Sermon: Absence and Presence
Preached on 21st May 2009
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Four hundred years ago this month, one of the great books in the English language was first published. Let me honour the anniversary by reading from it.
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December's bareness every where!
And yet this time removed was summer's time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow'd wombs after their lords' decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem'd to me
But hope of orphans and unfather'd fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or, if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near.
Shakespeare, of course, Sonnet 97. Who does not love Shakespeare's Sonnets? Yet they have generated more speculation in the history of literary criticism than almost any other topic: the identities of their ‘onlie begetter', their fair friend and their dark lady, what we can glimpse of Shakespeare's own emotional life and whether or not they tell a ‘story'. Despite these mysteries, or perhaps because of them, we celebrate this classic of 1609 in the words of one writer who says that ‘the sonnets are not allegories to be translated or puzzled out; they are explorations of the human spirit in confrontation with time, death, change, love, lust and beauty - remembrance of things past and the prophetic soul of the wider world dreaming of things to come'.
Absence crops up frequently in the Sonnets, for loss and the fear of it are as much a part of the landscape of intimacy as love itself. In Sonnet 97, the imagery of the four seasons charts the tides of the beloved friend's presence and absence. From the green beginnings to spring through the radiant zenith of summer to the contentment of a fruitful autumn the poet's love moves from promise to fulfilment, from the glimpse of possibility to the realisation of presence. So the forlorn experience of separation and abandonment are felt as winter: freezing, darkness, bareness, the colour drained out of nature, birdsong silenced or at best dull and listless. To the despondent poet, winter frames the year, colours the memories of warmth and life. His ‘widowed wombs' and orphaned promises are metaphors of loss and loneliness that simply fuel the hunger for intimacy. And this makes the friend more present, paradoxically, because of how mind and heart are wholly orientated towards the one who is lost for a time and whom he longs to find again.
You will sense where this sermon on Ascension Day is heading. The disciples gazing longingly into the sky where their Lord has gone captures their bereavement, the puzzlement that the one they loved is no longer with them, their searching for him in the place where they saw him go. In one way, Ascension Day is commemorates a real absence. A phase of the history of the Son of God and our history has ended. We should not shy away from the discomfort we feel at this: he who once lived among us, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh has taken leave of us. We cannot see him or touch the hem of his garment. We do not hear him teach us about the kingdom of God and the way of truth. We no longer stand with him as he heals the sick and raises the dead. He is not here to calm our storms. He does not eat and drink with us, nor does he wash our feet. He is taken from us, gone away we know not where. Truly you are a God who hides yourself. O that we knew where we might find him.
In one way, to be at this eucharist is to recognise absence. The eucharist, ‘in memory of him', is given to the church as one of Jesus' farewell gifts. It is the pledge that although he has left us, we are not forgotten. ‘Yet he loves the earth he leaves.' However we need there to be a ‘but', and of course there is. Paradoxically, we are here precisely at this eucharist to celebrate it, for absence is not all that Ascension means. It means presence as well. For we know that Ascension means that the Christ has entered into his sovereign rule, and that he now fills the cosmos as the glorified Lord of all things. It means that he bequeathes to the world his Spirit of truth and life as the energy of God alive in creation, in human society, in the church. Specifically for us tonight, it means that he is with us in this sacrament of grace. We do not extinguish the paschal candle as once we did at the eucharist of today as if the sunrise of Easter had somehow been snuffed out. It stays alight as the symbol of the risen Christ here among us, God in the midst of us, giver of life and light.
Faith in the ascended Christ is life-changing. This seems to be Luke's point in ending his first book with the Ascension and beginning with it in his next. He is saying, I think, that the Ascension is not so much Jesus' departure as his homecoming, and only because of this can his mission to the world begin. All of the Acts of the Apostles, and therefore all of our life as a church today, is premised on the truth that Christ is the exalted Lord of all. This isn't to say that it is easy to be one of those Jesus speaks about at the end of St John's Gospel where he appears to Thomas and says: ‘happy are those who have not seen, but believed'. Not to have the evidence of our senses nor the logic of our minds can mean that Christian faith is hard-won in a world that does not take religious faith for granted. Calvin says, a trifle mysteriously, that the eucharist is a feast of both absence and presence, and so it always is in the business of faith.
Yet strangely this festival of presence-in-absence can feed our longings and desires for a God we often experience as Deus absconditus, an elusive, hidden deity we can never know in his mystery yet whose glory we have glimpsed in the incarnation. His comings and goings puzzle us, for he is ‘such a fast god' as R. S. Thomas put it. And our comings and goings too, for in the sonnet it is the poet's absence, not the beloved's, that means winter. Sometimes we are as absent from him as we think he may be from us. And yet.... we know that we cannot live without him. Our lives are bound up with him; his exalted destiny is ours. So like the disciples, we turn away from gazing into an empty sky with our questions and our doubts, and take them with us back to the city, the place where ordinary life is lived, and where we are told to wait for God's promise. And because we long for him to come, and because we love him, we shall wait for as long as God takes, be it ten days, or a thousand, or a lifetime, because we know that we shall one day see him as he is, our God and King crowned with everlasting crowns, and winter will be gone for ever, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Durham Cathedral, Ascension Day 2009
Luke 24.44-end; Acts 1.1-11