Patronal Festival of the Beheading of John the Baptist
Hebrews 11:32 – 12:3
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was at Secondary school we had a school hymn and a school poem. Our Head Master, Mr Scott, as he walked around school would approach random pupils and quote a line from either, to which we were required to respond with the following line from the appropriate text.
The hymn was quite easy,
“In His hands He gently bears us,” barked Mr Scott.
“Rescues us from all our foes.” We would respond.
It was easy because
“Praise him, praise him, alleluia,” could be followed by the final line of any of the verses of the hymn.
Mr Scott was no light weight and although the school hymn book, that old Percy Dearmer special Songs of Praise, contained only three verses we were required to memorise the additional, original verse, which no doubt would not be considered suitable for adolescents now:
Frail as summer’s flow’r we flourish,
Blows the wind and it is gone;
But while mortals rise and perish,
Our God lives unchanging on.
Praise Him, praise Him, alleluia!
Praise the high Eternal One!
Quite a suitable verse for this celebration of your patron saint on the (transferred) feast of his de-collation or beheading.
Of course, losing one’s head is a Very Bad Thing. Losing one’s heart to an appropriate person or thing, is permissible as long as the head is held on to. Well poor John the Baptist lost his heart – to God, and his head to Herod.
I know that losing one’s head is a bad thing because that was one of the lines in the poem that Mr Scott required us all to learn.
It is a very great poem, although, like the extra verse of the hymn it is unfashionable now.
I am very grateful to Mr Scott for insisting we memorise both the hymn and the poem. The poem in particular has stood me in good stead throughout my life, I would even say that the truths contained in it have proved themselves even more firmly to me as my life has gone on. The poem in fact starts with losing one’s head; or rather not losing it:
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you …
It is, of course, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’.
Our heads are important to us. They contain our brains: the place we do our thinking; they carry our faces, the way people recognise us. We are horrified when people suffer terrible injuries to their faces and are ‘unrecognisable’; some people spend huge amounts of money changing their faces; improving them with nose jobs, facelifts and all sorts of other things I have no wish to know about. The beheadings by ISIS of their victims in orange Guantanamo style clothing are intended to, and do, horrify us. Madame Guillotine, heads on stakes at city walls, skulls in Shakespeare’s play or haunted houses, are all part of our deepest fears.
But I want us to think about where we think the seat of our being is, where do we exist as people. Since Descrates and his famous cogito ergo sum, we have been thinking beings; we exist in our heads; we imagine that those who cannot think, the demented, the mentally ill, the unborn, the disabled are in some way not fully human.
Human beings have not always thought of themselves as existing in their heads. In many philosophical and religious traditions, including the bible, the seat of being was somewhere else.
I would like you to hang on to just one phrase from today’s Gospel account of the beheading of John the Baptist. It came right at the end of the reading:
Jesus took pity on them.
Jesus had compassion on them.
Jesus was moved with compassion.
That movement is not a movement in the brain; where do we have movements – apologies for being indelicate on a Sunday morning – we have movements in our bowels, the depths of our being. That is where we feel compassion, in the depths of our being.
The problem with locating our sense of self in our heads is that our heads are up in the air. Our heads are not deep enough; they are not rooted enough, not attached enough to the earth.
I have a particular phobia about praying sitting down. It is a modern, Cartesian way of praying. Look at how Muslims pray – and it is deeply impressive – touching the earth, praying body and soul. Look at how Buddhists meditate, in the lotus posture, a deeply stable position on the three points of the knees and the buttocks; and you will even see images of the Buddha in the ‘earth witness’ posture; touching the earth.
For the Bible, the self, the living being is the whole person, a living being; a body into which God has breathed life, nephesh, breath, if there is a centre to the being it is in the throat, in the organs of breathing or lower down in the bowels. When we breathe it is the diaphragm that is the muscle, the life of breathing, not the lungs or even the heart.
And that is why we as Catholic Christians pray, kneeling down, close to the earth from which God made us. I visited my parents in Leeds yesterday, they are getting old and clearing out photographs and other memorabilia. Some of my strongest memories of my childhood are of my brother and sister and I kneeling by our beds as we prayed together as a family. I remember the smell of coal tar soap, and the taste of toothpaste. Incarnate, earthed, praying. How impoverished our children are if they are not given those memories.
Those memories are part of my personal and family stories. And that’s what the author of the letter to the Hebrews is talking about in today’s first reading; the shared memories the story of our Christian faith. You too have your stories of faith: the priests and people who have formed this congregation at St John’s. A great cloud of witnesses.
And it is the story that you are writing today as you live St John’s present and create your future together.
My challenge for you today on your patronal festival is the challenge of Kipling’s poem, to dream, to think, to meet; it is the challenge at the end of the first reading: to be courageous.
And courage is needed. The challenge for all of us in the church is growth. What do we need to do to grow as congregations, to bring new people to faith in Christ; to add new names to that list in the letter to the Hebrews?
The first step is that we must grow in holiness ourselves, as individuals and as communities. We must deepen our discipleship. Not only in our heads, but in our hearts, in our guts in our bowels and before growth in holiness or numbers can happen, we have to want it to happen, we have to pray for it.
So, if you can kneel down, do so this week. Kneel down and ask God to grant you the gift of holiness. Ask God that you may know deep down in your hearts, his presence. Pray God that you may feel the movement of the Holy Spirit within you.
One of my favourite images of Jesus is the image of the Sacred Heart – the heart, notice, not the head!
There is a modern version of that known as the Divine Mercy Image which shows rays of beautiful light emanating from Jesus’ own heart. The Divine Mercy image always appears with a simple phrase at the base: Jesus, I trust you.
That’s all that faith is. That’s what the letter to the Hebrews is talking about. We are the community of those who say to Jesus, every day, every hour, every minute: Jesus, I trust you. We are those who lose our heads for Jesus, who let go of doubts and niggles and worries. Who let go of what we want, our plans, our story: “Let us not lose sight of Jesus.”
You will grow in holiness, you will be moved in the deepest places of your being, this congregation will grow in numbers if you kneel down each day and say: Jesus, I trust you.
If you want a longer prayer that says the same thing there are few better prayers than one that, I am sure, has been prayed many times in this church:
“I love you Jesus, my love above all things,
I repent with my whole heart for ever having separated myself from you.
Grant that I may love you always, then do with me what you will.”
May the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary be our only refuge. Amen.