Sunday, 9 January 2022

Who speaks out like Saint John
the Baptist in the world today?

An icon of the Baptism of Christ, worked on a cut of olive wood by Eleftheria Syrianoglou, in an exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 9 January (Epiphany 1):

9.30: Castletown Church, the Parish Eucharist;

11.30: Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Morning Prayer.

Readings: Isaiah 43: 1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8: 14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The Baptism of Christ … a stained glass window by AE Child in Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, Co Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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

Christmas appears to have come to an end. Many people are back at work, most schools have reopened, Christmas decorations have been taken down, the trees and the tinsel have gone, and the shopping centres have stopped blaring out those awful versions of carols.

But Christmas is not over. Christmas lasts until Candlemas, the pivotal feastday between Christmas and Easter, that links the cradle with the cross, the Incarnation with the Resurrection.

We celebrated the Visit of the Magi on Thursday (6 January 2022). This Epiphany story is a Theophany, in which the kingdoms of the world are seen bowing down before the King of Kings, sacramentally laying before him, in their gifts, all the wealth of the world.

The Wedding at Cana, which we read about next Sunday [16 January 2022], is an Epiphany event too when, even before his time has come, Christ shows who he is.

This morning’s Gospel reading, Saint Luke’s account of the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan (Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22), marks the beginning of Christ’s public ministry and is an Epiphany event too.

It is a Trinitarian moment, when the Father, Son and Holy Spirit come together, acting as one, with distinctive roles: when Christ is baptised, heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God the Father declares: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Luke 3: 21-22).

People flock to Saint John the Baptist in the wilderness in response to his call to start new, ethical lives – as a way of preparing for Christ. He tells them that the ‘one who is … coming’ is so great that he is unworthy even to ‘untie … his sandals,’ the task of a slave. Christ is then baptised, the Holy Spirit descends on him, and God the Father proclaims, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Are there people who remind you of Saint John the Baptist, or who are bit like Saint John the Baptist in your life?

Are there people who are alive today or in your past who challenged you to turn towards Christ, to see the love of God the Father for creation, to share Christ’s hope and offer of salvation for all; who have challenged you to be guided by the Holy Spirit in the priorities and values that serve as road-markers in your life?

They are not necessarily the same as saints. They are not necessarily the sort of people you want to spend time with. I cannot imagine many people wanted to spend time with John the Baptist, or would have appreciated him as a neighbour. They probably felt deeply uncomfortable by both his lifestyle and his challenges.

But challenge them he did, and he pointed them to Christ and to the values of the Kingdom of God.

I want to share just one example this morning.

I might have chosen Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died just after Christmas, or some other well-known world figures. Or I might have chosen people who have had a strong influence on my spiritual growth and values … the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazis and paid the ‘Cost of Discipleship’ when he died in a concentration camp … Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, who flung open the doors of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, to black protesters being beaten by the apartheid police …

But this morning I want to share the work of Rebecca Comerford, a professional singer and actor. She has been involved in bringing the children’s opera Brundibár and the story of the children in the concentration camp in Terezín to American audiences. It was a deliberate decision in light of the political climate created in America by the Trump administration.

Rebecca Comerford is a founder of Ojai Youth Opera Company. She has sung internationally as an opera soloist with some of the world’s finest houses.

Rebecca and the Ojai Youth Opera Company have revived Brundibár and she has taken the story of Terezín to synagogues, churches and theatres throughout the US.

Only 20 of the 400 original performers of Brundibár survived to see liberation. ‘They were making art up until the very end,’ Rebecca Comerford says.

Theresienstadt or Terezín was set up as a concentration camp and a ghetto by the SS in World War II in a fortress town about 70 km north of Prague, then in part of German-occupied Czechoslovakia and now part of the Czech Republic.

Terezín was both a waystation to the extermination camps, and a ‘retirement settlement’ for elderly and prominent Jews to mislead everyone about the Nazis’ plan for genocide. The conditions were created deliberately to hasten the death of the prisoners. The ghetto also had a propaganda role in Red Cross visits and in making propaganda films.

About 33,000 people died at Terezín, mostly from malnutrition and disease. More than 88,000 people were held there for months or years before being deported to extermination camps and other killing sites. About 23,000 people survived Theresienstadt.

Many prominent Jews were held at Terezín, which was known for a cultural life that included concerts, lectures and clandestine education for children.

All education was forbidden, but teachers still to taught clandestine classes and cultural activities for the children in the evenings. Hundreds of children were encouraged by a Viennese art therapist, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944) to make paintings and drawings until was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in Birkenau in 1944.

The children’s opera Brundibár was composed in 1938 by Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister for the Children’s Orphanage of Prague. It was first performed at Terezín in 23 September 1943, and it was performed 55 times, or about once a week, for about a year, until the transports of autumn 1944.

The opera tells of a brother and a sister who stand up to a bully in order to afford milk to save their sick mother. It was meant to teach the children at the orphanage about how to deal with a bully, and how to remain positive in difficult situations.

When Hans Krása was deported to Terezín, he rewrote the opera for the children in the camp. The antagonist, an organ grinder who sang loudly on the strees to make money and drown out the townspeople, was symbolic of Hitler’s tyrannical reign. The Nazis failed to make this connection, and so the resistance opera continued to be performed under their noses.

At the end of Brundibár, the chorus sings:

We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean.
Sound trumpets, beat your drum, and show us your esteem.
We’ve won a victory because we were not fearful,
because we were not tearful.
Because we marched along singing our happy song,
bright joyful and cheerful.


It is as though a voice comes from heaven and says, ‘You are my Children, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Rebecca Comerford says she chose Brundibár in the Trump years because of ‘the current political climate, and the rise of fascism across the globe, and the pervasive rise of intolerance, not just nationally, but on a macro level, too.’

She says the company had to decide what they were going to teach their performers about how to promote tolerance and inclusion, and about how to deal with bullies and negativity.

‘We decided that this would be really timely and relevant in terms of our mission, and said let’s do this outreach component, too. We’ll really discuss the messages. How do we deal with a bully? What does that mean to our children? And why do they need to know this story, so history doesn’t repeat itself again?’ Rebecca says.

‘It’s our obligation as a human family to share the story,’ she tells her audiences. It’s our obligation.

So, for me, Rebecca Comerford is like Saint John the Baptist. She is not afraid to speak out about – to name – evil in the past and in the present, to separate the chaff from the wheat, to make way for the values of the coming kingdom. Yet she points not to herself, but in the midst of everything that goes wrong, in the past and today, she points to hope in the future, and to the values of justice, mercy and peace, values that for me express exactly what the Kingdom of God is like.

Who are figures that for you are like Saint John the Baptist in your life, in your community, in the world today?

(Allow time for discussion; suggest Charlie Bird and Vicky Phelan from Friday’s ‘Late Late Show’)

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

A suitcase packed for Theresienstadt, seen in an exhibition in Prague … Rebecca Comerford shas revived ‘Brundibár’ for an American audience (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22 (NRSVA):

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming’ (Luke 3: 16) … a fresco in a church in the mountain village of Maroulas, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: White

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Eternal Father,
who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
Grant to us, who are born of water and the Spirit,
that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of the Word:

Spirit of energy and change,
in whose power Jesus was anointed
to be the hope of the nations:
be poured out also upon us
without reserve or distinction,
that we may have confidence and strength
to implant your justice on the earth;
through Jesus Christ.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

Post-Communion Prayer:

Refreshed by these holy gifts, Lord God,
we seek your mercy:
that by listening faithfully to your only Son,
and being obedient to the prompting of the Spirit,
we may be your children in name and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

The fifth century mosaic of the Baptism of Christ in the Neonian Baptistry in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

22, You shall cross the barren desert (#2, CD 1, Love of God, Life of Faith)
(Alternative, 204, When Jesus came to Jordan, CD 13)
136, On Jordan’s bank, the Baptist’s cry (CD 8)
294, Come down, O love divine (CD 18)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org



Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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