John 1:6-8, 19-28
‘He came as a witness to speak for the light’ (John 1:7)
Yesterday afternoon we celebrated the first of our Christingles; earlier this morning we have lit the third candle on the Advent Wreath; and tonight we will come together for our service of Carols by Candlelight. All these liturgies place a very strong emphasis on the belief that Jesus is the Light of the World – a light which darkness cannot overcome (Cf. John 1:5). And as with our candles (in our hands, on top of our oranges, or on the Advent Wreath) we scatter the darkness that surrounds us, we remind ourselves and the world that only through the Light of Christ we are able to see clearly. These candles – whether wonky, propped up with tin foil, or blessed – are only a token witness to that bright, unquenchable, searing, and cheerful light that is Christ. And today’s gospel presents us with an even better example of what it means to be a witness to Jesus as the Light of the World.
St John the Baptist was unquestionably a peculiar figure by any standard. As we heard last week, he wore clothes made of camel’s hair, he fed on insects and wild honey, he was often rather forthright in his speech, and although he lived in the desert he attracted a huge number of people who wanted to be baptised by him. But, what we should find even more remarkable is the way in which we are introduced to him by John the Evangelist.
A man came, sent by God. His name was John.
He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
This description of John the Baptist is an integral part of the gospel’s first few verses where Jesus is proclaimed as the Word of God, the Light of Life, and the Light of the World. And John’s ministry – in fact his whole life – was so intertwined with Jesus’ that the evangelist has to specify that John the Baptist ‘was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light’ (John 1:8).
Like Moses, Isaiah, and the other prophets, John was sent by God to point the way to the Messiah, and to bring a testimony about the true Light which was about to be revealed to the world in the person of the Lord Jesus. But, as the last of the prophets, as a cousin of Jesus, and as a peculiar figure, it would be easy to look past John the Baptist and to think that he had nothing to teach us.
Yet, I strongly believe that this short description of John could and should be a fitting description for every Christian – if we only let our lives become so intertwined with the life of Jesus that others would find it difficult to separate our character from his.
A man came, sent by God. His name was John.
He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
Like our candles we might be a bit wonky in our religious life (maybe not propped up with tin foil and stuck in an orange), but we are all, every one of us, most certainly blessed, and so like our candles we have to bear witness to Jesus as the Light of the World.
Then, how good it would be if people were to say of us, “There was a man (or woman) sent by God. His name was … He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him”? How good would it be, if with our simple faith we could bring the light of Jesus to others, so that those around us might have faith through us?
John the Baptist led a rather odd life, but we do not need to move to the wilderness, and star eating insects, to bear witness to the Light of Jesus. We just have to put into practice the simple advice found in our second reading;
‘Be happy at all times;
pray constantly; and for all things give thanks to God’ (1Thess 5:16).
Our society, perhaps now more than ever, needs happy and positive people whose joy comes from knowing Christ; it needs people who take prayer and the sacraments seriously; and it needs people who know how to be grateful to God for the innumerable blessings we receive from his hand…
If we do this, we will be not only genuine Christians, but we will set the world alight with the true Light that is Christ the Lord.
Jesus ‘said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’
And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’
Long before the notes of Pomp and Circumstance were strung together, and its lyrics begun to sing about a Land of Hope and Glory; long before William Blake jotted down the verses of Jerusalem; and before Britannia started to rule any wave; in fact, even before St George’s Cross was borrowed from the Republic of Genoa to become the flag of this land; before that time, England looked to another symbol, indeed to one person, in which to find its unity, its pride, and its comfort in times of need. England looked to Mary.
According to tradition, during the reign of St Edward the Confessor, one thousand years ago, England began to be called “dos Mariae”, Mary’s dowry – meaning that out of all the Christianised countries, out of all the places one could possibly imagine, England was Our Lady’s own possession, her portion which she loved, protected, and offered as her own precious gifts to her divine Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. But what’s more fascinating about this tradition is that “Mary’s dowry” was not an official dedication, some pious slogan that a saintly king or an archbishop came up with, rather this was the fruit of popular devotion to the Mother of God, the product of the faith and love of people like you and me. And if England was Mary’s possession, this sentiment was nowhere more felt than at Walsingham, a tiny speck of village in Norfolk – which many of us know well – where our Lady had a replica of her holy house of Nazareth, and where countless pilgrims from all over the country and even the near continent flocked to ask Our Lady’s intercession.
This morning two of our hymns recall our attention to this tradition.
‘Mary of Walsingham, Mother of Jesus,
Pray for thy dowry, the land that we love.’
and our offertory hymn sings,
‘Joy to thee, Queen, within thine ancient dowry’
But besides the obvious nostalgic sentimentality and emotionally charged devotion of these lines, what can we, in a multicultural twenty-first century England, get out of all this? I mean, we are not it the Middle-Ages anymore and dowries are something that has largely into disuse. So what would be the point of recalling these traditions of times long gone by?
Well, first, the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham and its connections to England as somehow being as her special possession, should remind us to pray for a revival of the Christian faith in this land; it should give us confidence in praying, as the Walsingham prayer says, for the ‘conversion of England’ so that more and more people may turn to the Lord Jesus.
Secondly, this feast should inspire us to present Our Lady with gifts of our own. Let us make room for Mary in our lives, giving to her our hearts, our future, and our every good deed, to be her dowry as well, and she will, in turn, present them as precious offerings to the Lord. Indeed, about this second, more personal point, today’s gospel gives us a simple instruction; which is nothing too morally demanding nor too taxing to put into practice. The gospel simply says to each of us, ‘Here is your mother’, and then “take her into your home”.
England may have stopped being widely known as Mary’s dowry, and not many people may know the significance of Walsingham, but the Mother of Jesus, always remains our mother as well. So, when we are pressed down by worries or plagued by indecision; when we find ourselves stuck on top of our own personal calvaries, when we are dejected or discomforted; when, like St John at the foot of the Cross, we feel powerless before the suffering of others; the gospel simply says, ‘Here is your mother.’ Then, in those moments let us take Mary with us and she, Our Lady and protectress, will help us in our every need.
‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’, says the Lord,
‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.’ John 6:55-56
On the Thursday after Trinity Sunday the Church of England keeps the ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’ and this is the solemnity we celebrate transferred to today under the more common name of Corpus Christi.
Churches in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England tend to stand out a little bit more than the others during this feast; but while it would be easy to think that this is all down to the solemnity of our liturgy, or the ancient customs that we observe today, the thing that make churches like ours to stand out is, in fact, the faith and devotion that should inspire our celebration. In other words, what should motivates us to pull out all the stops for this feast is the fact that today we make the point to reaffirm our belief in the most precious of all the gifts we have ever received from the Lord Jesus; the gift of his own very self – body, blood, soul, and divinity – under the simple and very ordinary forms of bread and wine. Faith in what is called the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is what makes us stand out today from others Christian communities where the Eucharist is considered a disposable add-on to the faith.
But in today’s gospel we hear how a number people at the time of Jesus were already uncomfortable and sceptic about this teaching, and how some of them were even scandalised by it, and because of it they stopped following the Lord.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they said (John 6:52). A legitimate question from non-believers that prompted Jesus to affirm many times how his own body and blood are true nourishment from those who receive them, and the principal means of union with him. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them’ (John 6: 56), say Jesus, and the Lord’s own word, should be enough for us.
Again, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, although we cannot see him face to face in this present age, he is always going to be with us. And the Church has come to interpret his words to be a promise that the Lord is indeed always with us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in the consecrated elements of Holy Communion.
In the Blessed Sacrament, in the Host we place on the altar after Mass Jesus truly dwells with us; his silent and unassuming presence brings comfort and healing to those who approach him; his humble self-giving to us under the appearance of Bread teaches us to give ourselves for others… A traditional hymn says, ‘Thou art here, we ask not how’ and yes, although we cannot fully contemplate or express this mystery, I do hope that those who took part in the 40 Hours of Prayer two weeks ago, managed to experience what it means to spend time in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Prince of Peace, in the Blessed Sacrament.
The past weeks have borne witness to a considerable number of needless tragedies culminating with the harrowing disaster of Grenfell Tower in the last few days. Confronted by these events, where it seems that it always the poor or innocent people to pay the highest price, it would be easy to despair, to lose heart, or worse, to let sorrow fester into violent anger. But as we sit in this place we should remind ourselves of the words of a beautiful hymn about the Eucharist,
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean's roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
Here, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, is the very place where the Lord wants us to be so that by feeding on him and adoring his presence among us, we may go out and be strengthened to work in diffusing anger, striving for justice, begging for mercy, fostering love, and bring the life and peace of this Sacrament to a suffering world.
Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us
in the sacrament of your Body and Blood.
May we offer to our Father in heaven
a solemn pledge of undivided love.
May we offer our brothers and sisters
a life poured out in loving service of your kingdom
where you live with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
on God, for ever and ever. Amen.
‘…he saw and he believed. Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.’ John 20:8-9
Perhaps surprisingly, the gospel reading set for Easter Day presents us with the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord, without featuring Jesus himself. Instead, this passage is marked by frantic search for some tangible explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body; there are rumours of something having happened at the tomb overnight, perhaps fears that the resting place of Jesus has been vandalised, that the body has been stolen… There are witness statements to be confirmed, and a certain degree of shock to be overcome. But among all this uncertainty we encounter an example of faith which should help us in our own faith journey. This example is given to us by the Saint John, described in the gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In verses 8 and 9 we are told a peculiar phrase that has puzzled theologians ever since, we are told that John ‘saw and believed; Till this moment [Peter and himself] had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.’
John believed without understanding the Scriptures? Then what did John believe in? Can there be faith without full understanding of the Scriptures? A few Christian writers affirm that the words ‘saw and believed’ mean that John finally believed in what Mary Magdalene about Jesus’ body having been taken from the tomb (Cf. John 20:2). In a world where female witness counted very little, John and Peter run to the tomb to verify Mary’s story; so when John’s sees that the woman was right, he eventually believes in her statement – Jesus’ body is truly gone.
However, I would stand with other gospel interpreters in suggesting that John’s faith is actual faith in the resurrection as a mystery; faith in the inexplicable victory of Christ over death. John sees the grave clothes left neatly behind, he recalls the words of Mary, and something clicks in him – this cannot have been the work of very tidy grave robbers. John believes. He may not be able to articulate his faith very well at this stage, but an embryonic faith is already there; a faith which will later be confirmed in his sighting of Jesus – later in the gospel John is the first one of the disciples to recognise Jesus from afar and to shout with joy, ‘It is the Lord!’ (John 21:7). John believes in the very mystery of what happened; he may not be able to explain his faith using Scriptural references, yet he believes.
I believe John’s experience may be quite common among Christians. Oftentimes, people think that, as believers, we have everything figured out; that we have the answer to whatever theological question and extreme moral dilemma we might be face by. But the truth is that we don’t; we are works in progress not just in terms of how we behave, but even in terms of how we believe. In this sense, for many Christians having faith in a constant prayer saying, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24), and this is a good place to start.
But we go even a step further. For example, this morning we welcome James into the family of the Church, as he comes to the Lord supported by the faith of his parents and godparents, and by the faith of all God’s people in this place. James cannot articulate faith in God, but God accepts our faith, however great or small, on his behalf, and welcomes him in the number of his children. As James’ family, and as a wider congregation, all we need to do next is trying to grow in this faith, along with him, through grace, study, and prayer. Like Saint John, James will have occasions for his faith to mature, be strengthened, and confirmed in his own words; but in the meantime, we just need an open heart to believing and to be constant in prayer.
‘Jesus had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was’; or in a better translation, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (John 13:1)
Oftentimes preachers speak about the love Jesus shows for us by focusing almost entirely on the Cross; this is because the Lord’s death on Calvary is the greatest thing anyone has ever done for each one of us. Yet, the Cross did not come out of the blue, it was the climax of a life lived in generous self-giving for us. And tonight as we enter once again in the mystery of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection we are greeted by that love. Behind the suffering, the bloodshed, the nails, and the tears what we ought to see is love – not a romantic, sentimental, butterflies-in-the-stomach-causing sort of love, but the unmeasured and self-giving love of Jesus for us.
So I would like to draw your attention to just one aspect of that love. On this night when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and gives himself to us completely in the holy food of the Eucharist, he does not avoid Judas; Jesus does not say “in a few minutes you are going to betray me, so I don’t care about you…” Instead, Jesus washes Judas feet and feeds him with the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Why?
One could say that he did so in order to give Judas a moral slap – if Jesus, into whose hands the Father had put all things, was ready and willing to perform the work of a servant, then how could Judas be so arrogant and deceitful? But this interpretation wouldn’t quite work, because the gospel tells us that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet to show them love, not moral superiority. Also, in this case, Jesus could have then prevented Judas from taking part in the Eucharistic meal, but noticeably, he did not.
No, I believe that Jesus washed the feet of Judas and welcomed him at his table to show him that he was not going to give up on him that easily. Judas may betray Jesus and be condemned for it, but Jesus would not betray Judas. And this is truly unmeasured love.
So let us transpose this gospel reading into our lives. We all fall into sin, great or small, on a daily basis. We all are tempted from time to time to turn our backs on the Church. But every time we fall or find ourselves tempted to betray Christ in favour of something else, Jesus does not turn us away. He is in the sacrament of the Eucharist, he is in the absolution of Confession, he is there for us; he does not exclude us and does not give up on us. And this is, once again, truly unmeasured love.
If we understood just this one simple truth, then we could also understand the words of our offertory hymn and learn to sing them as if they were our own;
Could I dare live and not requite / such love
- then death were meet reward:
I cannot live unless to prove / some love
for such unmeasured love.
(from 'O Bread of Heaven, beneath this veil')