Preached at St Mary’s Priory Church, Monmouth
“So where’s home for you?”
That’s a question I get asked quite a lot, and I never quite know how to answer it. I have never lived more than five years in any one place. I’ve constantly been moving. In fact, from the time I went to university at the age of eighteen to the time I was ordained deacon two years ago, I never went three months without moving from one place to another.
So it’s always been hard for me to say where home is. But I normally end up talking about Monmouth. For several reasons: I lived here throughout my teens, I went to school here for seven years, my parents still live here. And, of course, I went to church here.
That’s no small part of it. St Mary’s Church in Monmouth is a very large part of my idea of “home”. I first came here with the school at the age of eleven. Two years later, I served here for the first time. I remember it clearly. There were three servers that day: Michael and John pointed me in approximately the right direction and I copied what they did. And I carried on doing that for the next five years. Serving at the altar in this church was where I learnt my faith and where I found my vocation to the priesthood. This church is very much “home” for me.
It has always been a very special, holy place, beautiful, kind and dignified. Early in my serving career, I remember being told off by Norman Bayliss of blessed memory for lighting the altar candles in the wrong order. That sounds outrageously petty, from one point of view, but it was not. It demonstrated something important to me: what we do in this place matters. It’s not a joke, though we must smile and laugh while we do it. We take care over our worship and do things in a particular way because it matters. It’s important.
Ultimately, of course, because our Lord Jesus Christ is present, here, in the form of bread and wine, in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus Christ is present here, and the care and devotion we pay to his presence here demonstrates our love for him. More than that, the devotion we show in worship transforms us and helps us to grow in love for him.
So the presence of Christ in this place was always very important. That, more than anything else, makes this place home.
With all that said, it is ironic that today we should be thinking so particularly about Christ’s absence. This is the season of Ascensiontide. It is the last ten days of the Easter season. After Christ’s resurrection, he appeared to the disciples. After forty days, he was taken up into Heaven to dwell forever at the right hand of the Father. At the end of this season – next Sunday, in fact – we keep the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles.
The Ascension is, of course, a great and glorious mystery. Christ ascends into Heaven as a human being. In the Incarnation, God became human and dwelt among us. He lived among us as a human being, teaching and healing. He was betrayed, suffered and died upon the Cross, as a human being. On Easter Day, he rose from the dead, pointing out his wounds to St Thomas to demonstrate, very clearly, that he was still a human being. And now he ascends into Heaven, still very much a human being. He ascends into Heaven and takes our humanity with us. Just as God came down from Heaven to earth, now humanity ascends from earth to Heaven. Christ’s Ascension is a promise to us: where Christ has gone, there we might follow. And not just as disembodied spirits: as human beings.
In the meantime, the Apostles had to deal with a difficult fact. It is the same difficult fact that we have to deal with, in this season and at all times. Christ is not with us as he once was. Christ has gone and, for a while, we remain.
We remain, although we no longer truly belong. Because Christ took our human flesh into Heaven, that is now our true home. We are now citizens of the eternal kingdom of Heaven. We are in the world, but no longer belong to the world. We are sojourners here. We are travellers, staying here for a while, before our journeying comes to an end in eternity.
We are like Christ: dwelling here for a time. Even more than that, however. We are like Christ: we have a job to do.
Christ is no longer present as he was on the shores of Galilee or in the streets of Jerusalem. If Christ is to be present in the world today, it is up to us. It is our task to make Christ present. In these days, we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit to come upon us for this very purpose: to make Christ present in the world.
St Theresa of Ávila:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.
The purpose of the Church is to participate in Christ’s work of salvation. It is to do as Christ did: healing, teaching, encouraging, rebuking, praying, weeping and, yes, eating, drinking and partying. That is the mission of the Church: to do Christ’s work. That is our work. That is your work.
In my parish in north London, I spend a lot of time in our church primary school. I was recently asked by an eight-year-old why Christ had to ascend to Heaven. Why couldn’t he stay here forever? I asked the boy what he thought the answer might be. He thought carefully for a while, then said “Well, if Jesus had been around forever, everyone would have gone around following him all the time. Now that he’s in Heaven, it means that everyone has to do the work themselves.”
He was right, of course. Christ has gone up into Heaven, and has set us free to do so much more than one man could ever have managed, even though he was God too! To paraphrase a familiar aphorism, through the Incarnation, we had Christ for thirty-three years: through the Ascension, we have Christ for eternity.
“Where’s home for you?” I wonder what people would say if I looked them in the eye and said “Heaven!” I imagine they’d be rather bemused, and would tell me I’d misunderstood the question. But, if I was being truthful, that’s what I would have to say. I’m here – we are here – for a time, for a season, to do our task. And we look forward to that day when Christ will say to us “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.” That day when we will come to our eternal, heavenly Home.