Sermon given at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Advent 2021
Let our longing be worthy of the kingdom which John proclaimed.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 12th December 2021 at 3.00 PM
In the iconography of the Christian East – what we think of as the Orthodox world – John the Baptist plays a very central role. He is one of the most beloved and most frequently depicted holy figures. This is “the friend of the bridegroom” as the Baptist describes himself in St John’s Gospel, who rejoices at the sound of the Christ’s voice. The one who must decrease, so that Christ must increase, is the greatest born of women, as Jesus himself says, and in the magnificent deisis icon, present in every Orthodox iconastasis – the screen which separates the altar from the rest of the Church – the Baptist flanks Christ along with the Blessed Virgin Mary. In his book, entitled The Friend of the Bridegroom, Sergei Bulgakov writes, “John is the living boundary, the crest of the watershed; he looks in both directions at the same time… and here, he cannot be separated from the Ever-Virgin [Mary]. In her the law was fulfilled… In him it was accomplished to die into new life.”
In this Eastern world, which through its liturgical and artistic tradition transmits much to us from the first Christian millennium, it is John the Baptist, not St Joseph, whose place alongside Mary is guaranteed in iconographical or pictorial terms. But in the West, this dramatically and swiftly changes, so that by what we think of as the renaissance period, St Joseph has all but edged out John the Baptist in order of importance. In the Catholic West this focus on Joseph continues as the centuries proceed – Pope Benedict XIII, in 1725, promulgated a feast of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph to be celebrated throughout the whole Roman Catholic Church, and in 1847, Pope Pius IX declared that St Joseph should honoured as the patron of the universal Church. But let’s get back to the imagery. John the Baptist has been edged out of the centre of so much Western painting. The Holy Family has become the image of the incarnation, and the popular image of Christmas. We have domesticated the Incarnation of the Son of God, some would say because of our fascination with pictures of mothers and babies, and due to a strange, perhaps obsessive focus on what is often described as ‘the nuclear family.’ Once we’ve said what we want to say about baptism, and the famous scene of Jesus’s own baptism in the River Jordan, we don’t quite know what to say about John.
In Portsmouth Cathedral, there is a twentieth-century statue of the Baptist, cast in 1951 by David Wynne. A young male figure stands, almost naked, with his head tilted back, and his mouth open in a frozen roar. Today, the statue is in the South Tower Transept where the Cathedral Shop is located. If the bronze was painted, you might even mistake him for a Christmas shopper having a meltdown. This image disrupts, and not just because of where it is placed. It is precisely not the kind of image we are used to in Anglican churches, and yet, this figure is demonstrably ‘strong in spirit’, as St Luke puts it. He is the voice crying in the wilderness, the ‘living boundary’ as Bulgakov describes him, at the hinges of Old and New Testaments, and yet always simultaneously pointing away from himself and ahead of himself. John, the last of the prophets, and perhaps the first of the martyrs.
We rightly think of the prophetic spirit as one which senses and discerns the signs of the times, and Advent is the season par excellence in which such discernment ought to take place. It is a time when we audit our capacity for hope, and expectation. It is a season when we allow our longing to become focussed, as we seek after truth. But we have made this discernment and its associated prophecy too comfortable. We have perhaps lost the edge in our longing for final, ultimate, truth. There is no doubt that it is genuinely prophetic to articulate and strive for, for example, the radical equality of human life and love, the integrity of environment, the need to grow deep, structural practices of peace, justice and reconciliation. But the strangeness of John the Baptist nudges us further than this. The prophet points away from themselves and ahead of themselves. The hope of Advent is always more than we expect, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to settle for anything less than the fulfilment of Christ’s promise, for anything less than the fulfilment of God’s own faithfulness to creation. That is precisely the danger of domesticating the image. It is the danger of a straightforward swop of John the Baptist for Joseph.
The thirty-fifth chapter of Isaiah shows us something of the kind of hope we are called to. These words were initially composed as comfort for the Judean exiles, who have lost everything, their holy place, their home, their community. The images Isaiah uses of the return of these people to their homeland are images which are creational and corporeal. The desert shall blossom, creation itself shall burst into song; the lame shall not just walk, but leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall not just speak, but sing. Such transformation is of a kind not known before – deeply wonderful, but truly strange. We are not used to thirsty ground becoming a spring of water. This is not just a better version of what we already have, it is more than that. The priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s Father, senses a similar plan afoot. This child of theirs is not only a miracle for Elizabeth and Zechariah as a couple, not even simply a sign of God’s faithfulness and call. Zechariah’s ecstatic response takes him and his hearers a step further, using imagery of salvation, liberation, mercy, light. We are at the edge of words here. Something cosmic is going on, and it cannot be either contained or controlled. The scene we heard in tonight’s second lesson comes after Mary’s own Annunciation, when Gabriel tells her that she will bear the Word made Flesh. The story in our second lesson is itself an interruption of a narrative. It is a kind of disruption in the story we’re expecting. There is always more to our hope, and God will not be domesticated. That is the message of the kingdom which is still to come, the ‘dawn from on high’ which will break upon us. There is promised a fullness of a kind we have not yet perceived, a healing so rich and so capacious that we can only occasionally sense its depths. And yet, the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus teach us the contours of this so-called ‘kingdom’ which is to come: reconciliation, wholeness, liberation, and God’s endless faithfulness. We can recognise it, sense it, like the most alluring smell.
The prophets hope for all this. John the Baptist, Jesus’s Elijah, points towards it. In fact, it is the adult ministry of Jesus for which John ‘appears publicly to Israel’ as he proclaims his baptism of repentance. But this journey through Advent and into Christmas is one where the expected becomes the unexpected. The prophets’ expectation of The Day of the Lord would indeed come. But long-awaited The Day of the Lord was the birth of a helpless child. Yahweh, God-With-Us, would be revealed to all flesh as a man stumbles up the hill of Calvary to a rough cross. Death itself would be the place where the God of all life would triumph.
Let us not domesticate our hope too soon. Let those familiar images be interrupted. Let our longing be worthy of the kingdom which John proclaimed, the fullness of which is to come.
Come, Lord, and do not delay.