Sunday 24th May
7th Sunday after Easter
Some people can remember where they were during important historical events. I’m not one of them, but I can remember where I was when I heard that Gracie Fields had died. It was over 40 years ago and I was on retreat at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
One morning that week, I was allocated an altar at the Shrine at which to say mass. As I went into that small Chapel, I didn’t see its main feature, having noticed only yet another mediocre painting of the Madonna and Child on the wall behind the altar.
Everything was going OK until I elevated the consecrated host. As I followed it up with my eyes, I saw them for the first time: two great feet sticking out of the ceiling. I managed to suppress my immediate instinct which was to laugh, but I did make sure that when I elevated the chalice, I kept my eyes firmly on Mary and the baby Jesus in front of me!
There is nothing subtle about the sculpture in the ceiling of the Ascension Chapel at Walsingham. It’s a subject that Christian artists have frequently painted and sculpted with a literal rendering of the description in that passage from the 1st Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. I had a particularly nasty version of it in stained glass in my last parish.
That picture, be that made for us by artists or formed in our own imaginations, can raise more questions than it offers answers. It was the same for those Apostles: they too stood gazing into heaven; they too puzzled over what they had seen; they too wondered just what was going on. Until two men in white brought them back to earth asking them: “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?”
In these difficult times, it can be tempting to escape the pressures of this world. It is a temptation to which religious folk are particularly prone. Life down here seems so awful that we want to get away to a better world than this: to a world where Covid 19, lockdowns, and interminable press conferences from Downing Street are unknown.
Like those Apostles, we need to hear the Angels telling us to get our heads out of the clouds; we need to be brought back to earth; we need to concentrate rather on those words of Jesus at the end of this morning’s gospel: “I am no more in the world, but they are in the world”. And, like those apostles, we need to wait and pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to come upon us: to equip us for the job that we have to do down here beneath the clouds.
Why do I remember learning of our Gracie’s death? My friend and I had decided to escape from Walsingham on a sunny afternoon and head to the coast. We were queueing at an icecream van when the news was announced on the transistor radio!