Categories: Church

The Baptism of Christ: Engaging with the arts

Sermon by the Vicar, Fr Kevin Morris, on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, Sunday January 10th 2021
Winchester Cathedral has just revealed that it has a new altar frontal in its Epiphany Chapel (above). The comments from Jo Public beneath the press announcements were a mixture of enthusiasm, rage, and the polite ‘ it’s not my cup of tea, but others will like it.’ Amongst these remarks were people who could not understand why the design should be of the water turning into wine at the Wedding of Cana. What has this got to do with a Chapel dedicated to the Epiphany?
First, let me say that I think it is terrific that a Cathedral or a church should have a chapel dedicated to the Epiphany at all. It is a wonderful theme.
Secondly, the answer to the question – What has this got to do with a Chapel dedicated to the Epiphany? – is an easy one. Epiphany means revelation or showing or- and I love this way of describing it – making manifest. It is a phrase that means to make evident, recognisable, obvious by showing or displaying. Made manifest: nothing abstract or obtuse or theoretical, but something grounded, concrete, rooted, physical, real.
Epiphany is about how God is made manifest. When we celebrate the Magi, the wise men journeying to worship the Christ Child at Bethlehem, it is a story of how God in Christ is made manifest and is for the whole world – not just the Jews. But there are two other Epiphany stories which cluster together along with the journey of the Magi. Today we are celebrating one of them: the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. And we hear the voice of the Father: You are my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on you. St Mark tells us ‘ the heavens ( are) torn apart’ and God is made manifest in the Baptism of Jesus, at the beginning of His public ministry and will continue to be made known in what Jesus says and does.
And the third story is the Wedding of Cana – an Epiphany story – which the preface to the Wedding Service described beautifully as ‘the first miracle which he wrought at Cana of Galilee.’ Here God in Christ is made manifest as water is turned into wine, the weaknesses and deficiencies of our watery characters transformed by faith in the love of Christ into fuller, deeper, richer, more potent lives.
You’ll be pleased to know that the Epiphany Chapel in Winchester Cathedral, has a Burne Jones stained glass window of the Adoration of the Magi, an icon of the Baptism of Christ and now a new altar frontal representing the Wedding at Cana.
One of the great themes of Christmas and Epiphany is the notion of giving and in giving receiving. The Magi bring gifts as they come to adore the Christ Child, the find what they had been seeking and then they had to ‘return by another way,’ words that suggests to me that the rest of their life had been changed from that encounter. Christ offers Himself for Baptism and the Spirit of God like dove descended upon him as he begins his public ministry. At Cana, water is offered and wine is returned because of the presence of Christ. Sometimes in the preface at Mass we hear the phrase ‘ a holy exchange of gifts’ – meaning that what we offer is returned to us in the gift of the presence of Christ, bread and wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.
In his recent Reith lectures, ‘How we get what we value,’ the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, tells us that presents are of value because of what they represent as much as what they cost. This is the difference between the Magi and the merchant.’ When you give a present, whatever it is, whatever it cost, it also represents your thoughtfulness, gratitude, care, love, respect for that person. He tells the story well known in North America of some penniless newlyweds. The wife frantic to buy her husband a Christmas present sells her lovely tresses of long hair to buy a chain for his beloved watch. When they come together again, she discovers that he has sold his watch to buy some combs for her hair. He has no watch, she has cropped her hair. And though they are left with gifts that neither can use, they realise just how priceless their love is for each other. You might say that it teaches us the Christian virtue of ‘It is in the giving that we receive’, but it is the willingness to sacrifice out of love for someone else that really strikes me.
‘Sacrifice’ is a costly offering, and when we look at Jesus on the Cross we understand that sacrifice is being stretched out in love for others. I think we all have some understanding of what that can mean. Sacrifice involves a costly giving to something much bigger than ourselves. We talk about someone sacrificing their life to care for an elderly relative or loved one, a person sacrificing their time and energy in the service of communities or of the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ of soldiers giving their lives for their country. Sacrifice, the costly giving of oneself in the service of God and others, may come as a duty or vocation, it may be imposed or voluntarily undertaken, it may arise out of the situations in which we find ourselves. But, it is also part and parcel of loving and often a response we give without thought of sacrifices we are making: a parent stays up all night to watch over a fevered child, a family at the bedside of a dying loved one. We have seen many, many examples of self- sacrifice during this pandemic, a costly offering given in love for others.
Today on this Epiphany Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, He dedicates Himself to a ministry of love that will cost not less than everything. And that my friends is a very good theme to reflect on as we give thanks for our baptism today.
It is my tradition on this Feast day to take three things: a picture, a poem and piece of music and to offer some theological reflections. I do this to encourage you to engage with the Arts in the same way. Perhaps all artistic endeavours involve a certain cost, a sacrifice, an exchange, a transaction. As we give ourselves over to profound listening, attentive looking, meditative reading we receive something in return which can be profoundly inspiring, insightful and transformative. God can speak through such things when we bring our Christian imagination to bear on them.
The first – a piece of music – it could be from any genre of course- rock, opera, folk, pop. I have chosen the oldest Christmas Carol still regularly sung in churches – Of the Father’s heart begotten. I miss the communal singing of hymns. They enrich our worshipping life. Why not burst into song with a few known to you today and during the week. Some of them have magnificent words or praise and prayer: Praise my soul, the King of Heaven, To his feet thy tribute bring, Ransomed, Healed, Restored, Forgiven, Who like me his praise could sing… Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, Forgive our foolish ways, Restore us in our rightful mind….. well I could go on. I’ve just chosen one today, Of the Father’s heart begotten, ere the world from chaos roes, he is Alpha from that Fountain All that is and hath been flows, He is Omega, of all things, Yet to come the mystic Close, Evermore and evermore.
Secondly, the painting, or photograph for me this year is a wall painting from the 3rd century in the catacombs of St Priscilla in Rome . The depiction of the wise men in Christian art is has one of the longest traditions, up there with Jesus represented as the Good Shepherd and here in is one of the very earliest depiction of the wise men. I reflect on what it must have meant for those Christians being persecuted at the time.
And my poem is called ‘ Leaving Early’ by Leanne O Sullivan.
It is about a nurse called Fionnaula who reminds me of so many healthcare workers, nurses, doctors, administrators, people working in hospitals and healthcare centres, and ambulances. There is in it a terribly sad line: “And no cure there but to wait it out” — so appropriate for now – and the line about a fever coming down. As one commentator said: Much of Covid-19 is about people monitoring their temperature and wondering will their fever spike; can they wait this out at home; will they need to be in hospital? Who will look after them there; will they be able to have a visitor?
The poem is a kind of love letter in which someone has to leave early – the title of the poem- and they are entrusting somebody they love to the care of a nurse named Fionnuala. And reading the poem you can almost feel the deep trust that the poet has in the nurse. The background to the poem is that the poet’s husband had a brain infection and was in a coma for three weeks.
Poem “Leaving Early” by Leanne O’Sullivan:
“My Love,
tonight Fionnuala is your nurse.
You’ll hear her voice sing-song around the ward
lifting a wing at the shore of your darkness.
I heard that, in another life, she too journeyed
through a storm, a kind of curse, with the ocean
rising darkly around her, fierce with cold,
and no resting place, only the frozen
rocks that tore her feet, the light on her shoulders.
And no cure there but to wait it out.
If, while I’m gone, your fever comes down —
if the small, salt-laden shapes of her song
appear to you as a first glimmer of earth-light,
follow the sweet, hopeful voice of that landing.
She will keep you safe beneath her wing.”