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The Church is a Wading Pool
by Chris Chivers
[Ed. Note: This sermon was originally preached at Westminster Abbey on January 11, 2004.]
Last week, the Feast of the Epiphany took us again to the stable at Bethlehem to watch the magi offer their gifts to the Christ-child. Today, on the Feast of his Baptism (January 11th), we are propelled forward to the desert, and to the moment when the child turned man begins his public ministry. In a few weeks time, we shall be in Jerusalem, for the infant's presentation in the temple there.
At first sight this liturgical sandwiching of events out of their chronological order seems rather confusing. Confusing that is, until we recall that we have experienced this once already in the Christmas season. For between the birth of Jesus and the visit of the magi the church invites us to remember the first adult martyr, Stephen, the slaughter of the first infant martyrs -- the Holy Innocents -- and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.
. . .[Christ's] presence comes at a cost. For Mary and Joseph this is immediate and immense. His birth means fear and exile -- they become refugees in Egypt. It means loss of security, family, friends, and nationality. It could also mean martyrdom, a price that innocent victims pay within days, and many others, St. Stephen among them, have paid down the centuries since.
We quickly learn that the stable door is not a place to linger, and that sentimentality or unthinking adoration are not the responses the Christ-child requires of us. Since these Feasts show to the local community, and to those who would follow in his way, that his presence comes at a cost. For Mary and Joseph this is immediate and immense. His birth means fear and exile -- they become refugees in Egypt. It means loss of security, family, friends, and nationality. It could also mean martyrdom, a price that innocent victims pay within days, and many others, St. Stephen among them, have paid down the centuries since. All of which counsels us against getting ourselves stuck at the stable door, in a child-like trance -- or clinging to a childish faith -- since the reality for us, as for the Holy Family and everyone else, is that this simply isn't the place to linger or to make our home.
Today we have the Feast of the Baptism of the child, which stands between joy for magi and fulfilment for an old priest, Simeon, in the temple, as we face a reality much more challenging and exacting than we had perhaps supposed it to be. In artistic terms we find ourselves between the glorious intimacy of Rubens' Adoration of the Magi, and the exquisite majesty of Rembrandt's Presentation of Christ, compelled to view a rather more Romanesque image, at once monumental yet sparse. And if we haven't got the point of the asylum-seeking refugees or the slaughtered babes or the stoned Stephen -- that we must move on and out from the stable, that it's only the place from which to begin a journey, a vantage point from which to recognise both the liberating possibilities and the pain in what follows -- today offers us another chance to do so.
And it is this sense of forward movement, of journey -- of opportunities and costliness -- that the artist Hans Feibusch captures so vividly and brilliantly in the tapestry of the Baptism he produced for Chichester Cathedral. When looking at Feibusch's tapestry [see graphic], focus on the figure of Christ on its left-hand side. Notice the solemnity and prayerfulness of the moment of baptism reflected in this representation of him. Here, for sure, is an event in which Jesus comes to understand his divine vocation more deeply. Everything about his body language emphasises this: his closed eyes, open arms, his relaxed -- even serene -- posture. All capture his acceptance in prayer of the descending Spirit.
Here, then, is a moment of enormous significance for the Son of God and his self-understanding. But look back at this figure of Christ, and examine the axis through his body, beginning with the water poured onto his head and moving to the bottom of the tapestry. Notice again, for instance, how Jesus's hands face outwards. Think of other, more famous, depictions of this Baptism scene -- Pierro della Francesca's or Fra Angelico's -- and you'll realise that here -- in a more contemporary depiction -- is something so familiar yet so tellingly new. For renaissance hands clasped in prayer become here hands that point to the viewer, hands hinting at a cruciform shape, the hands in fact of a great High Priest who will make of his body a sacrifice for all, who will offer himself to the whole world in self-giving love, and pay the ultimate price for doing so.
Notice next how the orange which emanates from the dove -- the dynamic fire of the Spirit's presence -- radiates through Christ's body in such a way as to hint at his tortured torso hanging on the cross. A radiant orange which turns icy purple as it reaches the legs that will bear the weight of crucifixion, but which brilliantly illuminates the head of the Baptist, and also the foliage -- the hint of Eden, or the Tree of Glory, or even the Tree of Life in the Book of Revelation whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. For here is the purifying fire of God dispersed, sacramentally, through his chosen vessels -- his Son and the Baptist -- but also imbuing the whole of creation with its cleansing and renewing power.
Another detail confirms all that we have so far observed. And we see it if we look now towards the bottom left of the tapestry at the feet of Christ, and notice how his right foot almost steps entirely out of the tapestry. In reality this protruding foot is, of course, nonsense. But it makes perfect sense in terms of the truth that the whole work seeks to convey. For depicted here is a purifying and refining process that begins in this moment but which is to encompass and transform everything.
The stepping out towards deeper waters implied here is further emphasised by two details nearby -- the slender stone ledge on which the figures stand, a ledge barely wide enough to support them, and the sparse quantity of water above, barely enough to cover their ankles. For if the thrust of the whole work emphasises the way in which this event begins a process which is to see the whole world redeemed, two of the places often seen as a symbolic focus for this -- the waters of baptism and the rock which is the Christian Church -- are greatly and significantly diminished in scale. For just as the stable is not a place to linger -- it isn't a home, it is a place of arrival and departure -- so the shallow waters of baptism and the slender ledge which is the church also have that liminal "on the edge" quality.
And here, Feibusch has perhaps offered us his most telling insight. Since at this moment it does seem that many Christians are making rather too much of the church. How many times have we heard in the past few months all those questions: Does the Church of England have a future? Is it in terminal decline? Who do we think belongs to it? Who in reality is welcome within it? And who can minister to it, at what level, and on what terms? Let alone all those parallel questions about the Anglican Communion, its integrity, diversity, unity and future.
When the church ties itself in knots over questions about its identity -- when it turns inwards on itself -- then it too often forgets the truth that it is merely a vessel, a means to an end, which is the realisation of God's dream: his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It is not the end itself but a channel through which the living waters of God's grace are to flow.
All of these are doubtless interesting, perhaps even important questions. But they're not half so significant as the central question which Feibusch's tapestry poses, which is this: Is the church actually making a difference in the world? Or to put it another way, is it able to point beyond itself, as it must, and to be -- or become -- an agent for transformation and redemption? For when the church ties itself in knots over questions about its identity -- when it turns inwards on itself -- then it too often forgets the truth that it is merely a vessel, a means to an end, which is the realisation of God's dream: his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It is not the end itself but a channel through which the living waters of God's grace are to flow. It isn't a bottle in which the Spirit, once found, is to be shut up like a genie. It's not a ghetto in which the baptised are to stand fortressed from the world. It's not an exclusive -- at times rather standoffish and judgmental -- club. Since that kind of church simply frustrates, it doesn't advance, God's saving work. It actually prevents people from engaging with the message of the Christ-child at all.
If we really want the world to know him, to be set on fire by his Spirit, to be renewed and cleansed by his presence, we have to sit a bit more lightly to the institution of the church, to make of it a much less imposing or self-important reality, and to see it more simply and straightforwardly -- as Feibusch's tapestry suggests -- as a paddling pool. It is a place with ledges for the unsure and the tentative -- since we all need such temporary props -- but a place, more crucially, that is open, free and embracing enough to allow anyone to dip a toe in the water, and to risk splashing about a bit. This is because it is a place from which everyone can develop the confidence to plunge into the baptismal waters of the world, to immerse themselves totally where faith will mature, and where God's cleansing and healing work has in fact already begun.
The Rev. Chris Chivers is Minor Canon and Precentor at Westminster Abbey. His regular column on "A Globe of Witnesses" is Tell It Slant. Chris may be reached by email at Chris.Chivers@westminster-abbey.org