The Feast of Eric Liddell
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Isaiah 40:27–31, Psalm 18:21–25,29–34; 2 Peter 1:3–11; Mark 10:35–45
You, O Lord, are my lamp; my God, you make my darkness bright. With you I will break down an enclosure; with the help of my God I will scale any wall. AMEN.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” So Jesus asks his brash young followers. And so he asks all of us, perhaps with more poignancy in this present moment.
It’s a good time to think a bit about baptism. We’re coming up on the season of Lent, so long the season of preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil. For many in the earliest days of the Church, these 40 Lenten days were the culmination of years of training and teaching and formation. Then, in the flickering dark of the Vigil, baptizands were plunged head-to-foot into water three times, in the name of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer & Sustainer, an intense evocation of their willingness to “die into Christ,” to join themselves to Christ by complete self-emptying, and thereby to be infused with a new life and a new identity as a minister of reconciliation, committed to following Jesus even if to follow Jesus meant to be separated from one’s loving but unbelieving family. Even, if necessary, into the dens of lions.
Because in the early days of the church, these soon-to-be Christians were subject to persecution and even martyrdom, so preparation for baptism was a much more literal preparation for death than anyone in this room is likely to have experienced, even if you were baptized as I was, as an adult. My baptism preparation – at age 28 - amounted to a single conversation with my priest, in which, after four years of singing in the choir every week, I met with him on the picnic table outside the church and screwed up my courage to say, “I think I want to be baptized,” and he responded, “Well, I think you know what you’re doing,” and made a date for the baptism. It was so quick and so negligible that it made me feel a little dizzy and uncertain, feeling by no means as prepared as I felt I should be, but embarrassed to say so in the teeth of (I may say, unwarranted!) conviction. (Or maybe his own uncertainty HOW to prepare me!)
I call it “the last private baptism” even though I have no evidence for that, but because it was 1980 and our Church had already adopted the 1979 Book of Common Prayer with its central liturgy of baptism and its expressed desire to have baptisms only on major feast days in the presence of the whole congregation. My baptism was a hold-over from a bygone era, three little spritzes at the font in the back of the church, held on a Saturday afternoon with my bewildered, unchurched parents; my wonderful spiritual mentor, our cleaning lady Alvainie Dawson (who resides in my own personal roster of saints); my grandmother, brought up an Episcopalian from her birth in 1895, and flipping the pages of the unfamiliar prayerbook back and forth audibly and with irritation behind me throughout the little service, as if to say, “What IS this???” and my Episcopalian husband, who sang “I heard the voice of Jesus say” for my baptism despite having told me it was a song for funerals, to which of course I pointed out, “This IS a funeral: the funeral of my old self! Now I will be risen with Christ!”
How innocently I could say that. How little idea I truly had then, what it would mean to “drink the cup that Christ drinks, or be baptized with the baptism that Christ is baptized with!” And once-for-all as baptism is – and I depend upon that; I RELY upon the certainty of having been SEALED by the Holy Spirit and MARKED as Christ’s own, FOREVER; I’m with Martin Luther, who, as a reminder to himself not to give up in a time of desperate stress and persecution, hiding in someone else’s house as a captive for his own safety, famously took a knife and hacked the words into the wood of his desk, “I HAVE BEEN BAPTIZED!” – as crucial as this permanence of baptism is, it is also vivid to me that the reality of one’s baptism is also something one can only grasp “through a glass dimly,” in a long process of LIVING INTO one’s baptism, of deepening one’s baptism over years of practice, of renewing and re-affirming one’s baptism over and over, in every partaking of the Eucharist, every “participation in Christ,” as Richard Hooker says of the Bread & Wine, the Body & Blood of Christ.
Fortunately we have models for this deepening of baptism – models in Christ’s followers who have gone before us, and who have met the challenges of their lives with faithfulness and grace, empowered to do so by clinging to Christ who is their all-in-all, by “drinking the cup that Christ drinks, and being baptized with the baptism with which Christ is baptized.” Today’s model is the British Olympic runner Eric Liddell, famous for us from the movie “Chariots of Fire,” in which we see him give up his chance at winning the 100-meter sprint – his best event – because the qualifying heat would require him to run on the sabbath day. Son of missionaries in China and devout Scottish Presbyterian that he was, defiling the Sabbath was out of the question. Still, a young man with the opportunity to demonstrate a world-conquering skill, it would have been more predictable that he would have at least hedged on his principles. The dedication with which he met that spiritual challenge – and went on to win the 400-meter at those same 1924 Olympics by running it as IF it were a sprint! – was a mere harbinger of things to come.
After being trained at Edinburgh University as a doctor, he returned to his parents in the missionary field in Northern China in 1925, becoming a teacher. And there he stayed even as the Imperial Japanese began to envelope China in the lead-up to World War II. Sending his Canadian wife and their three daughters back to her family in Canada, Liddell remained in solidarity with his Chinese comrades, spelling his doctor brother in a mission to the poor. When the Japanese took over the mission station in 1943, Liddell was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp (in the modern city of Weifang). There he lived in the harsh conditions of deprivation that characterized these camps under the Japanese, but with astonishing equanimity, encouraged his fellow prisoners, especially the children. “Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in his native America, said of Liddell: "Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known." [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Liddell]
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Eric Liddell drank the cup to its dregs, and dove deeper and deeper into his baptism. It certainly wasn’t what he would have chosen, that terrible life in an internment camp. But he HAD chosen to follow the sacrificial path of love his Savior had shown him, and he “poured all of himself into it,” holding nothing back. And from Langdon Gilkey’s account, it was a blessing to him, hard as it was, just as it was a blessing to all around him.
“In his last letter to his wife, written on the day he died [in the camp at Weihsien], Liddell wrote of suffering a nervous breakdown due to overwork. He actually had an inoperable brain tumour; overwork and malnourishment may have hastened his death. Liddell died on 21 February 1945, five months before liberation. Langdon Gilkey later wrote, "The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric's death had left." According to a fellow missionary, Liddell's last words were, "It's complete surrender", in reference to how he had given his life to God.
"It's complete surrender." That’s the goal of our baptisms. And it can take a lifetime to reach it. Or sometimes, in the crucible of intense suffering, one may reach it far sooner. Suffering or no, living into our baptism is a way of joy.
“I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘I am this dark world’s Light.
Look unto me; thy morn shall rise
And all thy day be bright.’
I looked to Jesus, and I found
In him, my star, my sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk
Till traveling days are done.”
[Horatius Bonar, 1846]