A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Isaiah 43 v1-7; Luke 3 v 15-17, 21-22
“The sounds are enchanting. I wish you could hear them. It makes it all come together”.
That was the recorded response of one of the more than fifty thousand visitors who have walked through ‘Light Wave’, the installation that has stood outside the West Front since the beginning of Advent. If you haven’t stood in the middle of it as night falls, if you haven’t seen the glow of the lights all around you, if you haven’t heard their ethereal whispering then I encourage you to do so. It’s astonishing. It’s the nearest you’ll come to a Mary Poppins-style adventure, in which worldly reality is suddenly superseded by green-screen animation, and grown-up people find themselves living as cartoon characters painted on a ceramic bowl (I’m giving away nothing about our family’s Christmas viewing habits).
Its creators call ‘Light Wave’ an immersive experience. “Immersive” has become a popular descriptor for all manner of products. In less than one minute browsing the web last week I found an Arabic language course which offers a “communicative and immersive curriculum”, and a London restaurant which promises “…an immersive evening of decadence, drinking and dining, interrupted by a sinister murder”. I suppose an immersive experience is one in which all of life’s boundaries are collapsed, in which one reality is overwhelmed by another, in which one’s perspective is radically altered.
Of course, ‘Light Wave’ is not the only immersive experience that Salisbury Cathedral offers. There’s another, and we’ve been in the business of offering it for rather longer than the six or so weeks since From Darkness to Light. It’s summed up in our spectacularly beautiful font. It’s baptism. One of the many wonderful things about the font is its scale and depth. In the parish church where I was a curate no self-respecting sparrow could adequately accomplish its daily ablutions in the font. But ours presents as a place of immersion, a place where candidates are plunged beneath the water, saturated in it utterly and completely.
Saturation is appropriate for a rite which has historically symbolised death and rebirth. When we are baptized our old selves are drowned in the waters and we are raised from them to new lives of forgiveness and hope. That symbolism is what made the baptism of Christ such an excruciating embarrassment for the early Church. John the Baptist offered Israel such a baptism. Why on earth would Jesus, the sinless Son of God from all eternity, submit to it?
And here those language courses and murder mystery dinners are helpful. The student of Arabic on the immersive course is presumably required to speak, write, think, eat and drink in Arabic. The costumes and music in the immersive restaurant presumably transport the diner to an era when sinister murder was an occupational hazard of those committed to lives of decadence, drinking, and dining. The visitor who steps into ‘Light Wave’ leaves the Close behind and is immersed in a new world of colour and sound. The boundaries are collapsed; one reality is overwhelmed by another; perspective is radically altered. The student, the diner, the visitor are all immersed in a new and different context and – here’s what matters – they all identify completely with it. I just wonder: is this the meaning of Christ’s immersive experience at the River Jordan?
Pilgrims to the Holy Land (among whom this morning are our Bishop, Nicholas, and our Treasurer, Robert) often visit the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus. Getting there is a minefield – literally. On either side of the road to the river there are tangled barbed wire fences and Keep Out notices with skulls and crossbones. When the pilgrim reaches the site the reason becomes clear. At this point in its journey the river is the boundary between modern Israel and modern Jordan, two states which have often been at war with one another. Across the river a Jordanian soldier sits in the shade, his rifle on his lap. So the site is surrounded by tangible reminders of human fear and human pride. It’s a massive irony, for what Saint Luke describes on the day when Jesus approached John for baptism is a gesture of fearlessness and humility. “All the people were baptized” writes Luke, and Jesus also is baptized. For Luke the holy dove and the heavenly voice come later. First, Jesus is immersed in the water. He identifies completely with the people, the people who have gathered on the river bank. His divine life is soaked in their human life. He is utterly at one with those he has come to serve.
Remember the words of Isaiah that were read as our first lesson this morning: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you”. In those words, God promises his ultimate solidarity with those whom he has created and whom he loves. In those words, God identifies with us; he has immersed himself in our life. At his baptism Jesus makes this clear. It is no coincidence that those very words are inscribed on the rim of our font.
So, enjoy ‘Light Wave’. But remember the other immersive experience that we offer. God in Christ plunges himself without limit into the world he has made and which we inhabit. God is with us. Because God is with us, we can be hopeful. We are not alone; we are never alone. However close we are to the bottom of the blackest pit that life can dig for us we are in his company. And because God’s divine life has been immersed in our earthly life we can be sure that the reverse is true. Our human life has been immersed in his divine life. We live, and so we are participants in, partakers of, the very life of God. As the T-shirt says, we are not dust, but stardust. It’s the greatest immersive experience of them all. Amen.