A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
At Westcott House, the theological college where I trained for the priesthood some 15 years ago now, the principal had some very clear liturgical ideas. One of them was that on the eve of Ascension Day every year the pews would be removed from the chapel. This meant that after evening prayer on that day we would all have to physically lift the wooden pews up and carry them into the cloisters where they would sit for the period of time between Ascension Day and Pentecost. The chapel would be left empty except for a few benches around the outside of the space, and we were encouraged to sit on the floor, lie on it, lean against the walls or use the space in any other way that we felt would be helpful to our devotions.
His reasoning for this rather peculiar liturgical tradition was that it was a physical way of representing, as he describes it, the “gone-ness of God’. What he meant by the gone-ness of God is this rather odd few days, these nine days in between the feast of the Ascension and Whitsunday, or the day Pentecost, which is this time next week, where, as we tell the story of Christ, we get to the bit where Christ has ascended into heaven, whatever that means, he’s disappeared physically, but we haven’t yet reached the point where the Holy Spirit descends on the church at Pentecost. It’s a kind of waiting space, a waiting room if you like. Imagine sitting at Basingstoke having got off the London train but the Salisbury one hasn’t arrived yet.
And actually, though I was fairly snarky and unkind about the removal of the pews thing, it was a rather good symbol. There’s a kind of space in which we wait for these nine days. As it happens, last week the chairs were cleared from the nave of the cathedral here as well, and over the week the extraordinary art installation that you see behind me in the nave was slowly developing and growing as more and more doves took flight in a visible, very confident and beautiful symbol of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the breath and the kiss of God.
I was told last week that certain Christian traditions call today, this Sunday in between Ascension Day and Whitsunday “expectation Sunday”. Isn’t that rather wonderful. Perhaps we should bring it back here. Expectation Sunday. The Book of Common Prayer calls it the Sunday after Ascension Day, which I suppose is a bit like Ronseal, it does exactly what it says on the tin. In common worship this is the seventh Sunday of Easter, reminding us that we are still in the season of celebration, of remembering that all these things connected. The Ascension of Christ into heaven, the gift of the Holy Spirit to turn a rabble of frightened people into a group that would turn the world upside down, these things are all part of the promise of Easter. The promise that the tomb is empty and that life, not death, wins.
But these are a messy few days as well. And in many ways they are the days that I think most represent the actual experience of being Christian. We know that Christ is risen. We believe that, and yet… And yet death still seems to triumph. Darkness still seems powerful. Illness and famine and war still wreak their havoc. Novichok exists. So does fraud, and child abuse, and corruption.
And it is into these in between days, into the gap between the empty tomb and the kingdom finally coming, that you and I are called to maintain, unflinching, alleluia! Christ is risen.