Here Be Dragons – Br. James Koester
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Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord: The First Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Psalm 29; Acts 8: 14 – 17; Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22
Did you notice it? Did you notice something different this past Christmas? There was something palpably different with our Christmas celebrations this year and I believe it had to do with the crèche.
It’s not, I think, that the crèche itself that was especially unusual. We have had unusual and thought provoking crèches in Christmases past. Some of you may remember the year we had the Holy Family as street people seeking shelter from the wind in the back corner of the chapel with Mary looking like one of the bag ladies we often see in Harvard Square. There was also the year that Mary was faceless, and in place of her face was a mirror so that when you gazed at her you saw your own reflection and somehow you knew that you too were meant to bear, and carry and give birth to the Incarnate Son of God in our world today. You may remember the year we had the almost life sized iconographic depictions of the Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child with the ox and ass peering over the stall. And last year we had that wonderful shadow-box Nativity scene carved from a single piece of wood. No, we’ve had unusual crèche scenes before, and oddly enough the crèche we had displayed this year was not all that unusual. No, what was unusual about this year was not the crèche itself, but rather how it demanded you to encounter it.
I was always amazed and quite moved watching people approach the crèche day by day, throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. In a sense, the crèche demanded that you approach it. Observe it. Stop and look for a moment and then circle around it. You could not take in the whole scene all at once so you had to look at the individual pieces or groups of figures a few at a time. Slowly, as you moved around, over time, the whole scene wove itself together, but only if you took the time to encounter the scene, not in its entirety at first, but in it particularity, piece by piece and group by group.
There was often the sense that people, when gazing at the crèche, were not looking at something spread out on the floor of the monastery chapel, but that they were actually in that cave in Bethlehem. It would never have surprised me if I had turned around and discovered people kneeling before the crèche this year singing Silent Night, or O Little Town of Bethlehem as some of us have done in that other cave, in that other Bethlehem.
What was different this Christmas, at least for me and I sense for many of you as I watched you was the sense of delight that the crèche elicited from so many as we took the time to encounter it.
For me that’s the word that captures my Christmas experience this year: ‘delight’. Christmas was delightful, and it began, at least for me, at the crèche.
Today, another scene unfolds before us. Not one of caves, and shepherds, magi and camels, angels and mangers. This time the scene is of rivers and crowds, splashing water and swooping doves. Like the crèche that was spread before us during Christmas, this scene also demands us to encounter it piece by piece and figure by figure. We have to stop and gaze as we circle around it. We can’t take it all in at once, so slowly but surely, over time, over years we come to know the meaning of this scene that spreads before us, and it is nothing short of thrilling.
Like those people who first assembled on the banks of the Jordan with a sense of expectation, I too come to today with a sense of expectation, wondering what all this means for me as I see spread before us potent symbols of font and water, icon and fire, oil and incense, bread and wine. These symbols are full of life and force and power and cannot be comprehended with one quick glance. We must circle around them, looking and gazing with a sense of expectation and thrill because we know of their beauty, and we understand their danger.
Like those early map makers who inscribed along the edges of their maps, at the end of their known world: “here be dragons”, we inscribe upon the map of this scene, along the edges of our known world: “here be danger” for danger lurks all around us. Water can both cleanse and drown; fire can both enlighten and burn; oil can be a healing balm and a barrier; bread can both satisfy and engorge; wine can both refresh and inebriate. Yet it is to this water and to this fire, to this bread and to this wine that we bring today Lucie and Marek. And we bring them here today not just to clean them, but in a sense to drown them, that they may live forever in the risen life of Christ; not just to enlighten them, but in a sense to burn them and set them on fire with the light of God; not just to feed them, but in a sense to engorge them with the overwhelming love of God; not just to refresh them, but in a sense to inebriate them with God’s life and light and love.
It is no accident that we will get water all over the floor today. It is no accident that I will get oil all over my hands today. It is no accident that Elizabeth will drip wax somewhere as she lights Marek’s and Lucie’s baptismal candles. It is no accident that there will be crumbs and wine in abundance today for the signs of the reign of God are feasting, and celebrating and abundance and that, Lucie and Marek, Matthew and Gérard is what is happening to you today. You are discovering, and all of us are rediscovering the abundant love of God who in Jesus has made us all his beloved daughters and sons. It is here, in the waters of the Jordan, of the Charles, and of the Blackstone River in Rhode Island, that we will pour into this font this morning that you can begin to discover the abundance of God’s love for you and to hear God say: Lucie, you are my daughter, the Beloved; Marek, you are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Today’s celebration Marek and Lucie, Gérard and Matthew is a sign that the abundance of God’s love in Jesus is for you, just as it us, and therein lies the danger: for here be dragons. For God’s love is all consuming: it gives life, to those willing to die; it brings light, to those willing to be set aflame; it brings healing, to those willing to be anointed; it brings satisfaction, to those willing to feast; and it brings refreshment, to those willing to drink deeply from the cup.
So today Lucie and Marek we set you on a journey of discovery to the land of dragons and danger. We promise to be your companions and sometimes to lead the way, just as we ask you to be our companions on this same journey and sometimes to lead our way, for this journey into the very heart of God is both dangerous and thrilling: it is the greatest adventure you will ever have, and the most terrifying thing you will ever do. But wherever this journey takes you, and whatever dragons and dangers you encounter, be assured of one thing: you are God’s beloved son, you are God’s beloved daughter and that God’s desire for you is life, and light and healing and celebration and it begins here with water, and fire, and oil, and bread and wine.
 Ms Elizabeth Sherlock was the acolyte at the Eucharist
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I am minded of M. L’Engle’s book ‘Dragons in the Waters,’ in which a very young, sympathetic protagonist is killed. Her son, pre-reading the book for her before its publication, objected to this, saying it wasn’t fair that Joshua–the young, ebullient character, who is killed by a group’s attackers as he saves others in the group–was good and shouldn’t have to die. L’Engle explained to him that life wasn’t fair, but that Joshua’s goodness had not been in vain, it had been expended for others’ good…and that she had no control over her characters, if one of them put themselves in danger she had to let them, she had to respect the choices they made for themselves.
The tough love of an author for her characters, like that of a parent for a child, was never clearer to me than in hearing that.
Wow. The power of the Holy Spirit flows and burns through these words. I really wish that I could see the set up so that I could travel around both the creche and the baptismal scene in my imagination. Some writing will come from this–I will let you know. Thank you, Brother James.
thanks james for that message it brings back to me when we where in jersulem and renewed our batismal vows in the jordon river. it also teaches us that God will always be there for us and makes the baptism and eucharist more meaningful to us. jane