Sermon at Ascension Day 2019
We celebrate today the last of our Lord’s resurrection appearances.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Thursday, 30th May 2019 at 5.00 AM
We celebrate today the last of our Lord’s resurrection appearances, when, as it were, out of the blue, he suddenly came into the presence of his closest followers, his disciples. He first appeared to them on the day of his resurrection. He assured them that he was alive and he showed them the marks of his crucifixion, in his hands and feet and side. At first, they doubted; but they came to believe that it really was their Lord and Master and that he really was alive again, though still marked with the signs of his suffering.
Today, for the last time, the resurrection body of our Lord Jesus Christ appears to the disciples again and a cloud takes him from their sight. Before he leaves them, he assures them that they will receive strength from on high, enabling them to fulfil their commitment to him, giving them confidence and courage to proclaim his message for all to hear. ‘You will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ The great story begun at his birth goes on, and, as we know, spreads across the whole earth.
Almost six years ago, the BBC televised from the Abbey the Christmas Midnight Mass and the Sung Eucharist of Christmas Day. On Christmas morning, in my sermon, I described an image the television viewer could see from a painting of the Nativity. I said this. ‘A striking image of the Nativity, painted by the Venetian Lorenzo Lotto in 1523, can be seen in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Mary and Joseph kneel by the crib adoring the baby Jesus, who has his hands outstretched to his mother. The ox and ass are in the stable behind and on a hillside a shepherd with his sheep. But then, you notice that by the crib lies a bag of money, thirty pieces of silver. Above the stable door are perched two pigeons, the animals of a redeeming sacrifice. A ladder leads to what looks like a cross. On the green hill are three trees. On a shelf above the scene stands a crucifix.’
What I described, and what was shown by the artist, was the simple but alarming truth that the baby Jesus was born already burdened with the prospect of his suffering at the hands of the Roman authorities, his crowning with thorns, his scourging, and his nailing to the cross. Jesus was born in order to fulfil his Father’s will, to bear the burden of human suffering and thus to transform it. The best of the great masters’ nativity scenes demonstrate the anticipation of this culminating moment.
All the resurrection appearances draw attention to the marks of the wounds. Jesus says to doubting Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Doubting Thomas responds, recognising Jesus, his Master, his Rabbi, as ‘My Lord and my God.’ Even now, as Jesus ascends on the cloud into the glory of heaven, his resurrection body is marked with the scars of his suffering and death.
The glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ does not obliterate his suffering, any more than the beautiful wonder of his birth can be free from the prospect of his future suffering. The suffering, the passion of Christ, is there in the entire story of his life, death and resurrection. If we wished to forget the suffering and concentrate only on the lovely birth and the wonderful resurrection, the whole meaning of Jesus and his purpose and achievement would be lost; it would all fall to dust. There is no glory in Christ without his suffering; his glory arises from his suffering. There could be no Easter without Good Friday. There could be no Ascension Day without the marks of the nails, the five wounds of Christ.
As our Lord ascends into the glory of heaven, he bears the scars of suffering, of his own human suffering, and thus he takes with him the suffering of humanity. Suffering humanity is glorified in heaven. The suffering of human beings is taken into the very heart of God himself, into the glory of heaven. Jesus does not leave behind his Passion and Death, as if they were just things of earth not to be taken to heaven. He takes them with him; he takes with him the suffering of all human beings.
What do we make of all this?
Part of the reality of modern life is that we are working quite hard to obliterate suffering. If we are feeling unwell, we can take a tablet and feel better. If we are really unwell, doctors and nurses are able to handle more and more difficult conditions people have to put up with and make us better.
Now, as we know, at least in theory, it is not quite as straight forward as that. There are all kinds of conditions, or illnesses, from which people die. People get unwell and they die. We shall all ourselves die and we shall probably be unwell before we die. We shall have to put up with that, however hard the doctors and nurses try to make us comfortable. Of course, they might give us enough pain relief so that we are almost unaware that we are going to die and unconscious when we do in fact die. In that sense, we might actually die without ever really feeling much pain at all.
However, if we look beyond the realities of illness and the riches of western therapeutic treatments, it is not hard to see that there are parts of the world where suffering is an ever-present reality. We are recently reminded of the Yazidi people still in exile in Bangladesh from their Burmese homeland. We are ever conscious of the people struggling to survive against tremendous odds in Libya and Somalia and South Sudan. People are discriminated against on the grounds of their ethnicity or religious beliefs, for example in Egypt and Sri Lanka. Individual and familial suffering exists against a background of institutional and communal poverty and deprivation: suffering such as we in the West can scarcely conceive.
Individuals suffer. People suffer. Communities suffer. Nations suffer. Suffering is a part of the reality of life and no end of western consumerism and western riches can obliterate the reality of suffering. It is part of our Christian vocation to be willing to suffer, and indeed to suffer. Through suffering is glory. The gift of abundant life is only available through becoming joined with the passion and death of our Lord. We are not to seek suffering for its own sake. However, we must accept suffering as it is and as it comes. And we can offer our own suffering to the Lord in company with his own suffering.
One of my most admired predecessors as Dean of Westminster from 1864 to 1881 was Arthur Penrhyn Stanley. Stanley had been a pupil of Dr Thomas Arnold, the famous Head Master of Rugby School. Stanley wrote Dr Arnold’s two volume biography. He told the story of Arnold’s death from a heart attack. He was there at the time and heard Thomas Arnold say, as he lay dying, ‘Thank God for giving me this pain. I have suffered so little pain in my life, that I feel it is very good for me: now God has given it to me, and I do so thank Him for it.’
Listen to the Sermon (audio file on an external website)