The Cosmic and The Concrete

Sunday 15th February 2009
Year B, Sixth Sunday of the Year
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist and Baptism
John 1:1-14

In a strange sort of way I was really sorry when we won the bid to stage the 2012 Olympics in London because as soon as the announcement was made I knew that it would lead to the longest moan in history: the cost is too high and will grow; there is no benefit to Kirkcaldy, Llangollen or Malmesbury; and nothing will be ready on time. But at least we're more than half way through; there are only just over three more years of moaning to go. I wonder whether that was the typical reaction to the building of cathedrals; just think how long it has taken to get the roof on Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona!

The problem with this kind of carping is that it is the ultimate form of free-loading. What I mean by free-loading is the consumption by a part of the community that never contributes. You know the sort of thing: Mary moans that a local shop has closed down although she never bothered to use it; Joe moans about the state of the village but never attends public meetings; Jim is dissatisfied with the Festival programme but refused to complete an evaluation questionnaire. There is a class of people which simply expects everything to be done for them; and I should say, incidentally, that it is far from the case that the rich and the clever are the volunteer suppliers while the poor and ill educated are the free-loaders. Oh no. Far from it. But the worst form of free loading is the enjoyment of all the benefits of physical and social capital while continuing to denigrate vision, the kind of people who think everything costs too much or isn't worth it, or think that it can't be done or, like Dickens' Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, think it shouldn't be done.

One of the characteristic traits of humanity is that it can imagine and turn that imagination into reality, it can make plans and execute them: we are a world of architectural drawings, orchestral scores, mathematical formulae, magnificent blue-prints, government proposals and mutual schemes. At a personal level we have what we call our dreams but in reality we strive hard to realise what we imagine: our houses and gardens are tributes to tenacity and ingenuity; the University of the Third Age and the Open University are splendid manifestations of individual vision and fulfilment; and our huge variety of cultural, social and benevolent enterprises are all manifestations of our appetite to transform vision into reality. Contrary to the free-loaders who nag away at 'the bottom line' - and they're right, that kind of line should be at the bottom - we cannot survive without vision. so many great developments in our history have come about through vision; just imagine society without it.

Having contemplated the magnificence of transforming drawings into Salisbury Cathedral or mathematical patterns into Bach's St. Matthew passion, now imagine - which we can't really - the transformation of the eternal vision of the Word made Flesh. Unlike our kinds of visions, this one didn't have a beginning, it always is and yet it was an idea that came into reality, into time. Of course if the idea had been put out to consultation at any time there would have been plenty of nay-sayers but, turning the whole process round, the Word had hardly become flesh when opposition started: from Herod the King; from the religious establishment; from the lawyers. In other words, from all the usual suspects that should lend encouragement to vision rather than trying to close it down. And ever since then it has been regarded as a mark of cleverness in some quarters to be sceptical about that Word made Flesh. Still, I wryly say to myself, they who boast their denial of Jesus send their children to Christian schools; so there must be something in it! Another kind of free-loading.

The description of that transformation of idea into actuality, of Word made Flesh, is grippingly concise; what starts out as an ethereal description of The Word, in terms, particularly of light, concludes with a graphic description of The Flesh where, in verse 14, the conventional translations of "and dwelt among us" are woefully abstract; what the text actually says is: "and he pitched his tent among us". That's better! It's a throw-back to the nomadic Ark and the Holy of Holies in The Temple; it's concrete but it's sacred; it's the encapsulation of a cosmic image in a simple object.

But there is another big idea in our Gospel relating to the tabernacle, to life and light, which receives extensive commentary later in John's Gospel in connection with the Feast of Tabernacles, the feast when not only light was celebrated but water was carried in procession in a golden flagon to the chant of: "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation" (Isaiah 12:3) and from Psalms 115-118.

And so, in this passage from the cosmic to the concrete, we have a foretaste of the physical water which Jesus takes up in his description of his gift of the water of life (John 7:38) and, in turn, this leads us to the Sacrament of Baptism.

As we gather around Zachary and his parents and friends to share in the joy of his Baptism, then, let us pray that he shares in our joy at being Christians, having grasped, in the power of the Holy spirit, no matter how vaguely, that the Word was made flesh, that Our God became one of us in Jesus; let us pray that he may grow to recognise how the cosmic became concrete and, in his own life, may he have visions and realise them, not content to be a free-loader but, as a servant of Christ, to contribute to our social and spiritual capital.