07 December 2014

Christ is coming: ‘In my beginning is
my end ... In my end is my beginning’

‘Now the light falls / Across the open field, leaving the deep lane / Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon’ (TS Eliot, ‘East Coker’) … a walk in Rathfarnham on Friday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Sunday 7 December 2014,

The Second Sunday of Advent
11.30 a.m., The Community Eucharist

Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3: 8-15a; Mark 1: 1-8.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

“To begin at the beginning” – these are the opening lines of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas (1954), who was born 100 years ago [27 October 1914].

Or I might begin with words from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol. In Chapter 12, the White Rabbit puts on his spectacles.

“Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

TS Eliot’s “East Coker,” the second of his Four Quartets, is set at this time of the year and opens:

In my beginning is my end.

It is Advent time, and he goes on to say:

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon …

The opening words at the beginning of a play, a novel or a poem – or for that matter, a sermon – can be important for holding the reader’s or the listener’s attention and telling me what to expect. Begin as you mean to go on.

That is why I am surprised that Charles Dickens waits until the second sentence in David Copperfield to say: “To begin my life with the beginning of my life …”

So Advent marks the beginning of the Church Year, preparation for the beginning of the Christ story, and expresses our hopes for the beginning of – the ushering in of – the Kingdom of God.

We might expect then that the Advent Gospel readings are all about preparing for Christmas, and so begin at the beginning.

But it is curious how each Gospel begins to tell the story, each in a different way.

Saint John begins at the beginning, at the very beginning: “In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1: 1).

Saint Luke begins with a personal explanation to Theophilus of why he is beginning to write the Gospel (Luke 1: 1-4), before moving on to the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1: 5 ff). It takes him a full chapter before he gets to tell the story of the first Christmas (Luke 2: 1-20).

Saint Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, generation after generation, with long lists of sometimes unpronouncable names (Matthew 1: 1-17) before he summarises the story of the first Christmas in seven crisp verses … and even then he seems to concentrate more on how Joseph’s fears and suspicions were allayed than on the Christmas story (see Matthew 1: 18-25).

Saint John the Baptist baptises Christ in the River Jordan ... a detail from a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

But Saint Mark’s Gospel has no Nativity narrative at all, has no story of the first Christmas.

Instead, this morning, Saint Mark begins his Gospel with his account of the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the River Jordan, an event that comes a little later on in the other three Gospels (see Matthew 3: 1-17; Luke 3: 1-21; John 1: 19-34).

Although in Year B the [Revised Common] Lectionary is taking us through Saint Mark’s Gospel, because Saint Mark has no Nativity story, the main Gospel reading on Christmas Day is either the Nativity Narrative in Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2: 1-14 or 1-10) or the Prologue to Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-14 or John 1: 1-18).

Many people think they know the Christmas story as it is told in the Gospels. Perhaps then they would be surprised to learn there is no Christmas story in either Saint Mark’s or Saint John’s Gospel. We might be even more surprised to learn that what they think is part of the Christmas story is actually found in the Old Testament reading this morning. They are familiar with it, and they immediately associate it with Christmas, because of the opening words of Handel’s Messiah:

But it is often the opening words of Handel they are familiar with and not the beginning of the Gospel story.

Saint Mark’s account of the Baptism of Christ is a story that promises that the Advent of Christ, the arrival of Christ, is the fulfilment of the Prophets – he quotes not just Isaiah but Malachi too – and is the fulfilment of the promises of Creation.

Later in this chapter, Saint Mark brings together all the elements of the creation story in [the Book] Genesis: we move from darkness into light; the shape of the earth moves from wilderness to beauty; there is a separation of the waters of the new creation as Christ and John go down into the waters of the Jordan and rise up again; and, as in Genesis, the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters of this beautiful new creation like a dove.

And then, just as in the Genesis creation story, where God looks down and sees that everything is good, God looks down in this Theophany story and lets us know that everything is good. Or, as Saint Mark tells us: And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1: 11).

God is pleased with the whole of creation; God so loves this creation, the κόσμος (kosmos), that Christ comes into it, identifies with us in the flesh, and is giving us the gift and the blessings of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah talks about the promise of the return of the people through the wilderness and the desert to Jerusalem and to freedom (Isaiah 40: 3). Saint John the Baptist calls the people from Jerusalem back out into the wilderness, where he proclaims that forgiveness and freedom is available to all who repent and are baptised. His baptism is a sign of turning to God again, of accepting God’s forgiveness and judgment.

Christ’s baptism re-establishes that link between God and humanity. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

To us, Saint John the Baptist comes to prepare for, and to announce, Christ’s coming. But if all we expect from the coming of Christ and Christ’s work among us is finding forgiveness for sin, finding a relationship with God, and joining God’s people if we are willing to repent and turn around, then – I’m sorry – we are in for a big surprise.

As the opening verse of the Gospel reading tells us, this is just the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is the beginning – and only the beginning.

During Advent, we expect the coming of Christ and the fulfilment of his reconciling work on earth. As the Epistle reading (II Peter 3: 8-15a) tells us, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home, where God’s justice is done (verse 13).

The Epistle writer says the apparent delay in Christ’s coming is merely a delusion in time, for God does not measure time in the way we do (verse 8). Instead, God wishes all to be found worthy, and does not want any to perish. He is waiting patiently for all to repent of their waywardness (verse 9), but the end will come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief (verse 10).

Today in our society, though, many people must think not that the end is near, but that the end is already here. At every level of society in Dublin today, people have been so hard pressed by austerity measures they wonder whether there is any light at the end of the tunnel.

The city has been shocked by the death of a homeless man on the streets near Dáil Éireann in the past week. But despair is not confined to the addicts, delinquents and the marginalised.

It was heart-breaking to hear Father Peter McVerry, like a voice crying in the wilderness, talk on the Late, Late Show on Friday night about the hundreds of families being made homeless in Dublin because of the squeezes in the property market – ordinary families, without any dependency problems or delinquency, forced to walk the streets by day because Bed and Breakfast provision is only for the night; parents and children sleeping in cars or in the airport because it is warm; parents forced to place their children in care so they are not sleeping on the streets and in doorways tonight.

As Giles Fraser said in his thought-provoking column in the Guardian yesterday [6 December 2014], “Christmas Christianity insists that fully to imagine God is to imagine a human child – little, weak and helpless.”

Yet, for many families, their income has dropped, their houses are in danger of being repossessed because they cannot afford rent rises or to pay the interest on their mortgages, never mind paying off some of the capital, their skilled adult children have been forced to emigrate with their grandchildren.

Who will comfort, who will comfort my people?

The proposed water charges may not seem exorbitant; however, they may yet prove to be the final straw that has broken the camel’s back. And the opinion polls indicate that the prospect for our future politically is not one of either stability or responsibility.

But this Epistle reading promises a very different future that ushers in “new heavens and a new earth.” As we wait, we should be signs of this promise, and his apparent delay is an opportunity to prepare, to become signs, to become sacraments of the “new heavens and a new earth.”

And once again, I call to mind TS Eliot in “East Coker”:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark …
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God …

Yet, in this apocalyptic, visionary, poem, Eliot is neither all doom nor all gloom. He talks about Faith

... pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

And he concludes “East Coker”:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Giles Fraser tried to summarise Advent and Christmas values in that column in the Guardian: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” is how Jesus expresses his mission in Saint John’s gospel. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” wrote Irenaeus in the second century.

“In my beginning is my end ... In my end is my beginning.”

Christ is coming, and in his birth, life, agony, death and resurrection he is reconciling the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. He is coming with a vision of a world in which all of the barriers that separate us – poor and rich, North and South, male and female, Jew and Gentile, nation and nation, home-happy and homeless – will be no more.

His coming is just the beginning of the Good News and the beginning of hope. Let us prepare the way of the Lord: cast down the mighty and raise up the lowly, let justice and righteousness go before him, let peace be the pathway for his feet, do justice and make peace. And let this be just the beginning.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Baptism of Christ depicted in stucco relief in the Baptistery in the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

here you have nourished us with the food of life.
Through our sharing in this holy sacrament
teach us to judge wisely earthly things
and to yearn for things heavenly.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist on 7 December 2014, as part of a residential weekend with part-time MTh students.

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