My attention had started to drift during the sermon at Mass this morning when I was awakened by an arresting idea. It was this: when the people went to St John the Baptist repenting of their sins and were baptised they were effectively leaving their sins in the water so that when Our Blessed Lord, the sinless one, went into the water He assumed all those sins, taking them upon himself. I found the idea so engaging that I found myself wondering if it was original or had been uttered by one of the ancient fathers. It would certainly be none the worse for that!
I recall one Sunday about twenty years ago when I was visiting the parish of my birth at a mass celebrated by a visiting priest from abroad. His English was good but his accent required some attentive listening. He read his sermon carefully and I was struck both by its brilliance and by a vague sense of its familiarity. Later on that day I went to my Divine Office and there in the second reading from the Office of Readings I found the sermon I had heard that very morning! No doubt there are some who would call this plagiarism but often, when I hear less than satisfactory homilies, I recall that experience. Indeed it seems far better than foisting some ill-prepared ramblings upon everyone, as can happen.
I have to admit that I can be pretty grumpy about sermons. This is not because I am accustomed to hearing poor ones but because I heard most of the best sermons in my youth - from Jesuit priests. In fact they were so good that I found a couple of them years later in Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Dubliners". As with jokes the old ones are generally the best!
The idea of the sins being left in the water and then assumed may strike some as unduly materialistic but it makes sense to me. It has a depth about it that is radically opposed to the way in which many of us are accustomed to think these days. Everywhere we see consequences denied. At the time when the Fred West murders were being revealed in Gloucester I was struck by the way he had imagined he could hide the bodies permanently by burying them under concrete. The modern world is one of waste- not least because we have refuse services and increasingly bigger bins. There is an evil tidiness in a world in which the inconvenient unborn can be cleared away as if they never existed. "As if"! Those two words say it all because they reveal the denial. In the end there is no "if", only "is". The truth is independent of whether or not anyone sees or knows or believes it. The dirt has to go somewhere if anyone is to be clean.
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