The Baptism of Christ

13th Jan 2013


Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ

January 2013 (Year C)

 

“The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove”  Luke 3.21.

 

It was Harold Wilson, former British Prime-Minister, who coined the phrase ‘a week is a long time in politics’ . We might equally say this of the season of Epiphany. Last week we learnt of the appearance of the three wise men and the revelation of Jesus as the manifestation of God’s glory to the nations. Things still felt rather ‘Christmassy’ then. But now, within the space of a week, all is changed. A very long time, thirty years have passed, as we witness the Baptism of the adult Christ and the inauguration of his ministry. The change is very abrupt and perplexing. In the Christian Church, we come to understand this change as the necessary outcome of the Epiphany. The appearance, the manifestation of Jesus, leaves no time for further star-gazing. It’s now a case of ‘first things first’ The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that Baptism is what comes first. Mark’s account of Jesus’ Baptism has him coming out of the waters and of the Holy Spirit coming upon him. But for Luke, this morning’s Gospel has the Holy Spirit descending not only upon Jesus but also upon others after all had been baptised. This is a very significant emphasis because in Baptism it places both us and Jesus at the one singular moment of destiny. This is profound Church teaching. It tells us that we are Baptised not only for ourselves and our lives alone but in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Baptism was the beginning point of Jesus' ministry just as it is the beginning point for our Christian identity. 

 

One of the most beautiful paintings in the world is hung at The National Gallery here in London. It is Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’, painted in about the year 1448. The painting is not at all straightforward, and we see that the Baptism does not take place in first century Palestine but as depicted in fifteenth century Italy and surrounded by  high and verdant Tuscan hills, with a small town, San Sepulcro, in the background. Baptism is always contemporaneous. The painter Piero was interested in placing his figures in a strict geometry and we see that John the Baptist is painted with his right arm and left leg balanced precariously over the waters. In doing this the painting shows us lines of energy which run from the water through the Baptist, who acts both as a bridge and a conduit through which the life-giving waters convey a Christ whose body is dazzling white. John's precarious balance allows us to see that the step beyond the water is the one which takes us in a new direction. The comparison with Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for a man, but a giant leap forward for mankind’ is apt. The action is immediate and urgent and specific.

 

How is our own Baptism to be known and expressed? The first observation is that our life is no longer ‘any old life’. Great grace was given in our Baptism and in the blessing with water came the mark and a seal of the Holy Spirit. Now we come to see our lives in the light of Christ. In St Paul’s phrase we are for all time ‘in’ Christ. What is being asked of us is not that we strive for a whole lot of impossible perfections, but that, in the ordinary course of our lives we go on in a loyal way, and within the confines of our own particular lives and their demands, do our own bit in the way of being generous and helpful, listening and praying and aiming to stay true to the Jesus who is the patterning for our lives. But of course the great danger is that we fall into a complacent notion of what constitutes the Christian life 'so long as it doesn't get in our way'. To counter this, the Baptism of Christ, coming as it does so abruptly, coming as it does as a kind of intrusion, keeps that tension with the ‘quantum leap forward’ or ‘the leap of faith' which it signifies. For we are Baptised into Christ’s death. The waters are the waters of a kind of descent into hell.The re-emergent self is the one which is now readied, in the ordinary things of life and in the emergencies to come, to own that, whatever may befall us, ‘we will be true to thee ‘til death’. This is quite a pledge, this pledge of our Baptism. It might well require of us great reserves of spiritual resource and courage. Here are some words from The Rev’d Prof. Leslie Houlden:

 

The explosion that was Jesus’ coming and being among us echoes still – and echo it must for each of us:  not just rubber-stamping the way we are, but disturbing us and forming us more and more, with sensitivity and love, and with revolution when the need arises.

 

I think it is very hard to combine a sense of that need with the inevitable routine that dominates most of our lives:  how to know in the ordinary and how to be stirred amid the humdrum.  We need imagination and we need deliberate attention to God and to the figure of Jesus in his crisis-filled manner of life, if we are to keep the spark of faith alive within us at more than a formal level – like a pan of water for ever just simmering!  Jesus’ baptism holds us to the sense of crisis – which he held to the end.

 

We have opportunity at this time of the year to do something to show our Baptismal loyalty to Christ. The first is to sign up to help cook breakfasts for the Camden Cold Weather Night Shelter. The second is to consider coming to one of the acts of worship for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Third is to go away and to pray and ask God whether there is a person or a situation at this time that needs you to show an active love. Your prayer will tell you who this is and what you can do. The explosion that Prof Houlden speaks is the one which has us live as agents of transforming love. The breakthrough must surely come each day as our prayer, our consciousness of God, re-awakens in us an active expression of his being.

 

The abruptness of the Baptism of Christ is the reminder we need that this Epiphany glory is not one of tinsel, but of the care of hearts and minds and bodies and souls.

 

TS Eliot reminds us that this is immediate. He knows it just as Luke and Piero also knew it.

 

 

“The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

 

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.”

 

 

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets.



Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany

6th Jan 2013


Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2013 (Year C)

 

 

 

We returned to our places, these kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

 

TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi.

 

 

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and this word is taken from the Greek word epiphanos, and it has two meanings. The first of these speaks of ‘a sign’. The sign is something shown, a manifestation of something new and startling. It is revealed in the birth of the Messiah, which summons our three wise men to find the sign which had been promised by Isaiah and announced by the angel Gabriel; of the appearance of the longed-for Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”:

 

The heavenly babe you there shall find

To human view displayed,

All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands

and in a manger laid.

 

The appearance of the infant Christ provides a second epiphany. This is the epiphany of conversion as a sudden and new perception of realities. It is what Eliot means when he tells us that the wise men returned to their places "no longer at ease in the old dispensation".  It tells us of the renewing effect that the showing of the sign has upon those who witness it.

 

Fear not to enter his courts in the slenderness

of the poor wealth thou wouldst reckon as thine

Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness

these are the offerings to lay on his shrine.

 

Epiphany calls us to true and undiluted worship of our Saviour.  The Magi travelled from afar in search of the truth. When they found that truth in Jesus, they were bowled over by it.  Their lives were changed.  A very early Christian wall painting shows the three Magi walking towards Christ and His Mother as though they are in fact dancing in perfect synchronisation.  The clue to its understanding is the fact that it is painted on the walls of a catacomb, the place where early Christians buried their dead.  In this setting, we are walking not towards Bethlehem but rather towards Jesus the Lord who will come one day to judge both the living and the dead. If that is so, then you and I must walk both with eagerness and with integrity.  You and I must offer lives that are shaped by our quest, by the grace of the Lord Jesus whom we serve and to whom we come. And we must respect what we believe to be our Christian vocation and not betray its importance. Our  lives must find their expression rather as a dance in sychronicity and in step with the One who keeps time... 

 

Just as the magi travelled from afar to see the Sign, we too follow that same journey in our own Christian lives. It is the journey we make in our hearts to the place where we see and we know Jesus and where we bear witness. We may, out of the joy and the peace of his appearing, offer him the best gift we have to give, the gift of ourselves and of our own being and of the deepening of our witness.  To speak like this is to speak of the Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs but as a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us as something vitally necessary for us.

 

The Story of the Three Wise Men is not just one which has been ‘tagged’ onto the Nativity for extra effect. It is has a crucial significance in the message of the coming of the Son of God. We continue to remember that the divine name given to Jesus is ‘God with Us’. His coming to birth has caused a rupture in Eliot's ‘old dispensation’. It has challenged the fixed separation of heaven and earth; and of the existence of God and his relation to us as remote. God has in Jesus come to us in flesh and blood, has come to us as a pauper child, has come through his life on earth to raise us all into the likeness of God Himself. We are to respond as did the wise men:

 

O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;

Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;

With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness

Kneel and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"

 

J S B Monsell (1811-1875). 

 



Midnight Mass of Christmas 2012

24th Dec 2012


Sermon for Midnight Mass 2012

 

This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger.                                                                                                                            Luke 2.13

 

Now is the time (midnight) and this is the place (our church and countless others) where the sign once promised to the shepherds is to be given to us once more. In churches around the world this midnight hour is significant for its being an hour of deep darkness, lit by a star which leads all Christians to the place where Jesus is born. It is the star that leads to a recognition of the things that have taken place. At the end of this Mass we will wend our way to the crib scene and we will bless it with holy water and incense. We will gaze upon the figures there as we have done before, many of us as children. We will gaze in adoration as the shepherds did before us, in awe and wonder.  This night has of course, a dreamlike quality about it, even though for the Gospel writer Luke the facts of the matter are made plain and his description of them graphic. The child born to Mary and Joseph is set before us as a sign. And the word ‘sign’ suggest to us something that indelibly prints itself upon the mind. Something that is clear and irrefutable.

 

The sign is both there to be seen in the crib scene but it is also carries a deeper meaning which provides the Church with a much bigger picture. It is the one in which God, the unfathomable, God of the Old Testament chooses to discloses himself to us in the infant Jesus. It is what one theologian has called ‘the revelation of defenceless love’. It lies in the name Emmanuel which means ‘God with us’. The nativity scene in all its beauty is translated into what we call ‘real life’, and that means that all life is founded in God as it is found in this child. The ‘revelation of defenceless love’ is also the offering of healing grace from the source of life. A sermon was preached 1,000 years ago by one Symeon the Theologian who tells us that the coming to birth of Jesus is our birth into a new manner of living and of hoping:

 

We awaken in Christ’s body as Christ awakens our bodies,

And everything that is hurt, everything that is maimed,

Ugly, irreparably damaged,

Is in Him transformed,

Recognised as whole, as lovely, and radiant in His light.

 

Some years ago now I found myself in Somers Town and waiting for a bus outside St Mary’s Church. A man in tattered clothes rushed up to me and recognised me, and I’m afraid I didn’t recognise him. I could suddenly see my bus coming out of the corner of my eye and I was impatient with him, thinking that he would be asking me for money, which happened very often. But he didn’t. He leant toward me and gave me a pound coin and wished me a merry Christmas and thanked me for all the work I was doing and for being a priest. I got on the bus and sat down and was ashamed at my impatience and then looked at the coin in my hand. It seemed to be to be a  revelation of that defenceless love which is a great part of who God is and of how God chooses to reveal himself. My uneasy feelings turned to something more approaching gladness in recognising that this was a sign, a disclosure of something wonderful. It was a blessing from an unexpected source. It opened up something new in me.

 

Join then all hearts that are not stone,

And all our voices prove

To celebrate this holy One,

The God of peace and love.

 

From the hymn 'Behold the Great Creator Makes Himself a House of Clay' New English Hymnal 23.

 

 

“The dear Christ enters in” on our own worlds just as he entered into the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago. Ever since then, ‘the stars in the bright sky’ have looked down on us and on our world. And then, as now, the Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, comes to us and abides with us. He abides even in the midst of this world’s and our world’s own brokenness and pain, uncertainly and defensiveness as much he does when we feel our guiding stars shine brightly.

 

The Church across the world tonight stops and stays at the scene of nativity. It stops in ‘solemn stillness’, and it offers this time, in the dark and in the middle of Winter, to remind itself of the gift of Jesus Christ and of  the Giver who is the defenceless God. God is now always and everywhere present for us. The gift we bring tonight is ourselves and our lives, to be made new in the One who has made all things possible and who makes our lives possible rather than probable.

 

May God be with you on this blessed and holy night now and in the time to come…May God bring you his love and peace as no other possibly can.  Amen.

 



The Fourth Sunday of Advent

23rd Dec 2012


Sermon for Advent 4 Year C (2012)

 

“The Almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His name”. Luke 1.49

 

As a child I remember an old lady who always sat in front of us in church. Her name was Miss Raddle. She was very short sighted and frail and used to sing from her hymn book both through the thick lenses of her spectacles and also using a very large magnifying glass and gazing upon the words with a perpetual frown.

The same old woman had arrived on our doorstep some years before in the driving rain with a parish magazine and an invitation to come to church. Her house call that evening did indeed bring us to church. It was a visit that was God-given. Despite her frailty and her pebble glasses she was a woman of burning Christian integrity. She magnified not only the words of her hymn book, but also in her own person magnified the meaning of God in a way that was direct and present and heart-warming to us.

 

In this morning’s Gospel from St Luke we learn of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. How like Luke the physician to include the fact of the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting! The baby’s kick draws from Elizabeth a blessing and a prophecy; that what has been promised to Mary by the angel is to be fulfilled, and that Mary is ‘Mother of my Lord’. The exchange between the two women sites the ordinariness of their meeting in the little Judean hill town with the coming of salvation promised by God and spanning across past, present and future time. The effect would be dizzying and confusing were it not for the fact of Mary herself and her response to all these things. And she responds not meekly and demurely as at  the annunciation from the angel Gabriel. No; here she bursts into song, and the song is what the Church calls ‘The Magnificat’. St Augustine once said that to sing is to pray twice, but to sing is also to experience a deep joy and the sense of joy in the Magnificat is very intense. She sings of the favour God has shown to her, and of her own lowliness. She boldly declares herself to be most blessed over future generations, and then she speaks of God who through her own ‘yes’ makes immediate and present something that is expressed by Mary in the past tense:

 

She cries, ‘He has scattered the proud’, ‘He has raised up the lowly’,  ‘He has brought down the powerful’ ‘He has filled the hungry with good things’ and ‘He has sent the rich empty away’…

 

The Magnificat is a songful cry from a lowly peasant girl who has recognised and accepted God’s call for her life. Mary not only magnifies her God like Miss Raddle; she sings the Magnificat in the joy of the fact that God will, through her and through the child she will bear, magnify himself to the world through ‘all generations’:

 

 Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,

He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,

Of the things that are, that have been,

And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!    Prudentius (348–413)

 

As we think on these things, two things emerge. The first is the influence of the idea of the visit or visitation. The second is the idea of a relationship that emerges between the divine and the human disclosure. During the Christmas season, there will be many visits to friends and relatives. People will by now have travelled to get back to family or friends, or travelled to get away on their own. The promise with a visit is that the encounter will be kind and gracious. Visiting has been very much a staple of the Christian ministry, and it would be a pity if our Christian ministry, both ordained and lay, were to forgo home visits and replace them with grand mission strategies which did not touch the hearts and lives of individuals at a deeper level. I find myself visiting people whom I hardly know and as a priest and am welcomed unquestionably into people’s homes. One is invited into a special place of trust and it is a privilege to be shown family photographs and to talk easily in the comfort of the home in a way not so easily possible in other environments. The promise with a visit, and its encounter is of what I understand to be ‘the sacramentality of conversation’, and of good conversation allowing for trust and understanding in our knowing of one another. Mary’s sings her Magnificat as a song of joy in the experience of the God whose presence is rich in mutuality. God’s offers his love to us in the risk of its being rejected or unheeded.  But this is no matter…  The mutuality is the point. St Athanasius reminded the Church that “God became human so that we might become like God”. He visits us through Mary’s child-bearing – He expresses himself in ‘lowly’ form so that we can understand our own relation to Him as one of mutuality and of intimacy. He comes to us to be with us, even when our hearts are cold.

 

The mutuality of God is to be mirrored in the recognition of our mutual humanity. This will be for all of us a risk: in which we take on our own and others openness and compassion. In her visit to Elizabeth, various levels of recognition are considered by the Gospel writer, Luke. A greeting becomes a song of prophecy and praise in recognition of the One who has disclosed himself in a very particular way. For in this encounter the divine and the human disclose themselves to one another. As we come to the end of this Advent Season, typified as one of hopeful waiting, we come also to its climactic point this morning in the divine disclosure. A simple visit to a cousin in a small village in the Judaean countryside, as with Miss Raddle’s visit to a family one evening in the driving rain were both to prove the point of Luke’s Gospel, that  “God has become like one of us so that we might become like God”. God’s disclosure of himself  is not only one of word and song but also of life, a life which is about to come to birth, as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. It is our life. It is a life which is God made real and magnified in the lives of those who find him and live in Him as the mutual God.The God who has visited us and is doing great things for us and whose name is Holy.



The Third Sunday of Advent

16th Dec 2012


 

Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year C)

 

Luke 3.7-18.

 

In today’s gospel we once again meet John the Baptist. John is invariably defined by what he is not: he is not the light; he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. He is unworthy to tie the sandal of one coming after him. While he baptizes with water, the one he proclaims will baptise with the Holy Spirit. And he knows who this person is, for he is standing right there among the priests and Levites sent to question him; and the priests and Levites do not recognize him. The English court composer Orlando Gibbons composed a breathtakingly beautiful piece entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ which pictures John in a series of questions about his identity, most of them answered in the negative. And the emphasis on the negative identity of John alongside his passionate avowal of ‘The One Who is to Come’ serves to make his prophecy suspenseful and telling.

 

But John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from his 'being not' what Jesus is, his prophecy is passionate and embodied. The man and the prophecy are one. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am one the voice of one crying in the wilderness’.  No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John has.

 

And in acknowledging that he stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, he links us to the prophecies of our first reading today, that joyous vision of the good news of deliverance. The whole passage overflows with joy at the vision is of a just king who frees the oppressed, comforts those who mourn, repairs ruination, and hates all the sin and wrongdoing which disfigure the world; a God who makes an everlasting covenant with his people, and promises them that they are the people whom the Lord has blessed. This is John's task as a witness, to proclaim, to testify to, this glorious message: the time has come, the time is now, the Messiah is amongst you. And this note of joy or rejoicing is so apt for today, as the wearing of this pink vestment signifies a rejoicing in the midst of the glorious solemnity of the Advent season. The Latin word gaudete is one which signifies rejoicing.

 

From what cause do we as Christians rejoice? We rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness here at Holy Cross Church. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones whom Jesus called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence as Christians. The Church’s essential character is bound up in its tradition, which is a living one, in which love is the meaning.  It is not to be bargained away under any circumstances or undermined by the recourse to the secular mentality or the so-called ‘new atheism’ which is a buying of conveniences and does not address us as free and fallible human beings. It is because everything belongs to the lowest or median human common denominator. It is a joyless, controlling dictat in which everything except God is addressed and filed away in neat compartments. It is simplistic and narrow. It does not understand or offer forgiveness.

 

In this church a cause for rejoicing lies in the many people who come here to visit, and that moment at which they find themselves in awe of what they see. This building helps us to envisage God and to anticipate, as John did, his existence as a distinct reality, conveyed in the architecture of pillars, arches, steps and the play of light and shadow, the glint of gold, and then the feeling that this is no ordinary place but filled with prayer and a sense of what is called ‘the numinous’; filled with an indefinable spiritual quality. Remember that John came as a witness to this same light. This then proves to be a place where time spent in prayer here, in often an almost empty building, proves to be one in which God is regularly found and known.

 

John the Baptist gifts us the Christian perspective. He is the one who proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but something which is with us in the here and now. It is a life to be lived in all its various shades and shadows, lights and glories.

 

This is gaudete; this is our joy. That we have found God in the Church and that he was and is and will remain for us, our true life’s meaning and its ultimate worth, our freedom and our hope.

 



 

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