Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Baptism of Christ

Sunday 9 January 2022
Sung Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

You may recall that before Christmas I preached on the Spanish Mystic St Theresa of Avila

She founded a breakaway order of nuns called the discalced Carmelites

Nuns who live in enclosed orders and spend most of their time in private prayer and devotion

Probably the most famous Carmelite nun, until recently, in the UK was Sister Wendy Becket

Raised in Edinburgh, she entered the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1946

She was then sent to St Anne’s College, Oxford where she was awarded a laudatory degree in English Literature

But as well as living as competence in literature she was also a formidable art critic

Which allowed her to earn a living whilst in an enclosed order

She simply devoted two hours a day to her art criticism and spent the rest in prayer

Sadly she died in 2019,

However, just before she died she finished a book called

“Sister Wendy Becket’s 100 Best Loved Paintings”

It was a fitting end to a distinguished career

However, in her top hundred paintings, number fifteen was called “The Baptism of Christ” by the Italian artist Piero della Francesca (c 1450)

I mentioned this painting in my sermon before Christmas on John the Baptist, when I preached on three paintings about his life

I included two of the three paintings in the order of service before Christmas

And I have now completed the set by including the third on the service sheet this morning – do have a look at it

The original can be viewed in the National Gallery in London, if you are passing

But of course it speaks not only of John the Baptist but also of the Baptism of Christ – which is the feast day we celebrate this morning

But the painting is attributed to the passage in Mark’s Gospel which we heard read a moment ago

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

As you will probably have now realised, I am huge fan of the use of painting in worship

Paintings are often able to speak to us in ways we had not possibly imagined and can therefore often convey so much more

Indeed, far more than we might have been able to do on our own

So I thought I would share with you this morning Sister Wendy’s observations on this painting – which speak directly to this Feast Day

And our own faith at the same time

Sister Wendy says of the painting as follows:

In the Eastern Church, Epiphany celebrates not so much the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem as the epiphany that Jesus himself experienced at his baptism in the Jordan

This was surely the climactic revelation of Jesus’ life. It was here, standing humbly in the water, with John the Baptist baptising him, that the Father and the Holy Spirit revealed themselves to Jesus.

A voice was heard from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son: with thee I am well pleased” And over his head, hovering in the form of a dove, was the Holy Spirit

What moves me so profoundly about this image is the total concentration of Jesus. He is completely alone, John tensely pouring and the angelic trio looking on. Even the water has withdrawn from his feet. Piero is honouring an old legend that even the Jordan felt unworthy of Jesus

Jesus is totally folded in on himself, aware only of the Father and His love.

This is what we long to be in prayer: one who is utterly given, stretching beyond the immediate to the absolute reality of God.

It is a magnificent picture, with the strong white column of Jesus’ body paralleled by the strong white trunk of the young tree, while behind the rough poetry of the whole material world waits to be given meaning

Jesus is its meaning and, it is at this moment that he realises that this is his vocation, to reveal the beauty and truth and love of his Father.

It is his vocation to rescue the world from incoherence

It is a simply wonderful description and insight into the painting

And it is clear from her critique that the Baptism of Christ can speak to us all this morning

First and foremost, it reminds us /at the beginning of the year/ of Christ himself

His humility/His penitence/His total concentration

It is the moment of His Epiphany

And he stands, visually, as an example to us all this morning

Secondly, it is an example of what it means to pray

We are told that “Jesus is totally folded in on himself, aware only of the Father’s love”

Prayer can be so difficult

But we too should seek to follow His example in this painting “Utterly given” “stretching beyond the immediate to the absolute reality of God”

What a challenge for us all in this New Year

But third and finally it is a reminder to us all this morning of our own baptisms

Like Christ, we too start our work in this world at baptism – and go out to be tested like Christ himself

But, as our lives stretch on interminably it is so easy to lose sight of this –

And if we are not careful, our baptism recedes further and further into the distance

I watched an inspiring film over Christmas called “The Mauritanian”

It is a true story about a man called Mohammed Slahi who was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for his alleged involvement in 9/11

The Americans sought the death penalty for Slahi, and the responsibility for the prosecution was given to Military prosecutor called Stuart Crouch

He was marine colonel who, at first, felt nothing but a desire for revenge  

However, through dogged persistence to prepare his case properly, he discovered that Slahi had been tortured

Tortured for over seventy days to produce so called “confessions” – rendering them utterly unreliable

If you want to find out just what such torture entails then I strongly recommend that you watch the film or read the book called “Guantanamo Diary”

It is quite abhorrent

The marine colonel was acutely aware of the moral dilemma that confronted him

Indeed, he is called a traitor by one of his colleagues

But the pivotal moment in the film comes when he attends a baptism at his local church

He hears the baptismal vows uttered on behalf of a tiny child and realises that he has to live up to those vows himself

As a result, he refuses to prosecute the case and is relieved of his duties –

It is a wonderful example to us all and a reminder to us all to try and live up to those vows

And so on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ we remember this morning Christ’s example to us all

His humility, his prayer and selfless service to the world

And we give thanks to those who seek to help us understand these things through painting or art criticism

But above all, at the beginning of this New Year

We remember our own baptism and the baptismal vows that were made on our behalf

And remember that, if we can follow His example – and live up to our baptismal vows

We too can reveal the beauty, truth and love of our Father