By Sr Rachel, May 22 2015 03:28PM
A Sermon for the Deanery of Peterborough Ascension day Eucharist
O men of Galilee, why stand gazing up into heaven.....
Whenever I think about the Ascension, I am instantly taken back into my teenage years, to my first visit to Walsingham and to the Chapel of the Ascension.
For those of you who do not know the place, on first walking into it, you would be forgiven for wondering just why this was a Chapel dedicated to the Ascension...... until you look upwards. I remember being absolutely stopped in my tracks..... gazing upwards......
O men of Galilee, why stand gazing into heaven......
Well I was gazing into heaven because I was mesmerised by the sculpture of two plaster feet dangling from the ceiling, and unfortunately, my response was to collapse into a fit of giggles.
The image of two feet disappearing into a cloud has been beloved of artists through the centuries as a way of depicting the Ascension and indeed, I now understand it does convey some truths. But I have to confess, that this particular version still has the whiff of the faintly ridiculous about it for me.
I realise now that the problem for me is that the ceiling at Walsingham conveys no sense of movement. Ascension implies movement. That day, I simply saw the image as if someone had stepped off the roof joists, fallen through the ceiling and got stuck.
Movement seems important in the story of the Ascension. Not only movement in the sense that Christ was taken up into heaven - whatever we each understand by that - but also it seems there has been a reciprocal movement within the disciples and their response to Christ.
Jesus is moving away from this world in the sense of the person the disciples had known. But if that was all the ascension was about, it would seem an odd day to celebrate as in many ways it is a departure and we might expect the disciples to be at least a little deflated. Today’s Gospel clearly tells us that the disciples were joyful.
Since that first Easter morning, the disciples had been on a journey of change. Their initial bewilderment and fear at the discovery of the empty tomb had somehow changed into joy at the Ascension. Their understanding of Jesus had moved and grown during those weeks.
They had met Jesus in the ordinary person.... the gardener; in ordinary happenings.... having breakfast; in conversation..... on the road; in busyness and work..... out fishing; in meeting together…. in fellowship.
Their eyes had been gradually opened to the truth of the ever present Jesus.... They had seen Jesus go, but knew that they were not parted from him.
As present day disciples, I wonder what journeys we have all been on during this Eastertide? How have our eyes been opened.... how has our understanding of our relationship to God changed and moved? Or perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we are content with the place we find ourselves in and see no need to look again.
This day marked the culmination of the Resurrection appearances, but it celebrates Christ set free in time and space, and to truly join in the celebration of this feast day, we need constantly to set Christ free in our lives; to open our eyes; to constantly look for and find the bigger picture.
O men of Galilee why stand looking up into heaven.... don’t stand staring at where you last saw him… don’t confine him to that way of being in your life…. look around… open your eyes and see.
Last week, we celebrated the Feast day of Julian of Norwich. Julian had a very distinct experience of the presence of God, but it took her many years of prayer and reflection, growing in understanding of what she had seen and knew of God, before she recorded them in her revelations of divine love. The Gospel for that particular day is the Easter morning story from St John’s Gospel, where Mary Magdalene sees Jesus in the Garden. When Jesus speaks to Mary, he tells her ‘Do not cling to me…. For I have not yet ascended to my Father…..’
Do not cling… let go of me….. and we too need to be able to let go.. not of Christ at the centre of our lives, but to be able to let go and relinquish our current understanding of who Jesus is, always moving on; always learning, reflecting, growing and living more deeply the truths of our faith.
And I think that is the challenge of Ascensiontide: taking the risk of letting go. Letting go of anything requires us to be open to change happening and change is often something that we are not too good at. If we don’t move and change then we are in danger of making our picture of Jesus a very comfortable one. Christ constantly turned the values of the world upside down and should radically challenge us too.
It seems to me that no sooner have I had one of those moments when I glimpse something more of the truth of Christ, and of my relationship with God than I am having to move on again….
For a moment I have the illusion that God is in my grasp …. then of course he is gone again…. leading us onwards to the Father. This is never enough. Always there is further to go.
As R S Thomas writes:
He is such a fast God,
Always before us and leaving as we arrive.