A new angle on enlightenment

Peter Seal, 15 January 2017

John 1: 29–42

Baptism of Benjamin Tibbitts

The first thing to acknowledge is that Benjamin comes from a wonderful family. It was a very good day for this parish when Vicki and Giles, with Sebastian and Angharad, made their church home with us just a few years ago. It’s such a delight that Benjamin’s grandmother Eileen, who is also a priest, is going to baptise her grandson.

What’s in a name, we might ask? In our famous Genesis Bible story [chapter 35], Benjamin was the last of Jacob’s 13 children: 12 sons and a daughter. He was the second and last son of Rachel. His brother was Joseph. What you may not know is that Benjamin himself had 10 sons (with no mention of daughters). Who knows what the future may hold?

The Epiphany season is a good time for a baptism, as we celebrate the great theme of Christ becoming known to the nations beyond the Holy Land.

Each Sunday we gather here to worship God as we celebrate the Eucharist. I’m often aware of the amazingly varied lives we each lead, and of the extraordinary riches of experience that each of us brings with us. Together they combine to make us who we are, as the body of Christ in this place.

It seems to me that to worship God takes an act of will on the part of each of us. Having made the effort physically to get to church, we then have to decide consciously to place ourselves in God’s presence. We have to take time to allow God to become real for us again. This keeps us from simply going through the actions without engaging our hearts as well as our minds. It’s so important that we are active participants and not spectators.

In making this conscious effort to place ourselves in God’s presence we somehow reconnect with all that’s most important in our lives. We become aware again of how fortunate we each are, in so many ways; and we become deeply thankful. Even in the face of troubles, pain and illness, a thankful heart can make us healthy – in the sense of being whole.

In world terms we are fortunate beyond our imagining. You may know that we are seeking to support some teenage refugees who the community at Taizé in France are looking after. This week came the sad news that one of them has died. He was 17 years old. His name was Samir. Our hearts go out to the other refugees and to that community. There’s just a little comfort to be had from knowing that, in the last few months of his life, he experienced the love, kindness and care of a Christian community. We thank God for that. May he rest in peace and rise with Christ in glory.

This prompts in me a question: ‘What is it we’re hoping for, for Benjamin on this, his baptism day?’ I read the other day of someone who said that his childhood church-going gave him just enough of an experience of God so that in later life he had something to return to. This feels like a rather helpful, realistic, pithy summary of what we might hope for.

In Greek, the language our New Testament was written in, the word baptism means a photism. A photism is an enlightenment; a coming into the light; or becoming one who sees (words we heard in today’s gospel). So baptism can be understood as a time when our eyes are opened: the time when we transcend the daily limitations of this life and see that dimension to our living and dying which can be described as ‘wholly other’.

Baptism can be understood as a time when our eyes are opened: the time when we transcend the daily limitations of this life and see that dimension to our living and dying which can be described as ‘wholly other’.

Baptism leads us to something or, rather, to someone who we cannot perceive with the eyes of the body alone.

A photism is described as a visual sensation produced by the effect of something heard, felt, tasted, smelled or thought of. That sounds much like worship to me. So baptism, as part of our worship today, touches elements within us that only God in Christ can touch. That’s why it’s so good to be here together.

In his recent book Being Disciples, Rowan Williams, commenting on today’s gospel reading, puts it like this: ‘For us today, trying to be Christ’s disciples, awareness and expectancy are still central … We are post-resurrection believers … we have the Holy Spirit to direct and inform, to energise our awareness, to kindle our expectancy. Like those first disciples we look, as well as listen. We watch with expectancy the world we live in. We listen for the word to come alive in Scripture.’

And then he concludes with words that connect directly with Benjamin’s baptism. He writes, ‘We look at the great self-identifying actions of the church in the sacraments, asking the Spirit to make the connection come alive’. Today, again, I encourage – indeed urge – each of us to ask the Holy Spirit to make the connection between our faith and our daily living ‘come alive’ in a new way.

This surely is what we each long for above all else: that our living and our believing become so entwined that we feel within ourselves a new sense of wholeness, which re-energises us in every part of who we each are. It is this sort of hopeful synthesis that enables us to look to the future positively; yes, even beyond this Friday, when the USA has a new president, with all the fears that prospect brings.

With Benjamin we are people who experience baptism: we experience a photism – that is, a coming into the light, a living in the light, a walking in the light.

Our faith is given visual recognition through baptism’s three distinct signs and actions: the marking with the sign of the cross; the pouring of water; and the giving of a newly lighted candle. This means that nothing we experience for ourselves, that nothing we connect with in our world, can extinguish the flickering light of the baptism candle.

In conclusion: Benjamin has yet to receive this new light. For many of us, the candle given and received for us when we were baptised has been burning for a long, long time. A candle that, through the miracle of faith, goes on renewing itself. The flame may flicker; the flame may feel vulnerable, even endangered; but we know that, by God’s goodness and grace, it goes on shining. To God be the glory.