Sunday, 11 January 2015

Paris marches: Feast of the Baptism of Christ

This is the season of Epiphany. An “epiphany” is literally a “setting-forth”, something that reveals a truth.

So the Feast of the Epiphany shows Christ’s divinity recognised by the wise and powerful who come upon a vulnerable human child in Bethlehem.

Today’s Feast of the Baptism of Christ shows God’s own recognition of Jesus as he comes up out of the water and the Holy Spirit descends upon him.
What do we see of how God is working in the world?

It’s hard to ask that question after the terrible atrocities in Paris during the last few days. After killing 11 people in the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, the murderers went out into the street and at point blank range shot a policeman as he lay on the ground. They made their escape shouting that Mohammed had been avenged. The man they left lying dead was a Muslim. How did they think they were doing God’s work? Or the other terrorist - perhaps with an accomplice - who killed a policewoman later in the day and went on to kill four other people in a supermarket chosen, it seems, because it sold kosher Jewish food? Today people will march in Paris in what might be the city’s biggest ever demonstration to show their opposition to the terror which has broken out on their streets and their solidarity with those who have been its victims.

In the midst of this we need to see what goes unreported. In Nigeria in the same week, the terrorist group Boko Haram has attacked more communities in the north of the country - I’ve seen estimates that they killed over 2,000 people. Yet it’s barely been noticed here. It’s been going on for years - but nobody marches for them here.

What can we do or say? A cartoon in the aftermath of the first attack put it well: One man with a gun says to another, “Be careful, they might have pens.”

The pen is mightier than the sword. It doesn’t mean that it will keep people safe. But it exposes those who aren’t ready to enter into argument and disagreement by peaceful means. Not only Muslims but others besides will find reason to take issue with Charlie Hebdo; it has carried illustrations which are grossly offensive, blasphemous and obscene when it comes to depicting Christian targets. But there must be ways of response other than violence. God does not need us to defend him with bullets, bombs and rocket launchers. God does not need us to take hostages to bargain on his behalf.

The God of Jesus Christ takes the way of humility and peace. John the Baptist tells people about the coming Messiah, that “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” To remove the Master’s footwear is the job of a slave - and John does not count himself worthy even to be a slave. Yet Jesus comes to him for Baptism. God’s way will be in acknowledging the message of John the Baptist. John counts himself unworthy to remove the sandals of the Messiah,… and Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples.

John the Baptist comes with a message - and it leads to his death. Jesus comes and accepts the Baptism of John - and it shows that God’s purpose is to be worked out by being human, bringing healing, exercising humility, making no demand other than love, and loving us himself literally to his death.

In all the posturing of religious extremists we need to ask, where is that word Love in their vocabulary? With those who defend the right to free speech the same question needs to be asked. How can we treat each other as human beings worthy of respect? When will people be ready to treat each other with humility? In self-giving love God humbles himself to share our humanity in Jesus. He comes, the baby of Bethlehem worshipped by shepherds, wondered at by wise men, now baptized by John. And his way is affirmed by that voice from heaven: “You are my Son…”

We are his children too - all of us. Let us listen to him.


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