Sermon for Easter 7 – Evensong & Benediction Sunday 28 May 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Luke 24.50 While Jesus blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.
There are times when we know a great joy in the goodness of life, a joy which bears no relation to our circumstances. We don’t think or reason our way into a state of joy; it just comes upon us, unbidden. In Christian terms this is an experience of God’s love, our love for God being a measure of God’s love for us. The Ascension is a doctrine which proclaims the joy we know in God’s presence, because whatever the apostles saw or felt at that time, they now knew, as Augustine said, that Jesus did not leave heaven when he came to us on earth; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again to heaven. So what we know, when we know this deep joy in our being, is a oneness with Christ, the end of our aloneness. Now if I sat down and thought about that, I might well feel guilty about feeling joyful in a world which is anything but happy and joyful. The Manchester attack reveals evil at work very close to us, any peace we know is fragile. The status quo is now danger and fear, and that’s before we start on our own problems, the tragedies which spill over into every human life. How do we square the Christian joy of the Ascension with the realities of life, with the cult of death so close to us?
Time for a story to help us, a little story about the Ascension. It’s in the Autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola, the saint who founded the Jesuits and wrote The Spiritual Exercises. In 1523, when he was still a young man, he was convinced that God was calling him to go to the Holy Land to convert the infidel. So, with no money and no contacts, but sure that God would provide, off he went. And everything went wrong, everything. The voyage was a nightmare, his clothes were never dry, Ignatius became ill; he fell out with the other pilgrims. When he reached Jerusalem, he discovered that all the holy places were in the hands of the Franciscans, he was told very firmly that there wasn’t room for one more in the Christian community, and he should go home, and that was an order. So Ignatius’s stay in the Holy Land lasted three weeks. To make the most of those three weeks, Ignatius rushed around looking at the holy sites. There was no Pax Travel in those days; everywhere was closely guarded, pilgrims were fair game for the crafty infidel, this was a very dangerous place. Now the one place that Ignatius really wanted to see was the Mount of Olives, where there had been preserved the two final footprints of Jesus before he ascended into heaven. Those he had to see. So he slipped out of the monastery unnoticed and went without a Turkish guide to the site of the Ascension, bribed the guards there by giving them his pocket knife, and knelt and prayed. With his rather tight schedule he had to rush off then to Bethany where a Palm Sunday procession was beginning but why that should happen in September I have no idea. But you know how you can suddenly have a thought unconnected with where you are? It suddenly occurred to Ignatius, as he watched that procession, that he had forgotten to notice the exact position of Our Lord’s feet when he ascended into heaven, so he rushed back to the Mount of Olives, bribed the guards with a pair of scissors, and found again the rock with the supposed impression of Christ’s feet and he was happy with whatever he found. Meanwhile the Franciscans were trying to track Ignatius down; and they found him and frogmarched him back to the monastery. But all Ignatius reports, at this moment of defeat, is that he felt great consolation from Jesus “as he seemed to see Christ walking above him”.
It is not up to us to dismiss these events and experiences. Uneducated as Ignatius was then, he had no room for a critical appraisal of the supposed rock of Ascension. He did not hesitate. For Ignatius and for each of us, those who want to walk in Christ’s footsteps will recognise His footprints. Where we go, Christ goes. We walk with him in the simplicity of a holy life, and in the comfort of the heavenly message which we have heard. The consolation Ignatius received at one of his darkest moments, as he faced the perilous journey home with no money and with nothing achieved, can also be ours; it is the grace of the Ascension.
At the Ascension we ascend with Jesus, “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened”, as we heard in the Epistle to the Ephesians this evening. Christ is now to be found at the heart of creation, and God’s creation is still in progress, in us and in all things. Christ is the footprint of an active and unlimited love, found not only in beauty and worship and the service of others, but at times of injustice and failure, and in the last moments of the victims of that unspeakable evil in Manchester, and in the lives of those who will never sing a sacred song, and those who will never say a prayer, and in your life and in mine, in our living and in our dying, and in every created thing, now united, all transformed and consecrated in the truth by His Real Presence of light and compassion and glory.