Sermon for Sermon High Mass 12 January The Baptism of the Lord
The Baptism of the Lord
It is easy to forget that today’s feast is where the celebration of Christmas began. The celebration of Jesus’ baptism was almost lost to Western Christianity in our popularizing of the crib and the wise men. The first Christians would have found this very puzzling. For it is at the baptism of Christ that Jesus is seen to take on his Sonship of God; it’s a showing, an Epiphany. And only as Jesus comes to his baptism do all four gospels meet on common ground for the first time.
How the gospel writers each relate the story tells us a lot. The earliest version, from S. Mark, reports the baptism of Jesus by John in a matter-of-fact narrative, as a very private moment of personal vocation: Jesus alone sees the dove, representing the gift of the Spirit; Jesus alone hears the voice of God, acknowledging him as his favoured child. This is a moment of personal self-understanding, a flash of insight about what is to come.
The other gospel writers elaborate. Luke introduces a group of onlookers and the listener may infer from his version that the ‘other people’ have also seen the dove and heard the voice. Matthew, from whom we heard this morning, feels the need carefully to explain why Jesus submits to baptism (‘to fulfil all righteousness’ – terminology from the Jewish Law in which Matthew is expert). Now the voice from heaven is clearly addressed to the onlookers in the third person: ‘This is my beloved Son’, not ‘You are my beloved Son’. John’s gospel, a theological commentary on what happened, looks back at the event and tells the whole story from John the Baptist’s viewpoint, as an onlooker, explaining everything.
These different versions represent the four gospel writers’ points-of-view more generally. Their common ground and their differences, taken together, make this event secure as historical and pivotal to the Gospel; their interpretations display their humanity and shed light on many things about church life and worship.
And what we see in these four accounts is a commonly observed phenomenon in the liturgy of the church, accretion. They add and explain, sometimes with pleonasm or reduplication. Christian Liturgy develops in exactly this way, going through cycles which tend to gather clutter and then provoke de-cluttering. One commentator describes the medieval Mass as a cluttered room that needed clearing to see the shape afresh.
The protestant reformers, Cranmer among them, approached that task without much knowledge of liturgical history. They also held the erroneous belief that the purest form of worship was to be found in scripture. As the Anglican liturgist Dom Gregory Dix in his magisterial work The Shape of the Liturgy, reminds us,
It is important … to grasp that eucharistic worship from the outset was not based on scripture at all, … but solely on tradition.
Because Cranmer and his pals didn’t understand that, the Book of Common Prayer merely rearranged the clutter, admittedly in beautiful language, but this is not about aesthetics. The Liturgy is primary theology; it is where we meet God. And the Gospels are written for the Liturgy; they do not contain a manual on how to do it.
Fast forward to last century. The liturgical reforms of the 20th century led to a radical de-cluttering and in some cases a complete loss of recongniseable tradition in Western Catholic worship. But robust Anglo-Catholicism has sought to retain a distinctive showing of the Liturgy, especially in churches like this one which were purpose-built for it.
Our first diffculty now is that Common Worship, the current Prayer Book of the Church of England, is a wordy beast, full of unprioritised alternatives and freshly composed clutter. We have to use it as the core text for what we do. But Common Worship is a grab-bag of alternatives and lacks a coherent eucharistic theology. It aims to please all traditions (and therefore serves a middle-of-the-road parish worship tradition very well).
Our Liturgy, adjusting to that and similar revised worship texts over the last fifty years, has been subject to accretion, clutter and idiosyncratic rearrangement, in such a way as to undermine the fundamental Catholic shape of the Liturgy which this church was founded to exemplify and encourage.
I’ll offer a few obvious examples. Routinely saying two prayers where one was sufficient; introducing extra prayers so that everyone had something to say; using responsorial psalms written for parishes without an adequate choir; the replacement of the Alleluia, one of the oldest texts in Christian liturgy, with a hymn (hymns being a late, orginally Protestant addition to the Mass); and especially the downgrading of the Agnus Dei into a communion motet, after the Eucharistic action was complete.
The function of the Agnus in the Mass is to accompany the Fraction of the consecrated Host, directly after the Lord’s Prayer: the words and the action show us something without woodenly explaining it. Saying ‘we break this bread’, with a congregational response, is like reading a rubric. In eucharistic worship we do things to show God’s action. Constantly explaining them weakens the force of the Liturgy. It is also characteristic of a protestant obsession with word-based worship, which reveals a mistaken view of the relationship between scripture and tradition.
Mark, as I said earlier, simply shows us what happened; he lets it speak for itself. John, who writes a commentary, repeatedly circles around events, sometimes even leaving them undescribed (he doesn’t report the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper). In a choice between Mark showing me something and John ruminating on it, give me Mark every time. The Mass, like the Baptism of the Lord is a showing, an Epiphany.
A sermon at High Mass isn’t the right place for too much information and I’ve probably offered too much already. I shall write some more extended pieces in the Parish Paper about the liturgy and look forward to further conversations with you all. But I would like to leave you with a thought about what we do here.
In recent decades the pendulum-swing has pushed our Liturgy towards a parish-church style of worship which is ideal for places like my former parish in Berkhamsted, but at odds with a city-centre Anglo-Catholic church (and with our continuing development of a rich musical offering). Like many other clergy and laity I had easy access to good parish church worship in Berkhamsted. But if I wanted something richer I, and some of my laity, made an extra journey here.
That is the distinctive showing we offer. When it is good, it is, like every epiphany, the gate of heaven.