Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Easter 7 2017

The Mosque of the Ascension, Jerusalem. Photo: Matthew Duckett

Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11
John 17:1-11

At the summit of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem stands the Mosque of the Ascension. On a site sacred to Christians and Muslims, who venerate Jesus as a prophet and acknowledge his ascension into heaven, it has changed hands several times, being variously a church and a mosque. But Christians are still welcome to pray there, and to celebrate the Eucharist on the Feast of the Ascension.
The mosque is a large octagonal enclosure, originally belonging to a Byzantine church, and stands open to the sky. In the centre a small dome covers the site of Christ’s ascension. Inside, a gap in the marble pavement exposes the bedrock in which a faint depression vaguely suggests a footprint. Some believe this to be the last footprint of Jesus, left as he ascended. Others suggest more prosaically that it is a votive offering from the Byzantine period.
It’s a curious monument, not to someone’s presence, but to their absence. A foot is something you can hold on to, and Mary Magdalene indeed was told not to cling on to Jesus after his resurrection. But a footprint is a negative impression, a space where someone used to be but is no longer. You can’t hold on to a footprint.
Centuries before Jesus, and in a different culture, when the Buddha was dying, he told his disciples not to make any image of him or to worship him, but rather to follow his teaching. For centuries they obeyed him, and the earliest representations of the Buddha that survive are not images representing his presence, but footprints carved to represent his absence.
There’s something of that in this footprint on the Mount of Olives. Whatever its origin, it represents the mystery of Christ’s Ascension. It says to us that Jesus isn’t around any more in the way that he used to be. A cloud took him from their sight, says Luke in the reading from Acts this morning.
Throughout his earthly life Jesus was present to the disciples as we are to one another, as a living human body. Even after his resurrection, for forty days he remained as a visible tangible presence. But in the Ascension that way of being present comes to an end. The humanity of Jesus is taken up into heaven, and removed from the disciples’ sight.
After the joy of the resurrection this departure of Jesus must have been bewildering for the first disciples. Clearly they didn’t know what to make of it, as the angels had to say to them, “why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Jesus, they are told, has been taken from you, but he will come again. His own last words to them had been that the Holy Spirit would come upon them, to make them his witnesses throughout the earth. The absence of Jesus leaves a space, an emptiness, in the disciples’ lives, but that is to prepare them for a new kind of presence.
As we’ve considered at various points in the year, in every event of his life, in all that he did, Jesus was working our salvation.  All of the mysteries of Christ, as they are called, convey grace to us.
But the Ascension is perhaps the most mysterious of the mysteries of Christ. In the ascension, Christ works our salvation through his absence, by leaving and making space for what is to come. The nine days between Ascension and Pentecost were a time of absence and waiting for the first disciples. They were told that power from on high would come upon them, but they cannot have known when it would come, what form it would take, or what would happen after.
And yet this mystery of absence and loss, this time of waiting, has grace for us, as do all the mysteries of Christ. Of course, it has a positive aspect. In the Ascension the humanity of Jesus has been taken into heaven. He is seated at the right hand of the Father, the place that is his by right as the Son of God. But he goes to prepare a place for us. Where he, the Head, has ascended by right, the Church, his Body, will ascend by grace. Jesus has gone to the Father so that we too can go to the Father.
But the ascension also has a negative aspect, the absence of Jesus, the loss of his bodily presence. Anything the disciples might have clung on to was taken away. But this loss was necessary. It hollowed out a space, like a footprint in the rock, a space where God could be present in a new way, doing new things.  
When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, the disciples were transformed, becoming the visible proclamation of God’s Kingdom in the world, sent out to be present in every time and place. That new presence could not have happened if the disciples had remained looking for a tangible presence of Jesus that had gone from them. They needed to experience his absence, their own emptiness, in order for him to become present through them in a new way.
In our lives the experience of loss can be devastating. We will all know in some way or another the hollowed out space where a loved one used to be, or where a relationship ended, or where we once were fit and healthy and aren’t any more. We know that those absences can be deep wounds. But the mystery of the Ascension tells us that absence is also the space where the Spirit of God can work in us, bringing unexpected new life, given prayer and time and the willingness to wait.
And also in the church, absence and loss are perhaps the things that we are most averse to. We want to cling on to what we know. We don’t want to lose security and certainty.
Of course, the Church is a visible body, constituted in its essential form by word and sacrament – or as Acts says, by “the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers”. There are certain things that are just given.
But the Church is also a living growing body, that cannot be pinned down. If ever we are tempted to think, “this is how we like it, let’s keep it like this”, then we need to remember the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The wind of the Spirit blows the Church in new and unexpected ways, and guides us into new things. That is part of what it is to be the Church. Bishop Rob’s watchword for the Edmonton Area is “roots down, walls down”. That is to say, be rooted and confident in your tradition, your local expression of the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

But also place no walls in the way of the Spirit, to impede the new things that God will have us do. And be ready in those new things for partnership with others moved by the same Spirit. And do not be afraid of the loss of the familiar or the absence of certainty. Because those are the spaces that need to be empty, for them to be filled by the Spirit of God.

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