Monday, 30 December 2019

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Monday 6 January 2020,
The Epiphany

The Adoration of the Magi … a stained glass window in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Kilmallock, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Next Monday is the Feast of the Epiphany [6 January 2020], and the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. On this feast day, we remember that at his Epiphany, Christ was made manifest to all nations and to the peoples of the earth

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

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

There is a link to the readings HERE.

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


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

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

● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Matthew 3: 13-17), which we read about the following Sunday [Epiphany I, 12 January 2020];

● the Wedding Feast in Cana (John 2: 1-11), which we read about in this season last year [Epiphany II, 20 January 2019].

Th Gospel reading for the Feast of the Epiphany (Matthew 2: 1-12) is one that symbolises the gentiles coming to Christ, and bowing before him in worship, laying their gifts and treasurers at his feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 60: 1-6:

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14:

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

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 3: 1-12:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 2: 1-12:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Gifts and the Three Wise Men:

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

The three principle Epiphany themes in the Gospels are:

● The Adoration of the Magi (this year’s Gospel reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2020, Matthew 2: 1-12);

● the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the Jordan (Matthew 3: 13-17), which we read about the following Sunday [Epiphany I, 12 January 2020];

● the Wedding Feast in Cana (John 2: 1-11), which we read about in this season last year [Epiphany II, 20 January 2019].

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

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

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

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

● Melchior, a Persian scholar;

● Caspar, an Indian scholar;

● Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

● Gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship;

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

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

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

Sometimes this is described more generally as:

● Gold symbolising virtue;

● Frankincense symbolising prayer;

● Myrrh symbolising suffering.

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

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

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

Several traditions have developed about what happened to these gifts.

There is a tradition that suggests Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance their stay in Egypt after they fled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adoration of the Magi … a stained glass window in Saint Mary's Church, Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

‘The Journey of the Magi’ by TS Eliot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

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

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

An Epiphany Carol:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adoration of the Magi … an image in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

We three kings of Orient are by John Henry Hopkins

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSVA):

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

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

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

The Magi visit the crib … a stained glass window in Saint Nicholas Church, Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

The Collect:

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

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

The Penitential Kyries:

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

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

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

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

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

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

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


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

The Blessing:

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

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

Suggested Hymns:

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

Isaiah 60: 1-6:

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

Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-15:

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

Ephesians 3: 1-12:

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

Matthew 2: 1-12:

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

Gold, myrrh and … an Epiphany cartoon

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

Chalking the Doors: an Epiphany tradition

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

The formula for this traditional rite – adapted for Epiphany 2020 – is simple. Take chalk and write these letters and figures above the doors into the Church or the house: 20 + C + M + B + 20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

All: And to all who dwell herein.

Leader: Let us pray.

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

All: Amen.

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

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

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

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

Another set of prayers and blessings:

Blessing the Chalk:

Priest: Our help is the name of the Lord:

All: The maker of heaven and earth.

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

All: From this time forth for evermore.

Priest: Let us pray.

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

Blessing the Home

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

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

Then this prayer:

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

Continuing the tradition

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

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

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

Christus mansionem benedictat.

May Christ bless the house.

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

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The hymn suggestions are provided in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling. The hymn numbers refer to the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal (5th edition, Oxford: OUP, 2000)

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

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 5 January 2020,
Second Sunday of Christmas

‘The Beginning’ … one of the images projected onto to the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral in the week before Christmas by Luxmuralis as part of ‘The Cathedral Illuminated 2019: The Beginning’ (Photograph courtesy Kathryn Walker / Luxmuralis, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 5 January 2020, is the Second Sunday of Christmas.

The Readings: Jeremiah 31: 7-14 or Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 24: 1-12; Psalm 147: 12-20, or Wisdom 10: 15-21; Ephesians 1: 3-14; John 1: (1-9) 10-18.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The Church of Ireland Directory also suggests, ‘The Readings for the Epiphany may be preferred.’

The Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-15; Ephesians 1: 3-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

There is a link to these readings HERE.

However, you may prefer to use the readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas on Sunday and the readings for the Epiphany at a celebration on Monday.

The resources for the Epiphany readings, hymns are available HERE.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1: 4) … sunrise over the River Slaney at Ferrycarrig, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Introducing the Readings:

It is worth noting that, as this posting is going live, the Church of Ireland website once again does not refer to the two alternative readings in Wisdom literature, nor does it provide links to them.

Perhaps this shows the reluctance of the people involved to engage with Apocryphal literature, but it single-handedly amends both the lectionary approved at General Synod and the provisions in the Revised Common Lectionary. But it is also in danger of depriving churchgoers of an opportunity to engage with the riches of Wisdom literature, and prevents making connections between the key concepts in Wisdom literature, particularly Sirach 24 and key Johannine thoughts introduced in the Prologue to Saint John’s Gospel.

‘Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations’ (Jeremiah 31: 7) … street art near Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Jeremiah 31: 7-14:

This message of hope was probably written by the Prophet Jeremiah ca 600 BC. Most of his book is directed to the people of Judah, the southern kingdom, which would be conquered by Babylon in 587 BC, but this passage is directed to Israel, the northern kingdom, which at the time was subject to Assyrian rule, and whose people were deported in 722 BC.

This reading opens with a call for celebration. Jacob refers to Israel, which is the ‘chief of the nations,’ for God cares about it. Here is the promise that the remnant of the people – including the ‘blind and the lame,’ the pregnant, the masses – will be gathered together and will return from the Babylonian exile in Assyria, the ‘land of the north.’

In their return from exile, there will be mixed emotions of weeping and consolation as God leads them back. However, unlike the return from exile in Egypt at the first Exodus, the journey will be easy: water will be plentiful, and the road will be straight, with no stumbling or losing direction.

God leads and restores the people as a loving and caring father, or like a shepherd leading his flock.

The nations of the Mediterranean are called to witness this marvellous happening.

When the people return, they will celebrate singing and feasting with bread and wine, life will be like living in a well-watered garden, and during those day they will rejoice, dance and be merry. Mourning will turn into joy, sorrow to gladness, the priests will have long life and prosperity, and the people will be thankful for God’s generosity.

‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist’ (Sirach 24: 3) … mist covers the island of Torcello near Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 24: 1-12:

The Book of Sirach is also known as Sira and Ecclesiasticus, probably meaning church book, an indication that it was used by the early Christian community. It is included in the Apocrypha in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible. It was written ca 180 BC, is faithful to the author’s Jewish heritage and tradition, but also draws om ideas from other cultures that are compatible with his Jewish heritage.

The author, Jesus ben Sira, was from Jerusalem (see Sirach 50: 27) and ran a school in biblical studies for young Jewish men. He understood Wisdom as leading to prosperity. In his opening words, he declares: ‘All wisdom is from the Lord, and with him it remains for ever’ (Sirach 1: 1).

This reading opens: ‘Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people’ (Sirach 24: 1). For Jewish writers and thinkers, the created world is God’s, so faith and reason go hand in hand; learning about creation is learning about God; reasoning is done in the context of God; and knowledge of God is seen as leading to wisdom.

In this reading, Wisdom is abstracted or personified – but in a metaphorical way – and introduces herself ‘in the midst of her people,’ God’s people. She does this in the presence of the heavenly court. Wisdom ‘came forth’ by the word of God (verse 2), and covers the earth like a mist, as the spirit of God.

Wisdom has existed before creation, before the ages (verse 9). Wisdom was present at Creation, and found her presence in the Temple in the holy city, where God was worshipped. Wisdom ‘took root’ among God’s people (verse 12).

‘For he strengthens the bars of your gates; he blesses your children within you’ (Psalm 147: 12) … the gates into Cappoquin House, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 147: 12-20:

Psalm 147 is a hymn that is an invitation to praise God for his universal power and for his providential care. Earlier in this Psalm, (verses 1-11), God is praised for rebuilding Jerusalem, gathering the people, healing, creating, and providing for the needs of those he creates.

In that opening section, we are also reminded that that there is no limit to God’s wisdom: ‘his understanding is beyond measure’ (verse 5).

Now we are reminded that worship is due to God for he protects where we live (‘the bars of your gate’), he blesses the children, and he brings peace and prosperity (verses 12-14).

Then we are reminded of God’s blessings through nature, the weather and the created order, through winter and spring (verses 16-18).

Finally, we are reminded of the blessings through God’s wisdom (verses 19-20).

The Church of Aghia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom in Thessaloniki … modelled on Aghia Sophia in Constantinople (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Wisdom of Solomon 10: 15-21:

The Wisdom of Solomon or Book of Wisdom was written in Greek, probably in Alexandria in the mid-first century BC. This book is part of the Wisdom literature in the Septuagint or Greek Jewish Bible, along with Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), Job and Sirach.

The central theme of this book is ‘Wisdom’ itself. Wisdom (Σοφία, Sophia) is the perfection of knowledge of the righteous as a gift from God, showing herself in action, and Wisdom is with God from all eternity.

In this book, Wisdom, the spirit of God, is personified as Lady Wisdom. This book also tells us that being made in the image of God includes sharing with him in immortality.

Earlier in this chapter, the author says Wisdom has been God’s agent in saving people in the past, and active in saving the people of Israel, through Moses. They are blameless, for they have been chosen and set apart by God (verses 1-14).

Now we are told that Wisdom has delivered a holy and blameless people from their oppressors. Wisdom entered the soul of the ‘servant of the Lord,’ and delivered the people from oppressive overlords, guiding these people by day and by night, on dry land and through deep waters.

In response to this miraculous salvation, even the mute and small children could no longer be silent, but sang out God’s praises.

In our Baptism, we have been ‘marked with the seal of the ... Holy Spirit’ (Ephesians 1: 13) … the Baptistry in Ephesus has a cross-shaped baptismal pool, entered and left by three steep steps at each end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ephesians 1: 3-14:

Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians was probably written from prison in Rome. Although addressed to the Church at Ephesus, it may be a circular letter sent to a number of churches. This letter celebrates the life of the Church, with Christ at its head, who is also the head of the whole creation.

Ephesus is the largest and best-preserved ancient city in the Mediterranean and owed its early growth and prosperity to its proximity to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Ephesus is mentioned over 500 times in Greek literature alone, and was home to many important historical figures. As the gateway to Asia and the East, it was at the heart of trade between Rome and India, and was once the capital of the richest province in the Roman world and the largest port city in the civilised world.

Ephesus is of particular interest to Christians because of its associations with the Apostle Paul, later with Saint John the Evangelist, and as the location for two Councils of the Church in the fifth century.

The Apostle Paul spent two or three years in Ephesus between 52 and 54, and his letters to and from Ephesus make this time the best documented period of his career.

Ephesus was an important centre of Christianity and one of the Seven Churches addressed in the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Evangelist from his exile on the neighbouring island of Patmos. After Domitian’s death, Saint John is said to have moved from Patmos to Ephesus, where he wrote his Gospel. Saint John, who is known in the Greek Church as Saint John the Theologian, is said to have died in Ephesus in the year 100. He was buried on the nearby hill of Ayasoluk, whose name is a corruption of the Greek Aghios Theologos – the Holy or Saintly Theologian.

Our reading from the Letter to the Ephesians begins immediately after Saint Paul’s greeting to his readers, echoing Jewish and early Christian prayers.

Through Christ, God has given us ‘every spiritual blessing,’ making us holy or set apart for him, living in love, adopted as his children, and praising God.

Through Christ, we have been redeemed, forgiven and received the Wisdom or knowledge of God, so that we are part of God’s plan for creation, to be completed in Christ.

In our Baptism, we have been ‘marked with the seal of the ... Holy Spirit’ (verse 13), and as the Church we are God’s own people.

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

John 1: [1-9] 10-18:

The Gospel reading includes or continues the prologue to Fourth Gospel.

The Word, God, Christ, has been born into this imperfect world – the world that ‘came into being through him.’ But most people did not recognise or welcome him as who he is. He came to people who rejected him, but some received him for who he is, and some became committed to him. These people received the power to be adopted as God’s children, are counted as being born into God’s family.

Flesh or humanity was seen as being weak, imperfect and transitory. But in an amazing action, God takes on human flesh in Christ in the Incarnation.

Christ fully reveals God’s ways, and through Christ, who is in complete intimacy with the Father, we have been given access to the Father.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ … sunrise over the coast at Igoumenitsa in northern Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

John 1: [1-9] 10-18 (NRSVA):

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

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

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

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me”.’ 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

‘Their life shall become like a watered garden’ (Jeremiah 31: 12) … the fountain and gardens at Roscrea Castle, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold).

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
in the birth of your Son
you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word,
and shown us the fullness of your love:
Help us to walk in this light and dwell in his love
that we may know the fullness of his joy;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Collect of the Word:

Eternal God,
in whose sight a thousand years
are like a watch in the night:
guide us now and always,
as you have led us in times past,
that our hearts may learn to choose your will:
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Light eternal,
you have nourished us in the mystery
of the body and blood of your Son:
By your grace keep us ever faithful to your word,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Seasonal Variations (Christmas):

The Penitential Kyries:

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

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

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

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

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

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

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


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


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

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1: 4) … sunrise over the island of Inishmore on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Suggested Hymns:

Jeremiah 31: 7-14:

644, Faithful Shepherd, feed me
128, Hills of the north, rejoice
481, God is working his purpose out
58, Morning has broken

Sirach 24: 1–12:

646, Glorious things of thee are spoken

Psalm 147: 13-21:

350, For the beauty of the earth
6, Immortal, invisible, God only wise

The Canticle, Wisdom 10: 15-21:

254, At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
643, Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
262, Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
13, God moves in a mysterious way
104, O for a thousand tongues to sing

Ephesians 1: 3-14:

84, Alleluia! raise the anthem
642, Amazing grace (how sweet he sound!)
189, As with gladness men of old
257, Christ is the world’s Redeemer
318, Father, Lord of all creation
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart
481, God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year
99, Jesus, the name high over all
652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
133, Long ago, prophets knew
49, Lord, bring the day to pass
524, May the grace of Christ our Saviour
232, Nature with open volume stands
33, O Lord of every shining constellation
363, O Lord of heaven and earth and sea
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten
313, The Spirit came as promised
9, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done!
451, We come as guests invited

John 1: 1–9 (10–18):

146, A great and mighty wonder
215, Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended
250, All hail the power of Jesu’s name
84, Alleluia! raise the anthem
147, Angels from the realms of glory
11, Can we by searching find out God
151, Child in the manger
87, Christ is the world’s light, he and none other
501, Christ is the world’s true light
259, Christ triumphant, ever reigning
52, Christ, whose glory fills the skies
318, Father, Lord of all creation
381, God has spoken – by his prophets
89, God is love – his the care
94, In the name of Jesus
553, Jesu, lover of my soul
425, Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts
166, Joy to the world, the Lord is come
427, Let all mortal flesh keep silence
195, Lord, the light of your love is shining
170, Love came down at Christmas
634, Love divine, all loves excelling
172, O come, all ye faithful (Adeste, fideles)
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten
136, On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
387, Thanks to God whose Word was spoken
491, We have a gospel to proclaim

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος … ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1: 1) … the Prologue in the opening chapter of Saint John’s Gospel is Greek mystical poetry of the highest quality (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

John 1: [1-9] 10-18, A Bible study:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ … this is one of the most dramatic opening lines in any great work of literature. And the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to Saint John, is also one of the great works of literature.

The author of this Gospel was identified by Saint Irenaeus as Saint John the Beloved, Saint John the Divine, or Saint John the Theologian, who lived in Ephesus until the imperial reign of Trajan (ca AD 98).

As a boy, Irenaeus had known Saint Polycarp, who was Bishop of Smyrna, near Ephesus, and who is said to have been a disciple of Saint John. Ever since then, the tradition of the Church has identified this Saint John as the author of the Fourth Gospel.

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

The Johannine scholar Raymond Brown has presented a translation from the Greek of the Prologue in poetic format:

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

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

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

Saint John the Evangelist depicted on the Gate at Saint John’s College in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Gospel Reading:

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

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

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

In the opening verses of each of the four Gospels, we are given initial clues to the interests that will govern the evangelists’ respective accounts of Christ’s life and ministry:

● Saint Matthew’s opening genealogy identifies Christ as the descendant of both Abraham and David, as well as giving his credentials as the Messianic king.

● Saint Mark’s opening is the most compact, recounting Christ’s baptism in order to establish his identity as the Son of God.

● Saint Luke’s introduction sets out a detailed account of the announcements and actual births of both Saint John the Baptist and Christ against the backdrop of the wider Roman world.

● Saint John makes the most dramatic use of the prologue form in shaping the contours of a particular Christological emphasis. This is probably one of the most profound passages in the Bible. As simple as its language and phrases are, its description of Christ as the Logos has had a lasting influence on Christian theology.

The prologue prepares the reader for the rest of the Fourth Gospel. Important themes are signalled and Christ’s identity is established at the very outset through the use of Christological titles, divine portents or the manner of his birth.

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

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

Sources and themes:

Scholars argue over the original source of the Prologue. Some say its sources are in the hymn traditions of the Early Church, while others downplay the apparent lyric form and argue that even the more overtly poetic sections of the prologue (such as verses 1-5) are ‘rhythmic prose,’ ‘elevated prose,’ or ‘stylistic prose,’ and they do not agree in their division of the Prologue into lyric and prose sections. Yet there still seems to be a fairly broad consensus about the genre of the material.

Raymond Brown points out that there are parallels of both form and content to the hymn-style material of verses 1-5, 10-12b, 14 and 16, in Colossians 3, Philippians 2, Hebrews 1 and I Timothy 3: 16. The Evangelist’s prose insertions provide, in turn an assessment of Saint John the Baptist’s role (verses 6-9), an explanation of soteriology (12c-13), a comment on Saint John the Baptist’s relation to the Logos (15), and an expansion of the phrase ‘love in place of love’ (Brown), ‘grace upon grace’ (verse 16, NRSV), or ‘one blessing after another’ (NIV) in verses 17-18, all of which play an important role in linking the poetic sections together.

Brown thinks the hymn-like sections may have been written independently of the Gospel itself. He points to the apparent independence of these sections from the rest of the Gospel and similarities with the theology both of the Gospel and of the Johannine Letters.

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

This term is deeply rooted in Old Testament thought (see Genesis 1, Proverbs 8). The role of the Johannine Logos also parallels, in some ways, that of personified Wisdom in a number of traditions within Judaism (see Sirach 24, one of the Lectionary readings on this Sunday). However, Wisdom and the Logos need not be identified with each other, since Wisdom is a creation of God (Sirach 1: 9), while the Logos is pre-existent and Divine.

At the same time, Saint John’s use of such language in a first century Mediterranean setting also recalls associations with Hellenistic thinking of the time, when the term ‘Logos’ played a key role in Stoic thought and in the writings of Hellenistic Jewish thinkers such as Philo.

The Cambridge New Testament scholar CH Dodd (1884-1973) argues that Saint John’s adoption of the term deliberately reflects the ambiguity of the word in Judaism, using a Greek philosophical term to capture both the immanent and the transcendent dimensions of meaning, yet within a Christian framework.

Others argue that while Hellenistic connotations are inevitable for 1st century readers, these associations are secondary as the use of terms in the Fourth Gospel is so often contrary to a Hellenistic worldview, while being distinct from previous Jewish uses.

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

The Prologue also introduces the figure of John the Baptist (verse 6). He is known by the community being addressed, and they hold him in high regard, which explains why his relationship with and status in regard to the Logos are set out (verses 6-8, 15, and later in verses 19-28). Yet these remarks about John interrupt the flow of the poetic and liturgical sections, which raises further questions about the composition of the Prologue.

Brown says the Fourth Gospel was composed in several stages, and he sees the hymn material in the Prologue (verses 1-5, 10-12, 14, 16) as a late addition of a final redactor, so that the hymn-like material and the later introductory material are interwoven.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1: 4) … Dublin port at night seen from Clontarf in the week after Christmas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Section 1: Verses 1-5

Verses 1-2:

While the focus of the Prologue is on God in relation to humanity, rather than God in relation to himself, the first two verses are the closest to an intra-Trinitarian description in this Gospel.

The ‘Word’ here is difficult to separate from the language of Genesis 1, with its echoes of ‘in the beginning’ and a creative ‘Word’ which calls all things into being. The phrase ‘in the beginning’ could also combine both a temporal sense – in the beginning of history – and a cosmological sense, ‘at the root of the universe.’

The opening verses leave little doubt that the Logos is identified as being equal in divine status to God, and is fully God, so that what will be said about the Logos will be said, in the fullest sense, of God.

Verses 3-5:

The remainder of this first section (verses 3-5) is introduced by πάντα (panta), a Greek word that figures prominently in several other New Testament hymn-like passages (see Romans 11: 36; I Corinthians 8: 6; Colossians 1: 16). These passages – all of them Pauline – describe the comprehensive character of Christ’s work of redemption. The phrasing of verse 3 is best seen as an expansion of the activity of the Logos in creation, with the restatement in verse 3b emphasising the all-inclusive character of the involvement of the Logos
The word ζωὴ (zoe, life) is one of those terms in John that is laden with meaning. Although the sense of ‘eternal life’ may seem difficult to apply here, a consideration of the creational basis for this concept makes it quite acceptable, for the Logos is from the beginning and the source of all life (see Genesis 2: 7, 9; 3: 22; and Revelation 22: 2). There is a close connection between life and light in the giving and sustaining of life (John 8: 12; see Psalms 13: 3; 27: 1; 56: 13; 89: 15).

How should verse 5 be translated? The NIV translates the verb καταλαμβάνω (katalambáno) as ‘understood’: ‘and the darkness has not understood it.’ However, the NEB, Brown and others speak of ‘mastering’ or ‘overcoming’ the darkness. Despite the fall, the work of the Logos did not end but instead continued.

Section 2: Verses 6-13

Verses 6-9:

Are these verses out of place here? Do they disrupt the poetic flow?

Many commentators, including Brown, see these verses as an explanatory insertion that should be placed after the Prologue and before verse 19. Brown says one of the main purposes of the Fourth Gospel is to counter a sectarian group that regarded Saint John the Baptist as the Messiah, or at least as being equal to him – an intention emphasised in these verses, and further developed later in this chapter.

Verse 9 also draws attention once again to the theme of ‘light.’ Although the description of the light as ‘true’ (ἀληθινόν, alethinon) may seem puzzling at first, as there is no reference in the Fourth Gospel to a ‘false’ or ‘lesser’ light, there is a well-established tradition in Judaism in which the Torah is symbolised by light, with which the writer may be contrasting the final and true, real and eternal revelation of God’s light.

Verses 10-13 (verses 10-12b):

Verses 10 to 12b have been understood in different ways. If the passage is read as referring to the Old Testament presence of the Logos among his people (whether in the Torah or through prophets and leaders), it forms a chronological bridge between the Creation strophe of verses 1-5 and the Incarnation reported in verse 14. Yet such a reading would interrupt the chronological sequence of the Prologue, since John the Baptist has already been mentioned in verses 6-8.

Dodd argues that the Old Testament sometimes identifies the people of Israel as the ‘children’ or ‘son’ or ‘sons’ of God (see Deuteronomy 14: 1; Psalm 82: 6; Hosea 1: 10; Hosea 11: 1).

But this could also be an initial reference to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, so that verses 10-12b parallel the career of Jesus, providing a short summary of both the Book of Signs (chapters 2-12) in verse 11, and the Book of Glory (chapters 13-20) in verse 12.

It could be argued that the writer has a dual purpose, referring at on e and the same time to both the relationship of the Logos with creation and Israel, and to its Incarnation in the ministry of Christ.

The word κόσμος (kosmos), first introduced in verse 9, is now explained further, in a resumption of the staircase poetic structure from verses 1-5. The word is repeated three times, in order to explain that the creation in verse 3 (particularly the human domain of that creation) painfully and inexplicably rejected the Logos on his appearance. This lack of recognition, not ‘seeing,’ by some in Jesus’ audience, is an important theme later in the Gospel (see John 9: 35-41; 11: 9, 40; 12: 37-45; and also 1:14).

Verses 10-13 (verses 11-13):

The remainder of the middle section expands on this theme and narrows the focus of the ‘rejection’ motif. The term ‘his own; (ἴδια, idia, idioi) is used in two senses: the first reference in the neuter plural (‘his own things,’ NRSV; ‘that which was his own,’ NIV) refers in a general way to the place which he has made, the creation; and the second use is in the masculine plural – ‘his own (people)’ – either humanity (verses 3, 4) or, more specifically, Israel – who were brought into being through him (II Samuel 5: 2, Psalm 33: 12; Isaiah 1: 3; Jeremiah 31: 33).

But Christ’s coming will not be met with complete rejection. The section concludes on the note of hope, emphasising the possibility for those who believe to be born anew and recreated through the same God who brought all of creation into being. The triple negative construction in verse 13 (‘not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man,’ NRSV; ‘not of human descent, nor of human decision, nor a husband’s will’) heightens the contrast between conventional, natural processes of the created world, and the newness which Christ’s ministry brings into the world (see John 3: 3-8).

The term ‘believe in,’ πιστεύουσιν εἰς (pisteuein eis) in verse 12 is typically Johannine and appears almost 40 times in this Gospel, most often in connection with Christ (31 times), and usually in reference to saving faith. Those who believe in the Son will form a new community of people who will be ‘his own,’ in contrast to those who – although they were already his own – did not recognise or believe in him.

Brown and others see verse 13 as an editorial expansion of the original hymn. They point to a differing style and its focus on the believer, in contrast to the Logos-centred emphasis of verses 1-5, 10-12 and 14.

Section 3: Verses 14-18:

The reading for Sunday continues into the first verse of the third section of the Prologue, verse 14.

Verse 14:

The final section of the Prologue draws together the different elements introduced up to now. Attention now shifts to the centrality of the Incarnation and its implications. For the first time since verse 1, the term Logos is restated, emphasising the movement from its cosmological dimensions in verse 1 to the temporal experience and conviction of the present Johannine community.

This movement is also apparent in the writer’s use of the verb ‘to become’ (γίνομαι, ginomai) in place of ‘to be.’ In this way, he signals that the Word has taken on a new form in a dramatic way.

This language could be flat rejection of any sort of Docetism.

Paradoxically, the Word that was fully God is now completely ‘flesh’ (σὰρξ, sarx), but both are equally true. There is a similar parallel between ‘was with God’ (in verse 1b) and ‘made his dwelling among us’ (verse 14b). The verb used here – ‘to make one’s dwelling’ (σκηνόω, skenoo) – draws on the Exodus traditions of a God who once lived among his people in the Tabernacle (see Exodus 33) and made his glory visible to his people there (Exodus 40: 34; see I Kings 8: 11). This theme was continued in prophetic literature, including Joel, Zechariah and Ezekiel, and is a theme in the entire story of God’s covenant with Israel.

The important concept of ‘glory’ (δόξα, doxa) is introduced here. This is another of the special terms in the Fourth Gospel, where it occurs 35 of the 185 times it is found in the New Testament. It is deeply rooted in the Old Testament, where the Hebrew concept of kabod embodies the dual sense of God’s ruling divinity made visible through observable actions of great power.

For John, this glory is visible in Christ’s statements and signs, many of which fulfil or supersede important elements in the Old Testament. But it is most evident in Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

There is a close link here between σκηνόω (skenoo) and δόξα (doxa): ‘the Word … dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.’ This may allude to the fulfilment of the ‘new covenant’ promises regarding the coming nearness of God to his people in a way that will replace both tabernacle and Temple.

The word μονογενοῦς (monogenous) has long been translated ‘only begotten,’ an expression linked closely to Trinitarian procession theology. Recently, it has also come to be seen in terms of Christ’s unique relationship with the Father, emphasising obedience and faithfulness to his purpose.

The couplet ‘grace and truth’ (χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας, charitos kai aletheias; also in verse 17) echoes the Hebrew pairing of ‘steadfast love’ and ‘truth,’ which are central in the covenantal self-disclosure of God in the Old Testament. For a third time, the writer is using terminology that has important significance in Exodus (see Exodus 34: 6) and that is used throughout the Old Testament covenant. He is telling us he is going to present Christ to the reader as the fulfilment of God’s previous revelation to Israel and of the hope of a second Exodus revelation.

The site of Saint John’s tomb at the Basilica of Saint John the Theologian in Selçuk, near Ephesus … his tomb is marked by a marble plaque and four Byzantine pillars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


The Prologue lays the foundation for the development of the ‘realised eschatology’ of the Fourth Gospel. When Saint John speaks later of life in the sense of ‘eternal’ life, the Prologue has already established that from the beginning in Christ the eternal God and source of life is present and is among men and women for that purpose. In Christ, God enters into all the ambiguities, difficulties, and trials of human life. He comes to live among his people as one of them, revealing God at first hand, and offering new life as the source of life from the beginning.

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

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

‘For he strengthens the bars of your gates; he blesses your children within you’ (Psalm 147: 12) … gates at Portumna Castle, Co Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The hymn suggestions are provided in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling. The hymn numbers refer to the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal (5th edition, Oxford: OUP, 2000).

‘For he strengthens the bars of your gates; he blesses your children within you’ (Psalm 147: 12) … a gate at a farm near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)