The Sub Dean - Revd. Canon Michael Rawson
Who would have imagined at the beginning of the year that so many of our social encounters and conversations would begin with ‘You’re muted’
At the beginning of March I had never heard of Zoom, let alone used it, and now it is so much a part of everyday life. Perhaps for some of us it dominates life and Zoom-free days are precious indeed. For those who have escaped the scourge of Zoom, it is an online video conferencing programme, in which you have to unmute yourself in order to speak. Not only can you connect with people around the UK, it enables you to speak with people across the globe and in many ways it has made the world a much smaller place and helped people to remain connected. And yet it also feels very artificial. One moment you are having a conversation with someone who is effectively in your home or office, and at the touch of a button they are no longer there.
Many people have said how exhausting they find Zoom calls and there is some research that part of the problem is that we are simply not used to seeing ourselves on a screen for prolonged periods. Before Zoom you might see yourself in a mirror a few times but that was it. Now you can be face to face with yourself on a gallery for much of the day. And most of us aren’t used to it or for that matter, like it.
I rather suspect that John the Baptist wouldn’t have warmed to Zoom. Connectivity in the wilderness might be unstable and with his camel hair coat he might not have been dressed correctly. But he could never be accused of being muted. His faithfulness and outspoken nature, speaking truth to power even when that endangered his life and ultimately led to his martyrdom was what marked out John as being different from those around him. We live in an age where people crave the limelight and long to be influencers and celebrities, sharing their views with few, if any, filters on social media. For them, Zoom allows them to be both seen and heard. It can all be rather self-indulgent and self-regarding.
The contrast with the man we meet in today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist, couldn’t be greater. John doesn’t say who he is. Rather he says who he isn’t, ‘I am not …’ In this short passage, not or no appears 6 times. John is not put on the earth for himself, but rather ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ He admits that he is ‘not worthy to untie the thong of Christ’s sandal’ and in a couple of chapters he tells the crowds, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ This approach to life feels more than counter-cultural for us when we are accustomed to hearing politicians, celebrities and others drawing attention to themselves, seeking the praise and plaudits of others and expecting a place of honour.
There is a beautiful statue of John the Baptist by the sculptor, Peter Eugene Ball who created our own wonderful Madonna and child. It’s in a church high on the moors bordering West and South Yorkshire, which feels rather like a wilderness experience. The figure of John clutches his stick in one hand and looks beyond the bystander to someone behind you and with the other hand points to the Messiah, the Christ. It’s a powerful image which embodies the words of our gospel reading, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ Here is the forerunner, the one who points away from himself and points towards his Saviour, the light coming in the world. This is a dynamic passage in which the spotlight turns from the human to the divine, from John the Baptist (and ourselves) towards the coming Christ.
This season of Advent is a time for turning our eyes, our gaze, from ourselves and towards Christ, pointing like John the Baptist to the Saviour in our midst; looking out and serving the world beloved by God; pointing others in the direction of Christ. It is usually a time of anticipation and longing, looking out for the approaching Christmas feast. And yet this year Advent has a very different feel. We have all lived through a fractured and dysfunctional year in which so much has been lost. First and foremost, there has been the sheer human cost of the pandemic with lives lost and grief put on hold, alongside the loss of employment, relationships, experiences of joy and community, of touch and being with those we love and value. For many, the overwhelming mood of Advent is one of isolation and loneliness where it is all too easy to dwell on the things we cannot do rather than looking for the pinpricks of hope and light in the darkness.
The world of Zoom and social media are all about me, being seen in the best light and projecting my best and most successful self. John the Baptist never became a disciple and follower of Jesus. His role was to prepare the way, to span the prophets of the Old and New Testaments, to point towards the Saviour of the world. Undoubtedly, our Christmas festivities this year will be like no other and may well feel like another loss, another bereavement. And yet John gives us an alternative narrative that we are never alone, that pain and isolation will never overcome us, and that the coming light of Christ will conquer the darkness, bringing hope, peace and joy in the midst of our brokenness. Our mission and calling is, like John, to point others in the direction of Christ, the light of the world, the one who makes all things new.