17 th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2020
Sometime towards the end of the last century, when I was a housemaster in the
school, the boys went home for a mid-term break. One of them lived in
Clonmel. It was February and what can you do with a teenager, an only boy,
home from school in February. At Christmas, Mike’s father had bought him a
metal detector as a present. Metal detectors were the rage at the time. They went
off together to an ancient monastic site in Tipperary to try out the new toy.
On Sunday, the 17 th February, 1980, they made one of the archaeological
discoveries of the century. They came across the Derrynaflan Chalice and a
number of other liturgical vessels hidden in a field. These must have been
hidden there sometime between the 10 th and the 12 th century, when Viking raids
and dynastic wars made it necessary to hide such valuables from thieves. The
Gospel we have just heard suggests slipping them back in place and then buying
the field. Not so easy when you are dealing with a Tipperary farmer and when a
preservation order has been slapped on the whole vicinity of the ancient ruins.
So, they kept it a complete secret for three weeks. Mike came back to school
and told nobody. He said later that he had to go down the back avenue and onto
the games fields shouting his head off to relieve the tension and let off steam.
Finally, they reported their find to the National Museum of Ireland in
Dublin which set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. It was the beginning of
a six year legal battle. Who owned the treasure they had found in the field?
At first, under Irish law at the time, the finders were entitled to a reward
for making the discovery. Offered 10,000 Irish punts, tthey rejected this
insufficient when compared to the value of their find. Six years later, the High
Court ruled that the find or its value (estimated at IR£5.5 million) should be
returned to the finders. The finders appeared on national television celebrating
this ruling in champagne. One year later, 1987, a further final judgement was
delivered by the Supreme Court saying that the Derrynaflan Hoard belonged to
the state. The finders were given a reward of IR£50,000.
This chalice can now be viewed behind a glass case at the National
Museum of Ireland in Dublin. And one wonders whether this was not the
biggest steal of all! The Derrynaflan Chalice ‘represents the most complex and
sumptuous expression of the ecclesiastical art-style of early-medieval Ireland as
we know it in its eighth- and ninth-century maturity,’according to the art
historian, Michael Ryan. But why was it made that way, and why was it hidden
from thieves in the ninth or tenth century? So that it might continue to be used
for exactly the same purpose as we are gathered around this altar today to
perform: ‘do this in memory of me.’
So as not to be left in the ha’penny place, the chalice we will use today is
the most precious one we have in Glenstal Abbey. Dating from the 1679, which
is etched on the base. So, we’re all into precious chalices.
But here’s the point: all these beautiful artefacts,the work of human
hands, are were and always will be for one purpose only:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have
this bread we offer you, this wine we offer you, this precious chalice we offer
you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, they will become our spiritual
food and drink.
What we are offering here this morning is not the Ardagh Chalice, found here in
Limerick around the same time as the Derrynaflan Chalice; not the 17 th Century
chalice at Glenstal Abbey; but rather the most important treasure anyone can
find during their whole lifetime. This incalculable treasure which Solomon in all
his glory would have given everything he had, to possess, is ours for the asking
this day, every day and right though to eternity. ‘Take this all of you and drink
from it: This is the Chalice of my blood, the blood of the eternal covenant.’
My sisters and brothers, let us take it, treasure it, and make it our spiritual drink.