3rd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-end
1 Thessalonians 5.16-24
John 1.6-8, 19-28
ON THE NIGHT before the battle of Agincourt, Henry V disguised himself and wandered among his troops — according to William Shakespeare. Among them, he meets a chancer called Pistol who has a feud with a pedantic Welshman called Fluellen.
The banter that follows is an early exploitation of the jokes about an Englishman, a Welshman, and a Frenchman. That is how Shakespeare makes history attractive.
Henry, who takes his kingly vocation very seriously, exploits his disguise to suggest to some of his soldiers what it must be like to be a king: “The violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have the human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man.”
This understanding in a theatrical context says something important to us about the drama that is played out in the Gospel reading appointed for today. First, it alerts us to the possibility that we might read John’s Gospel as a series of acts in a cosmic drama between earth and heaven.
After the poetry of the prologue, the characters begin to introduce themselves. With brilliant dramatic skill, John the Evangelist has ensured that the central character is, at this point, still only a face in the crowd.
John the Baptist says to the people: “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” The Baptist knows that there is a face in the crowd that as yet he has not seen, but that will reveal someone exceptional to us.
In the case of John’s drama, it is the face of God. Two things about that face are important for our preparations to celebrate Christmas.
The first is that this face is utterly human. Jesus will look like his mother, from whom he took flesh. The family and friends looked at the baby and said to her: “He’s got your eyes,” just as they would in any family. Similarly, the behaviour of this person will be like the behaviour of any other human being. That, really, is the disguise that Henry V uses. He chats to his troops like any other man about to face a battle.
It is a disguise, and yet Henry is at pains to point out that there is no disguising what essentially characterises the truth of his life: “all his senses have the human conditions.” This statement could be applied with equal validity to Jesus of Nazareth.
The second important thing about the face of Jesus is that he has “laid by” the signs of heaven, and will bear the marks of human grief. We are surely schooled in this expectation by the familiar words of Christmas carols: “Mild he lays his glory by” is how Charles Wesley puts it.
Those who meet Henry V as an undistinguished soldier before the battle reveal to him the truth about themselves. They are people capable of some bravery, but their strengths are grounded in the weakness of miserable deceits and foolish pride.
When the King is revealed for who he is, there is no escaping the truth of what Pistol, Fluellen, and the rest are really like. They are a bit shoddy and rather limited. But they are also real troopers: they were there, upon St Crispin’s Day, to contribute to the cause and secure an unexpected victory.
Shakespeare is indulgent with these characters because they have made us laugh. It is never a bad thing to discover that humility and a reticence in judging the frailty of others are often learned in the theatre. Nor is it a bad thing to be made to think about the unknown face in the crowd, who might indeed be God, the redeeming priest-king in our midst.
As we make our way through the crowds that will come into view in the next few days, we know that we shall see Jesus in the oppressed and the brokenhearted, in captives, prisoners, and those who mourn. This is because such experiences are utterly characteristic of his life, and were the focus of his mission.
The faces in which he relives them are not hard to find in our world today — in Congo and Zimbabwe, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in men and women who have lost their jobs and face an uncertain economic future.
This Christmas, do not let the faces you see in the news remain impersonal and disconnected from your life. Speak to them through the generosity of your heart, in your prayers and your actions.
Lavish on them those personal, appropriate gifts that we know characterise a good Christmas. Financial gifts will do really well for people overseas, but time, companionship, and a listening ear for your neighbour are also just fine.
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-end
The servant of the Lord said:
1The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3to provide for those who mourn in Zion –
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
4They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
8For I the LORD love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
10I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
1 Thessalonians 5.16-24
My brothers and sisters, 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; 21hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
John 1.6-8, 19-28
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.