Ascension Day comes 40 days after Easter and is yet another milestone in the greatest narrative the world has ever known in the story of Jesus. As Christians, we celebrate Jesus birth at Christmas and then travel with him through forty days and nights in the wilderness during Lent. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week when we enter into the drama of Jesus arrest and crucifixion. By the end of the week, Jesus has risen from the dead, and we recall his first resurrection appearance on Easter Day in the garden.
In these weeks of Easter, Jesus makes several appearances to the disciples: in the garden to Mary Magdalene; on the road to Emmaus; in the breaking of bread; behind locked doors with his disciples; to doubting Thomas who refuses to believe that Jesus is alive unless he can see him.
In Jesus resurrection from the dead, he fulfils the ancient Jewish scriptures and the early Church is getting ready to be born at Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, when the Holy Spirit comes as the third person of the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But first Jesus needs to ascend to that other place, to take his seat at the right hand of the Father that has been specially prepared for him. Luke writing in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, recalls the scene of Jesus being with his disciples, and how a cloud came and took him out of their sight as they were gazing up towards heaven.
One could be forgiven in thinking that this was the end of the story, but as we all know, 10 days later the disciples witnessed something in the wind and fire, that convinced them that the promised Holy Spirit had arrived, and would be their strength and inspiration for the foreseeable future.
The question for Christians is where do we see Jesus at work today if he’s now up in heaven? I’d like to suggest three particular places:
Firstly, in the Liturgy. Jesus said when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there amongst them. When we meet to worship God he comes among us. He confronts us in the words of the Gospel, he meets us in our prayers of intercession, he meets us in the bread and wine, and he blesses us at the end as we are sent out into his world to love and care for humanity and the creation.
Secondly, he meets us in acts of service. This has been particularly evident during the last few weeks and months when many people have performed acts of generosity and kindness towards others during this Covid-19 pandemic. For some it is performing their vocation to serve their local communities through Public Service, be it through the NHS or Local Authority, for others its about being a good neighbour, supporting those who are isolating or shielding, and helping to feed the nation. For some, the motivation to serve has been their Christian vocation to serve as Jesus served amongst us in his earthly ministry, for others it’s about Human values and morals.
Thirdly, Jesus comes to meet us in the silence. When everything has stopped, and words and noise fail us, when we lie awake in the night or wake up early in the morning before the birds start to sing, there is Jesus, behind us, before us, above us, beneath us. Sometimes it’s only in the Silence that we can simply be with him as our saviour and redeemer and hear that small voice of calm as we bring to Him our worries and fears.
These last few weeks the Minster like many other places has been closed because of the virus. Some folk have coped remarkably well at home, others have continued working. I long to re-enter the Minster as that is the place where I go to meet with God. It is the building set aside in the community to go and be with him. It is the place where community is made, where we come from hill and dale, homes and streets, to make community with the Community of the Trinity, joining heaven and earth in our sorrow and lament, and in our joy and worship of the Godhead, with a great shout of Alleluia!
Most of you will not have had the Sacrament of bread and wine for some considerable time. For me there is an urgency to restore this for us all, as soon as it is safe to do so, and as soon as we are given permission to hold public worship. The Fraction, the moment when the bread is broken, is the defining moment of the entire Liturgy, when we recall the broken body of Jesus on the cross, with all of our own brokenness, as people, as a community, as nations, as the cosmic order. For it is in our brokenness that Jesus, by his body turned into spiritual food, feeds us and heals us into a renewed Easter people, who are forgiven, loved, and set free to serve the world and the Kingdom of God. It is the Sacrament that sustains the earthly journey for me with its twists and turns, through the storms of life, and times of calm and joy.
Axel Schneider, former Head of the Victorian School in Aachen and I have been in close communication over the reopening of schools in both Germany and England these last few weeks. He texted me this morning saying we need normality. He then quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pray and do good works. So I pray that on this Ascension Day we can soon be together in the Minster once again with the ascended Jesus amongst us and before us.
This is the strangest of circumstances in which to write a Blog for VE Day with much of the world in lockdown following the Coronavirus Pandemic.
The Minster had great plans to mark the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day on Friday 8th May with a tea party in the afternoon followed by a Civic Service for the whole Borough led by The Bishop of Huddersfield and the Band of the Yorkshire Regiment in the presence with the Mayor of Calderdale and the Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire.
Victory Day otherwise known as VE Day, was the day of the formal acceptance by the Allies of World War II, of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender, of its armed forces on the 8 May 1945. The country had been at War since 1939, five long and hard years, with the loss of life to both Armed Forces and Civilians. Life was disrupted in ways that some will find familiar today with the Pandemic.
VE Day resonates for the people of Halifax and Calderdale through the recruitment of the Duke of Wellington Regiment, whose Chapel and spiritual home is located inside the Minster. Recruitment for the Regiment, whose headquarters was here in Halifax at Wellesley Barracks, was across the West Riding, Many a War Memorial in the towns and villages, schools and churches, record the names of those who went to fight and never returned.
The Regiment played its part in the Second World War as part of the British Expeditionary Force in France, forming part of the rear-guard at Dunkirk; in North Africa; Italy and in France, following the D-Day landings, and as Chindits in Burma. The Colours carried in battle can be seen hanging in the Chapel in memory of those who gave their lives for their King and Country, and their names are recorded in a Book of Remembrance in the Chapel. They remind us of the relative peace we have enjoyed across Europe ever since.
The Royal British Legion also remind us, each and every year, on Remembrance Sunday of the enormous sacrifice made by everyone at home who contributed to the war effort, including the Royal Family.
Here in Halifax our thoughts are also with the people of Aachen, whom, after the War we befriended through acts of reconciliation. In recent years we have come together in Halifax and in Aachen to mark the end of World War One, and we shall look to mark the end of hostilities between our two nations again, as we begin to mark the significant anniversaries of World War Two in the years to come. The German people continue to live with the memory of what took place and part of the healing for both nations comes from friendship, dialogue, and time to forgive, but never forget.
I grew up in a house where both my parents lived through the Second World War. My father spoke of the black outs and powdered egg; my mother of the incendiary bomb that landed on their house and being evacuated from the Isle of Wight to Monmouth in Wales. Children of today have never lived through such an experience, or their parents either. This current Pandemic is the closest we’ve ever experienced such disruption to our daily lives.
VE Day provides an opportunity to give thanks and remember those people who gave their lives for our freedom, but also to mourn the loss of life on both sides that any war will always bring. When the present lock down restrictions begin to be lifted, many will not throw a party and want to celebrate, they will continue to mourn the loss of those who went into hospital or care home and never returned, both young and old, doctor and nurse. Unfinished business and unresolved grief will stay with us for many years to come, and the process of healing will begin all over again.
After the War many economies were shattered, and the people of Europe came together. The people of Halifax went to Aachen, which had been so terribly bombed, that beautiful city the home of Charlemagne, and the Kings of Germany, to help rebuild the city. Coventry did the same with the people of Dresden.
Only this week have I been talking to the Schools and the University in Aachen about how to manage the lifting of restrictions, as Schools and Churches re open in Germany who are weeks ahead of many countries in Europe following the Pandemic. VE Day should inspire us to ask once more, what sort of world we want to live in, and how we educate our children and allow older people to complete their lives with dignity and fulfilment? The Second World War was defeated by nations coming together to defeat the evil in their midst, and the Pandemic will be the same, as Boris Johnson, as Prime Minster, hosts a global meeting of leaders this week to support a plan to find a coronavirus vaccine.
VE Day Commemoration should have brought us all together as Christians, as people of other faiths, and people who have no faith, in the Minster as the Mother church of Calderdale. Like those who lived in hope through the Second World War, so too do we live in hope, that the Coronavirus Pandemic will be overcome and that humanity will be able to emerge out of lock-down, into a new free world where wars may cease, care for people and the environment take their rightful place, and kindness and generosity are the priority for individuals, governments and nations.
Lord God our Father,
we pledge ourselves to serve you
and all humankind,
in the cause of peace,
for the relief of want and suffering,
and for the praise of your name.
Guide us by your Spirit; give us wisdom;
give us courage; give us hope;
and keep us faithful now and always.
Dear Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we come to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we do so in these exceptional circumstances. In these days of darkness during the Covid-19 world epidemic, we are reminded of how precious life can be and how vulnerable we all are as human beings.
The death of loved ones stares us in the face, as friends and family become unwell. The story of Easter reminds us that as Christians death is not the end, and death does not have the final word.
Through Jesus we believe in life after death, and in everlasting life in a place which we call heaven, reunited with the God who made us, and who came to save us in the person of Jesus.
Whilst some of us have been personally infected by the coronavirus, others are carrying out their Christian vocation to serve and care for others, particularly in the NHS, the Local Authority, and through the Voluntary Sector. We pray for all those who are trying to bring healing and hope to communities across the world. In this Holy Season, we pray too for the other faith communities, and especially for Muslims keeping Ramadan, Sikhs celebrating Vaisakhi, and Judaism keeping Passover.
May the risen Christ bring us hope for a brighter future, when the earth may be more generous towards all its people, having equal access to the earth’s resources that we have available to us, and the hope that Easter brings to the Christian community. Alleluia Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
God of glory, by the raising of your Son
you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope;
for a new day has dawned
and the way to life stands open
in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Canon Hilary Barber