Homily of Very Rev Peter G Williams for the Mass of Ordination of Deacon George Bryan, on Sunday 8 May 2016, the Feast of the Ascension, in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta
In 1982, Paramount Pictures in the US released a film called An Officer and a Gentleman. The principal cast members were Richard Gere and Debra Winger, together with Louis Gossett Jr. As was typical with such Hollywood romantic dramas there was a song to accompany the film. That song, Up where we belong, was recorded by Joe Cocker with backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and went on to win a Grammy award. The refrain to this award-winning song seems rather apt as we come to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension, and at the same time the local Church of Parramatta ordains another man to the permanent diaconate for our Diocese.
Love lifts us up where we belong,
Where the eagles cry on a mountain high
Love lifts us up where belong
Far from the world we know,
Up where the clear winds blow.
Perhaps also this song has some resonance for George, for growing up in Mascot and the proximity to the aerodrome as it was then called meant he could spend time on the observation deck and watch the Super Constellations take off into the sky above Botany Bay.
But in another sense George’s life was also well and truly grounded in the love supplied by his family, which was firmly based on faith in God and nurtured by a mother who prayed nightly with her young son expressing thanks to God for all the gifts that come by way of divine providence.
The Marist brothers were to be a formative influence on young George and a childhood and adolescence of a typical teenager in Sydney at the time saw countless hours spent at the beach.
An electrical trade apprenticeship was to follow, but the ideal life George had was complicated by the social upheavals of the 1960s in Australia and caused him to ponder larger life questions. Then he was confronted by a crisis in his own health. His career in electrical engineering was abruptly halted and some deep soul searching about the place and nature of God and God’s involvement in human living emerged.
Happily, meeting Kaye gave rise to a new optimism and, subsequently, they were married in 1974 at St Therese Church in Mascot. Residing in Warimoo in the Blue Mountains, George became active in St Finbar’s Parish at Glenbrook and he and Kaye were blessed with two children, Damien and Claire. George’s career took a sharp turn when in mid-life he entered the academic world and successfully completed university studies that ultimately saw him obtaining the position of Associate Professor in Computing at Western Sydney University – a post he retired from in 2007.
George’s journey in faith that leads him to this day has been an interesting path as we are reminded that the Spirit moves often in ways that are unexpected and through all sorts of channels. In George’s case, it led him to recalibrate his relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. Through the unexpected, a radio interview, an exposure to the Rule of St Benedict, and an immersion into Christian meditation all seemed to be leading somewhere. Happily, Fr John McSweeney suggested to George that God might be calling him to ordained ministry and now after that somewhat convoluted journey we arrive at today.
Our celebration of the Ascension is part of the ongoing story of the mystery of the Resurrection. The account of the Ascension that we read in the Acts of the Apostles is a recapitulation of what St Luke had recorded at the end of his gospel. In the early Church, the celebration of Easter, Ascension and Pentecost were all considered one event and it was only some centuries after that the division of Easter into 40 and 50 days marking the Ascension and Pentecost came to be observed.
Today’s feast, above all else, is another opportunity to understand the significance of our Baptism into the mystery of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension and as we approach the end of Easter time what the gift of the Holy Spirit is meant to accomplish by operating in our lives. As St Luke records in Acts, the words of Jesus to His disciples “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses” is a clear indication that they will not be continuing as followers of Jesus unassisted.
Like the early disciples, our witnessing is to the truth that we encounter in Jesus Christ, who has also called us and empowered us to make a difference in the world in which we live. Our lives beyond the walls of this Cathedral should reflect that we, being immersed in Christ, reflect His love in practical terms, by reaching out to the lost and bewildered, being present to the sick and the aged, coming to aid of the poor and the marginalised.
As St Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians: “May He enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see what hope His call holds for you.” This hope is expressed principally in right living according to the teachings of the Gospel.
George has responded to that upward call of God in Christ Jesus and that call will find expression in his life lived as a deacon in the church. Deacons are called as the Ordinal reminds us when he is presented with the Book of Gospels to be a herald of the Gospel. “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practise what you teach.” Every ordained individual, be they be deacon, priest or bishop is called in their own way to model the person of Jesus Christ in word and deed, and the ordained exist for the purpose of building up and equipping the people of God who through Baptism are also called to give vibrant witness to the world. As the mystery of the ascension unfolds, we might well be asking what is our connection with this part of the resurrection story? Perhaps it can be no better summed up than by the words of Pope St Leo the Great whose understanding of the ascension is captured in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer set for today, “… He ascended, not to distance Himself from our lowly state but that we, His members, might be confident of following, where He, our Head and Founder, has gone before …” The ascension invites us as our song suggests to rise up “where the clear wind blows” so that we might gain the perspective we need to see where our lives will best give glory to God.
In terms of perspective, in a particular way the deacon is to work closely with the bishop – in the early Church the deacon was often the bishop’s eyes and ears. That is why in the liturgy aside from being the one who proclaims the Gospel to the assembly, it was to the deacon that the role of intercessor in the universal prayer was directed. Why? Because it was the deacon who knew those most in need, what and who needed to prayed for, as the deacon was always expected to be at the pastoral coalface. It is also why for the administration of Communion the deacon is the minister of the chalice of the Blood of Christ. The cup, which is often associated with suffering, reflects the deacon’s alignment with those in the Body of Christ (and, indeed, outside it) who are most in pain and distress – those who suffer most in this world.
We would be somewhat deluding ourselves if we thought that our commemoration this morning is some sort of pietistic escapism as we ponder what lies above. As St Augustine puts it in his sermon for the Ascension: “He is here with us by His divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.” The scripture accounts solidly anchors us to reality of this world as we hear the disciples addressed by the two clothed in white: “Why are you standing here looking to the sky? Jesus who has been taken from you to heaven will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there.” It was love that had drawn them to Jesus, and love that had sustained them through his life, his death and now in his resurrected and ascended glory. And it was living out his love expressed to others infused with the Holy Spirit – the love between the Father and the Son that would be the constant reminder of this presence.
This timely intervention is a reminder that there is a mission to be pursued with confidence and vigour before he returns to take us to himself. George at this juncture in his life will from this day in his own unique way mirror, as we all are called to be, the face of Jesus Christ in our contemporary environment and take our part in that mission. He will do so as deacon, called above all to the service of the People of God, and as the exhortation in the Ordinal puts it: “With the help of God, he is to go about all these duties in such a way that you will recognise him as a disciple of him who came not to be served, but to serve.” And George, like the rest of us, will find his source of strength will come from the sacramental encounters we all share in the risen and ascended Christ. As St Leo again puts it so eloquently in his sermon for the Ascension: “And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high.”
The ascension in St Luke’s Gospel ends like a liturgy: “Go in peace” as a deacon would dismiss the assembly. The Mass of the world is about to begin, with the proclamation of the Gospel to all the nations. May you George and all of us be ever faithful to this mission.
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