Brothers and Sisters, as your bishop, my great longing is that Christ be real to us. Ever more real. Real, though physically unseen. Real to the eyes of faith. Real in this life and real for ever. As real, in our measure, as he became to Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to so many saints throughout the Christian centuries. He is not a figment of the imagination, he’s not an idea, not just a figure from the past. He is real and alive, here and now, contemporary, eternal. And he longs to be real for us. It is, of course, a life-long process, suffering and failure are part of it, but it’s what we’re made for.
For us as a community, where can this happen? There’s no better place for this real-isation to occur than in our liturgy. “Christ is always present in His Church”, said the Second Vatican Council (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7), “especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross”, but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).”
“There am I in the midst of them.” So, here he is, present, really present, longing to be real for us.
“Seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said, ‘Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’” There he is! It’s a cry of joy. It’s like the Gospel of Luke when baby John in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy at the visit of Mary and Jesus. Then it was a kick in the tummy, now it’s a cry from the heart. Perhaps John can help us in this process of real-ising.
Twice, in the Gospel, he says, “I did not know him myself.” That’s us too. I hadn’t met him, John says, not as an adult anyway. I had been in the desert. But the One who sent me, God the Father, had told me about him. Perhaps by reading the prophets John had become aware how he was to prepare for Someone Else, Someone Greater. And when Jesus came to him to be baptized, and the heavens opened, the dove came down, John had his moment of recognition. What had been faith was now flesh and blood reality for him. And so he could point his disciples to the Man himself: “Look, there…” For St Therese, Jesus became real at the moment of her 1st Communion. For St John Henry Newman as a boy of 15. What’s our story?
What a testimony John has left us about Jesus! We could make a retreat simply on some of his sayings, the phrases he has left us. We could take them one by one, teasing out their meanings, bringing them into our lives: “The One who existed before me”, “the One coming after me”, the “Stronger One”, “the Winnower”, “the Gatherer”, “the Burner”, “the One on whom the Spirit remains”, who baptises “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”, the “Chosen One of God”, the One who “must increase” while I decrease. We could make a litany of this. In fact, with his most famous phrase, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, the Liturgy has done that. “Lamb of God, have mercy on us, have mercy on us, grant us peace.” John the Baptist’s legacy, his testimony, helps us to pray and it’s in prayer, not least liturgical prayer, that Christ becomes real for us. “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” It has become a proclamation of the Real Presence.
To go another step. Today, the Sunday liturgy begins reading 1st Corinthians, and so till Lent. Corinth and Aberdeen have their parallels. But, that aside, in the reading St Paul calls Christians the people “who pray to our Lord Jesus Christ”. That’s worth noting. We don’t just respect Jesus or admire him or try to imitate him. We don’t just believe in him. We pray to him. We believe he is our Lord and our God. Go into the chapter house when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, and see this happening. During the time of Communion we feel it happening. So things come together: Christ becomes real to us when we persevere in prayer; John the Baptist gives us food for prayer; and St Paul says, we’re the ones who pray to our Lord Jesus Christ. (Pray on our own, in our hearts of course, but St Paul would have in mind prayer together too, liturgy).
Last step. What might we pray for? “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.” At this time of year the Church prays for two things especially: for peace, and beginning yesterday for full Christian unity – another peace. Today’s Collect asks, “bestow your peace on our times”. The world is a deeply unsettled place: Lamb of God, you takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace”. Today’s Prayer after Communion prays “make [us]…one in mind and heart” and St Paul speaks of “the saints [Christians] everywhere…for he is their Lord no less than ours.” We can apply this to prayer for full Christian Unity: “Grant us peace, Lamb of God.” Here, this afternoon, with our fellow Christians, we will be expressing that peace and praying for it. Think how much realer Christ would appear to the world if we were fully one! How real he will appear in eternity! How he longs to be real in us!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 19 January 2020 (not actually delivered))