The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
Just before Christmas 2012, when I was a Canon at Worcester cathedral, I had a telephone call from an old school friend whom I had not seen for 34 years. Back in the 1970’s we had studied ‘A’ levels together, and during that phone call he went on to say that due to cancer he had a relatively short time to live.
In fact he held out until a couple of months ago, and in a few weeks time I shall be taking his Memorial Service at Shoreditch parish church.
When we saw each other again we reminisced on how we had first met at a prep school football match and what we had said to each other. We recalled how the game was stopped in order to search for a contact lens that some boy had lost after heading an extremely wet and heavy leather football. The conversation was nostalgic and engaging, in a rather non-demonstrative and unemotional English way.
Sometimes beginnings are not remembered, because they didn’t seem important at the time. In this case it was just another school football match. However, some events in our lives become important because we can see later that it was then that something started.
Of course there are beginnings that we know to be important at the time, like baptisms, marriages, and ordinations. We like to mark these beginnings as important, so we surround them with ceremony to give them a sense of occasion.
Relatives are invited, photographers are hired, priests officiate, particular clothes are worn, solemn words are spoken, cameras click, music is played, and there’s an atmosphere of rejoicing.
But there’s also a certain nervousness in the air, since no matter how big the beginning is, it’s only that, a beginning. The participants might wonder whether they’ll be able to honour all the solemn words, whether they will have the capacity to make them come true.
We rarely think of Jesus as a beginner, just as we rarely think of Jesus needing help. But in today’s feast, the Baptism of Christ, we celebrate those two things: Jesus makes a big beginning to his sacred ministry, and he receives help in the power of the Holy Spirit.
All the Gospels agree that John the Baptist played a crucial role. It is the towering, fearless figure of John that stands between the hidden life of Jesus and his public ministry. Before Jesus goes to John he is known simply as the son of a carpenter, who stays in the same small town of Nazareth.
After his time with John, Jesus becomes widely known as an extraordinarily engaging preacher with a unique prophetic mission. Clearly something happened to Jesus while he was with John. He underwent a change that gave his life new direction.
In fact John was so important that some people in the first century thought that he was the Messiah. One of the reasons they thought this, was because like many people, Jesus went to John to be baptized.
We hear how Jesus travelled all the way from Galilee to see him; how, when he was baptised the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and resting on him. How he heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.
So, Jesus is not alone when he makes his great beginning. He begins his journey in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the love of the Father. He starts out on a difficult road that will eventually lead to his crucifixion.
As we celebrate Jesus’ great public beginning, we may reflect on our own beginnings. And if some of them look a bit shabby now or half-hearted, we take consolation from the Gospel challenge to begin again.
New year resolutions usually come in the form of lifestyle changes such as losing weight, doing more exercise, drinking less alcohol. Yet the main reason that people don’t stick to them is that they just set too many highly unrealistic targets. Many conveniently forget that to change your day-to-day behaviour you also have to change your thinking.
One of the great things about the Christian faith is that God is a God of second chances, fresh starts, and new beginnings. In the Holy Scriptures we read about the incredible ways that God transformed so many people - and their lives. In fact, God is always waiting on us. Sometimes we may think we are waiting for him, but that is never true.
Although there’s nothing in the Bible, or notable in Christian tradition about New Year's resolutions, many take advantage at this time of year of becoming closer to the Lord. Many re-commit themselves to pray more, to read the Bible, or to receive their Holy Communion more regularly.
If you are looking for some help in your New Year's resolutions, perhaps you may consider taking time to further cultivate a grateful heart, to see the good things in your life, and allow them to keep your heart compassionate and loving.
Find time to be with Christ each day, and allow God's love to transform you. Such encounters will keep your eyes and ears open to the divine presence around you. Don't give up, resist the urge to throw your hands up in despair, saying it’s all too difficult. We all succeed through small, manageable changes over time.
Ask the Lord for guidance, strength and perseverance, for just as we heard in our New Testament reading from Acts, everyone who believes in God receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
In reality, the spiritual life is constantly peppered by new beginnings, small signs of grace, mercy and resurrection. But the truth is this: Christ renews us through his Church and it’s ultimately only through baptism, being a member of the Church, that we have access to his grace.
At times, contemporary society seems to have lost its appetite for this truth. But the fact remains, the Sacrament of Baptism is the first of all the sacraments. For the faithful this is the very mark of being a Christian, because baptism brings us into new life in Christ. It’s the essential start of our life’s journey with God, sealing us into the life of prayer.
It was St Catherine of Sienna who taught her followers: ‘Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it.’ Prayer may not always be easy, but the bond with God established at baptism, can never be broken.