Reflection on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (13 January 2019)
By Michael Whelan SM
In October 1536 there was an uprising in the northern parts of England. It became known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. These were people rebelling against the decisions of Henry VIII to place himself at the head of the Church and have his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, disband the monasteries and confiscate their properties. Not only were the rebels crushed and their leaders executed – some hung, drawn and quartered – in destroying the monasteries, Henry destroyed a substantial healthcare system, a solid religious practice and a social structure that sustained and enriched the lives of the people – see Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, Yale University Press, 1992.
In 1952, Hilda Prescott published her account of this tragedy in her historical novel, The Man on a Donkey. Eamon Duffy has described this work as “a largely forgotten masterpiece” (Eamon Duffy, ‘Pitiless Power of Henry’s Man’, review of Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, The Tablet 19 May 2012, 18).
One of the characters, Malle, is a simple servant-girl who has been adopted by a community of Benedictine nuns. Malle sees evidence of God everywhere: ‘All’s smitten through with Him. Love, frail as smoke, piercing as a needle – near – here. He that’s light has come into the clod.’ She stood up and for a minute seemed to listen to the unceasing voice of the Swale. ‘So,’ she said, ‘yon brown cows, and the grass, and us, all things that’s flesh, for that He is flesh, are brothers now to God.’ (H F M Prescott, The Man on a Donkey (Kindle Locations 10239-10242).
Towards the end of the novel, Malle is doing some heavy field-work with another servant, Wat, “a dusty wretched dumb lad”. She turns and muses: “‘Wat,’ said Malle, ‘have you thought that He has stained Himself, soiled Himself, being not only with men, but Himself a man. What’s that, to be man? Look at me. Look at you.’ They looked at each other, and one saw a dusty wretched dumb lad, and the other saw a heavy slatternly woman. Malle said: ‘It’s to be that which shoots down the birds out of the free air, and slaughters dumb beasts, and kills his own kind in wars.’ She looked away up the Dale towards Calva, rust-red with dead bracken, smouldering under the cold sky. ‘And it wasn’t that He put on man like a jacket to take off at night, or to bathe or to play. But man He was, as man is man, the Maker made Himself the made; God was un-Godded by His own hand.’ She put her hands to her face, and was silent, till Wat pulled them away. ‘He was God,’ she said, ‘from before the beginning, and now never to be clean God again. Never again. Alas!’ she said, and then, ‘Osanna!’” (Op cit, (Kindle Locations 9639-9647).
See Him step forward. With everyone else. To be baptized with John’s baptism. Not yet the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. Only He can bring that. He does not offer an explanation or an excuse. He simply and quietly does what must be done. He prays. “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.”