St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday before Theophany, 2 January 2011
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1.3)
Like a thief in the night, it comes when you least expect it. Like the morning sun, it melts away the mist and frost that gather around your windows at night. Like the first faint rays of dawn, it shimmers on the glass covered with frost – and slowly, slowly fills the scene with light. It comes in the winter equinox, when nights are bitterly cold but the days grow longer as the sun stands upright high on the horizon. It spreads across your life, like the sun standing straight over the snow. But it is brighter than the sun; and, unlike the sun, it appears only in the middle of winter. It appears when the piercing wind and bare trees testify: this is the season of death – the death of the earth. It appears when death looms over us – and we pretend that it is not there. At parties and gatherings around the table, with relations that we do not want to see. Times that unite old friends – and old enemies.
Old memories, old wounds. Old unfulfilled promises; old unsatisfied desires, unrealised hopes. Advertisers jingle bells in front of us, crying: ‘Be merry, be happy, buy the latest gadget and forget your troubles’ – but it is usually at this time of year that we remember. We remember everything that we have lost. More people sink into deep depression this season than any other; and one in every few takes his own life. When the earth is dying, ‘it’ appears when you least expect and when you need ‘it’ most.
What is ‘it’? Hê vasileía tou Theòu – roughly translated, ‘the kingdom of God’. It is not a place. It is wherever, whenever – God alone is supreme.
The kingdom comes when life has grown old. When life itself has grown old from regret, from the sin that sticks in your soul like a thorn; when the weight of failure hangs heavily on the branch, until it falls frozen to the ground; when the ice in your soul spreads out to form a frozen wilderness – it is then, only then, that God is born. Born in a stable carved out of the rock that shall hold his body in death. Wrapped in rags, laid in the feeding-box of the animals who recognise who he is. Born poor, on the margin of society; born in the death of the year, when we are dead inside. Even the commercial glitter that surrounds the season cannot hide the miracle of Christmas: God is born, because we are old. God is born, so that everything begins anew. It is the season of equinox: from the moment of his birth in a manger, it all starts all over again. That is what the kingdom of God means; and that is what most Christians do not want to hear.
‘Give me my holly, my mistletoe; give me back my past’, no matter how full of delusions. ‘My childhood’, no matter how painful; ‘my hometown’, no matter how stifling; memories, no matter how poisoned. ‘Christmas’, we cry, ‘means nothing changes’. Christmas, says God, means everything changes. The cry of the Child, born in the manger in Bethlehem, is no different than a voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Clear away the dead branches, burn the dead leaves, drown the old death. Life begins again’.
Do we dare to begin again? Do we dare to live on the edge of the kingdom?
John the Prophet lives on the edge. Only a tunic of camel’s hair, bound in a homemade leather belt, to keep out the desert cold. Locusts and wild honey stolen from a hive. Like a beggar, he lives in a society that has forgotten God and grown poor without him; like a madman, he screams in a world gone mad. But he dares to say: ‘Life must begin again. Prepare the way, clear the path’. Clear the dead branches: your old beliefs, your habits, your upbringing, whatever you have assumed until now; your failures, your wounds, and all your regrets. Drown them in the river. In the winter of the world’s discontent, they run down to the edge of the river – from all Jerusalem and the towns and villages nearby. A crowd comes to see him drown sin in the river. But John warns: ‘I can only wash away your sins. I cannot give you new life. I am the past; he who comes after me is the future. I am the window that lets in the first faint rays of dawn; he is the Sun, who melts the ice.
I baptise with water; but he will baptise with the Spirit, the Giver of Life.
‘So greater is he than I that I am unworthy to untie his sandals. He will not confirm old, familiar, crooked ways. He will make the paths straight – for no one born of a woman is more radical than the Child born to make all things new’.
Beloved in Christ: nothing is more radical than the kingdom. Nothing, more on the edge; and to be a Christian is to live on the edge of eternity. It is to watch eternity rise like the sun and dissolve the snow; melt away the mist and frost that have covered the windows in the long night before – and slowly, slowly, light up the scene. It is to wait for Christ the Child in the manger to come, like a thief in the night, and steal back what is his own: our human race, created to live, not to die. Nothing is more radical than the kingdom; no joy, more joyous than to prepare the way of the Lord. As the old English carol declares, ‘The Old year now away is fled, the New year it is enterèd, then let us all our sins down tread and joyfully all appear’. Let us clear away the dead branches of the winter and the frost from before our eyes. Let us drown in the river all our failures, wounds, and regrets, all our past that stands between us and the kingdom of God.
But, above all, let us resolve this year to make his paths straight: for the word orthós in Greek means ‘straight, upright, correct’ – and ‘Orthodoxy’ is therefore nothing less than the ‘straight glory’ of God. The New Life at the edge of the kingdom.