Fr John Sullivan Anniversary Mass: Homily on the Feast of the Ascension

Tom Layden SJ- Irish Jesuit Provincial

A transcript of the Homily given by Fr Tom Layden SJ at Fr Sullivan’s anniversary mass, Clongowes Wood, May 2013. Fr Layden explores how the power of the loving, living Jesus is present in us all and how disciples are impelled to spread that news and live it out in lives of kindness, compassion and loving service, just like John Sullivan did.

Fr John Sullivan Anniversary Mass
Homily on the Feast of the Ascension

Theologian and scripture commentator John Shea was teaching a class of teenagers about the ascension when he found himself struggling with one of their questions. He tried to articulate his thoughts but wisely concluded that ‘when a struggling mind speaks it is usually the listeners who struggle.’

This gospel story of the ascension can to do that; it can leave us struggling.

If Jesus was around after the resurrection cooking breakfasts, walking in gardens and joining disciples along the Emmaus road, why did he ever have to leave? The occasional appearance here and there down the years and across the world would be much appreciated.

After his crucifixion and death the disciples had a direct and powerful experience of the risen Jesus.  The gospel writers try to communicate the import of that experience through their various Easter stories. They are grappling with a mystery; with a Christ who is known not through the head but through ‘the eyes of the heart’ as St Paul tells us in the second reading. They’re inviting us to explore that mystery as we pray this gospel together.

Perhaps a clue to plumbing it is the place Jesus chose to ascend to his Father. Bethany – the place where he was loved and cared for by Martha, Mary and Lazarus.

The place of hospitality where they cooked for him, sat at his feet and listened to him, anointed him with expensive oil that perfumed the whole house, just before his death. The place where he cried when told that his beloved Lazarus had died.

Jesus was fully human and Bethany was a special place for Jesus the man – a good place to leave from. But Jesus was also fully divine and this was the place where he claimed his power over death, raising Lazarus back to life, calling him home. Bethany is a place of love where special things happen, where the power of the divine transfigures the human.

That same power of divine transformation, which Luke calls the Holy Spirit, radiates through the risen Jesus who after his resurrection is both recognised and not recognised by the disciples.

In the garden Mary Magdalen searches until she finds him; but she is seeking his old physical form and does not recognise him until he speaks her name in love.

When he instructs her ‘go to my brothers and say to them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ he is teaching her and them about his new spiritual form. He is teaching them that his ascension is what will connect him with his father and with his disciples forever.

Through his ascension the human and the divine become intrinsically and inseparably linked- “I am sending you what my father promised;   you will be clothed with power from on high.’

Well might the two men in white ask –why are you looking up to the sky? Heaven and earth, time and eternity, God and humanity intersect at Bethany where Jesus’ ascension assures his abiding and transfigured presence in each and every believer.

We remember Jacob’s dream in the book of Genesis where he saw a ladder “set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven and behold the angels of the Lord were ascending and descending on it.”

Bethany is a place of communion in Christ the Lord whom ‘the disciples worship with great joy’.

As with all profound spiritual awakenings, those who experience it know it is not just for them alone. The power of the loving, living Jesus is present in us all and the disciples are impelled to spread that news and live it out in lives of kindness, compassion and loving service.

That‘s what John Sullivan did.

Like Jesus he spent much time alone in prayer so that the Spirit of love and healing flowed through him. He became an embodiment of the love of the risen Jesus. As with Mary Magdalen in the garden, people touched by that love recognised the Christ .

Like the doctor attending the man whose face was half eaten with cancer. He could barely look at his patient but watched John Sullivan put his head close to him and hold him in his arms.

Or the boys he taught (not so well) but not one ever forgot the respect and kindness he never failed to show them.

A fourteen mile walk to the cottage of a dying father or a hop on the well-travelled bike from Clongowes to Dublin and back to visit the sick in hospital after a day’s teaching was no problem.

Those suffering from mental illness found peace in his praying presence and comfort in his spiritual wisdom. “When God forgives my sins” he said,” he buries them beneath a large stone. It is desecration to root them up again.”

People came to him from all over Ireland, just like you have come today with your own needs and hunger; your own private worries; sickness, bereavement, family troubles, money difficulties, depression, maybe even gratitude and thanksgiving – whatever is held in the human heart.

What might Fr John Sullivan say to us today? Maybe – do not stand looking at the sky but instead ask to experience the loving, risen Christ, in your hearts

For when we love, show compassion, struggle to forgive, practice gratitude and show hospitality, when we create our own Bethany spaces, then our prayers start to be answered and we answer the prayers of each other.

John Sullivan did not always bring miracles and cures but he always brought the healing power of Christ and people went away feeling better just for having met him.

Theologian John Shea who spoke of struggling with the ascension found his voice eventually when he said ‘Easter is a feast of following love into mystery’

That’s the path John Sullivan chose over and over. We can choose it too and experience the mystery we struggle to understand.

So I finish by praying again Paul’s prayer today in Ephesians:

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.  And may the eyes of our hearts be enlightened that we may know the hope of his call and the riches of glory in his inheritance among us, His holy ones.