It is an honour to embark on my maiden sermon in front of our St Mark’s community…and what a treasure trove of gospel riches I’ve been given to consider and share with you…briefly, I promise.
When William sent the options for today’s readings, he noted that the Prologue to John’s gospel was included for the third time so far in the 10 weeks of this liturgical year. This struck me as meaningful, resonating with current experience when we are being asked over and over to pay attention to the same messages, for our own good and most vitally, for everyone else’s sake…as is fit in matters of life and death. So…what is John’s message repeating to us this particular Sexagesima Sunday, in the midst of lockdown with its widespread anxiety, loss and separation? Poised at the back end of winter but still far from spring? What could St John’s divine Word …and the compilers of the Church of England Lectionary…intend for us today, the 7th of February 2021?
Let us consider its timing, for last Tuesday we concluded the season of Christmas and Epiphany with the Feast of Candlemas. Already we find ourselves at the midpoint of the 3- week-only ‘Gesima Sunday season’ …then the Lenten journey to Calvary follows on … in preparation for the Feast of Feasts – Easter Day. As Easter occurs roughly 60 days’ time from today, this explains the origin of the racy-sounding prefix to -gesima, the middle sister in a series of 3 that form this short season of preparation… for a longer, more austere preparation in advance of Christianity’s central event. This is subtly underscored by a visual modulation of the service. During the 3 Sundays of this transition period, our magnificent reredoses remain open and the Gloria is sung although ministers now appear in purple vestments, last worn during Advent, also a season of preparation, penance and sacrifice.
Yet here we are, once again treated to John’s Prologue, a grand piece of prosody, soaring and resonant as any symphonic overture, with great themes set out in poetic rhythm, its skilful parallel images and diction crafted to embed a dazzling logic…building a veritable stairway to heaven by which we ascend, from the Beginning to re-birth through belief, solely by the will of God and our openness to its acceptance. We are introduced to the Johannine key terms that make his narrative of Christ so powerful and able to communicate across all faiths and disciplines to anyone who ponders the nature of God: the Word; life;
true light; sons of God (meant more broadly as children of God); belief; grace, and truth. This is another realm from the customary seasonal one of exhortation to examine, atone and improve our Christian life; here is a full-on foretaste of glory, a packing list of life-giving essentials for our Lenten knapsack.
In today’s gospel we also encounter John the Baptist, characterised not as another miracle of birth within the extended family of Jesus as a slightly elder and mortal cousin, but by the role he fulfils in God’s plan. His special purpose is to prepare humankind for receiving the sole presence who can prepare us for the ultimate feast that brings us to God’s table. He is a man [human being – anthropos] who did see and give witness to the true light — that is, the Baptist saw the glorious nature of God manifest in its human form, as Jesus, flesh and blood, upholding creation and all life with his Word. Perhaps John the Baptist’s witness could be seen as the model, an ideal form of -gesima sermon in and of itself, shining a light on the living embodiment of the Word.
This Sunday, we, too can turn to the light found in revisiting St John’s Prologue, experience it as a beacon in the darkness of a global pandemic. Indeed, it has illuminated those who gathered centuries before us, from the first Christians raising their voices together to exult in the good news…to its liturgical role as the Last Gospel, routinely said quietly by the priest after the mass from the fourth century until the end of the 1960s – and still said quietly by the late Father Kent White every time he proceeded out after celebrating the Eucharist, here in St Mark’s, in the 1990s. We can find comfort in the repetition of our Church’s cycle of liturgy and observance, upheld through so many other times of trouble, pestilence and conflict…we can remember that 69 years ago yesterday, the young – then Princess – Elizabeth, acceded to the Throne upon the death of her father, King George VI, and that she wasn’t able to be there for his passing; a personal dimension to a public event, now a tragic circumstance that so many
families in their thousands across this nation have suffered…we can have faith that those we have lost remain children of God and live in perpetual light.
All this is possible because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, a connection forever available to us between the personal and the absolute, the human and the divine, what is above and that which is below. Here indeed is a message worth repeating…and the best possible preparation for what lies before us.