, to our prayers, and send forth labourers into thine harvest. Fit and prepare them by thy grace for the work of their ministry; give them the spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind; strengthen them to endure hardness; and grant that thy Holy Spirit may prosper their work, and that by their life and doctrine they may set forth thy glory, and set forward the salvation of all people; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Suggested Hymns:

In the Church Hymnal, Section 6 is suitable for theme of the Church’s Witness and Mission. In particular, there are hymns related to Proclaiming the Faith (478-493) and Social Justice (494-500). Some of thee hymns in this section are among those recommended for the First Sunday before Advent:

491: We have a gospel to proclaim
495: Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love
499: When I needed a neighbour, were you there

Links to USP:

This project is in co-operation with the Anglican mission agency, USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel, the oldest Anglican mission agency. USPG can be found here.

Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland with Bishop Trevor Williams ... celebrating 300 years of USPG in Ireland in 2013