john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Ephesians 1, Luke 24:
    Presence in absence - absence in presence

    St Cuthbert's Croxteth Park - Ascension Eucharist 01/05/2008

    Ephesians 1.15-end, Luke 24.44-end

    Though he has left us - he is more with us now than he has ever been.

    Though he has become absent to us - he is more present with us now than ever.

    There is a great mystery to us, in all this. Even if we disregard the mechanics of how Christ physically left his friends and returned to heaven, the deeper significance of his ascension still seems hard to grasp.

    Though he has become absent to us - he is more present with us now than ever.

    But this isn't such a strange thing to say if we connect it with events which we all understand.

    A loved one leaves home. Perhaps a son or daughter leaving for their first job or to start their time in a university - many miles away from home. You, the parent, see them off, and as their car disappears around the corner or their train pulls away from the platform, speeding up, you are almost overwhelmed with a sense of their absence - the one you just held, hugged, kissed: suddenly gone.

    And yet, almost simultaneously, and for a long while after, that loved one who is no longer with you, becomes as present to you as they've ever been. You think you hear them in their room that evening, you expect them to sit with you as they always did at suppertime, you find yourself very nearly preparing them a meal, because they are so much on your mind and in your heart, so much present to you in their absence.

    In a BBC interview today Huw Edwards asked the McCanns, 'How present is Madeline to you in your house?', and Gerry and Kate McCann responded, 'Very.... and Madeline is still a big part of [her brother and sister] Sean and Emily's life too.'

    A presence in the absence. The bereaved know what this is all about. As do those freshly in love, for whom even an hour's separation from the object of their deepest desires and devotion sharpens their awareness of just how much that person means to them.

    This is what Ascension is about. A sharpening of our awareness of Jesus Christ, even in his absence. A sharpening of our awareness of just how much Jesus Christ means to us, though he is not here. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul called this having the eyes of our hearts enlightened. He wrote to them:
    I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
    It is the spirit of love which enlightens the eyes of our hearts to those close to us though no longer with us. It is the Spirit of God which helps us to know Jesus in the same way, present to us in his absence. Jesus told his friends to wait for that Spirit to come:
    '... see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.'
    That power is available to each of us today, the Holy Spirit is a gift which God longs for us to accept. So that we can have the eyes of our hearts enlightened; so that we can find all our senses opening to a Jesus who is more present with us now than ever before.

    The greatest gift of this Ascension is that we can find Jesus in the here and now, in the ordinary stuff of life. The mystery of Ascension is revealed in the mundane. 'Stay here in the city', Jesus said. Here in the city the Spirit will come to us.

    I will close with a poem from R.S. Thomas, whose entire poetic work was concerned with the absence - and simultaneous presence - of God. A priest in a parish on the rugged Lleyn Peninsular Thomas finds God in the things of everyday life, the mystery of Ascension revealed in the mundane.

    Suddenly after long silence
    he has become voluble.
    He addresses me from a myriad
    directions with the fluency
    of water, the articulateness
    of green leaves; and in the genes,
    too, the components
    of my existence. The rock,
    so long speechless, is the library
    of his poetry. He sings to me
    in the chain-saw, writes
    with the surgeon's hand
    on the skin's parchment messages
    of healing. The weather
    is his mind's turbine
    driving the earth's bulk round
    and around on its remedial
    journey. I have no need
    to despair; as at
    some second Pentecost
    of a Gentile, I listen to the things
    round me: weeds, stones, instruments,
    the machine itself, all
    speaking to me in the vernacular
    of the purposes of One who is.