Sermon on Maundy Thursday 2020

The Revd Canon Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster


An unusual addition to the scene of the Crucifixion is the presence of St John the Baptist, pointing towards Jesus on the cross.

Of course, the Baptist was not physically present at the crucifixion – he had been executed on the orders of King Herod years beforehand, after Jesus had begun his ministry. But the portrait of the crucifixion is not supposed to capture the details of a moment in time. We are used to photographs and that is all they do: they capture a moment in time, and that is all. An artist can do so much more than capturing what we would call a snapshot of a moment in time. An article can unfold meaning, and show us an otherwise hidden truth.

John is shown as present – in the same way that in the image of the Annunciation, Isaiah was shown as present at the Annunciation when his prophecy was fulfilled. Here now, John is present as his own words are being fulfilled.

He is wearing the traditional camel-hair garment, but like all the other characters in the portrait, he is wearing a red robe on top of it. But unlike the other characters, his face shows no emotion, no sorrow or the struggle to understand how God can be at work in such an act of violence and murder. There is wisdom in his attitude, which is emphasised by the book he is holding in his hand to give him the authority to speak to that moment.

Unlike the book from which Mary is reading at the Annunciation, in which the words can be clearly read, the content if his book is illegible. But the words we need to know are written in red above his outstretched right arm: “Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui” He must increase, but I must decrease.

In his own life – he knew that when Jesus came to him to be baptized, his work of “preparing the way of the Lord” was done. Now the Lord was present, his task was complete – it was now the time for him to decrease – so that Jesus might increase.

But what does that mean? For us, here and now, it means that Jesus must increase in us and in our lives; his will needs to be done, not ours. Our will needs to diminish – his will needs to grow in us so that we are doing what he calls us to do. Our daily prayer is the Lord’s Prayer in which we say “Thy will be done.” This is, in effect saying, “My will should decrease, so that your will may increase in me”. For my will to decrease it must mean that all selfishness must be abandoned in favour of a life of selfless living – living for others, but above all, living for God. John the Baptist first said it, but it applies equally to each one of us, who would live as followers of Jesus Christ.

And in John’s Gospel, the Baptist also said of Jesus, when he first saw him approach: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  That is why St John the Baptist is often associated with the image of a Lamb carrying the cross – or sometimes the resurrection flag (not appropriate at this moment) but the white flag with the red cross predates the flag of St George, and depicts the victory of the Resurrection over death.

That is why we sing the “Agnus Dei” or “Lamb of God” in the Eucharist, with the added petitions “have mercy on us” and “grant us your peace.” Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world whom we commemorate at this and every Eucharist. The Lamb bearing the cross is also the symbol of the City of Preston, as it was the heraldic crest of St Wilfrid, the original patron of the parish, and the letters PP that can be found on that crest stand for Princeps Pacis, or Prince of Peace.

The Lamb in Grunewald’s painting of St John the Baptist is rather different, in that although the lamb is quite placid, the blood of sacrifice is pouring from its throat – into a chalice. The symbolism is clear – Jesus, the Lamb of God is willing to shed his own blood for love of those he came to save.

At every Eucharist, we remember the words of Institution which Jesus said as he gave the bread and wine to his disciples seated at the table in that first upper room. “This is my blood, shed for you all, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

This is the moment when the Blood of Christ is shed: the wounds in his hands and feet, where the nails pierce his very flesh: the blood streaming from his head where the crown of thorns had been cruelly placed; and finally, the spear which pierced his side, and from which flowed blood and water.

John’s Gospel is very emphatic about the blood and water which flowed from the side of Jesus. Remember that St John the Evangelist is also present there as a witness to the crucifixion, and having seen the blood and water flow from Jesus’ side. Traditionally these have been understood as prefiguring the sacraments of the Eucharist (the blood) and Baptism (the water). Jesus had already said t the Samaritan woman at the well “whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a fount of water springing up to eternal life.”

John the Baptist – points us to Jesus, the source of eternal life; he asks us to follow him in submitting his will (I must decrease) to the will of God (he must increase), and Jesus, the Lamb of God will have mercy on us, and grant us peace. Amen