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The Baptism of Christ: Life's Journey

13 January 2008
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17; Psalm 29 Offer to the Lord
Let us ‘press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus' . Philippians 3:12-14

We are all on an involuntary physical journey from cradle to grave, the journey that is life itself.

The first moral decision we have to make is whether our circuitous and boulder-strewn path through life is to be a solipsistic one (where everyone else exists only in relation to us) or whether – like the French Quaker, Stephen Grellet, we recognise the individual worth of each of our fellow humans:

Dear Lord, I expect to pass through this world but once; and any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.

We know that Jesus called on his followers to renounce their homes, their families and their possessions because those who chose homelessness demonstrated to the world that their true home was elsewhere. Disciples were enjoined to…

take nothing for their journey, save only a staff; no scrip, no bread, no money in their purse . Mark 6:8

Sir Walter Raleigh builds on this text in 'The Pilgrimage':

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gage;
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage…
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains;
There will I kiss
The bowl of bliss;
And drink mine everlasting fill
Upon every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before;

But, after, it will thirst no more. Raleigh here turns Mark's physical pilgrimage into a metaphor while, in 'Venture to the Interior', Laurens van der Post points out the spiritual dimension of any voyage: A voyage to a destination, wherever it may be, is also a voyage inside oneself; even as a cyclone carries along with it the centre in which it must ultimately come to rest .

Like yin and yang, the physical morphs into the spiritual and the spiritual impacts on the physical, as Chaucer described in 'The Canterbury Tales' and Bunyan in 'Pilgrim's Progress':

The main theological difference between these two works is that Chaucer's path to deliverance involves the interaction with other pilgrims. He creates a motley group of people, each with his own shortcomings and problems. Each day's activities and all their encounters stimulate the search for God. In contrast, Bunyan's allegorical work is the story of an internal expedition, where all the other characters exist in relation to Christian: salvation for Bunyan is clearly meant to be achieved on one's own.

Still unresolved is the dichotomy between pilgrims who travel from shrine to shrine and hermits or anchorites (anchored in one place), who leave the familiar for the wilderness in order to find God, one of whom said scornfully:

There is no need to run to Rome or Jerusalem to look for Jesus there but turn your thought into your own soul where he is hidden. Walter Hilton.

Or, as W H Auden said in another context: When life fails, what's the use of going to Wales?

St. Sarapion the Sindonite once went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived in one small room and never went out. Sceptical about her way of life – for he was himself a great wanderer – Sarapion called on her and asked:

Why are you sitting here? To this she replied: I am not sitting. I am on a journey . Paradoxically, the journey towards holiness begins when we stop journeying towards holiness, and stay still – when we can say with St Sarapion, I am not sitting; I am on a journey

Today's celebration of Christ's baptism reminds us that our own baptisms were the starting point of a pilgrimage journey towards God set to continue for the rest of our lives, as described in Bunyan's introduction to The Pilgrim's Progress:

This book it chalketh out before thine eyes
The man that seeks the everlasting prize:
It shows you whence he comes, whither he goes,
What he leaves undone; also what he does…
This book will make a traveller of thee,
If by its counsel thou wilt ruled be;
It will direct thee to the Holy Land,
If thou wilt its directions understand.

Evelyn Underhill vividly describes another traveller on the path to the Eternal World and its realities:

I think as I write this of Albrecht Dürer's wonderful drawing of the Knight, Death and the Devil: the Knight of the Spirit on his strong and well-kept horse – human nature riding up a dark rocky defile. Beside him travels Death, a horrible figure of decay, saying, 'All things perish – time is passing – we are all getting older – is this effort really worth while?' On his flank is a yet more hideous fellow-pilgrim; the perverse, violent element of our mixed human nature, all our animal part, our evil impulses, nagging at him too. In one way or another, we all hear those two voices from time to time; with their discouragements and sneers, their unworthy invitations, their cynical comments and vile suggestions. 'Don't forget me, I am your future', says Death. 'Don't forget me', says animal man, 'I am your undying past'. But the Knight of the Spirit does not look at them. He has had his hand-to-hand struggle farther back; and on his lance is impaled his own special devil, which he has slain. Now he is absorbed in the contemplation of something beyond the picture, something far more real than the nightmarish landscape through which he must travel; and because of that, he rides steadily forth from that lower world and its fantasies to the Eternal World and its realities. He looks at that which he loves, not at that which he hates, and so he goes safely out of the defile into the open; where he will join the great army of God.

We undertake this spiritual journey in response to some inner stirring; the outcome is uncertain; the destination unknown; the way may be long and weary and, in the words of Christina Rossetti, the very end. What is it that drives the pilgrim on?

Tonight we heard a call, a rattle on the window-pane,
A voice on the sharp air, and felt a breath stirring our hair,
A flame within us; something swift and tall
Swept in and out and that was all.
Was it a bright or a dark angel? Who can know?
It left no mark upon the snow,
But suddenly it snapped the chain unbarred, flung wide the door
Which will not shut again;
And so we cannot sit here any more. We must arise and go.
The world is cold without and dark and hedged about
With mystery and enmity and doubt,
But we must go, though we do not know
Who called, or what marks we shall leave upon the snow.

Charlotte Mew

In the end, all we can do is put one foot in front of the other, hoping and trusting with Julian of Norwich and the Anglican convert, T S Eliot, that all manner of thing shall be well :

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time...

All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

T S Eliot, 'Little Gidding'

O Father, give our spirits power to climb to the fountain of all light and be purified. Break through the mists of earth, the weight of clay. Shine forth in splendour, you who are calm weather and quiet resting place for faithful souls. You are the journey, and the journey's end. Amen.

A prayer of Boethius

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