Monday, 31 December 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 6 January 2019,
The Epiphany

‘Star of Bethlehem’ (1887-1890) by Edward Burn-Jones (1833-1898) … the largest watercolour of the 19th century, and now in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday is the Feast of the Epiphany [6 January 2019], and the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. On this feast day, we remember that at his Epiphany, Christ was made manifest to all nations and to the peoples of the earth

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland for next Sunday are:

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The visit of the Magi in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Increasingly, it seems, many people think the 12 Days of Christmas are the 12 days before rather than the 12 days after Christmas. But, in fact, Christmas does not end even at the Feast of Epiphany, but continues as a season in the Church until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation on 2 February.

Epiphany is part and parcel of the Christmas celebrations, with two more important Epiphany events to mark liturgically in the coming weeks:

● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, which we read about the following Sunday [13 January 2019];

● the Wedding Feast in Cana, which we read about on the Sunday after [20 January 2019].

This Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 2: 1-12) is one that symbolises the gentiles coming to Christ, and bowing before him in worship, laying their gifts and treasurers at his feet.

The promise of Isaiah after the return to Jerusalem is that the ‘nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn … the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you’ (Isaiah 60: 3, 5-6).

The images in the Psalm of the kings across the known universe coming to visit the king in Jerusalem after the return from exile in the Persia empire also inspired Saint Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi.

Saint Paul reminds us in the Epistle reading of the promises in Christ being brought as gifts to the Gentiles and in the Gospel we are reminded of the Gentiles bringing their gifts to Christ and worshipping him with all they have.

This posting includes notes on each of the Lectionary readings next Sunday, and includes three sets of sermon ideas: the Gospel reading; a poem by TS Eliot; and a well-known Epiphany carol.

This posting concludes with a note on Chalking the Doors, an Epiphany tradition that is found throughout the English-speaking world and that I notice in recent years is being introduced in places in Ireland. There are notes on how to mark the doors of a church and rectory/house, and some suggested prayers too.

The Adoration by the Magi … an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaiah 60: 1-6:

Darius, the King of Persia, has allowed the once-exiled people to return to Jerusalem. The prophet tells the people to arise, for their light has come and joy and prosperity are in the city. God is with them ans they will reflect the presence and glory of God.

Dawn breaks suddenly in the Middle East, so that dark becomes day almost instantly. Thick darkness covers the earth and all people, but Israel will be different: God will come to them, be present with them and act for them. Many nations will come to pay homage to God.

Only some of the exiles returned from Babylon, but soon those who were scattered at the conquest of Jerusalem will be gathered in together again and form a new community. People from all nations will come to the city to see God’s activity among his people. Those who return will grow in their knowledge of God and other nations will bring them their wealth in abundance.

The wealth of these nations will be brought to them on camels and ships, across the seas and the sands, from Midian and Ephah, from Sheba and Tarshish. These gifts include gold and frankincense (verse 6), and Jerusalem, once destroyed by foreigners, will be rebuilt by foreigners.

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14:

Psalm 72 is a prayer for eternal life, for God’s blessings for ever. It is a song praying for gifts for ‘the king,’ including justice, righteousness and long life, so that he may defend the poor, deliver the needy and crush the oppressor and that righteousness may flourish and peace abound.

The psalmist mentions the kings of three areas: Tarshish, thought to be present-day Spain; the Isles, which may refer Crete and Cyprus; and Sheba and Saba, present-day Yemen, with its capital at Saba. The bring together the trade routes across the breadth of the whole Mediterranean, and from Jerusalem to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula at the entrance to the Indian Ocean and the African coast. In this way, they symbolise poetically all earthly rulers.

The psalm contains memories of the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon and the Temple in Jerusalem.

The psalmist prays that these three kings may bring gifts to the one true king, who delivers the needy, hears the cry of the poor, has pity on the week and needy, and save the needy, delivers them from oppression and violence, redeems their lives, and saves them from bloodshed.

The Library of Celsus in Ephesus … Saint Paul is writing from prison, probably in Rome, to the Church in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ephesians 3: 1-12:

Saint Paul speaks of himself as being called as the apostle who is sent to bring the gift of this good news to the Gentiles (verse 8) so that ‘everyone’ may know that they are invited to ‘see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things’ (verse 9).

In this reading, Saint Paul says he is writing this letter from prison (see Ephesians 3: 1), probably in Rome. Although the Bible says it was written ‘to the saints who are in Ephesus’ (Ephesians 1: 1, NRSVA), some early manuscripts lack ‘in Ephesus.’ Perhaps this is a circular letter sent to a number of churches, celebrating the life of the Church.

In this reading, Saint Paul recounts his mission to the Gentiles (verse 8). His ‘few words’ about the ‘mystery’ referred to in verse 3 ask us to turn back a few pages to Ephesians 1: 8-10, where Saint Paul says God ‘God has made known to us the mystery of his will (μυστήριον τοῦ θελήματος).’

The word mysterion (μυστήριον) is used to refer to something hidden, a secret or religious mystery, not known to uninitiated, ordinary people. The Church came to use this word mysterion (μυστήριον) to refer to a sacrament, particularly to the Eucharist.

In many Churches next Sunday morning, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we will be inviting people to approach Christ, in an Epiphany celebration, to lay our gifts before him, and to meet him in this sacred mystery.

Saint Paul reminds us in this epistle reading that the coming of Christ is the fulfilment of the promises to the prophets and apostles (verse 5) and to all nations or Gentiles (verse 6), so that all may share in the promise in Christ. We have all become heirs to God together and members of one body (verse 6).

The Visit of the Magi in the 13th century Church of the Holy Cross or ‘Martyrium’ in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 2: 1-12:

The Magi, as the ‘Three Kings’ or ‘Three Wise Men,’ are regular figures in traditional nativity stories and in Christmas and Epiphany celebrations. But the visit of the Magi is recalled in one Gospel alone, in Matthew 2:1-12, the reading for next Sunday.

Although Saint Matthew does not mention the number of wise men, the number of gifts they gave to the Christ Child has given rise to the popular tradition that there were three Magi.

The Hebrew Scriptures (see Isaiah 60: 1-10, Psalm 72) speak of gifts given by kings and of the Messiah being worshipped by kings. Saint Matthew’s account was reinterpreted in the light of these prophecies, and so the magi became kings rather than Persian wise men or priests. Perhaps this interpretation was influenced by the negative image of magi not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament.

The word magi comes from the plural of the Greek magos (μαγος, plural μαγοι), which in turn comes from the Old Persian magus. These magi were members of the Persian priestly or religious caste. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, the magi or wise men are led by Daniel (see Daniel 2: 48). But the same term later has negative connotation when it is used in the Acts of the Apostles to describe the sorcery of Simon Magus (Acts 8: 9-13) and the magic of Elymas (Acts 13: 6-11).

In Western tradition, the magi of the Epiphany have been named as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These names may come from an early sixth century Greek manuscript in Alexandria, although other authorities say the names are first found in an eighth century Irish manuscript. However, Syrian Orthodox tradition names the three magi as Larvanad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdad, while Ethiopian sources name them as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, and the Armenians call them Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma.

In our cribs, they are often portrayed as European, African and Asian, with the European giving gold and the other two giving myrrh and frankincense. There are many theories about the meaning and symbolism of these gifts. Gold is fairly obviously explained, but frankincense and myrrh are more obscure. Myrrh was commonly used for anointing, frankincense was a perfume, and gold is valuable. But the gifts had a spiritual meaning too: gold symbolises kingship on earth, frankincense is a symbol of priesthood, while myrrh is an embalming oil that symbolises death. Or gold represents virtue, frankincense represents prayer, and myrrh represents suffering.

In the Patristic tradition, Saint John Chrysostom of Constantinople suggests that these gifts were appropriate not just for a king but for God. He contrasted them with the traditional Temple offerings of sheep and calves, and deduced that the Magi worshiped the new-born Christ Child as God.

One story says the gold was stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Christ. Another says it was entrusted to Judas and then misappropriated by him. But in the Monastery of Saint Paul (Αγίου Παύλου) on Mount Athos, there is a 15th century golden case that is said to contain the Gift of the Magi.

Saint Matthew sets the date for the birth of Christ in the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judah, who died in 4 BC. Herod’s fears are aroused because his dynasty may come to an end. He consults the religious experts to find out where the magi should look for the Messiah. They answer with Scripture: they loosely blend Micah 5: 2 and II Samuel 5: 2.

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Three Gifts and the Three Wise Men:

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is the day, traditionally, that the Christmas decorations come down. But over the next few weeks, the Epiphany readings in the Lectionary remind us that the Christmas story is not just about the Crib and the Christmas or Nativity stories, but about God coming to dwell among us, and pointing from the beginning towards the promise and revelation to all nations, to all people.

The three principle Epiphany themes in the Gospels are:

● The Adoration of the Magi (this year’s Gospel reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2018, Matthew 2: 1-12);

● The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist in the River Jordan (Epiphany 1, the following Sunday’s reading, Epiphany 1, 13 January 2019, Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22);

● The miracle at the wedding in Cana (Epiphany II, 20 January 2019, John 2: 1-11).

But, while we are moving from Christmas to Epiphany, which ends at the Feast of the Presentation on Candlemas on 2 February, the Epiphany season is truly a continuation of the Christmas season, the liturgical colour remains white, and together Christmas and Epiphany form one full, continuous season of 40 days.

The visit of the Magi is a symbolic presentation of God’s revelation in Christ to the Gentiles. This Visit is a popular image for Christmas cards, but very often we have taken down the Christmas cards by the Feast of the Epiphany, and so we are left without a visual reminder of what they represent.

Saint Matthew’s phrase ‘from the east’ (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, apo anatolon, Matthew 2: 1), more literally means ‘from the rising [of the sun],’ but it does not tell us who they were or where they came from.

As the tradition developed, the three wise men were transformed into kings who have been named as:

● Melchior, a Persian scholar;

● Caspar, an Indian scholar;

● Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.

In Western art from the 14th century on, they are portrayed in these ways:

● Caspar is the older man with a long white beard, who is first in line to kneel before the Christ Child and who gives him the gift of gold.

● Melchior is portrayed as a middle-aged man, giving frankincense.

● Balthazar is presented a young man, very often black-skinned, with the gift of myrrh.

Saint Matthew names their gifts as: gold, frankincense, and myrrh: χρυσον (chryson), λιβανον (libanon) and σμυρναν (smyrnan) (Matthew 2: 11).

These are ordinary offerings and gifts – for a king. But from Patristic times these gifts have been given spiritual meanings:

● Gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship;

● Frankincense as a symbol of worship and so of Christ’s deity;

● Myrrh as an anointing oil for his priesthood, or as an embalming oil and a symbol of his death.

Origen summarises it in this way: ‘Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God’ (Contra Celsum).

Sometimes this is described more generally as:

● Gold symbolising virtue;

● Frankincense symbolising prayer;

● Myrrh symbolising suffering.

These interpretations are alluded to by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), the son of a Dublin-born Episcopalian bishop, in his carol We Three Kings (No 201, Irish Church Hymnal), in which the last verse summarises this interpretation:

Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God and Sacrifice

Do you think the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph took those gifts with them as they fled into exile in Egypt?

Several traditions have developed about what happened to these gifts.

There is a tradition that suggests Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance their when they fled.

Another story says the gold was stolen by the two thieves who are later crucified alongside Christ. Yet, another says the gold was entrusted to Judas, who misappropriated it.

And another story says the myrrh was used to anoint Christ’s body after his crucifixion, before his burial.

There are many traditions about what happened to the Three Wise Men afterwards. One story says they were baptised by Saint Thomas on his way to India. Another says their bodies were found by the Empress Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, and brought to the great church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. From there they were moved to Milan, and eventually enshrined in Cologne Cathedral.

But whatever the traditions, whatever the myths, whatever the legends may say, the truth they are trying to get at is that Christmas and Epiphany find their full meaning and their fulfilment in Good Friday and Easter Day, in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when we see the Suffering and Risen Christ fully revealed to us as Prophet, Priest and King.

And they challenge us to ask whether we are offering our best, or merely our second best to Christ – to Christ in the suffering world, to Christ in the Church, to Christ who is to come again.

It was a challenge that was thrown down over a century and a half ago by John Keble (1792-1866), who concludes his poem Epiphany with these words:

Behold, her wisest throng thy gate,
Their richest, sweetest, purest store,
(Yet owned too worthless and too late,)
They lavish on thy cottage-floor.

They give their best – O tenfold shame
On us their fallen progeny,
Who sacrifice the blind and lame –
Who will not wake or fast with thee!

The Journey of the Magi … on their way to the Crib in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

‘The Journey of the Magi’ by TS Eliot

The visit of the Magi inspired one of the great poems by TS Eliot, ‘The Journey of the Magi.’ This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, but was not published until 1930 in his Ariel Poems.

In some ways, this poem recalls ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), but also shows some influences of the earlier ‘The Magi’ by WB Yeats.

However, unlike Yeats, Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ is a truly Anglican poem, for the first five lines are based on the 1622 ‘Nativity Sermon’ of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester, who first summarised Anglicanism in the dictum ‘One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.’

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. He chooses an elderly speaker who is world-weary, reflective and sad. This narrator is a witness to momentous historical change who seeks to rise above that historical moment, a man who, despite material wealth and prestige, has lost his spiritual bearings. The speaker is agitated, his revelations are accidental and born out of his emotional distress, and he speaks to us, the readers, directly.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of the journey, the wise man recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that ‘this was all folly.’

The poem picks up Eliot’s persistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of his journey, the surviving magus complains about a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless. He says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that ‘this was all folly.’ The magus may have been unimpressed by the new-born infant, but he realises that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

... were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?

The birth of Christ was the death of the old religions. Now in his old age, he realises that with this birth his world had died, and he has little left to do but to wait for his own death.

On their journey, the Magi see ‘three trees against a low sky’ – a vision of the future Crucifixion on Calvary. The Incarnation points to the Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The ‘running stream’ may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is also an Epiphany moment.

The ‘six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver’ recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, another Epiphany theme.

The early morning descent into a ‘temperate valley’ evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death?

He is a witness of historical change, but does he manage to rise above his historical moment?

With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings?

Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

TS Eliot was the greatest Anglican poet of the 20th century. In this poem, he links Christmas, Epiphany and the Easter story, links beginnings and ends, ends and beginnings, and so makes sense and meaning of the Christmas story at the beginning of this New Year.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Mikhail Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591, in the Museum of Christian Art in the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

An Epiphany Carol:

‘We three kings of Orient,’ sometimes known as ‘The Quest of the Magi,’ is Hymn No 201 in the Irish Church Hymnal (5th edition), but it is not included in the New English Hymnal.

This carol ranks alongside ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ by Bishop Phillips Brooks (ICH 174, NEH 32), among the best-known and popular American carols. But few people in Ireland realise that the author’s father was Irish-born and one of the bishops who played a pivotal role in the formation of the Anglican Communion.

‘We three kings of Orient are’ was written in 1859 by the Revd John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891). He was the Rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, when he wrote this carol for a Christmas pageant in the General Theological Seminary, New York, although it did not appear in print for another six years.

The Revd John Henry Hopkins, jr, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 28 October 1820, the son of John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), an Irish-born Episcopal bishop who was the first Bishop of Vermont and later the eighth Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Bishop John Henry Hopkins was born in Dublin on 22 or 30 January 1792, the son of Thomas Hopkins and his wife Elizabeth nee Fitzakerly.

The Hopkins family emigrated from Dublin in 1800 to Philadelphia. There he began his education at home with his mother, and he was reading Shakespeare before the age of nine. Elizabeth Hopkins established a school for girls in Trenton, New Jersey, and eventually sent her son to a Baptist boy’s school in Bordentown, and then to Princeton University.

Because of his family’s straitened circumstances, Hopkins took a job at a counting-house, although his mother always wanted him to become a lawyer. At that time Hopkins was not particularly religious and his parents’ marriage was troubled. When his mother moved to Frederick, Maryland, to establish another school, he remained in Philadelphia with his father and friends.

Hopkins decided to become an ironmaster and worked for an ironmasters in New Jersey and in Philadelphia before moving west to manage the ironworks at Bassenheim in Butler County.

James O’Hara, an Irish immigrant who became the wealthiest man in Pittsburgh and Quartermaster-General, employed Hopkins to run the ironworks in the Ligonier Valley. There Hopkins got to know the Muller family, descended from a long line of German Lutheran ministers, and, after a religious awakening, began studying the Bible and other books, including works by Quakers and Swedenborgians.

He travelled back to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to marry Caspar Muller’s daughter Melusina and they settled at Hermitage Furnace. However, the iron business failed, and Hopkins returned to Pittsburgh where he taught drawing and painting while studying law with a local lawyer. He was called to the bar in April 1819 and set up a legal practice in Pittsburgh.

John and Melusina attended the Presbyterian Church, but he was also the organist and choirmaster at Trinity Church, the local Episcopal Church. When the Rector of Trinity Church moved to New Jersey and the next priest proved inadequate, Hopkins applied to be accepted for the priesthood, planning to merge his ministerial and legal vocations after ordination.

In 1823, he was licensed as a lay reader by William White, Bishop of Pennsylvania, was ordained deacon on 14 December that year, and was ordained priest on 12 May 1824. He was placed in charge of Trinity Church, Pittsburgh, and from 1824 to1830, he was Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres in the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). He read the works of the Church Fathers in the original Greek and Latin, and although in principle committed to high churchman liturgical practices he opposed the introduction of the Confessional to the Episcopal Church.

In 1827, he stepped back from the opportunity to become a coadjutor bishop to Bishop White, who was also the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He realised his own vote would have decided the election in his favour, and lost by one vote. Later he would tell his son that had he voted for himself he would have wondered for the rest of his life whether his will or God’s had been done.

In 1831, he accepted the charge of Trinity Church, Boston, where his great vision was to establish a diocesan seminary, although support for this plan never fully materialised.

In 1832, Hopkins was elected the first Bishop of Vermont, and was consecrated in Saint Paul’s Church, New York, on 31 October 1832. At the same time he became the Rector of Saint Paul’s, Burlington. While he was Bishop of Vermont, the Diocese faced financial depressions, mass migration from Vermont to the west which was opening up, personal bankruptcy, and controversies. He took a great interest in education and made economic sacrifices for its promotion. After 1856, he devoted his whole time to the care of the diocese.

Hopkins is credited with introducing Gothic architecture to the Episcopal Church, and was the architect of Trinity Church, Rutland, where he was the Rector from 1860 to 1861. In 1861, he published a pamphlet, A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, seen as an attempt to justify slavery based on the New Testament, and giving a clear insight into the Episcopal Church’s involvement in slavery. He argued that slavery was not a sin per se but an institution that was objectionable and should be abrogated by agreement.

His lifelong dream of a diocesan seminary was realised in 1860 with the opening of the Vermont Episcopal Institute at Rock Point on Lake Champlain, outside Burlington. He also served for a time as the Chancellor of the University of Vermont.

In January 1865, he was elected the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. That October, he presided at the general convention in Philadelphia. Largely through his friendship with Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia, the Presiding Bishop of the breakaway Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America, the Northern and Southern branches of the Episcopal Church were reunited in 1866 after the end of the American Civil War. Subsequently, he presided in Christ Church, New Orleans at the consecration of Joseph Wilmer as Bishop of Louisiana, and in Louisville at the consecration of George David Cummins as Assistant Bishop of Kentucky.

His took a leading role in the first Lambeth Conference in 1867, bringing together all bishops in the Anglican Communion, and had suggested a similar assembly 18 years earlier in 1849.

He survived only two months after his return to Burlington in November 1867, and died of congestion of the lungs on 9 January 1868, at the age of 75. His funeral took place in Saint Paul’s Church, Burlington, and was buried in the cemetery at Rock Point. His monument was planned by his eldest son, the Revd John Henry Hopkins, the author of today’s carol.

John and Melusina Hopkins had 13 children. In 1866, most of their large family gathered at the family home at Rock Point to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary, and their daughter-in-law, Alice Leavenworth Hopkins, published a book to commemorate the event.

The University of Vermont and Harvard University hold many of the family papers. Most of his architectural legacy has been lost, including his Gothic Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Burlington, which was destroyed by fire in 1972. However, Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church, in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, which was built in 1826, still survives.

The bishop’s son, the Revd John Henry Hopkins, jr, the author of this morning’s carol, was born on 28 October 1820, in Pittsburgh. He graduated from the University of Vermont with an AB in 1839, and received his master’s degree in 1845. For a while, he worked as a journalist before entering the General Theological Seminary, New York. After ordination, he was the seminary’s first music teacher (1855-1857), composed several hymns, and edited the Church Journal.

Hopkins wrote words and music for ‘We three kings of orient are’ as part of a Christmas pageant in 1859 when he was visiting his father’s home in Vermont, although it did not appear in print until his Carols, Hymns and Songs was published in New York in 1863.

While he was the rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (1876-1887), he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of President Ulysses S Grant in 1885. He died in Hudson, New York, on 14 August 1891 and is buried beside his father at Bishop’s House, Rock Point, Burlington, Vermont.

I first learned this hymn when I went carol singing with schoolfriends from Gormanston and Muckross as a teenager in Christmas 1968 and sang the part of the Third King who brings the gift of myrrh. This hymn is based on the story of the Visit of the Magi in Matthew 2: 1-12, which the Epiphany Gospel reading next Sunday.

Hopkins organised the carol so that three male voices would each sing a single verse by himself, in order to correspond with the three kings.

The first and last stanzas of the carol are sung together by all three as ‘verses of praise,’ while the intermediate stanzas are sung individually, with each king describing the gift he is bringing and revealing the sacramental nature of the gifts offered to the Christ Child. The refrain praises the beauty of the Star of Bethlehem.

This is the first Christmas carol from the US to win widespread popularity, and it was included in Bramley and Stainer’s Christmas Carols Old and New (London, 1871). In 1916, it was published in the hymnal for the Episcopal Church, which for the first time included a separate section for Christmas songs.

When it was included in the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), it was described as ‘one of the most successful of modern composed carols.’

The Adoration of the Magi … an image in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We three kings of Orient are by John Henry Hopkins

1, The kings:
We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar
field and fountain, moor and mountain
following yonder star:

O star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright;
westward leading, still proceeding
guide us to thy perfect light!

2, First king:
Born a king on Bethlehem plain,
gold I bring to crown him again –
king forever, ceasing never
over us all to reign


3, Second king:
Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, gladly raising
worship him, God Most High:


4, Third king:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes of life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb:


5, The kings:
Glorious now, behold him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice!
Heav’n sings: alleluia, alle-
luia the earth replies:


The Adoration of the Magi … a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Magi have arrived at the crib … an Epiphany scene in a family crib (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

The Collect:

O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
Mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:
Lord God,
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
May we, who with the wise men
have been drawn by your light,
discern the glory of your presence in your incarnate Son;
who suffered, died, and was buried,
and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)


For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

The Visit of the Magi at the Epiphany … the Vatican crib in Saint Peter’s Square, Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for this Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000) edited by Bishop Edward Darling include:

Isaiah 60: 1-6:

190, Brightest and best of the suns of the morning
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
192, How brightly beams the morning star
195, Lord, the light of your love is shining
196, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
199, The people that in darkness walked

Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-15:

250, All hail the power of Jesu’s name
688, Come, bless the Lord, God of our forebears
353, Give to our God immortal praise
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
97, Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
166, Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
140, The Lord will come and not be slow

Ephesians 3: 1-12:

642, Amazing grace (how sweet the sound!)
562, Blessèd assurance, Jesus is mine
11, Can we by searching find out God
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart
481, God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year
522, In Christ there is no east or west
103, O Christ the same, through all our story’s pages
73, The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended
112, There is a Redeemer

Matthew 2: 1-12:

147, Angels from the realms of glory
189, As with gladness men of old
190, Brightest and best of the suns of the morning
152, Come and join the celebration
194, Earth has many a noble city
162, In the bleak mid-winter
170, Love came down at Christmas
196, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
198, The first Nowell the angel did say
600, The wise may bring their learning
201, We three kings of Orient are
202, What child is this, who, laid to rest

Gold, myrrh and … an Epiphany cartoon

‘Chalking the Doors’ on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Chalking the Doors: an Epiphany tradition

We introduced the Epiphany tradition of ‘Chalking the Doors’ at Saint Mary’s Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick, at Epiphany 2018. I was first introduced to this Epiphany tradition when I was visiting Westcott House, the Anglican theological college in Cambridge some years ago.

The formula for this traditional rite – adapted for Epiphany 2019 – is simple. Take chalk and write these letters and figures above the doors into the Church or the house: 20 + C + M + B + 19.

The letters have two meanings. Firstly, they represent the initials of the Three Wise Men or Magi – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – who came to visit the Christ Child in his first home.

Secondly, they also abbreviate the Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘May Christ bless the house.’

The ‘+’ figures signify the cross, and the figures ‘20’ at the beginning and ‘19’ at the end mark the year.

Taken together, this inscription is a request for Christ to bless the building that has been marked, church or home, and that he may stay with those who worship or live there throughout the entire year.

The chalking of the doors is a centuries-old practice throughout the world, though it appears to be somewhat less well-known in Ireland. But it is an easy tradition to adopt, and a good symbol of dedicating the New Year to God from the beginning, asking his blessing on our homes and on all who live, work, or visit here.

The timing for chalking the doors varies from place to place. In some places, it happens on New Year’s Day. More commonly, though, it takes place on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

In many places, the chalking takes place after the Epiphany Eucharist or Liturgy, and it can be carried out at any church, home or dwelling. Traditionally, the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can involve simply writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water.

After many Epiphany Masses, satchels of blessed chalk, incense, and containers of Epiphany water, blessed with special blessings for Epiphany, are distributed. These are then brought home and used to perform the ritual.

Another common practice is to save a few grains of the Epiphany incense until Easter, so that it can be burned along with the Easter candle.

‘Chalking the Doors’ on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Rectory in Askeaton


Leader (Priest or senior member of the family): Peace be to this house.

All: And to all who dwell herein.

Leader: Let us pray.

Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfilment of your holy law, the thanksgiving to God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing, the initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk: 20 + C + M + B + 19.

May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Another set of prayers and blessings:

Blessing the Chalk:

Priest: Our help is the name of the Lord:

All: The maker of heaven and earth.

Priest: The Lord shall watch over our going out and our coming in:

All: From this time forth for evermore.

Priest: Let us pray.

Loving God, bless this chalk which you have created, that it may be helpful to your people; and grant that through the invocation of your most Holy Name that we who use it in faith to write upon the door of our home the names of your holy ones Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, may receive health of body and protection of soul for all who dwell in or visit our home; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing the Home

Using the blessed chalk, mark the lintels of the doors as follows: 20 + C + M + B + 19, while saying:

The three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar followed the star of God’s Son who became human two thousand and nineteen years ago. May Christ bless our home and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.

Then this prayer:

Visit, O blessed Lord, this home with the gladness of your presence. Bless all who live or visit here with the gift of your love; and grant that we may manifest your love to each other and to all whose lives we touch. May we grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of you; guide, comfort, and strengthen us in peace, O Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.

Continuing the tradition

Traditions like the Epiphany chalking of the doors serve as outward signs of our dedication to Christ, marked by daily prayer, reading, work and in our daily lives.

Seeing the symbols over the doors can be a reminder, going in and going out on our daily routines, that our homes and all those who dwell there belong to Christ.

In time, the chalk will fade. As it does, we can think of the meaning of the symbols written sinking into the depths of our hearts and being manifest in our words and actions.

Christus mansionem benedictat.

May Christ bless the house.

Epiphany chalking at Westcott House, Cambridge, a few years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 30 December 2018,
First Sunday of Christmas

William Holman Hunt, ‘The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple’ (1854-1860), Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 30 December 2018, is the First Sunday of Christmas.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland for next Sunday are:

Readings: I Samuel 2: 18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 41-52.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Paolo Veronese, ‘Christ among the Doctors’

Introduction to the Readings:

For many people in church, next Sunday’s Gospel story (Luke 2: 41-52) is likely to seem out of sequence and out of place in the Christmas cycle of Gospel stories.

Perhaps they are expecting another story traditionally associated with the Nativity, such as:

● the visit of the Shepherds and the naming of Jesus (Luke 2: 15-21, provided for Christmas I on 31 December 207 and for 1 January 2018 and 2019);

● the Presentation in the Temple and the encounter with Simeon and Anna (Luke 2: 22-40, the Presentation, 1 February 2019, with an option on Epiphany IV, 3 February 2019);

● the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2: 1-12, the Epiphany, 6 January 2019);

● or, perhaps the flight into Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-23).

So, people listening on Sunday morning may wonder how we are jumping from the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem on Christmas Day to the story of the teenage Christ who is lost in the Temple on this first Sunday after Christmas?

What happened to the intervening years between the story of the stable and Jesus at the age of 12?

The missing years or silent years in the story of Christ have long been a puzzle. It is good to remember that Saint Mark and Saint John begin the story of Jesus with his baptism by Saint John the Baptist, while Saint Matthew skips from the return to Nazareth from Egypt to the baptism in the River Jordan.

Saint Luke is alone among the Gospel writers in telling us a story from the childhood or teen years, told in this moment of transition from childhood to adulthood.

This reading closes the introductory portion of Saint Luke’s Gospel, the ‘Christmas cycle’ that begins in Chapter 1, takes us through the conception and birth of both Saint John the Baptist and Jesus, the circumcision and naming of Jesus, and his presentation in the Temple.

This story completes the early identification of who Jesus is in Saint Luke’s Gospel. The Angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that her child will be ‘holy’ and will be called the ‘Son of God’ (1: 35). At the presentation, he is identified as ‘holy’ in 2: 23. Now, in this episode, he is identified as God’s Son.

In the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading, parents living in a provincial town go to the Temple to worship and there they find their young sons ministering in the Temple.

In the story of Samuel, the young boy is in the Temple serving the Temple liturgy (as the Septuagint renders it), while in the Gospel the teenage Christ is among the teachers or the rabbis, debating, listening and answering.

But where do we find Christ, where do we seek him, where is God’s Temple? The Psalm (Psalm 148) is a call to praise God’s name, but also reminds us that God’s splendour is found throughout earth and heaven (verse 13) and in people (verse 14).

Samuel is clothed in boy-sized priestly robes made by his mother, perhaps the young Jesus has just donned the traditional prayer shawl for the first time as a teenager, which binds him to the Law.

In the epistle reading, Saint Paul tells us ‘above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’ He too points us to the teaching Christ, as our guide and teacher.

When these parents returned home, Samuel ‘continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people’ (I Samuel 2: 26), and in a similar way Jesus ‘increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour’ (Luke 2: 52).

How Hannah held her fears and her hopes in her heart may have many parallels with the experience of Mary who ‘treasured all these things in her heart’ (Luke 2: 51).

‘Christ Among the Doctors,’ 16th century, after Hieronymus Bosch, the Philadelphia Museum of Art

I Samuel 2: 18-20, 26:

Some weeks ago, on the Second Sunday before Advent (18 November 2018), we read how Hannah had prayed during her annual pilgrimage to the Temple, promising that if God granted her a son she would dedicate him to the Lord. After returning home, she gave birth a son Samuel. When he was about three or four, Hannah took Samuel to Eli to serve in the Temple.

In next Sunday’s reading (I Samuel 2: 18-20, 26), the child Samuel is now like a boy-priest in the Temple, wearing the linen ephod or apron, the light ceremonial garment of a priest, and ‘ministering before the Lord’ (verse 18). The Hebrew word used here, שָׁרַת (sharath), is used particularly for liturgical worship by the priests, and the Septuagint translation, καὶ Σαμουηλ ἦν λειτουργῶν ἐνώπιον κυρίου, tells us Samuel is serving the liturgy in the sight of God.

Hannah and her husband Elkanah continue to visit the Temple annually for the yearly sacrifice (verse 19), just as the Gospel reading tells us ‘every year the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover’ (Luke 2: 41).

Hannah’s ‘gift ... to the Lord’ (verse 20) is her son, and when she returns home, Samuel continues to grow in stature and in favour with both God and the people (verse 26).

‘Praise him, heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens’ (Psalm 148: 4) … winter skies at the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick, last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Psalm 148:

Psalm 148 is one of the five hallelujah psalms at the end of the Book of Psalms that call on us to ‘Praise the Lord.’ But this invitation is not just to us, it is an invitation to the heavens, the angels, the sun, the moon, the stars, the skies and the seas, the sea monsters, the forces of weather, the mountains, hills and trees, all animals and birds. It is an invitation to all rulers, the young and the old, and all people.

Colossians 3: 12-17:

Colossae was a city near Laodicea in Phrygia in what is now south-west Turkey, east of Ephesus. The city was known for its angel cult, but also had a significant Jewish population, although most of the Christians seem to have been Gentiles.

This letter gives descriptions of false teachings that were found in the churches in Colossae. The writer has already described the true Christian life. Now he tells them that because they are chosen by God, they are expected to live by the Christian virtues, including compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.

They are to be forgiving and, above all, to clothe themselves in love, ‘which binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (verse 14), and to let the peace of God rule in their hearts (verse 15).

James Tissot, ‘Jesus Among the Doctors’

Luke 2: 41-52:

I remember once when one we lost sight of one of our children on an evening out in Crete over 25 years ago. He was about three or four at the time and was missing only for a few moments. It may have been for only three or four minutes, but the fear and panic that struck us made it feel not like three or four minutes as we searched and shouted out his name, but like an eternity.

Temporary fears seemed to have everlasting consequences that we could not even bear to contemplate in our furtive search. I still remember the horror of that moment, it was so vivid and so real. When we found him, he knew where he was all the time, and could not grasp the enormity of our fears.

What was he doing, that he lost sight of us?

What were we doing that we lost sight of him?

Who did we blame? Did we ever thank those who helped our search?

Did that experience inhibit us in his later years when we should have let our sons have the freedom to grow and to mature?

Christ is no longer a child in this Gospel reading. But Joseph and Mary do not yet see him as an adult. I can fully identify with them in their panic and in their fear in this Gospel reading.

It was our pattern to go on holiday in Greece each summer, and we had felt safe, perhaps naively safe, wherever we were. Perhaps, because they went to Jerusalem for the Passover each year, Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary felt comfortable and relaxed as they moved through courts and the arcades of the Temple, and through the side streets and the market stalls of Jerusalem.

On the way home, if Jesus was regarded still a child, he might have travelled with the women in the caravan; if he was now seen as a man, he might have been expected to travel with the men in the caravan. Any family travelling through a modern airport on holidays today, with the Father taking some children through and the Mother taking others, understands completely what may have happened at that Passover.

If it is an experience you have forgotten, gone without out or have yet to go through, you can catch some of the flavour of the setting for this story by watching one of the all-time favourite Christmas movies, Home Alone (1990).

Because Jesus is no longer a child in this story, yet not yet a man, some people introduce this Gospel reading as though it tells the story of the teenage Christ’s Bar Mitzvah.

According to Jewish law, when a Jewish boy become 13 years old, he becomes accountable for his actions and become a bar mitzvah, literally ‘son of commandment,’ or subject Jewish law. However, Jewish historians point out that the modern method of celebrating becoming a bar mitzvah did not exist in the time of the Bible, Mishnah or Talmud. The Talmud gives 13 as the age at which a boy’s vows are legally binding, as a result of his being a man. But the term bar mitzvah as we now use it cannot be clearly traced earlier than the 14th century, and many sources indicate that the ceremonial observation of a bar mitzvah developed in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, the age 12 has long been the time when young people go through rites of passage, such as confirmation, so the timing of this Gospel story will resonate in many families.

In his opening chapters, Saint Luke portrays Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary as a devout and righteous couple. They observe the religious rites and practices of Judaism, they have Jesus circumcised (2: 21), and they are then said to have acted ‘according to the law’ three times (verses 22, 24, 39).

In Sunday’s reading, Saint Luke tells us they go to the Passover festival in Jerusalem ‘every year.’ This emphasis on their participation is repeated in the next verse (42), and in many translations they are said to observe the ‘custom of the feast’ (KJV; see NIV); the significance of the word ἔθος (ethos), meaning not merely custom but usage prescribed by law, institute, prescription or rite, is lost in the NRSV translation.

With this emphasis on the family’s religious devotion, Saint Luke is saying the Jewish boy Jesus grew up in a thoroughly Jewish world.

The setting for this story is the festival of the Passover, celebrating the deliverance from slavery in Egypt and then regarded as the start of a new year. Every year, Joseph, Mary and Jesus go to Jerusalem for this festival (verse 41), and they are still doing this in the year he is a 12-year-old (verse 42).

When the eight-day festival ends, the people they have travelled with begin the long journey back home to Nazareth. The entourage in this caravan includes both ‘relatives and friends’ (verse 42), which makes it a safe group but also a large crowd. They have gone a full day, when Joseph and Mary realise he is missing. Perhaps they were about to have a meal together, perhaps they had the tents up or had arrived at a hostel or inn to stay the night.

They search for him there first of all before returning to Jerusalem. After three days, they find Jesus in the Temple, ‘sitting among the teachers’ (verse 46), the experts in Jewish law or rabbis. He not only listens and asks questions, but he also answers their questions.

This was the rabbinical style of teaching at the time. The rabbis used questions from the students to create discussion. It was customary for the teacher or rabbi to sit on low pillows or chairs as they taught, while their disciples or students sat on the ground or on mats around them.

This practice gives us the expression ‘to sit at his feet,’ a description used, for example, when Mary sits at the feet of Jesus (see Luke 10: 39) and when Saint Paul describes himself as someone who was educated ‘at the feet of Gamaliel’ (Acts 22: 3). A rabbinic saying attributed to the second century rabbi, Yose ben Yoezer, says, ‘Let your house be a meeting place for the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink their words thirstily’ (Pirkei Avos 1: 4).

When Joseph and Mary find him, they are distraught as Mary asks, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety’ (verse 48).

In their eyes, Jesus is still a child.

Mary’s remark is a reproach. She identifies Jesus as a ‘child’ for whom she and his ‘father’ (Joseph) have been searching. Indeed, she prefaces her final reproach with ‘look’ or ‘behold,’ which is an intensification, and specifically oriented towards the pain Jesus has caused his parents.

Then, however, verse 49 marks a turning point in this Gospel. These are the first words Christ speaks in the Gospels. Until now, Joseph has been named as his father, but now Jesus refers to God as his Father.

The second sentence in Jesus’ reply in verse 49 is difficult. It is usually translated, as the NRSV does. ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ The problem is that the word ‘house’ does not actually appear in the Greek text:

Οὐκ ᾔδειτε ὅτι ἐν τοῖς τοῦ πατρός μου δεῖ εἶναί με;

It is not entirely clear how the sentence should read. Literally, we have: ‘in the … of my Father it is necessary that I be.’ Something is missing in English which would be understood in Greek. The missing word could refer to ‘house,’ but it could also refer to ‘things’ or ‘business’ or ‘interests.’

One thing is clear, however. Jesus uses the word δεῖ (dei), which means a bounden duty or ‘it is necessary.’ Saint Luke uses the word in certain special cases: Jesus ‘must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God’ (4: 43); he ‘must undergo great suffering’ (9: 22). In this case, he ‘must’ be about ‘his father’s’ business, work, laws teaching, and he means God in this instance, not Joseph.

Did you notice, however, that Saint Joseph remains silent throughout this narrative? He is one of the most enigmatic characters in the Gospel stories. He features in both Saint Matthew’s Gospel and in Saint Luke’s Gospel, but not in either Saint Mark’s or Saint John’s Gospel. And after Mary and Joseph return from Jerusalem to Nazareth with the Child Jesus, Saint Joseph disappears from the stage again.

Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph do not understand what Jesus says to them (verse 50). But, it is clear, things have changed radically and irreversibly. At the beginning of this story, Joseph and Mary do the action. They go to Jerusalem. They ‘went up.’ They ‘were returning.’ Yet, after the exchange between Mary and Jesus, it is Jesus who is the actor. ‘He went down with them’ to Nazareth.

Once they have found Jesus, they probably have to travel back north to Nazareth by themselves, which was much more dangerous than traveling with a caravan. This is a danger understood by everyone who first heard the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). Perhaps this too is a literary hint at the later dangers in the journey that Jesus makes to Jerusalem.

When the family returns to Nazareth, Jesus is obedient to his parents in everyday life. In spite of not understanding what has happened and what has been said, Mary ‘treasured all these things in her heart’ (verse 51) – just as she ‘treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’ after she heard the shepherds’ report of what the angels proclaimed (Luke 2: 19).

Saint Luke says that after this story, Jesus spent his years in Nazareth growing ‘in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour’ (verse 52). This is already said about him in the story of the Presentation (Candlemas): ‘The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him’ (Luke 2: 40). We might imagine he was apprenticed to Saint Joseph as a builder or carpenter, working in the family workshop, as depicted by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (1829-1896) in his painting Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-1850).

In the meantime, something has changed. Jesus is now on the way, on the path.

When we next meet him in this Gospel, he is at the Jordan, about to be baptised by Saint John the Baptist, which is the Gospel reading (Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22) for the First Sunday after the Epiphany (13 January 2019).

John Everett Millais, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’)

Preaching on this Gospel reading

Theme 1:

Throughout this story, Joseph and Mary are said to be looking for or seeking Jesus (verses 44, 45, 48, 49). On the third occasion, they say they were searching for him in great anxiety or seeking him and sorrowing; they were seeking him and anticipating the worst.

This not only identifies Mary and Joseph with every parent in their sorrow and plight as they search for a lost or missing child, but it puts them in the same position as the rest of us. Mary’s question to Jesus is probably not unfamiliar in most families. Most parents have probably asked Mary’s question either out loud or silently to themselves.

But this also puts Mary and Joseph in the same position as the rest of us in the quest of faith. Later, ‘a great multitude of people’ also seek Jesus (6: 17-19). Later again, Jesus will also say that those who seek or search will find (11: 9) and that we are to seek or strive the Kingdom of God (12: 31). Still later in this Gospel, Jesus says he has come ‘to seek out and to save the lost’ (19: 10) – which is all of us, and not him.

Why were they seeking him? As his parents, they were, quite understandably, very worried. Saint Luke tells us they were seeking him out of a sense of fear and loss. In other words, Joseph and Mary thought Jesus was the one who was lost.

He Qi, ‘The Boy Jesus in the Temple,’ from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville

Theme 2:

Did you notice how Joseph and Mary search for Jesus for three days?

When early Christians heard this story in the context of the Passover (verses 41-42) and the phrase ‘after three days’ (verse 46), they would have thought immediately of the Passover when Christ was raised from the dead after three days. So, we should also read this story in the light of the Resurrection.

In the Resurrection, the new family of God supersedes our earthly family, the Temple becomes the place where Christ is at the centre. He is in dialogue with the tradition, yet with a new understanding.

There can be no true meaning in Christmas unless it looks forward to Easter.

Rod Borghese, ‘Jesus and Doctors’ … a challenging reworking of Albrecht Dürer’s ‘Jesus among the Doctors’

Theme 3:

Albrecht Dürer painting of this story, ‘Jesus among the Doctors,’ is a sad example of late mediaeval art stooping to anti-Semitic stereotypes in his depiction of the teachers or rabbis in the Temple.

It is interesting to see how this prejudice is challenged and reversed by the Canadian artist Rod Borghese in his reworking of ‘Jesus and Doctors.’

By recalling that Jesus was raised in a faithful and traditional Jewish family, Saint Luke assures his readers that Jesus and the Church are truly rooted in Jewish tradition. Jesus and the Church do not reject Judaism. They interpret Jewish convictions in light of the eschatological turning of the ages.

This remains a challenge to and condemnation of anti-Semitism wherever it is found in the Church.

James Jankneght, ‘Jesus in the Temple’

Theme 4:

Is there a possibility that when Mary and Joseph thought they had found Jesus ‘in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’ (verse 46) that they realised they had lost a child and found an adult?

As they panicked, like all parents they would have thought of the time their lost child was once a baby. In this case as they looked at their 12-year-old son, did they see the baby once ‘wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger’ (Luke 2: 12), rather than Jesus becoming the man, the Son of Man?

Perhaps Mary and Joseph, like so many parents in this predicament and with a growing child at this age, were struggling with letting Jesus grow up.

Sometimes we struggle with letting Jesus grow up. Would we prefer the Christ who comes to us in the now-romantic setting of the Christmas Crib, or the Christ who comes proclaiming the Kingdom of God and preaching its values?

Christ is no longer the baby in the manger. He is in his Father’s house and about his Father’s business. Things are changing for him, for Mary and Joseph, and for us.

We can hear that in his response to Mary, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

Do we refuse to let our Jesus grow up?

Would we prefer to keep him small and helpless, instead of challenging and questioning us in our most sacred places.

Do we impose our needs, expectations, or emotional programmes on who Jesus is or what he does?

Where do we seek Jesus? Where are our false temples, and where are our false comforts that become our false gods?

Pinturicchio (Bernardino di Betto), ‘Christ Among the Doctors’ (1501), the Baglioni Chapel of St Mary Major, Spello, Italy

Luke 2: 41-52 (NRSVA):

41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ 49 He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.

James Tissot, ‘Jesus Found in the Temple,’ Brooklyn Museum

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical colour: White or Gold.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who wonderfully created us in your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
through your Son Jesus Christ:
Grant that, as he came to share in our humanity,
so we may share the life of his divinity;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
you have refreshed us with this heavenly sacrament.
As your Son came to live among us,
grant us grace to live our lives,
united in love and obedience,
as those who long to live with him in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional resources:

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and his name shall be called the Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9: 6)


You have given Jesus Christ your only Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary,
and through him you have given us power
to become the children of God:


Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:

Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Disputation with the Doctors’

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for this Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000) edited by Bishop Edward Darling include:

I Samuel 2: 18-20, 26:

717, May the Lord bless you and keep you

Psalm 148:

682, All created things, bless the Lord
24, All creatures of our God and King
683, All people that on earth do dwell
711, All you heavens, bless the Lord (Surrexit Christus)
350, For the beauty of the earth
705, New songs of celebration render
708, O praise ye the Lord! Praise him in the height
366, Praise, my soul, the King of heaven
709, Praise the Lord! You heavens, adore him

Colossians 3: 12-17:

346, Angel voices ever singing
519, Come, all who look to Christ today
294, Come down, O Love divine
550, ‘Forgive our sins as we forgive’
454, Forth in the peace of Christ we go
300, Holy Spirit, truth divine
360, Let all the world in every corner sing
525, Let there be love shared among us
503, Make me a channel of your peace
636, May the mind of Christ my Saviour
361, Now thank we all our God
443, Sent forth by God’s blessing, our true faith confessing
369, Songs of praise the angels sang
601, Teach me, my God and King
374, When all thy mercies, O my God
458, When, in our music, God is glorified
476, Ye watchers and ye holy ones

Luke 2: 41-52:

347, Children of Jerusalem
453, Come to us, creative Spirit
632, I love to hear the story
651, Jesus, friend of little children
483, Jesus went to worship
177, Once in royal David’s city

Giotto di Bondone, ‘Christ Among the Doctors’

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.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Christmas Day,
25 December 2018

The Christmas stories told in a Christmas Card produced by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge (click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

Tuesday next [25 December 2018] is Christmas Day, and the Revised Common Lectionary offers three sets of readings for the principal service:

1, Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-20.

There is a direct link to these readings HERE.

2, Isaiah 62: 6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3: 4-7; Luke 2: (1-7) 8-20.

There is a direct link to these readings HERE.

3, Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews: 1: 1-4 (5-12); John 1: 1-14 (15-18).

There is a direct link to this set of readings HERE.

It must be noted that there is a typographical error in the Church of Ireland Directory, which gives the Gospel reading in the third set as John 1: 1-4 (15-18), while the Book of Common Prayer (see p 28) specifically states John 1-14 (15-18).

As I write, the third set seems to be ignored completely ‘Collects and Readings’ page on the Church of Ireland website.

The Christmas Crib in the Square in Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Introducing the Readings

Why are there three sets of readings, and how do I avoid confusion as I plan services and sermons for Monday night and Tuesday morning?

When the lectionary was first being compiled, it was assumed by the compilers that many people – not just priests – would take part in several celebrations of the Eucharist between midnight on Christmas Eve and lunchtime on Christmas Day, and so would want a rounded set of Gospel readings over a 12-hour period.

At one time, the Christmas Eucharist was celebrated at Midnight, at Dawn and later in the Morning. Now, the reality is that, apart from priests and readers, most people in our parishes are only going to go to Church once in the 24-hour period of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The reason is simple: it leaves time free for festivities or to visit families and friends on Christmas Day.

Even if we have a celebration in all churches in a parish or group of parishes, priests and readers are probably the only ones going to attend more than one Christmas celebration. So, there is no problem about which set of readings we use, as long as we use one set consistently and do not ‘Pick and Mix.’

Most people are going to expect to hear ‘the Christmas story’ at the celebration they attend. The Gospel reading provided in the first and second set (Luke 2: 1-20) comes closest to the account of that story in the Gospels, and most priests believe this is the most appropriate Gospel to read. This is probably the Gospel you want to use as you prepare your Christmas sermon.

In some parishes, however, there may also be a tradition of using the shorter form of the prologue in Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-14) found in the Lectionary.

So, this posting looks at those two Gospel readings, with ideas for reflections and sermons.

In addition, the Liturgical Resources for Christmas Day, including the Collect, Kyries, Peace, Preface, Post-Communion Prayer and Blessing, as well as prayers at lighting the last candle on the Advent Wreath and Hymn suggestions, are brought together here.

The images are all available for use on parish service sheets and notices, which should name Patrick Comerford as the photographer.

The First Christmas in a panel on the Oberammergau altarpiece in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford / Lichfield Gazette)


Christmas still fills me with a sense of wonder and awe.

That sense of awe and wonder never seems to go away, no matter how old we get, no matter – in some cases – how horrid other aspects of our childhood had been.

Do you remember the sense of anticipation and wonder you had as a child at Christmas?

Nothing today ever seems to match the beauty and the glamour and the glitz of childhood Christmas lights, childhood Santas, childhood presents and love and warmth and care and affection … each tree a real tree, decorated with candles, lights and bundles of presents at its feet.

And, as adults, we seem to constantly compare our present, adult Christmases, with our past, childhood Christmases.

Why, in our dreams, it seems that just as every childhood summer had long, sunny days, with wonderful times by the beach, every childhood Christmas was a white Christmas … deep and crisp and even.

But, of course, our adult experiences are often very different. We lose the awe and the wonder and the joy of Christmas as it becomes a chore … wrapping the presents, getting the cards posted in time, cooking the meals, answering the doorbell to a constant stream of visitors, often family members we never see otherwise from one end of the year to another, and so often tipsy while we have to stay sober.

And then there were the sad Christmases: when a child was sick, a job was lost, a loved one died.

But Christmas is always the promise of fresh beginnings, of a new start, of hope returning once again.

Remember how you were filled with awe and wonder on Christmas morning as a child, year after year. The expectations never faded, even when you knew that there had been times when things went wrong, even when things that went wrong could have robbed you of hope.

And Christmas is our image of God always being full of promise. God comes to us in the Christ Child with the promise of fresh beginnings, of a new start, of hope returning once again. God’s expectations for us, for the world, never fade, even when he knows that things have gone wrong, even when things that went wrong have robbed those he loves of hope.

The Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 2: 1-20:

It is interesting that each Gospel begins to tell its story in its own unique, different way.

Saint John begins at the beginning, at the very beginning: ‘In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1: 1).

Saint Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, generation after generation, with long lists of sometimes unpronounceable names (Matthew 1: 1-17), before he summarises the story of the first Christmas in seven crisp verses … and even then he seems to concentrate more on how Saint Joseph’s fears and suspicions were allayed than on the Christmas story (see Matthew 1: 18-25).

Saint Mark has no Nativity narrative, and has no story of the first Christmas. Instead, he begins his Gospel at the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the River Jordan, an event that comes a little later on in the other three Gospels.

Saint Luke begins with a personal explanation to Theophilus of why he is beginning to write the Gospel (Luke 1: 1-4), before moving on to the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1: 5 ff). It takes him a full chapter before he gets to tell the story of the first Christmas (Luke 2: 1-20).

There is a telling, short sentence at the end of this Gospel reading: ‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’ (verse 19).

At the heart of this Gospel narrative is the understanding that things are not always going to work out the way we would like them to. But at the heart of the Gospel story of Christmas is the truth that God is always with us, and that God’s expectations for us, God’s awe and wonder at being in our presence, should be as much a source of mystery as our awe and wonder at being in the presence of God.

When we wrap our presents and gifts in festive colours, and decorate our homes and workplaces with lights and tinsel, it is easy to think we have bundled our fears and despair away – at least for the next week or two. Our popular celebrations of Christmas become comfortable and comforting as we sing carols and try to convince ourselves that ‘all is calm, all is bright.’

Yet all is not calm in our world, in Europe, in our land or in our economy, nor is all bright for those who are homeless this Christmas, who live in dark fear of poverty or who dread what the future may hold.

All those well-wrapped, warm and homely celebrations are in danger of forgetting that the first Christmas was one filled with fear and dread. Immediately after the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem, the scene in Saint Luke’s account moves to a hillside where shepherds are working at night, in the dark and in the cold, easy prey to wolves, thieves and the cold weather, less valuable than the animals they tend. And the Gospel writers tell us that those poor shepherds are terrified when they see the angelic host.

The initial task of the angels is to calm those fears. Their first words to those frightened shepherds are not ones of call or command, but words to calm them: ‘Fear Not’ … ‘Do not be afraid’ (verse 10).

This Christmas time, when the world is a cold, frightening and uninviting place for many, the first task of the Church must be to bring hope where there is fear, love where there is no peace, to give rather than receive. The angels’ call to the shepherds to ‘fear not’ is not a platitude or an invitation to piety, but one that is linked with the promise of Good News, the promise that God’s plans for humanity and for creation are brighter than the darkness of their night: ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’ (Luke 2: 10).

But where is there good news for the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly, the parents of vulnerable children?

Where is the hope of great joy for people around the world denied democracy and human rights, for those who live in poverty and under oppression?

In a thought-provoking column in the New Statesman a year ago, the Revd Lucy Winkett, the Rector of Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly, wrote:

‘This festive season, I find myself musing on the often-repeated thought that “it’s for the children”, and hoping that the estimated 70,000 London primary pupils who go to school hungry children each day, and the estimated 300,000 unaccompanied child refugees in camps across the world, get some of our attention. Especially at the Feast of the Incarnation, when Christians celebrate God becoming real to us in the vulnerability of a baby, but with the light and power and warmth of the sun.’ Link:

On a recent visit to Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly, I noticed a slogan: ‘Christ did not come so that we could have church and that more often. He came so we could have life and that more abundantly.’ For many people this Christmas, their principal fear is about life, the apprehension that they do not have the abundances to face the future without fear.

In his poem Christmas, John Betjeman dismisses the commercialisation of Christmas and challenges us to return to the truth of the Christmas message:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all...
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

When, in John Betjeman’s words, the ‘Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’,’ we are called not only to hear the story of Christ’s birth, the story of a child born to a couple for whom ‘there was no place’ in Bethlehem, but called too to ensure the words ‘Happy Christmas’ are not hollow and meaningless.

Luke 2: 1-20 (NRSVA):

2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Pages from Saint John’s Gospel, the first complete hand-written and illuminated Bible since the Renaissance, in the recent Holy Writ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 1: 1-14

‘Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος,’ ‘In the beginning was the Word’ … this is one of the most dramatic opening lines in any great work of literature. The Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to Saint John, is one of the great works of literature, as well as my favourite book in the Bible.

‘To begin at the beginning’ – these are the opening lines of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas (1954). Or I might begin with words from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol. In Chapter 12, the White Rabbit puts on his spectacles.

‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asks.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

TS Eliot’s ‘East Coker,’ the second of his Four Quartets, is set at this time of the year and opens:

In my beginning is my end.

And he goes on to say:

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon …

The opening words at the beginning of a play, a novel or a poem – or for that matter, a sermon – can be important for holding the reader’s or the listener’s attention and telling me what to expect. Begin as you mean to go on.

That is why I am surprised that Charles Dickens waits until the second sentence in David Copperfield to say: ‘To begin my life with the beginning of my life …’

Saint John begins the Fourth Gospel at the beginning, at the very beginning: ‘In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1: 1).

The narrative translations with which we are so familiar often miss the poetic and dramatic presentations of this Gospel. But the Prologue is first and foremost poetry. It is a hymn – a poetic summary – of the whole theology of this Gospel, as well as an introduction to it.

The Johannine scholar Raymond Brown (1928-1988) has presented a translation from the Greek of the Prologue in poetic format:

1 In the beginning was the Word;
the Word was in God’s presence,
and the Word was God.
2 He was present with God in the beginning.
3 Through him all things came into being,
and apart from him not a thing came to be.
4 That which came to be found life in him,
and this life was the light of the human race.
5 The light shines on in the darkness,
for the darkness did not overcome it.

(6 Now there was a man sent by God, named John 7 who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that through him all might believe – 8 but only to testify to the light, for he himself was not the light.)

9 He was the real light
that gives light to everyone;
he was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world,
and the world was made by him;
yet the world did not recognise him.
11 To his own he came;
yet his own people did not accept him.
12 But all those who did accept him,
he empowered to become God’s children –
those who believe in his name,
13 those who were begotten,
not by blood,
nor the flesh,
nor human desire,
but by God.
14 And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.
And we have seen his glory,
the glory as of an only Son coming from the Father,
rich in kindness and fidelity.

Winter sunset at the harbour in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reading the Prologue:

The first chapter of Saint John’s Gospel can be divided into two parts: the Prologue (verses 1-18); and a second part (verses 19-50) that shows that Saint John the Baptist was preparing for the coming of the Messiah.

The Prologue is an introduction to the Gospel as a whole. It tells us that the Logos is God and acts as the mouthpiece (Word) of God ‘made flesh,’ sent to the world in order to be able to intercede for humanity and to forgive human sins.

The Prologue is of central significance to the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Prologue can be compared with Genesis 1, where the same phrase, ‘In the beginning …,’ first occurs along with the emphasis on the difference between the darkness and the light.

Saint John is the only Gospel writer to speak of Christ’s pre-existence as the Logos and this is the only Gospel to include a poetic prologue.

The Prologue provides a profound and highly developed theological summary that has a structural integrity of its own, while also introducing many of the key themes of the Gospel account that follows.

What about Saint John’s use of the term λόγος or Logos (1-2) – most frequently rendered ‘Word’ in modern English translations?

This term is deeply rooted in Old Testament thought (see Genesis 1, Proverbs 8). The role of the Johannine Logos also parallels, in some ways, that of personified Wisdom in a number of traditions in Judaism (see Sirach 24). However, Wisdom and the Logos need not be identified with each other, since Wisdom is a creation of God (Sirach 1: 9), while the Logos is pre-existent and Divine. At the same time, Saint John’s use of such language in a first century Mediterranean setting also recalls associations with Hellenistic thinking of the time, when the term ‘Logos’ played a key role in Stoic thought and in the writings of Hellenistic Jewish thinkers such as Philo.

Professor CH Dodd (1884-1973) argues that Saint John’s adoption of the term deliberately reflects the ambiguity of the word in Judaism, using a Greek philosophical term to capture both the immanent and transcendent dimensions of meaning, yet within a Christian framework. Others argue that while Hellenistic connotations are inevitable for 1st century readers, these associations are secondary as the use of terms in the Fourth Gospel is so often contrary to a Hellenistic worldview, while being distinct from previous Jewish uses.

It is worth noting the relationship of the Prologue with the rest of the Gospel. A number of Johannine terms are introduced, including ‘life,’ ‘light’ (verse 5), ‘believe’ (verse 7), ‘world’ (verse 9), ‘children of God’ (verse 12), and ‘flesh’ and ‘truth’ (verse 14). These concepts are introduced in the context of the Logos, who is decidedly at the centre of all that is being said.

The Prologue also introduces the figure of Saint John the Baptist (verse 6), although this interrupts the flow of the poetic and liturgical sections of the Prologue.

The Prologue lays the foundation for the development of the ‘realised eschatology’ of the Fourth Gospel. When Saint John speaks later of life in the sense of ‘eternal’ life, the Prologue has already established that from the beginning in Christ the eternal God and source of life is present and is among men and women for that purpose.

In Christ, God enters into all the ambiguities, difficulties, and trials of human life. He comes to live among his people as one of them, revealing God at first hand, and offering new life as the source of life from the beginning.

The writer relates the Logos in turn to God (verses 1, 2); creation (verses 3-5); the world and its response (verses 6-9); his own people (verses 10, 11); his children (verses 12-13); a specific circle of disciples and witnesses (verse 14); and later in the Prologue to a particular historical person, Jesus Christ (verse 17). Finally, in verse 18, the intimacy of the relationship of the Logos to the Father is re-emphasised in language similar to that used in John 13: 23-25 to describe the intimacy between ‘the beloved disciple’ and Christ himself.

The Prologue is a model and a summons to us to think carefully and deeply about the implications of the Incarnation and to apply this concept in all its comprehensiveness to our life and our world. For all its broad, cosmic scope, the Prologue presents a direct and personal question to readers of all times: will the one who reads believe, and share in the fullness of grace given by the One who has come from the Father to dwell among us?

‘In my beginning is my end ... In my end is my beginning’ … tangled bicycles in the snow in Temple Bar in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some concluding thoughts:

Canon Giles Fraser’s weekly column in the Guardian came to an end last year as that newspaper moved to a new format. Some years ago [6 December 2014], he tried to summarise Christmas values in that column: ‘ “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” is how Jesus expresses his mission in Saint John’s Gospel. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” wrote Irenaeus in the second century. In other words, the point of Christianity is to generate a deeper form of humanism.’

‘In my beginning is my end ... In my end is my beginning.’

Christ is coming, and in his birth, life, agony, death and resurrection he is reconciling the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. He is coming with a vision of a world in which all of the barriers that separate us – poor and rich, North and South, male and female, Jew and Gentile, nation and nation, home-happy and homeless – will be no more.

His coming is just the beginning of the Good News and the beginning of hope. Let us prepare the way of the Lord: he casts down the mighty and raises up the lowly, he lets justice and righteousness go before him, peace is the pathway for his feet, we must do justice and make peace. And let this be just the beginning.

John 1: 1-14 (NRSVA):

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The first Christmas depicted on Antoni Gaudí’s Nativity Façade of the Basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect (night):

Almighty God,
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect (day):

Almighty God
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer (night):

God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
May the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord.

Post Communion Prayer (day):

God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
May the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord.

A Christmas crib in a shop window in Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical resources:

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

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and his name shall be called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)


You have given Jesus Christ your only Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary,
and through him you have given us power
to become the children of God:


Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:

The Advent Wreath:

On the Advent Wreath on Christmas Day, the last of the candles, the central white candle, is lit, symbolising the Christ Child arriving as the Light of the World. The other candles in a circle surrounding it were lit during the Sundays of Advent and represent the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Purple), the Prophets (Purple), Saint John the Baptist (Pink) and the Virgin Mary (Purple).

The prayers at the Advent Wreath help us to continue our themes from the Sunday before Advent [25 November 2018], which we marked in these dioceses as Mission Sunday.

As we light our Advent candles in anticipation of celebrating the coming of the Christ child, USPG is inviting churches and parishes to join in praying for the world church as it responds to the needs of the people and communities it serves.

USPG suggests this prayer when lighting the last candle:

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 all who work for dignity,
healing and peace
and give us generous hearts
to respond to your most generous gift,
of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Christmas scene in a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

These are among the hymns suggested for the three Propers and sets of readings for Christmas Day in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:

Proper 1:

Isaiah 9: 2-7:

146, A great and mighty wonder
159, Born in the night, Mary’s child
151, Child in the manger
52, Christ, whose glory fills the skies
124, Hark the glad sound! the Saviour comes
192, How brightly beams the morning star!
133, Long ago, prophets knew
174, O little town of Bethlehem
505, Peace be to this congregation
369, Songs of praise the angels sang
323, The God of Abraham praise
199, The people that in darkness walked
184, Unto us is born a Son

Psalm 96:

166, Joy to the world, the Lord is come
705, New songs of celebration render
196, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
710, Sing to God new songs of worship
8, The Lord is King! Lift up your voice
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done!
377, You shall go out with joy

Titus 2: 11-14:

160, Hark! the herald–angels sing

Luke 2: 1-14 (15-20):

146, A great and mighty wonder
147, Angels from the realms of glory
148, As Joseph was a–walking
149, Away in a manger
159, Born in the night, Mary’s child
151, Child in the manger
156, Don oíche úd i mBeithil (About that night in Bethl’em)
693, Glory in the highest to the God of heaven
157, Glory to God! all heaven with joy is ringing (omit verse 3)
692, Glory to God in highest heav’n
158,God rest you merry, gentlemen
162, In the bleak mid–winter
163, Infant holy, infant lowly
585, Jesus, good above all other (verses 1, 2, 5)
170, Love came down at Christmas
171, O Bethl’hem is a small place
172, O come, all ye faithful (Adeste, fideles) (omit verse 4)
176, On Christmas night all Christians sing
177, Once in royal David’s city
182, Silent night, holy night
198, The first Nowell the angel did say (verses 1, 2, 6)
187, When the crimson sun had set
188, While shepherds watched their flocks by night

Proper 2:

Isaiah 62: 6-12:

134, Make way, make way for Christ the King
142, Wake, O wake, with tidings thrilling

Psalm 97:

34, O worship the King all–glorious above
281, Rejoice, the Lord is King!
8, The Lord is King! Lift up your voice

Titus 3: 4-7:

305, O Breath of life, come sweeping through us

Luke 2: (1-7) 8-20:

146, A great and mighty wonder
147, Angels from the realms of glory
148, As Joseph was a–walking
149, Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
159, Born in the night, Mary’s child
151, Child in the manger
156, Don oíche úd i mBeithil (About that night in Bethl’em)
693, Glory in the highest to the God of heaven!
157, Glory to God! all heaven with joy is ringing (omit verse 3)
692, Glory to God in highest heaven
158, God rest you merry, gentlemen
162, In the bleak mid–winter
163, Infant holy, infant lowly
585, Jesus, good above all other (verses 1, 2, 5)
170, Love came down at Christmas
171, O Bethl’hem is a small place
172, O come, all ye faithful (Adeste, fideles) (omit verse 4)
176, On Christmas night all Christians sing
177, Once in royal David’s city
182, Silent night, holy night
198, The first Nowell the angel did say (verses 1, 2, 6)
187, When the crimson sun had set
188, While shepherds watched their flocks by night

Proper 3:

Isaiah 52: 7-10:

479, Go, tell it on the mountain
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
129, How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him
166, Joy to the world, the Lord has come
597, Take my life and let it be
387, Thanks to God whose Word was spoken
142, Wake, O wake! With tidings thrilling

Psalm 98:

146, A great and mighty wonder
147, Angels from the realms of glory
259, Christ triumphant, ever reigning
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
160, Hark! the herald–angels sing
468, How shall I sing that majesty
166, Joy to the world, the Lord is come
170, Love came down at Christmas
705, New songs of celebration render
175,, Of the Father’s heart begotten
710, Sing to God new songs of worship
369, Songs of praise the angels sang
114, Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown

Hebrews 1: 1-4 (5-12):

84, Alleluia! raise the anthem
381, God has spoken – by his prophets
3, God is love! let heaven adore him
696, God, we praise you! God, we bless you!
94, In the name of Jesus
164, It came upon the midnight clear
276, Majesty! worship his majesty!
228, Meekness and majesty (omit verse 2)
7, My God, how wonderful thou art
33, O Lord of every shining constellation
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten
387, Thanks to God whose Word was spoken

John 1: 1-14 (15-18):

146, A great and mighty wonder
84, Alleluia! raise the anthem
87, Christ is the world’s light, he and none other
259, Christ triumphant, ever reigning
410, Dearest Jesus, at your word
160, Hark! the herald–angels sing
427, Let all mortal flesh keep silence
195,Lord, the light of your love is shining
172, O come, all ye faithful (Adeste, fideles)
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten
136, On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
491, We have a gospel to proclaim

The Nativity scene inside the main doors of Sorrento’s cathedral is on display all year (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.