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What is right may properly be uttered twice*

(Empedocles, c.494 – c.434 BC, statesman, poet and philosopher).

The more attentive among you may recently have thought that the compilers of the Sunday Lectionary have taken this classical piece of advice to heart; others among you may have experienced a repeated, slight frisson of déjà vu.

The reason? Well, the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent (6 December 2020) was taken from the Gospel writer we will follow during the [then] new liturgical year, namely Mark (1:1-8) and had the line, “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals”; the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent (13 December 2020) was John 1:6-8, 19-28 and included the phrase “I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap”; the Gospel for this Sunday (The Baptism of the Lord, 10 January 2021) is again from the Gospel according to Mark (1:7-11) – you see where I am going with this now – and as before, contains the words, “and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals”.

Yet, despite this apparent repetition, it would be wrong to say that we will have heard the same Gospel over three recent Sundays. Even the two occurrences from the Gospel according to Mark are different: verses included in the one instance are omitted and replaced in the other. As always, the context is the important thing. What is it that the evangelist is trying to tell us? What is it that the compilers of the Sunday Lectionary are trying to communicate? In one case, the role of John the Baptist; in the other, part of Jesus’ self-revelation and identity.

When I was smaller and attending primary school, the summer and early autumn were a time for a change in uniform footwear: we left behind the heavy, black, lace-up shoes of winter and spring, and wore instead brown sandals, usually C. & J. Clarke’s. Of course, the biggest fashion faux pas that we were compelled to commit was the wearing of school regulation, knee length grey socks with the sandals – all designed to set off grey flannel shorts to full effect!

Traditional child's summer sandals

In any true sense of the word these were not “sandals” as understood in either classical or biblical times, these were generally lighter foot-coverings with large, scooped out holes either side of the bridge of the foot with a central strap running up the bridge of the foot, ending in a flattened loop, through which a side strap passed and which, in turn, was fastened by a buckle. That side strap over the summer months became cracked and softened through repeated use, often losing all colour in the leather. The buckle was a source of endless fascination and something with which to fiddle during assemblies and lessons: the prong that went through the holes in the strap was sharp enough to be used for all sorts of destructive purposes when wearing the sandals, even trying to pierce one’s own finger if sufficiently bored; the bar of the buckle usually went through a free-spinning small, tubular piece of metal that aided the smooth insertion of the strap into the buckle. I well remember friends putting our straps through each other’s buckles to join our sandals together. The soles of the sandals would yield to nails, drawing pins, and pen-knife blades and – mirabilis – would melt with the aid of a pocket magnifying glass. Horrible little boys!

For me, sandals will always be associated with change and new beginnings: the change of seasons and school terms, the end of one academic year and the beginning of the new. The importance of the strap that holds everything together is also key.

We’re still in a time of great change and upheaval. Is it our faith that is holding everything together for us? Is it living out each day, the truth of our own fundamental baptismal vocation? Do we still feel part of the parish family and involved in parish life?

Traditional leather sandal

Sandals were something put away with entry first into youthhood and then into adulthood. My mother had a particular downer on what were called colloquially, “Jesus sandals”; she dared me ever to wear a pair with the assurance that admittance to the house would be denied; she sniffed with indignant affectation in utter disgust at one of the seminary Masses when priests and servers were to be seen wearing tatty “Jesus sandals” under albs on the sanctuary. “Why don’t they just go off and become Franciscans … or hippies?” she said in an embarrassingly audible whisper, “Highly polished black shoes look so much nicer under a cassock, don’t you think?” You’ll gather that most of her questions were rhetorical!

Indeed … when was the last time any one of you saw me wearing sandals of any description? It caused comment enough on one occasion at an evening Mass when I wore brown shoes on the altar!

My real reason for writing anything was for the opportunity to offer my sincere thanks for all your cards, gifts, good wishes and generosity at Christmas. Thank you. May God grant us all the gift of a happy, healthy and hope-filled New Year.

Fr Alistair

*… καὶ δὶς γάρ, ὅ δεῖ, καλόν ἐστιν ἐνισπεῖν. (lit. “what needs [saying] is worth saying twice”)

[For anyone who is interested, I have a longer, less tongue in cheek article to post on the blog page, continuing with the theme of sandals and how they figure in land and marriage contracts, shunning and social exclusion.]

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