Monday, 28 May 2018

A teaching Eucharist with
clergy and readers in
the Diocese of Limerick,
Killaloe and Ardfert

‘... to preside in the very deed that so expands the life of creatures is a function of unquestionable beauty and dignity,’ according to Robert Hovda

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

28 May 2018


Many of us are filled with a natural human anxiety, worrying when we stand before a congregation to celebrate or preside at the Eucharist or the Holy Communion, or to assist. So much so, that we may be in danger of forgetting that we too are present among the congregation, to be enriched and fed spiritually as we meet Christ, present in word and sacrament.

We all know what it is to ask: ‘Will I get it all right when it comes to my turn?’

This afternoon, we have an opportunity, instead, to ask not about ourselves, but about the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper itself. This afternoon, we ask not ‘What am I doing?’

Rather, we ask: ‘What are we doing together?’

And: ‘What is Christ doing with me, with us?’

The Eucharist is the great thanksgiving –
eucharistia (εὐχαριστία) – for the great goodness of God. Whether we call this ‘The Eucharist,’ ‘The Holy Communion,’ ‘The Sacrament,’ or ‘The Lord’s Supper,’ this is the central act of Christian worship where Christ encounters and feeds his faithful ones.

As the first of the General Directions for Public Worship in
The Book of Common Prayer, and as Bishop Harold Miller says, ‘The Holy Communion is the central act of worship in the church.’ Bishop Miller says it is the most normative and complete act of Sunday worship. He says: ‘The Holy Communion gives us a window into all that is most vital in our regular worship.’

As we have it, this service is not simply the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. It is a combination of both a Liturgy of the Word, a Prayer Service, and a Liturgy of the Sacrament.

The President’s Role at the Eucharist is defined at six specific points:

1, The Opening Greeting;
2, The Collect of the Day;
3, The Absolution;
4, introducing the Peace;
5, praying the Eucharistic Prayer;
6, the Dismissal.

So let us watch for these six moments as we are gathered together.

The Greek work ἐκκλησία
ekklesía, which we translate as ‘Church,’ refers to the gathering of the people, the calling out of the world and into the assembly.

Before the arrival of the priest, the congregation gathers. We are here first and foremost as the gathered or assembled church, believers. Others may be guests, and welcomed guests, but it is not a secular gathering, on the one hand, nor, on the other hand, is it a meeting for evangelism. The presumption first and foremost is that those present are baptised believers.

We meet in his name, and we do as he commanded us. We meet not as a collection of neighbours, or as a collection of individual Christians, but as the One Body of Christ, and in the power of the Spirit. The liturgy is essentially what we do – it is truly our ‘Common Prayer.’

Already, the candles are lit and the lectern has been dressed in the liturgical colours of the season: Green for Orinary time, for we are outside any particular season of the Church: think of green as the ordinary colour of nature, the green of the trees, of plants, of the fields; or think of the green in traffic lights that allow us to continue on our ordinary journeys in life.

As the people gather, the priest may be in the vestry saying prayers such as the familiar third collect at Morning Prayer:

Go before us, Lord, in all our doings, with your most gracious favour,
and further us with your continual help;
that in all our works begun, continued and ended in you,
we may glorify your holy name,
and finally by your mercy attain everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The memory of the silent prayers said by the priest before presiding or celebrating is retained in Holy Communion 1 in The Book of Common Prayer, where it says ‘The priest stands at the Lord’s Table. The people knell.’ And then he or she prays the Lord’s Prayer (without the doxology) alone.

We too should be silent as we gather our thoughts, our minds, ourselves, as we prepare to celebrate.

In common language, we normally use the words ‘celebration,’ ‘celebrating’ and ‘celebrant’ for the person presiding at the Eucharist or the Holy Communion.

But we are all celebrating, celebrating together, we are all co-celebrants, and the person who presides is the one who seeks to bring it alive, to animate what is happening, to see that it truly is the liturgy, the work of the people, and not something we are present at as spectators.

The people have gathered, the many have come together to be one body.

We are social and sociable. We chat with one another.

But we are not collected individuals, and small groups of twos or threes.

We are about to be gathered together as one people.

The priest who is presiding is the last to enter, and we stand – in silence or singing a hymn – ready to be gathered together as one body.

The priest joins us before the altar or table.

Our worship does not open or begin with the processional hymn. It opens or begins when we are gathered together as one body when the presiding priest stands at the president’s chair and calls us together in the opening liturgical greeting.

The liturgical greeting is not the same as Good Morning. And it establishes who is presiding, the presidency, so it should not be delegated to a Reader or an assistant:

The Lord be with you
and also with you.

A sentence of scripture may be read, and the presiding minister may introduce the liturgy of the day …

And we know why we are celebrating this Eucharist together this afternoon.

Christ is present among us in so many ways: in word, in sacrament, and in the gathered Body of Christ. And so, in awe and reverence, we draw our hearts and minds together and prepare to enter fully into worship, praying the Collect for Purity.

This prayer comes to us as an inheritance of Sarum Use, and was so loved that it has survived in
The Book of Common Prayer ever since 1549.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden;
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Penitence as part of the gathering of the people has been an integral part of Anglican liturgy since 1556.

The Confession is introduced with appropriate words, such as:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son Jesus Christ, to save us from our sins, to intercede for us in heaven, and to bring us to eternal life.

Let us then confess our sins in penitence and faith,
firmly resolved to keep God’s commandments
and to live in love and peace:

Then there is silence to think about this.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned in thought and word and deed,
and in what we have left undone.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us,
that we may walk in newness of life
to the glory of your name. Amen.

Almighty God,
who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy on you,
pardon and deliver you from all your sins,
confirm and strengthen you in all goodness,
and keep you in eternal life,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sometimes we use penitential sentences instead of the confession and absolution. The Kyrie responses are a Trinitarian acclamation and among the oldest prayers in the Church. In their Greek form they are the oldest surviving Greek prayers in the Western church:

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

In Holy Communion 1, the canticle
Gloria comes after receiving Communion. Its present place restores the canticle to the place it had in 1549. We have been forgiven, now – like the angels and shepherds – we can give Glory to God who comes among us.

The canticle
Gloria in Excelsis may be omitted in Advent and Lent and on weekdays which are not holy days, and so we omit it today, a weekday in Ordinary Time, but not for any excuse of brevity.

But when we use
Gloria, we should use it joyfully. It is full of images that children love, and resonances of its words can be found in almost all Christmas carols, for example. Children love the story of this canticle. All Christmas carols, in some form, include words from it, and they delight in its images, its words and its pictures.

Then comes the
Collect. Once the meaning of a collect has been explained, people rarely forget, because we all know what is to ask for our basic needs to be met. That is natural … I need, I need, I need, I feed, I feed, I feed … therefore I am? A collect is literally a collection of all the intentions and favours we seek, for the Church, for ourselves, for the world.

We are all asking for something … and we should give people time to think of what they need before praying the Collect of the Day. Yesterday was Trinity Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you have given us your servants grace,
by the confession of a true faith,
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity
and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity:
Keep us steadfast in this faith,
that we may evermore be defended from all adversities;
for you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever..

In our worship, the Church of Ireland seeks a balance between Word and Sacrament. Both are important places for Christ being made present for us, for us presenting ourselves before Christ.

Colin Buchanan has summarised the Eucharist as ‘A Bible study, followed by a prayer meeting, followed by a meal.’ And so, Proclaiming and Receiving the Word is not preliminary to, or preparation for the Eucharist. It is both proclaiming and receiving. It is an essential part, an indispensable element of every celebration.

Properly, the full Word of God should be proclaimed … Old Testament, Psalm or Biblical Canticle, New Testament and Gospel. Otherwise, we have to ask, are we saying the Old Testament has lost its validity or – even worse – suggesting the God of the Old Testament is not quite the same as the God of the New Testament?

Unfortunately, the Daily Lectionary of the Church of Ireland for today provides only for a New Testament reading [I Peter 1: 3-9], a psalm [Psalm 111], and a Gospel reading [Mark 10: 17-27].

A reading from the First Letter of Saint Peter, Chapter 1, beginning at verse 3:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Today’s psalm is Psalm 111. We read this by half verse:

1 Alleluia!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the faithful and in the congregation.
2 The works of the Lord are great,
sought out by all who delight in them.
3 His work is full of majesty and honour
and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He appointed a memorial for his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
5 He gave food to those who feared him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He showned his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.

7 The works of his hands are truth and justice;
all his commandments are sure.
8 They stand fast for ever and ever,
they are done in truth and equity.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant forever;
holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
a good understanding have those who live by it;
his praise endures forever.

The doxology, ‘Glory to the Father ...’ may be omitted, for the Psalms are valid Biblical prayers without having to be ‘Christianised,’ and it is also traditional to omit the doxology at the end of the Psalms during Lent and Advent.

We often sing a canticle, psalm, hymn, anthem or acclamation as a gradual before proclaiming and receiving the Gospel.

And that leaves us standing to receive the Word of God, facing the Gospel, which is best proclaimed and received, not from the table or the altar but among the people.

If the Gospel reader marks three Crosses on the forehead, lips, and heart, all that is being said is simply: ‘Please help me to love your word with my mind, keep it on my lips, and hold it in my heart.’

The Gospel Reading

Hear the Gospel of our Saviour Christ, according to Saint Mark, chapter 10, beginning at verse 17.

Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

The word is not just proclaimed but is received, and we ought to take it for granted that at every celebration of the Eucharist there is an exposition of the World, so people can receive it, so we can own it, so we can integrate it into our faith.

And the Liturgy of the Word then naturally reaches its climax when we share in the common confession of the faith of the universal Church, the Nicene Creed.

We may use other creeds in other forms of worship, but
The Book of Common Prayer insists on the Nicene Creed in the Eucharist, and on Sundays and Principal Holy Days.

The Prayers of the People

The intercessions normally include: prayers for: the universal Church; the nations of the world; the local community; those in need; and remembrance of, and thanksgiving for, the faithful departed.

But each petition should be brief, and we should avoid making intercessions appear like a series of collects. They should be addressed directly to God, and not to the people – this is not the place for another sermon.

But bear in mind firstly that these are the prayers of the people, not of the priest, and secondly, that you do not need to pray for all things at all services. Brevity and simplicity are important, corporate silence is important, and we should not hijack the prayers of others, the piety of others, and we should not displace the importance of the Great Thanksgiving, for the Eucharist itself is the Thanksgiving par excellence, and this should never be obscured by the content of the intercessions.

Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

The Peace

We have been gathered together, we have heard God’s word together, we have found we share the same faith, we have prayed together. To draw on Colin Buchanan’s imagery, we have had our Bible study and our prayer meeting. Now, before we share the meal … are we at peace with one another?

The Peace is still objected to in some parishes. How it is introduced will shape whether it is acceptable and whether it is liturgical. In the Communion we are being reconciled with God and with one another, so this should not be any old peace.

Peace to you from God our heavenly Father.
Peace from his Son Jesus Christ who is our peace.
Peace from the Holy Spirit the Life-giver.
The peace of the Triune God be always with you.

The peace of the Lord be always with you
and also with you.

Let us offer one another a sign of peace.

Celebrating at the Lord’s Table

But we have more to offer. Most people think of the offertory as the collection. But it’s not, at all. It’s about offering God back what God has offered us … food and drink to nourish us, transformed by our labour, the fruits of our labour, our sweat and toil.

And we offer that as we prepare to eat together.

Now is the time to eat together, and so before the meal we prepare the table.

In families, children love preparing the family table, love the idea of gifts being given and received. There’s not much chance of that happening at this point in a parish church if they have been sent out to Sunday school beforehand.

If the priest washes his or her hands at
Lavabo, it is good table manners. But over and over again, the Church uses water as a sign of purity and purification.

If children are preparing the table, they would love to hear these appropriate words:

Wise and gracious God,
you spread a table before us;
nourish your people with the word of life,
and the bread of heaven. Amen.

Or when the gifts are brought forward – and the most important gifts are not money but food and drink that sustain us – we might also include gifts made by the children who have come in from the Sunday School. More likely we are going to hear traditional words such as: ‘Lord, yours is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty; for all things come from you and of your own we give you.’

The Eucharist is not just words. It comes alive in action. And so there are four identifiable movements or actions we should watch out: taking, blessing, breaking and giving.

First we have the Taking of the Bread and Wine

The bread and wine are the gifts of God and the work of our hands has turned wheat and grapes and water into bread and wine ... we offer to God what God has offered to us

We sometimes get this so wrong. How often do we find the bread and wine are already on the table or altar, or on a credence table at the side where no-one can see them?

If the bread is little bits of sliced pan already cut into tiny squares, how are we going to break the bread together?

And the person presiding should show they are taking this bread and wine – and this is not about elevation. Only the bishop or priest then may say: ‘Christ our Passover …’ This is one of the roles of the president, and cannot be delegated.

Like the opening greeting, this too states clearly what we are about to do. This is no longer bread and wine for secular use. What God has given to us for our sustenance we now offer to God.

Communion vessels before a celebration of the Eucharist ... the word Eucharist simply means thanksgiving (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us
therefore let us celebrate the feast.

The word Eucharist simply means thanksgiving. In a sense we are all lifting that Bread and Wine and saying thanks you for God’s gifts of life and what sustains life.

The Great Thanksgiving

There are three Great Thanksgiving Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer. We are using Prayer 3 this afternoon because it looks back to the past, looks to the present, and looks to the future, because it is remembrance and anticipation, because it is fully Trinitarian, and because its responses and refrains reminds us that Liturgy is the Work of the People, we are all celebrating together.

The spirit of each of these three prayers is thanksgiving. It is not supposed to be quiet, or penitential, or singular. The appropriate posture is that all are standing, for all are celebrating. But how many people when they are leading the liturgy change this by asking people to kneel, or by asking them to kneel for the Sanctus? The only rubric for posture in Holy Communion is Stand, and, as Bishop Harold Miller says, the normal place for presiding is behind the altar or table, with hands out-stretched throughout the prayer.

The whole prayer, and not merely the Biblical words recalling the Last Supper, is the Eucharistic Prayer. If after those words the bread and wine are raised up, it is in giving thanks. But it is the whole prayer that is what we may call the ‘consecration,’ it is all the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion.

‘The Lord’s People at the Lord’s Table’

When other people stand beside the priest at the altar, it is not merely to assist him or her, but to symbolise that we are all gathered around together. It is not that they are assisting the priest, but that the priest is assisting us to celebrate. The priest is the servant at the Table. This is Christ’s meal … and, as the Body of Christ, it is our meal. Notice the plural language that the priest now uses:

The Lord is here.
His Spirit is with us.

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Father, Lord of all creation,
we praise you for your goodness and your love.
When we turned away you did not reject us.
You came to meet us in your Son,
welcomed us as your children
and prepared a table where we might feast with you.

In Christ you shared our life
that we might live in him and he in us.
He opened wide his arms upon the cross and,
with love stronger than death,
he made the perfect sacrifice for sin.

Lord Jesus Christ, our redeemer,
on the night before you died
you came to table with your friends.
Taking bread, you gave thanks, broke it
and gave it to them saying,
Take, eat: this is my body which is given for you;
do this in remembrance of me.
Lord Jesus, we bless you:
you are the bread of life.

At the end of supper
you took the cup of wine, gave thanks, and said,
Drink this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant,
which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins;
do this in remembrance of me.
Lord Jesus, we bless you:
you are the true vine.

Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ:
dying, you destroyed our death,
rising, you restored our life;
Lord Jesus, come in glory.

Holy Spirit, giver of life,
come upon us now;
may this bread and wine be to us
the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
As we eat and drink these holy gifts
make us, who know our need of grace,
one in Christ, our risen Lord.

Earlier, we had the taking of the gifts of bread and wine. Now in the thanksgiving, in the invocation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we have the blessing. And we repeat that blessing:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Blessed Trinity:
with your whole Church throughout the world
we offer you this sacrifice of thanks and praise
and lift our voice to join the song of heaven,
for ever praising you and saying:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
God of power and might.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!

Thanks be to you, our God, for your gift beyond words.
Amen. Amen. Amen.

Taking, blessing … now we are about to notice the breaking and the giving. And we prepare for this in the words of The Lord’s Prayer.

As our Saviour Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:

Our Father, who art in heaven:
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory
for ever and ever. Amen.

And now we have The Breaking of the Bread, what is also called the Fraction.

The bread which we break
is a sharing in the body of Christ.
We being many are one body,
for we all share in the one bread.

We break, we share. There is no point in a meal where the food is not served. And so, the fourth essential movement, after taking, blessing and breaking, is the giving … the giving and receiving. And at The Communion there is an invitation to each and every one of us, collectively and individually:

Draw near with faith.
Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you,
and his blood which he shed for you.
Remember that he died for you,
and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

Only when the invitation has been given, should the altar party receive Communion. It would be wrong for them to receive first and then invite others; this is the work of the whole Church, and there are not two categories or classes of baptised and communicant members. The rubric states specifically: the presiding minister and people receive communion, and states this after the invitation.

And if you were at a meal, how appropriate it would be for us all to serve one another, to look after each other’s needs.

The body of Christ keep you in eternal life.
The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life.


Our ‘Amen’ is our Amen to Christ present to us and among us in so many ways this afternoon … in Word, in Sacrament, and in us collectively as the Body of Christ.

The Great Silence

When all have received Communion, all keep silence, not for some imposed act of piety, but for reflection on this awe-filled meeting with God. As the Bible reminds us constantly, the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of all Wisdom.

The Blessing and Dismissal

Now we have been gathered, had our Bible study, our prayer meeting, and our meal together, we are ready for Going out as God’s People. We are ready for a Blessing to send us out into the world in mission.

Firstly, we are prepared for that with an appropriate Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
may we who have received this Holy Communion,
worship you with lips and lives
proclaiming your majesty
and finally see you in your eternal glory:
Holy and Eternal Trinity,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

We think on what has happened in the past hour, and look forward to the coming week:

Almighty God,
we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
of the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies
to be a living sacrifice.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to live and work to your praise and glory. Amen.

To do that we expect God’s blessing:

God the Holy Trinity
make you strong in faith and love,
defend you on every side,
and guide you in truth and peace:
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

And that’s it, Let’s go!

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord
in the name of Christ. Amen.

And we go.

Some reading:

Rosalind Brown, Christopher Cocksworth, On Being a Priest Today (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2002).
Stephen Burns, Liturgy (London: SCM Press, 2006).
Mark Earey, Liturgical Worship: a fresh look, how it works, why it matters (London: Church House Publishing, 2002).
Howard E. Galley, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist, A Guide to Celebration (Cambridge MA: Cowley Publications, 1989).
Richard Giles, Creating Uncommon Worship: transforming the liturgy of the Eucharist (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004).
Robert Hovda, Strong, Loving and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976).
Harold Miller: The Desire of our Soul: a user’s guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Dublin: Columba, 2004).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating the Eucharist, A Practical Guide (London: SPCK, 2011 edition, Alcuin Liturgy Guides 3).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Victory, Ash Wednesday to Trinity (London: SPCK, 2009, Alcuin Liturgy Guides 6).

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes and Director of Education and Training, the Diocese of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert. This ‘Teaching Eucharist’ was celebrated in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, on 28 May 2018 as part of the continuing education and training programme for clergy and readers in the diocese.

The words in red italics were read by Stephen Fletcher, a reader as narrator.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Material in this service from The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004) © RCB 2004

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 3 June 2018,
First Sunday after Trinity

‘But we have this treasure in clay jars’ (II Corinthians 4: 7) … clay jars on a window sill in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next, 3 June 2018, is the First Sunday after Trinity.

The readings in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland are: I Samuel 3: 1-10 [11-20]; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; II Corinthians 4: 5-12; and Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The readings and other provisions can also be found as Proper 4B, when the Sunday between 29 May and 4 June comes after Trinity Sunday.

God’s counsels are ‘more in number than the sand’ … the beach as Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)


When it comes to preparing the readings for next Sunday, it should be noted that there are options for a shorter and longer version of the Old Testament reading, and that the numbering of the Psalm verses varies from those in the Revised Common Lectionary because of the differences in numbering the verses in the Revised Common Lectionary and in the translation of the Psalms in the Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer.

We are in Ordinary Time, and while we number the Sundays ‘after Trinity,’ there is no season of Trinity, and this sequence of numbering continues for the next four or five months, until late October.

By coincidence, some feast days are going to fall on Sundays over the next few months, including the Birth of Saint John the Baptist (24 June) and Saint Mary Magdalene (22 July). Otherwise, however, there is no climax, no continuous theme, or no great celebration to make this ‘Ordinary Time’ in any way extraordinary.

Instead, the Lectionary encourages us to continue reflecting on the main themes in the Gospel readings. In Year B, that Gospel is the Gospel according to Saint Mark. However, with the exception of a few Sundays, we interrupted our readings from Saint Mark, drawing on Saint John’s Gospel for many of the Sundays in the seasons of Lent.

Next Sunday, we return to Saint Mark’s Gospel, and we are invited once again, to journey with Christ as he makes his way to Jerusalem.

Some of next Sunday’s readings challenge us to think about walking out of darkness into light, from oppression to freedom:

● Eli’s eyesight is growing dim, but ‘the lamp of God had not yet gone out,’ and in darkness God’s call comes to Samuel, not once but three times;

● The Psalm talks about God going before us and guarding us from behind even when we may not be aware of his presence;

● Saint Paul talks about light shining out of darkness, and contrasts our temporal concerns and inadequacies with the majesty of God and the way Christ can be made visible in our lives;

● The Gospel reading talks about the feeding and healing we experience in our lives when we rest in God.

‘The lamp of God had not yet gone out’ (I Samuel 3: 3) … the lights in a synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

I Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]:

We have already read this passage and the accompanying Psalm earlier this year, on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (14 January 2018).

But the choice of this reading again for next Sunday begins a series of readings that follow Israel’s history after the settlement of the Promised Land. These begin with this story of the call of the boy Samuel, which lays the foundation of Samuel’s learning to recognise God’s voice and his call to prophetic ministry.

Along with the Psalm and the reading from II Corinthians, this reading asks us how we know who we are and what we are meant to be doing.

Samuel arrives at a troubled time when things were out of control, when ‘there was no king in Israel,’ and when everyone ‘did what was right in their own eyes’ (Judges 21: 25).

The boy Samuel is confused about who is calling him. He keeps thinking Eli is calling him. But his confusion does not keep Samuel from being willing, again and again, to respond to the call.

God’s call comes to Samuel, not once or twice, but three times, which may help us to recall what we have said about the Trinity in our sermons the previous Sunday.

How have you been called?

Have you shared the story of your call with your parish and your parishioners?

Eli plays such an important role in this story, helping Samuel understand what is happening to him. It is an essential role in ministry to have people who are willing to support, endorse, and guide people who are trying to discern a call from God.

‘You mark out my journeys and my resting place … you encompass me behind and before’ (Psalm 139: 2-4) … a lone walker on the beach at Laytown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18:

Samuel’s call came long before his mother brought him to the Temple. The Psalm continues this theme: ‘O Lord, you have searched me out and known me’ (Psalm 139: 1), and reminds us that God calls us, even when we are in the womb (Psalm 139: 13-16), and that even the darkest places God’s care is with us.

Not only did God knit us together in our mother’s wombs, but this whole passage reads like we are in God’s womb, hemmed in by God behind and before.

Our life is in God’s womb, which is a peaceful and comforting thought. We cannot go where God is not, and God, in a sense, is also chasing after us, insisting on having a relationship with us.

God’s counsels are ‘more in number than the sand’ … the beach at Rossbeigh, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

The Psalmist says that God’s counsels are ‘more in number than the sand’ (Psalm 139: 18; 139: 17, NRSV), and if were to count them all we would still be in God’s presence. It is a majestic image of the scope of God’s presence.

In his 1980 bestseller, Cosmos, the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote that there are more stars in the heavens than all the grains of sands covering the world’s beaches. He calculated that a handful of sand contains about 10,000 separate grains.

But how many grains of sand cover the earth’s beaches?

Some years ago, researchers at the University of Hawaii tried to calculate this number by dividing the volume of an average sand grain by the volume of sand covering the Earth’s shorelines. The volume of sand was obtained by multiplying the length of the world’s beaches by their average width and depth. The number they calculated was seven quintillion five quadrillion (that is 7.5 followed by 17 zeros or 7.5 billion billion) grains of sand.

On top of this, astronomers now calculate that there are 10 stars for every grain of sand, 11 times the number of cups of water in all the Earth’s oceans, ten thousand times the number of wheat kernels that have ever been produced on Earth and 10 billion times the number of cells in a human being.

This is a staggering number: 70 sextillion (or 7 followed by 22 zeros or 70 thousand million million million) stars in the observable universe. And that is probably a very, very low estimate because the number of galaxies filling the Universe is thought to be much larger than those the Hubble can see.

We are ‘are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus’ (II Corinthians 4: 10) … a cross on the sandbanks above the beach in Laytown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

II Corinthians 4: 5-12

This short, poetic passage that makes up our New Testament reading next Sunday presents a synopsis of what life in Christ looks like. It is part of Saint Paul’s long apology or personal defence for his apostolic ministry against some of his detractors (see II Corinthians 2: 14 to 6: 10).

Saint Paul’s defence of himself is rooted in God’s promises, which are for everyone (see II Corinthians 1: 20 and 7: 1).

Here he points to his inner life in Christ which provides all the strength he needs in his ministry and mission, despite all the frustrations and difficulties he faces.

He seems to be saying that we are living in a new creation: ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ (verse 6), which is both the light of creation (see Genesis 1: 3) and the ‘light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (verse 7).

Just as humanity is created out of the clay (see Genesis 2: 7), we are ‘clay jars’ – cheap and fragile – but in those clay jars we hold that great treasure which is our life in Christ.

Saint Paul is being poetic when he speaks of how ‘we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed’ (II Corinthians 4: 8-12).

We do not need to be able to read or understand Greek to be able to see visually the poetic structure of these verses when they are laid out as poetry in a typographic rather than narrative presentation of the text:

ἐν παντὶ θλιβόμενοι
ἀλλ' οὐ στενοχωρούμενοι,
ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐξαπορούμενοι,

ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐγκαταλειπόμενοι,
ἀλλ' οὐκ ἀπολλύμενοι,

πάντοτε τὴν νέκρωσιν τοῦ Ἰησοῦ
ἐν τῷ σώματι περιφέροντες,
ἵνα καὶ ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ
ἐν τῷ σώματι ἡμῶν φανερωθῇ.

ἀεὶ γὰρ ἡμεῖς οἱ ζῶντες
εἰς θάνατον παραδιδόμεθα διὰ Ἰησοῦν,
ἵνα καὶ ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ φανερωθῇ
ἐν τῇ θνητῇ σαρκὶ ἡμῶν.

ὥστε ὁ θάνατος ἐν ἡμῖν ἐνεργεῖται,
ἡ δὲ ζωὴ ἐν ὑμῖν.

Here too Saint Paul is also drawing on language found in the psalms, prophets, and wisdom literature. He could also be appropriating traditions about the life of Christ that later influence the Gospel writers (for example, see Psalm 22: 1 and Mark 15: 34).

He is saying that all that distorts and spoils our created goodness dies in Christ and that Christ’s life is manifest as the flourishing of new creation in our lives.

‘As they made their way [through the grainfields] his disciples began to pluck heads of grain’ … grain fields near Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6:

We return to reading Saint Mark’s Gospel on Sunday next with his accounts of two controversies that occur on the Sabbath: one in the grain fields (Mark 2: 23-28), and the second in a synagogue (Mark 3: 1-6).

These two scenes lay the foundation for the account in this Gospel of the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of the day, and they also set the stage for our readings from Saint Mark’s Gospel from now until mid-November and the Second Sunday before Advent [18 November 2018].

For convenience, I have divided these reflections on this Gospel passage into three sections: Mark 2: 23-28; 3: 1-5; and 3: 6.

‘He entered the house of God … and ate the bread of the Presence’ (Mark 2: 26) … 12 loaves of bread in two rows of six (see Leviticus 24: 5-9) depicted in a fresco in the 17th century Kupa Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Part 1, Mark 2: 23-28:

The reading begins with the Greek telling us that Christ is bypassing the grainfields when the disciples make their way (ὁδός, hodos, verse 23) – the word used in Greek today for a street or road – through the fields. As long as they are plucking the heads of grain and not harvesting it, they are allowed to so this, and there is no question of any theft (see Deuteronomy 23: 24-25).

What concerns the Pharisees here is not theft, but that the disciples are gleaning on the Sabbath, and they challenge Christ about this. For the Pharisees, this behaviour appears to ignore the mandate to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy (see Exodus 20: 8; Deuteronomy 5: 12). Perhaps they thought the disciples could have prepared food the previous day to take with them.

Jesus disagrees, not because he is trivialising the laws about the Sabbath, but because he sees the Sabbath in a different light. He turns to a story about David, who is fleeing Saul who is plotting to kill him (see I Samuel 21: 1-6). David takes consecrated bread that was supposed to be part of the 12 loaves reserved for the priests (see Leviticus 24: 5-9) and feeds it to his followers who are on the journey with him.

By meeting the needs of David’s hunger, the priest sustains the life of a weary traveller and contributes to David’s quest to fulfil his calling to be the king anointed to replace Saul (see I Samuel 16: 1-13).

Why, in this story, does Jesus identify the priest who assists David as Abiathar? The account in I Samuel 16 names the priest as Ahimelech. Who is mistaken in this passage … Jesus? Saint Mark? An unknown and unidentifiable redactor?

There are details here that are not in the original story: David was not explicitly acting from hunger, and he does not enter the house of God to eat the bread of the presence.

I have read many attempts to reconcile this Gospel account and the story of David, most of them setting out with the premise that the ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’ of Scripture must be defended at all costs, without seeking to debate the literary genre found in this passage.

Perhaps Christ is displaying an ironic sense of humour here. He asks his protagonists: ‘Have you never read what David did … when Abiathar was high priest?’ (verses 25-26).

If they say no, they show they have not read this story; if they say yes, they show are not truly familiar with the details of the story?

Christ then offers a legal opinion derived from scripture itself. He argues that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favour of greater values or needs, especially when those needs involve someone’s well-being, and this can bring God’s blessings.

His argument is not novel at all and would not have been scandalous. He is restating Deuteronomy 5: 12-15, in which God institutes the sabbath so a people who were once slaves could forever enjoy rest. Rabbinic traditions from the time express similar opinions: ‘The Sabbath is given for you, not you to the Sabbath’ (b. Yoma 85b) and ‘Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths’ (Rabbi Nathan).

The proper function of the sabbath is to promote life and to extol God as the liberator. The Pharisees understood this. Perhaps the more subtle cause of conflict is the conclusion that Christ is the heir to David and David’s calling, and his reference to the Son of Man as the κύριος (kyrios) or Lord of the Sabbath. This is a less-than-subtle claim, for the word κύριος (kyrios) is used at the time in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, to convey the very name of God.

Jesus is presenting himself on the Sabbath as no ordinary teacher or rabbi.

Part 2, Mark 3: 1-5:

The second part of the reading is set once again on the Sabbath, but this time in a synagogue. But even before the healing takes place, a debate begins. This debate is not about whether Christ has the right or the power to heal the man’s withered hand, or even whether it is appropriate for him to do this in a synagogue, but whether doing this on the Sabbath shows disdain for the law of God.

Of course, the man is not dying, although his hand was withered, and the act of healing could take place on any other day, indeed at any other venue.

Even before they speak, Christ’s response to his potential protagonists is once again to ask a question: ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ (verse 4).

If they say no, they show their ignorance of the law and the rabbinical tradition; if they say yes, how could they possibly disagree with what they know he is about to do?

Once again, irony and humour trump suspicion and disdain.

What better day is there than the Sabbath, a day meant to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, for the restoration of a man’s malformed hand, and in doing so to allow him to return to work with dignity, and to restore him to his full and rightful place in the community of faith that may have been denied to him?

This story is about wholeness and restoration, but it also contains a foretaste of the Resurrection.

Part 3, Mark 3: 6:

In neither scene does Jesus attack, let alone reject, traditional Judaism, the law or the Sabbath obsolete.

But after these two stories – and remember that we are only 79 verses into reading this Gospel – we are told that the Pharisees and Herodians conspire to destroy Jesus. It is an unusual and unexpected coalition between two very different groups.

In many ways, Saint Mark’s entire Gospel is a story of recurring controversy and confrontation with the hard-hearted that leads to the Cross. Saint Mark also has good news to announce: the in-breaking reign of God that is also a story of compassion and of lives that are transformed.

‘Let light shine out of darkness’ (II Corinthians 4: 6) … sunset on the beach at Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green.

The Collect of the Day:

the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts … darkness and light in the streets of Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested hymns:

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

I Samuel 3: 1-10:

608, Be still and know that I am God
581, I, the Lord of sea and sky
589, Lord, speak to me that I may speak
624, Speak, Lord, in the stillness

Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18:

51, Awake, my soul, and with the sun
567, Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go
226, It is a thing most wonderful
19, There is no moment of my life

II Corinthians 4: 5-12:

52, Christ, whose glory fills the skies
613, Eternal light, shine in my heart
324, God, whose almighty word
569, Hark, my soul, it is the Lord
96, Jesus is Lord! Creation’s voice proclaims it
195, Lord, the light of your love is shining
341, Spirit divine, attend our prayers

Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6:

74, First of the week and finest day
513, O Christ, the healer, we have come
104, O for a thousand tongues to sing
78, This is the day the Lord has made

‘The lamp of God had not yet gone out’ ... candles in the main church in Arkadi Monastery on Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 27 May 2018,
Trinity Sunday

A modern copy of Andrei Rublev’s icon, the Old Testament Trinity or the Hospitality of Abraham, by Eileen McGuckin

Patrick Comerford

Throughout the Western Church, we are marking Sunday next [27 May 2018] as Trinity Sunday.

The doctrine of the Trinity was proclaimed to the world after the first great Pentecost. So, it is fitting that the feast of the Trinity follows immediately after that of Pentecost. However, this tradition of observing the First Sunday after Pentecost as Trinity Sunday has unique roots in the Anglican tradition.

The Book of Common Prayer (2004) says Trinity Sunday is marked in the Church of Ireland as one of the ‘principal holy days which are to be observed.’ On this day, ‘it is fitting that the Holy Communion be celebrated in every cathedral and parish church or in a church within a parochial union or group of parishes.’ It says the liturgical provisions for this day ‘may not be displaced by any other observance’ (p. 18).

The appointed readings for Trinity Sunday [Year B] are: Isaiah 6: 1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8: 12-17; John 3: 1-17. There is a link to the readings HERE.

Observing Trinity Sunday

Inside the chapel in Trinity College Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Following the pre-Reformation Sarum use, both the Church of Ireland and the Church of England name the Sundays that follow this Sunday as ‘Sundays after Trinity.’ However, in the US the Episcopal Church (TEC) now follows Roman Catholic usage and calls these the ‘Sundays after Pentecost.’

Although liturgically we are now in Ordinary Time, the liturgical colours change from green to white on Trinity Sunday. The Book of Common Prayer (pp 771-773) places ‘The Creed (commonly called) of Saint Athanasius, also known as the Quicunque Vult,’ between the Catechism and the Preamble to the Constitution. But it makes no provision for its use. However, some churches in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England have a tradition of using this creed on Trinity Sunday.

The early Church had no special Office or day to honour the Holy Trinity. However, with the spread of the Arian heresy, the Church Fathers prepared an Office with canticles, responses, a Preface, and hymns, to be recited on Sundays.

There are prayers and the Preface of the Trinity in the Sacramentary of Saint Gregory the Great. However, the Micrologies, written when Gregory VII was Pope, call the Sunday after Pentecost a Dominica vacans, or an ordinary Sunday, when there was no special office, although it did note that the Office of the Holy Trinity composed by Bishop Stephen or Liège (903-920) was recited in some places on this Sunday, and in other places on the Sunday before Advent.

Pope Alexander II (1061-1073) refused a petition for a special feast on this day. He pointed out that such a feast was not customary and that the Church honoured the Holy Trinity every day with the use of the doxology, Gloria Patri.

Two plaques on a street corner in London recall Saint Thomas Becket … he introduced Trinity Sunday to the Church Calendar (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

When Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170) was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost, his first act was to decree that the day of his consecration should be held as a new festival in honour of the Holy Trinity.

This observance spread from Canterbury throughout the Western Church. In the following century, a new Office for the Holy Trinity was written by the Franciscan friar, John Peckham (died 1292), who later became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Pope John XXII (1316-1334) ordered the feast for the entire Church on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

Surprisingly, this feast day never spread to the Orthodox Church. In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the Sunday of Pentecost itself is called Trinity Sunday, and instead the Sunday after Pentecost is celebrated as All Saints’ Sunday. The Monday after Pentecost is called the Monday of the Holy Spirit, and the next day is called the Third Day of the Trinity.

Preaching on Trinity Sunday

The Visitation of Abraham or the ‘Old Testament Trinity’ … a fresco in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, interprets a Trinitarian and Eucharistic theme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Thomas Hopko of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary argues that if God were not Trinity, God could not have loved prior to creating other beings on whom to bestow God’s love. This love or communion of God as Trinity is extended to us in the communion of the Church. It is not just the Trinitarian faith into which we are baptised, but the love or fellowship of the Trinity.

Yet many clergy tell me how they are frightened of getting into the pulpit on Trinity Sunday and some will use any excuse to avoid preaching that day.

Perhaps their difficulties and fears are well explained by Dorothy Sayers, the playwright, translator of Dante, and author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, who was also a respected Anglican theologian and writer on spirituality in her own right.

It was she who came up with a whimsical definition of the Trinity: ‘The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible – the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult.’

For many Christians, the Trinity is incomprehensible, and has nothing to do with daily life.

It appears that many Christians behave as Unitarians when it comes to their spiritual and prayer life:

There are those who see God in Christ but in Christ only, and address all their prayers to Jesus, even in the Eucharist, when they should be addressed to the Father through the Son.

Or there are those who appear to reduce the role of Christ to that of a super logos, who frustrates the plans of a vengeful but distant God. Their Christology owes more to Arius than the orthodox understanding of the Trinity.

And there are those who criticise – and rightly criticise – others for neglecting the Holy Spirit, but who are in danger of neglecting the other two persons of the Trinity.

For many more, it appears, the Son and the Spirit are merely manifestations of – or masks for – the Father, a concept condemned in the early Church as Modalism or Sabellianism.

Each separate emphasis is fraught with danger and is symptomatic of a drift away from appreciating the centrality of the Trinity to faith and life.

A ‘Father-only’ image of God is in danger of reflecting power-lust and a need to dominate on the right, reducing God to an idol or mere totem; or, on the left, of reducing God to a mere metaphor for goodness, however one decides to define ‘goodness.’

Similarly, ‘Jesus-only’ images lead to moralistic action by Christians on the theological left or individualistic pietism on the theological right.

For its part, a ‘Spirit-only’ emphasis brings real dangers of either introspective escapism or charismatic excesses.

Yet these images are real throughout the Church, because the concept of the Trinity often appears irrelevant, due to poor teaching in many churches and what many be a prevailing anti-intellectual climate.

Those who venture bravely into the pulpit on Trinity Sunday are often reduced to explaining away the Trinity as a ‘mystery’ that they expect ‘mere’ lay people not to grapple with.

As Christians, we are baptised in the name of the Trinity. But there may reasons to fear that there has been a visible and audible decline in Trinitarian emphases in worship and liturgy. Many of our prayers, canticles and psalms should end with praise to the Trinity. But when they do, the doxology or Gloria often provides a liturgical but thoughtless full stop rather than a statement of faith.

Worship that becomes Unitarian in this way becomes a transaction between an external deity and an autonomous worshipper. And it is not possible for a collection of separated and disconnected individuals to become the community of faith, to enter into the life of the Trinity.

The general decline in the Trinitarian character of worship, theology and life in the Church today parallels a decline in rigorous intellectual thinking. This is typified in the decline in social emphasis in our time, typified in the infamous claim by one politician some decades ago that there is no society, that there are only individuals.

But we can only be human through our relationships; we can only have self-respect when we know what it is to respect others.

The Church is primarily communion, a set of relationships, exactly as we find in the Trinitarian God. Christianity is not a private religion for individuals; personal piety is only truly pious and personal when it relates to others and to creation.

Trinitarian truths expressed in in a stained-glass window in Michaelhouse, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In today’s anti-intellectual climate, it is hard to imagine the passions raised by the earlier debates on the Trinity, which led to patriarchs being deposed, priests banished, and a Pope such as Honorius I being declared a heretic. Arguments about the Trinity evoked deep passions at Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon, and they continue to be the most divisive issue separating the Eastern and Western Churches.

Today, the Church needs to recover a teaching of the Trinity that is not divisive and yet is relevant. There is a certain truth in the adage that man has created God in his own image and likeness. Our attitudes to the Trinity shape our models of God, and our models of God either shape or are shaped by our attitudes to the world: a unipolar God is an authoritarian model; the Trinity is a communitarian, inclusive, embracing, co-operative model.

Authoritarian or monist models have dominated the Church for centuries, providing male, authoritarian images of God. But in the New Testament and in the Early Church, the words used for the Spirit (pneuma, πνευμα), wisdom (Sophia, Σoφíα) and the Holy Trinity (Aghia Triadha, Αγία Τριάδα) are neuter and feminine nouns.

Monist models of God help to confirm men, particularly men with power in the Church, in their prejudices. The Trinity is inclusive rather than exclusive of human images.

During the Nazi era, the German theologian Erik Peterson (1890-1960), argued that monist theologies tend to legitimise absolutist and totalitarian political and social orders, while Trinitarian theologies challenge them.

The Trinity means that as humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, then it is not just as individuals that we reflect God’s image, but that when we are a community we are most human and most God-like. In the true community, each is valued, each takes account of the other, each has an equal place, contribution and voice. True community cannot concentrate sole authority, privilege and infallibility in one gender alone, let alone one member.

A recovery of the reality of the Trinity has radical implications for our models of the Church, for authority, service and inclusiveness in the Church. It implies respect for diversity and seeks a communal form of unity that respects, desires and even encourages diversity in the community of faith.

Compared with the great social and political challenges facing the Church, discussing the Trinity may seem to many to be as relevant as debating the number of angels on the head of a pin. Yet the Trinity is not only the archetype of all created reality, but without a fuller understanding of the nature of the Trinity, the Church will never be able to apprehend the truth of the infinite goodness of God.

The love and coinherence or perichoresis of the Trinity is a joyful dance that is at the heart of our understanding of God’s love for us and for creation, of our fellowship with God and one another, and of our understanding of our ministry and mission. Without a proper teaching on the Trinity, the Church will continue to provide answers to social and political questions that make God more like an idol than like our model for a loving community.

Looking at the readings:

The former Trinity Episcopal Church on Catherine Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaiah 6: 1-8:

In this reading, the Prophet Isaiah gives the grounds for his authority as a prophet. The year is 742 BC, and Assyria is expanding its borders. The northern kingdom, Israel, is trying to coerce Judah into a military alliance against the Assyrian threat. Isaiah has a vision of God enthroned, surrounded by courtiers, with seraphs hovering above him, guarding him. One pair of wings cover ‘their faces’ in the awesome presence of God, and a second cover their ‘feet’ as a sign of commitment to purity; the third is used to fulfil commissions from God.

The acclamation ‘Holy’ is repeated three times for emphasis, identifies God as all-holy, sinless, apart from earthly things. God is the Lord of Hosts, the warrior for Israel; he rules over the whole earth, all peoples. The setting appears to be the Temple, so the ‘pivots’ that which shake due to an earth tremor – a sign of God’s presence – are those on which the heavy Temple gates turned. Smoke is also a sign of divine presence, as is the cloud of glory in the desert (Exodus 40: 34).

Isaiah feels totally inadequate in God’s presence: he feels unclean, unfit to stand before God, yet he sees God. He also sees the people as unworthy, but a seraph purifies him, rendering him fit and qualified to speak God’s word to his people. God confers with his advisors, asking ‘Whom shall I send ... ?’ Isaiah volunteers to be the prophet to Judah. Later, after this reading (verses 9-13), God accepts his offer, and tells him that most people will reject God’s message, preferring traditional, corrupt ways. Within nine years, Assyria had invaded and made Judah a puppet state.

Psalm 29:

This psalm expresses God’s supremacy and universal rule. The voice of the Lord is heard in the thunder claps as the storm approaches and sweeps across the land, breaking the tall trees as it moves. The Word of God is indeed mighty, and all acknowledge God’s supremacy as they cry ‘Glory be to the Lord!’ God rules over all from his throne.

Romans 8: 12-17:

Saint Paul has told us how Christian experience is dominated by life in the Spirit rather than by the desires of the flesh, or self-centeredness. Christians are still subject to suffering, to bearing crosses and affliction, but not to eternal condemnation. Not being condemned, we have hope.

Now he says that we are under an obligation to God, to live according to the Spirit. Living this way, rejecting self-centeredness, we look forward to eternal life at the end of time rather than to the finality of physical death. Heeding the Spirit, we are children of God, and have a new relationship with God. When we are baptised, we are adopted by God. As his children, we are heirs, with hope for the future. In seeking his help or proclaiming him as Father, we express the close relationship we have with him, with our hearts motivated by the Spirit.

John 3: 1-17:

Nicodemus is a prominent Pharisee and teacher who comes to Christ to ask him questions. He comes under cover of darkness at nigh so that he would not been meeting Christ.

He understands Christ’s miracles that he is from God. But Christ tells him that he has not yet understood the main point. To see the kingdom of God, spiritual rebirth is needed.

Nicodemus misunderstands: he thinks Christ is speaking of biological rebirth. But being ‘born from above’ (verse 3) requires being baptised (verse 6). Flesh and spirit were seen as constituents of life, of which spirit (pneuma) was the life-giving force. Many things can be seen only in their effect; such is birth in the Spirit. Still Nicodemus does not understand. In order for him to do so, he needs to have faith. Then, in verse 12, Christ tells Nicodemus that he does not comprehend what can be told in analogies, and so asks how he can possibly believe mysteries.

God in his love provides eternal life to all who believe. If you wilfully do not believe, you will perish. There is no third alternative. God’s intention is that you believe, rather than be condemned.

Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity

Andrei Rublev’s icon, the Old Testament Trinity or the Hospitality of Abraham.

One of the best-known presentations of the Trinity is found in Andrei Rublev’s icon, the Old Testament Trinity or the Hospitality of Abraham. This icon recalls the passage in Genesis 18, in which God visits Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Abraham’s guests – now only a single guest – is God.

Rublev’s icon itself is a masterpiece of composition: The viewer is being invited to join the meal; the doctrine of the Trinity as a community of Love into which the believer is invited to enter is depicted with clarity and simplicity; the icon communicates the idea that basis of the divine life is hospitality. The vanishing point in the sacred space is placed in front of the icon, inviting the viewer to enter into the holy mystery.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews picks up the theme of the Hospitality of Abraham at the end of his epistle when he advises Christians not to neglect hospitality: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13: 2).

George Herbert and ‘Trinitie Sunday’

Trinity College, Cambridge, where George Herbert was a student, fellow and then Reader in Rhetoric (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As I was preparing these notes for Trinity Sunday, I found myself re-reading the poem ‘Trinitie Sunday’ from The Temple (1633) by the Welsh-born English priest and poet George Herbert (1593-1633).

Lord, who hast form’d me out of mud,
And hast redeem’d me through thy bloud,
And sanctifi’d me to do good;

Purge all my sinnes done heretofore:
For I confesse my heavie score,
And I will strive to sinne no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charitie;
That I may runne, rise, rest with thee.

George Herbert’s response to the mystery of the Holy Trinity is a response of heart, mouth, and hands. In this poem, he is creative, evocative and imaginative in his use of Trinitarian images, prayers and motifs in rhymes, alliteration and ideas throughout the three stanzas, which give wonderful glimpses, prayers and insights into our Trinitarian faith.

The poem is a delightful use of word, rhythm and structure, inviting the reader to become familiar with the concept of three, reminding us of the threefold nature of God as Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Each stanza is three lines long, and each is in triple rhyme.

Stanza 1 is a prayer of invocation, with Line1 addressing God the Father as Creator, Line 2 addressing God the Son as Redeemer, and Line 3 addressing God the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier.

Stanza 2 is a confession. Line 1 refers to sins committed in the past, Line 2 to the present act of confessing, and Line 3 to the firm intention not to sin in the future.

Stanza 3 is an expression of expectation, and each line refers to three things. Line 1 speaks of heart, mouth and hands being enriched. Line 2 outlines that which will do the enriching – the three Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. Line 3 expresses a desire to run, rise and rest with God. In the third stanza, Herbert continues with three little triplets of petitions.

An image of the Trinity in Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece

Liturgical Resources:

Penitential Kyries:

Father, you come to meet us when we return to you.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Jesus, you died on the cross for our sins.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit, you give us life and peace.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you have given us your servants grace,
by the confession of a true faith,
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity
and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity:
Keep us steadfast in this faith,
that we may evermore be defended from all adversities;
for you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

Peace to you from God our heavenly Father.
Peace from his Son Jesus Christ who is our peace.
Peace from the Holy Spirit the Life-giver.
The peace of the Triune God be always with you.
And also with you.


You have revealed your glory
as the glory of your Son and of the Holy Spirit:
three persons equal in majesty, undivided in splendour,
yet one Lord, one God,
ever to be worshipped and adored:

Post-Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
may we who have received this holy communion,
worship you with lips and lives
proclaiming your majesty
and finally see you in your eternal glory:
Holy and Eternal Trinity,
one God, now and for ever.


God the Holy Trinity
make you strong in faith and love,
defend you on every side,
and guide you in truth and peace:

The east end of Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, with the vestry on the south side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

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

Isaiah 6: 1-8:

316, Bright the vision that delighted
415, For the bread which you have broken
454, Forth in the peace of Christ we go
331, God reveals his presence
696, God, we praise you! God, we bless you!
700, Holy God, we praise thy name
355, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord
714, Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might
321, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty
715, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God, the Lord Almighty
581, I, the Lord of sea and sky
6, Immortal, invisible, God only wise
427, Let all mortal flesh keep silence
7, My God, how wonderful thou art
639, O thou, who camest from above
370, Stand up, and bless the Lord
323, The God of Abraham praise
476, Ye watchers and ye holy ones

Psalm 29:

349, Fill thou my life, O Lord my God
30, Let us with a gladsome mind
431, Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour
196, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
45, Praise, O praise our God and King

Romans 8: 12-17:

558, Abba, Father, let me be
387, Thanks to God whose Word was spoken
285, The head that once was crowned with thorns

John 3: 1-17:

562, Blessèd assurance, Jesus is mine
87, Christ is the world’s light, he and none other
319, Father, of heaven, whose love profound
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart
353, Give to our God immortal praise
226, It is a thing most wonderful
698, Jesus, Saviour of the world
484, Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
303, Lord of the Church, we pray for our renewing
227, Man of sorrows! What a name
102, Name of all majesty
305, O Breath of life, come sweeping through us
307, Our great Redeemer, as he breathed
108, Praise to the Holiest in the height
241, Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle
341, Spirit divine, attend our prayers
386, Spirit of God, unseen as the wind
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done!

A copy of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 20 May 2018,
the Day of Pentecost

Evie Hone’s cartoon for her Pentecost window in Tara, seen on the stairs in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next, 20 June 2018, is the Day of Pentecost, or Whit Sunday.

The Book of Common Prayer (2004) lists Christmas Day, Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost as the three Principal Holy Days on which ‘the Holy Communion is celebrated in every cathedral and parish church unless the ordinary shall otherwise direct’ (p 18).

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for next Sunday are: Acts 2: 1-21 or Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Psalm 104: 26-36, 37b; Romans 8: 22-27 or Acts 2: 1-21; John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles must be read, either as the first or second reading, and must not be omitted.


A few years ago, I spent time after Easter in Cappadocia in south central Turkey.

Although it snowed, I did all the normal tourist things, including a hot-air balloon trip and visiting the ‘fairy chimneys,’ the cave dwellings and the troglodyte underground cities.

But my first reason for going there was because of my interests in Patristic studies: this is the region that has given the Church the Cappadocian Fathers – the great writers, theologians and thinkers in the fourth century that included Saint Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea; his younger brother, Saint Gregory of Nyssa; and their friend, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, who became Patriarch of Constantinople.

I was excited that I was visiting towns and cities linked with the Cappadocian Fathers who advanced the development of theology, especially our Creeds and our doctrine of the Trinity.

With the conflicts in Anatolia, Turkey and the Middle East, Christians in the region are an ever-dwindling minority and their cultural contributions to life in the Eastern Mediterranean and neighbouring regions is not just being forgotten, but in many cases is being deliberately wiped out and obliterated.

Early one morning, we descended into the depths of Derinkuyu or Anakou, the largest excavated underground city in Turkey. This multi-level city goes down 85 metres underground. It is large enough to have sheltered 20,000 people, along with their livestock and food, with churches, chapels, schools, wine presses, wells, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories and even a burial chamber. At the fifth or lowest level, I found myself in a cruciform church.

When I came up and emerged into the daylight, brushing my eyes, I was facing a stark reminder that until 1923 Derinkuyu was known to its Cappadocian Greek residents as Malakopea. Across the square from the entrance to the underground city stands the lonely and forlorn Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Theodoros Trion, like a sad scene in an Angelopoulos movie.

This once elegant church stands forlorn and abandoned since 1923. Its walls have started to collapse, the frescoes are crumbling, and the restoration promised by the government has been abandoned.

The Greek-speaking people who lived in Cappadocia for thousands of years were forced in fatal swoop, like all Greek-speakers in Anatolia, to abandon their homes in 1923 and to go into exile. They had been there before the days of Alexander the Great. But they are there no more.

They were there in Biblical times. We read about them next Sunday (Acts 2: 1-21). On the first day of Pentecost, we are told, the good news is heard by Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs – each in their own languages.

The very people who are counted out in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East then and today, the ethnic and linguistic minorities, the religious curiosities and the perceived oddities, those who dress, and appear, and sound and look different, whose foods and perfume and bodily odours are marked by variety, are counted as God’s own people on the Day of Pentecost.

The forlorn Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Theodoros Trion in Derinkuyu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Looking at the Readings for the Day of Pentecost:

Pentecost is the undoing of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-11). The barriers we built in the past, the walls we use to separate ourselves from each other, are torn apart by the Holy Spirit who rushes in and breaks down all the walls that separate us from those we think are different because of how they sound, look and smell.

Pentecost celebrates the over-abundant generosity of God. This is generosity is beyond measure, to the point that it challenges us, surprises us, startles us.

So often we want to box-in, contain or marginalise the Holy Spirit. For most traditional Anglicans, the Holy Spirit is relegated to, confined to, occasions such as Confirmation – and we have three Confirmations in Rathkeale later this month – or to prayers during the ordination of bishops, priests and deacons. After that, the Holy Spirit has little or nothing to do with us.

Yes, the Holy Spirit is for Charismatics, and for people who pray and sing with their hands in the air and bounce on their feet as they sing and dance. But not for staid, traditional, Anglicans like me. So how is the Holy Spirit relevant to me, apart from some prayers at my Confirmation and my Ordination?

Sunday’s account of the first Day of Pentecost is a sharp reminder that Pentecost is for all. The Holy Spirit is not an exclusive gift for the 12, for the inner circle, for the believers, or even for the Church. Did you hear how many times the words all and every are used in this story?

● they are all together (verse 1);
● the tongues of fire rest on each or every one of them (verse 3);
all of them are filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 4);
● the people in Jerusalem are from every nation (verse 5);
● each or everyone hears in his or her own language (verse 6);
● so that all are amazed and perplexed (verse 12);
● Saint Peter addresses all (verse 14);
● he promises that God will pour out his Spirit on all (verse 17);
● this promise is for allwithout regard to gender, age or social background (verses 17-21);
● and the promise of God’s salvation is for everyone (verse 21).

God’s generosity at Pentecost is lavish, risky and abundant, overflowing to the point of over-abundant generosity. The Holy Spirit is not measured out in tiny drops, like some prescribed medicine poured out gently and carefully, drop by drop. It is not even like the gentle measure used for pouring out a glass of wine

The Holy Spirit gushes out and spills out all over the place, in a way that is beyond the control of the 12, like champagne fizzing out after the cork has been popped at a celebration, sparkling all over the room, champagne that can never be put back, unlike wine that can be decanted and poured out once more in polite and controlled measures.

The gift of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning, the birthday, of the Church, so perhaps champagne is the right image as we celebrate the birthday of the Church. But this is a gift that does not cease being given after Pentecost.

The gift of the Holy Spirit remains with the Church – for all times. The gift of the Holy Spirit is for all who are baptised, who are invited to continue daily to hear the word, to join in fellowship, to break the bread, to pray – just as we do when we celebrate the Eucharist (see Acts 2: 42-47).

Because of this gift, the Church is brought together in diversity and sustained in unity. The Orthodox Church speaks of the Church as the realised or lived Pentecost.

At times, our thinking about the Holy Spirit is made difficult by traditional images of a dove that looks more like a homing pigeon; or tongues of fire dancing around meekly-bowed heads of people cowering and hiding in the upper room in Jerusalem, rather than a room that is bursting at the seams and ready to overflow.

But the Holy Spirit is not something added on as an extra course, as an after-thought after the Resurrection and the Ascension.

As we affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, shaped to a profound degree by those Cappadocian Fathers, as we say ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit,’ do we really believe in the Holy Spirit as ‘the Lord, the giver of life,’ in the Holy Spirit as the way in which God ‘has spoken through the prophets’?

The gift of the Holy Spirit does not stop being effective the day after Confirmation, the day after ordination, the day after hearing someone speaking in tongues, or the day after this Day of Pentecost.

God never leaves us alone. This is what Christ promises the disciples, the whole Church, in the Gospel reading, as he breaks through the locked doors and breaks through all their fears (John 20: 19-23).

We need have no fears, for the Resurrection breaks through all the barriers of time and space, of gender and race, of language and colour.

Pentecost includes all – even those we do not like. Who do you not want in the Kingdom of God? Who do I find it easy to think of excluding from the demands the Holy Spirit makes on me and on the Church?

Pentecost promises hope. But hope is not certainty, manipulating the future for our own ends, it is trusting in God’s purpose.

The Gospel reading: John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15

[Jesus said to his disciples:] 26 ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

4b ‘I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’

The Holy Spirit at Pentecost

In the Church calendar, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit as an event that happened at the great festival of in-gathering, Pentecost, 50 days after Passover, following Saint Luke’s symbolic timing.

On the other hand, in Saint John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is the gift of Christ’s resurrection, on the Day of the Resurrection day (see John 20: 21-22).

Yet, of course, both are true.

Christ has not left us on our own, so that we may soar into spiritual fantasy and relish the prospects of more magic and more religion. Our task as disciples is to bear fruit, to let the seed sown in death rise to new life. What matters is life and love.

This Gospel reading is the part of Christ’s last discourse with the disciples. He speaks about the gift of the Holy Spirit and the character of the Holy Spirit. The context of this speech is that in the Gospel of John, the audience, beginning in chapter 13, is addressed as disciples. This reading is part of that concluding discourse that goes on for 20 to 25 minutes. It is the most intimate time in the whole of the Gospel story between Christ, the disciples and God the Father – it is a time when all of these are brought together.

At this intimate moment after the Last Supper, Christ continues to tell the disciples about the mission they are to going to be part of.

The ‘Advocate’ is the Holy Spirit; he is the ‘spirit of truth’ (15: 26; 16: 13), and will be sent to the disciples or to the Church, by Christ, ‘from the Father.’

The Church too is to witness to and to work with the Holy Spirit, by living the life that Christ made possible, continuing Christ’s work in the world (15: 27).

Why does Christ say: ‘yet none of you asks me ...’ (16: 5)? They have asked the question earlier (see John 13: 36 and John 14: 5). Perhaps he is saying that when our hearts are filled with ‘sorrow’ or we are preoccupied with ‘sorrow’ (John 16: 6), we are missing the main point: the coming of the Spirit.

Then in the next verse (John 16: 7), Christ tells the disciples that by leaving them he is able to send the Paracelete.

One thing the Paraclete will do is to show the cosmos, κόσμος (16: 8), the world, or even the whole created order, that it is wrong about three things:

● sin – because they do not believe in him (16: 9);
● righteousness – because he is going to the Father (16: 10);
● judgment – because the ruler of this world has been condemned (16: 11).

In verses 12-13, we are told the Spirit will tell the disciples things Christ has not told them. In his guidance, he will speak what comes to him from God, as Christ has spoken what the Father has told him. The Spirit will prophesy about events ‘to come,’ the Spirit will reveal the essential nature of God, and the Spirit will glorify or show Christ’s essential nature and power (16: 14).

Whether the word comes from the Father, the Son, or the Spirit, it is the same.

In this passage, the Koine Greek word used for the Spirit is παράκλητος (parákletos). It is a word with a wide range of meanings that include advocate, encourager or comforter. So, the word can signify:

1, Someone who consoles or comforts.
2, Someone who encourages or uplifts.
3, Someone who refreshes
4, Someone summoned or called to one’s side, especially called to one’s aid.
5, Someone who pleads another’s cause before a judge, a pleader, the counsel for the defence, a legal assistant, an advocate.
6, Someone who intercedes to plead another person’s cause before another person, an intercessor.
7, In the widest sense, a helper, one who provides succour or aid, an assistant.

So, in its use, παράκλητος appears to belong primarily to legal imagery. In this passage from Saint John’s Gospel, it is used beside the language of testifying, and where the activity of the Paraclete is to lay down evidence sufficient to win a case on a number of issues awaiting judgment.

The word παράκλητος is passive in form, and etymologically it originally signified being ‘called to one’s side.’ The active form of the word, παρακλήτωρ (parakletor), is not found in the New Testament but is found in the Septuagint in the plural, and means ‘comforters,’ in the saying of Job regarding the ‘miserable comforters’ who failed to rekindle his spirit in his time of distress: ‘I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all’ (Job 16: 2).

However, the word παράκλητος in passive form is not found in the Septuagint, where other words are used to translate the Hebrew word מְנַחֵם‎ (mənaḥḥēm, ‘comforter’) and מליץ יושר (Melitz Yosher).

In Classical Greek, the term is not common in non-Jewish texts. But the best-known use is by Demosthenes:

‘Citizens of Athens, I do not doubt that you are all pretty well aware that this trial has been the centre of keen partisanship and active canvassing, for you saw the people who were accosting and annoying you just now at the casting of lots. But I have to make a request which ought to be granted without asking, that you will all give less weight to private entreaty or personal influence than to the spirit of justice and to the oath which you severally swore when you entered that box. You will reflect that justice and the oath concern yourselves and the commonwealth, whereas the importunity and party spirit of advocates serve the end of those private ambitions which you are convened by the laws to thwart, not to encourage for the advantage of evil-doers’ (Demosthenes, On the False Embassy, 19: 1).

In Jewish writings, Philo of Alexandria speaks several times of ‘paraclete’ advocates, primarily in the sense of human intercessors. The word later passed from Hellenistic Jewish writing into rabbinical Hebrew writing.

In the Greek New Testament, the word is most prominent in the Johannine writings, but is also used elsewhere:

1, In Saint Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 5: 4), Christ uses the verb παρακληθήσονται (paraclethesontai), traditionally interpreted to signify ‘to be refreshed, encouraged, or comforted.’ The text may also be translated as vocative as well as the traditional nominative. Then the meaning of παρακληθήσονται, also informative of the meaning of the name, or noun Paraclete, implicates ‘are going to summon’ or ‘will be breaking off.’ The Paraclete may thus mean ‘the one who summons,’ or ‘the one who, or that which, makes free.’

2, In Saint John’s Gospel, it is used four times (14: 16, 14: 26, 15: 26, and 16: 7), where it may be translated into English as counsellor, helper, encourager, advocate, or comforter. In the first instance (John 14: 16), however, when Christ says ‘another Paraclete’ will come to help his disciples, is he implying that he is the first and primary Paraclete?

3, In I John 2: 1, παράκλητος is used to describe the intercessory role of Christ, who advocates for us or pleads on our behalf to the Father.

The Early Church identified the Paraclete with the Holy Spirit (Το Άγιο Πνεύμα) received in the accounts in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 1: 5, 1: 8, 2: 4, and 2: 38; see also Matthew 3: 10-12 and Luke 3: 9-17).

The word Paraclete may also have been used in the Early Church as a way of describing the Spirit’s help when Christians were hauled before courts. Christ has already promised, ‘When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 13: 11; see Luke 12: 11-12).

In the first part of our Gospel reading (John 15: 26-27) next Sunday, much of the legal imagery remains intact. Here the Spirit is the advocate employed by the Father to advocate on behalf of the Son. Even the language of ‘sending’ is legal, since one of the major avenues of communication in the ancient world was through one’s legal agent or ἀπόστολος (apostolos), ‘sent one.’

So, the role of the Spirit is to make a case for Christ in the court of the world and to help us to do so. That is our task in mission as the Church.

Pentecost (El Greco) … ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf’ (John 15: 26)

A birthday gift?

Quite often we think the gift of the Holy Spirit is something to consider only at ordination or at confirmation, or it is just left as a gift for Charismatic Evangelicals to talk about. But the gift of the Holy Spirit does not stop being effective the day after confirmation, the day after ordination, the day after hearing someone speaking in tongues, or the day after Pentecost.

The gift of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning, the birthday, of the Church. And this is a gift that does not cease to be effective after Pentecost Day, even if the lectern and pulpit falls change from red to green. The gift of the Holy Spirit remains with the Church – for all times.

Indeed, in the Orthodox Church they speak eloquently of the Church being the realised or lived Pentecost.

We celebrate the Feast of Pentecost 50 days after Easter and on the Sunday that falls 10 days after the Ascension. Pentecost recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost. But it is also the Birthday of the Church, founded through the preaching of the Apostles and the baptism of the thousands who on that day believed in the Gospel of Christ.

The icon of the Feast of Pentecost is an icon of bold colours of red and gold signifying that this is a great event. The movement of the icon is from the top to the bottom. At the top of the icon is a semicircle with rays coming from it. The rays are pointing toward the Apostles, and the tongues of fire are seen descending upon each one of them signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The building in the background of the icon represents the upper room where the Disciples of Christ gathered after the Ascension. The Apostles are shown seated in a semicircle which shows the unity of the Church. Included in the group of the Apostles is Saint Paul, who, though not present with the others on the day of Pentecost, became an Apostle of the Church and the greatest missionary. Also included are the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – holding books of the Gospel, while the other Apostles are holding scrolls that represent the teaching authority given to them by Christ.

In the centre of the icon below the Apostles, a royal figure is seen against a dark background. This is a symbolic figure, the κόσμος (cosmos), representing the people of the world living in darkness and in sin. However, this figure carries in his hands a cloth containing scrolls which represent the teaching of the Apostles. The tradition of the Church holds that the Apostles carried the message of the Gospel to all parts of the world.

In the icon of Pentecost we see the fulfilment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, sent down upon the Apostles who will teach the nations and baptise them in the name of the Holy Trinity. Here we see that the Church is brought together and sustained in unity through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, that the Spirit guides the Church in the missionary endeavour throughout the world, and that the Spirit nurtures the Body of Christ, the Church, in truth and love.

Orthodox prayer of the Holy Spirit:

Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of life: come and abide in us, cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good One.

A closing reflection:

‘Little Gidding,’ the fourth and final poem in the Four Quartets, is TS Eliot’s own Pentecost poem. ‘Little Gidding’ begins in ‘the dark time of the year,’ when a brief and glowing afternoon sun ‘flames the ice, on pond and ditches’ as it ‘stirs the dumb spirit’ not with wind but with ‘pentecostal fire.’

At the end of the poem, Eliot describes how the eternal is contained within the present and how history exists in a pattern, and repeating the words of Julian of Norwich, he is assured:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I have no doubts that the Holy Spirit works in so many ways that we cannot understand. And I have no doubts that the Holy Spirit works best and works most often in the quiet small ways that bring hope rather than in the big dramatic ways that seek to control.

Sometimes, even when it seems foolish, sometimes, even when it seems extravagant, it is worth being led by the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit may be leading us to surprising places, and, surprisingly, leading others there too, counting them in when we thought they were counted out.

Whether they are persecuted minorities in the Middle East, or people who are marginalised at home, or those we are uncomfortable with because of how they sound, seem, look or smell, God’s generosity counts them in and offers them hope.

And if God counts them in, so should the Church. And so should I.

‘ ... all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well’ … sunset seen from the Sunset Taverna in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical colour: Red

Greeting (from Easter until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Great and wonderful are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

You are the King of glory, O Christ.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
By the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.
If we live in the Spirit, let us walk in the Spirit.
Galatians 5: 22


Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
according to whose promise
the Holy Spirit came to dwell in us,
making us your children,
and giving us power to proclaim the gospel throughout the world:

Post Communion Prayer:

Faithful God,
who fulfilled the promises of Easter
by sending us your Holy Spirit
and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal:
Open our lips by your Spirit,
that every tongue may tell of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


The Spirit of truth lead you into all truth,
give you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
and to proclaim the words and works of God …


Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Evie Hone’s window in Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara, Co Meath, has images of Pentecost interspersed with images of Saint Patrick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested hymns:

The hymns suggested for the Day of Pentecost (Year B), in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

Acts 2: 1-21:

296, Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
318, Father, Lord of all creation
298, Filled with the Spirit’s power, with one accord
312, Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost
301, Let every Christian pray
302, Lord God the Holy Ghost
303, Lord of the Church, we pray for our renewing
305, O Breath of life, come sweeping through us
306, O Spirit of the living God
639, O thou who camest from above
307, Our great Redeemer, as he breathed
308, Revive your Church, O Lord
341, Spirit divine, attend our prayers
386, Spirit of God, unseen as the wind
310, Spirit of the living God
313, The Spirit came, as promised
491, We have a gospel to proclaim
309, When God the Spirit came
204, When Jesus came to Jordan
395, When Jesus taught by Galilee

Ezekiel 37: 1-14:

293, Breathe on me, breath of God
319, Father, of heaven, whose love profound
305, O Breath of life, come sweeping through us
306, O Spirit of the living God
308, Revive your Church, O Lord
310, Spirit of the living God

Psalm 104: 26-36, 37b:

346, Angel voices ever singing
42, Good is the Lord, our heavenly King
356, I will sing, I will sing a song unto the Lord
357, I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath
6, Immortal, invisible, God only wise
305, O Breath of life, come sweeping through us
34, O worship the King all-glorious above

Romans 8: 22-27:

496, For the healing of the nations
48, God in his love for us lent us this planet
523, Help us to help each other, Lord
301, Let every Christian pray
654, Light of the lonely pilgrim’s heart
49, Lord, bring the day to pass
619, Lord, teach us how to pray aright
341, Spirit divine, attend our prayers

John 15: 26-27; 16: 4b-15:

260, Christ is alive! Let Christians sing
294, Come down, O Love divine
295, Come, gracious Spirit, heavenly Dove
297, Come, thou Holy Spirit, come
324, God, whose almighty word
299, Holy Spirit, come, confirm us
300, Holy Spirit, truth divine
301, Let every Christian pray
307, Our great Redeemer, as he breathed
310, Spirit of the living God
112, There is a Redeemer

‘And the fire and the rose are one’ ... a candle and a rose on a dinner table in Minares on Vernardou Street, Rethymnon, in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.