WHEN I was Chaplain to the Lord Mayor of Belfast, I remember one afternoon strolling around the Belfast City Hall spending time captivated by the magnificent buildings and artwork.
What immediately caught my attention was the Belfast Crest (also referred to as the Béal Feirste Seal) drawn by the artist John Vinycomb. History informs us that the coat of arms dates back to the 17th century, and was presented to the City by the Ulster King of Arms when Belfast achieved town status.
The crest consists of a ship and two seahorses (most likely depicting the shipping culture of the day), as well as a bell and a chained wolf-hound. But what stood out to me was the Latin phrase ‘Pro Tanto Quid Retribuamus’ translated in various ways. For example, ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me?’ or ‘What shall we give back in return for so much?’
This stems back to Psalm 116 (verse 12). This particular psalm centres on thanksgiving. The Psalmist not only recognises there is a God, but acknowledges His presence every day; the God who listens, shows mercy, compassion, who is on the side of the helpless, and seeks to rescue and shower with blessings.
It is as if the writer is overwhelmed by the greatness of God, and in the midst of his scrabbling for words, he cries out: ‘What shall we give back in return for so much?’ I have no idea why this particular verse was chosen as the motto of our great city. I confess I get nervous at any sniff of scripture being weaponised, but I believe God wants us on HIS side: His side of grace, mercy, compassion, kindness, love for neighbour and so on. However, there is something redemptive and healing about reclaiming these words for today. We must bear in mind that Psalm 116 belongs to a collective of thanksgiving psalms, known as the ‘Egyptian Hallel’ (Hallel meaning ‘praise) and was used in the celebration of the Passover.
Passover is a Jewish celebration of God’s people being rescued from slavery and oppression (the story of Exodus). In response, the Psalmist vows to “lift up the cup of Salvation”. Today, God is still on the side of the oppressed and longs for people to be liberated.
Furthermore, the psalmist recognises his total dependence on God, and promises to complete what God has called him to do. Yes, our city crest contains symbols from our past, but I also believe it is connected to our present day, as God still longs to rescue and liberate us. We have been through so much and we live with different backgrounds and narratives. I pray as a city we will keep rescuing and liberating people. I pray we can be a people of His kindness, mercy and compassion, wanting the best for each other. Let’s keep rebuilding, restoring, repairing and reviving our great city.