The Second Sunday of Advent (Year C)
December 5, 2021
Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This past Summer, you may remember, Jacalyn, William, and I watched the 1973 film adaptation of the musical Godspell. At that time, I reflected with you in a sermon how the bulk of the movie took place in an empty city, which I found incompatible with our understanding of the City of God. I also promised you we would revisit both Godspell and the importance of the urban setting when we came round to Advent and the story of John the Baptist. And here we are.
You may remember that Godspell begins with a short prelude in which, above only the sound of rushing wind, the Lord God speaks of the creation. We first see a close-up of a corrugated metal wall of graffiti that then zooms out and pans to an establishing shot of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline, looking across the East River towards the newly built World Trade Center. Then, abruptly, the sound and sights of cars traversing the bridge break in, only to be drowned out themselves by the sound of rushing wind, and we tilt up to the pedestrian path and see a shadowy figure walking towards us, pulling a cart, heading for Manhattan. As he comes towards us, he emerges into light and we see that he is young, bearded with long hair, and wearing an eclectic assortment of clothes that evokes both a circus ringmaster and clown. As the camera cuts to show different views of him and his cart, he is clearly established, by his dress and the symbols painted on his wagon, within the 1960s counter culture.
We now are treated with images of the chaotic city. Horns honk and people yell and scream, and we are introduced to a number of New Yorkers going about their lives: a parking lot attendant in midtown; a cab driver; a garment worker pulling a clothes rack along Seventh Avenue; a model carrying her portfolio heading to a casting; a classical dancer in a studio just south of Columbus Circle; a patron in the old Public Library Annex on West 43th Street; a waitress in a cramped diner reading Ulysses between orders; and a shopper arrested by the Steiff display in the Fifth Avenue window of the old FAO Schwartz on 58th. All walks of life, different races and ethnicities, men and women – just all young.
We see each harassed as they go about their lives: shouted and stared at, book ruined by spilt coffee, discovering they just are one of many pursuing their dreams in the big city. And in the midst of all this chaos, each has a sudden, jarring vision of the man we saw on the bridge, smiling, calling to them, blowing on the ram’s horn we saw in his cart. He even briefly becomes the ring master in the Steiff display and the dancer’s partner. They hear him blowing his horn and singing out his prophetic message: “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord” and they find themselves inspired, drawn to him, leaving what they are doing to follow the sound of his call.
They are led to Central Park and they find the man singing his prophesy from below the angel statue atop Bethesda Fountain. It is a great party, with great rejoicing, as if they had found something for which they did not know they were searching. They jump in the fountain and are made new, different, beginning their journey. And from across the Lake (yes, the body of water in Central Park called the Lake), John sees a young man, whom we recognise to be Jesus asking for baptism.
While there are things about the film that miss the mark, this opening is powerful and true to the Gospel, evoking so much about John the Baptist’s story that both resonates and makes us uncomfortable. Foremost among these features is the contemporary setting. The filmmakers, however, are, in their own way, simply following Luke in locating the story in a very specific time and place. For Luke’s first cosmopolitan readers, the location he provides would have been vivid, recent history:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Or, for that matter, at the same distance in time from Luke to the events of the Gospel, when in the fourth year of the mayoralty of John Lindsey, when Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York, the word of God came to John in Brooklyn. The specificity matters because the events of these Gospels of the Kingdom of God happened to real people, in a real place, at a specific time.
The artists of the Italian Renaissance used the exact same narrative techniques in order to make people feel connected to the story, place them into the story, and thereby made the spectator feel that these are experiences that could happen to people like you and me. Indeed, that this could happen not simply to people like me, but actually to me. This is exactly what Domenico Ghirlandaio did in his great cycle of the life of Saint John the Baptist in the Tournabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Mary and Elizabeth meet on a hilltop near the church of San Miniato al Monte overlooking Florence from the south. The Temple in which Zeccharia fulfills his duty looks like it was built by the great architect Brunalleschi. John is born in a house that looks remarkably like the house of the people who commissioned these painting. John baptises Jesus (not in Bethesda Fountain, but in a like way) in a Tuscan landscape, surrounded by people who look like the citizens of Florence. And so on.
In each of these examples, just like in Godspell, we are truly located. John’s ministry does not take place in some hazy, indeterminate past, nor do we see it happening in some historical recreation of the story’s original setting. It has been placed into the living world in which this adaptation has been made. And so the story acquires a sense of concrete reality and we can find room to see ourselves in the story. As a very young boy, I looked into that same window at FAO Schwartz many times in those same years, I saw those Steiff animals and was just as delighted as the woman who beheld the Baptist in the figure of the ring master. How many of us have been to Bethesda Fountain? Walked down Seventh Avenue? Indeed, how many of us have looked down on Florence from the same spot? I’m sure a few. We can see ourselves amongst the people who were first invited into the ministry of Jesus Christ and we ask ourselves the question, how would I have responded? While I would like to say, of course, that I would have dropped everything, I honestly have to say that I don’t know. I am afraid that in the first century I might have been put off by the camel’s hair and in the twentieth by the hippie attire. And all of a sudden this is cutting a little close to the bone, perhaps too close.
And so, these representations do make us uncomfortable, especially when you add in John’s promise of a new age in which everything will be turned on its head:
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
With John and his baptism come seismic change. God shall change the world and change us. So the choices that we have to make, to heed the call of that horn, the call of one crying in the wilderness and join in with the change, or remain either unmoved or too frightened to do anything, become all too real, all too immediate, the stakes all too high.
It is not surprising, then, that our instinct has developed so we want to keep these stories at arm’s length. We prefer them set in the world of a gladiator movie so we might look at them from a safe distance, allowing us to maintain our incredulity, allowing us to remain just out of the story’s reach, just beyond relationship with the people we see represented. In this way the story does not have to demand anything too onerous from us, such as our own response to John and Jesus.
This is why Godspell is so striking, even today almost fifty years later, for John’s story isn’t at a distance. If John could come announcing the Kingdom of God in that part of the Roman Empire, he could come walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. That is the power of the Gospel and we have to let that power affect us, especially in moments like the one in which we shall all participate in a few minutes: Eleanor’s own baptism.
Baptism calls us to new life, heightened life as children of God, members of a new and larger family that is encompassed by the Body of Christ. Baptism invites us into a life in which we both rejoice like those young people in Bethesda Fountain and weep with them in that junk yard on Ward’s Island where Godspell’s Jesus is crucified. Baptism calls us away from a purely secular life into a life still in the world that is both meaningful and purposeful. It is life within the Kingdom of God that was inaugurated with Christ’s Incarnation and announced by John with the words we heard in today’s Gospel: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It is life in which we strive more and more, every day, to grow into the full stature of Christ, receptive to love and loving boldly in return.
Of course Eleanor didn’t necessarily hear John’s call from her stroller on Amsterdam Avenue, but her parents heard something, understand the call to Baptism, and will help her in that monumental work of growing more and more every day into that full stature of Christ. This work becomes easier for each of us, I believe, if we allow ourselves to see and then place ourselves into the Baptist’s story, imagine that we did hear that call, that perhaps we did hear it on Amsterdam Avenue above the honking of horns, the whiz of bicycles and e-scooters, the roar of busses or the wail of a fire engine siren. If we have the courage to imagine what it would be like for us, here, now, to hear and respond to the Baptist’s call, we are already walking the path of the Kingdom of God, and we are indeed beginning to see see “the salvation of our God” that has begun, but is not yet complete.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
John of Damascus, 4 December 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume