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Chaplain's Reflections
A reflection on Ascension Day, from the Revd Katherine Price, Chaplain

When I was first invited to become your Chaplain at Queen’s, I told the then-Provost I would have to sleep on it. I wasn’t just playing hard to get! I needed to decide whether this Chapel could be my spiritual home for the next five years. Having never attended a service in the Chapel, all I had to go on was the building: tall and stately in baroque plasterwork, and dominated by the ceiling painting of the Ascension.

The painting is by Sir James Thornhill, one of the most celebrated mural painters of his day. He was responsible for the paintings in the dome of St Paul’s and the Painted Hall at Greenwich, and worked at Blenheim and Chatsworth. He was the first British-born painter to receive a knighthood. Not that I knew any of this then! My hesitation was not so much about the style of the painting as its topic. Why this Feast? Why not the better-known feasts of Easter or Christmas, or even All Saints, to which the Chapel is dedicated? What would it mean to centre the faith of a community not on the incarnation - God with us; nor on crucifixion and resurrection - God redeeming us; but on Ascension: God, well, leaving us.

 

One possible approach is to see this as an affirmation of human dignity. Jesus takes our humanity up into heaven. This is the ascent of human reason – a very fitting topic for a College Chapel! – and also of the human spirit. The Collect (prayer) for the Feast of the Ascension expresses this hope: “like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend.” In his excellent lecture on the Chapel’s 300th anniversary last year, the Revd Canon Dr Andrew Braddock spoke about how the consecration service in 1719 expressed the community’s hopes for its new chapel, central among them the ‘ascent of the heart’ in worship.

But I’ve also increasingly come to value the sadder side of today’s feast. This is a parting. No matter how close he may be in spirit, the loss of Jesus’ physical presence with us is a real loss – we understand that now perhaps more than ever. But I’ve come to see Jesus ‘stepping back’ as an affirmation of human dignity in a more practical sense. This is Jesus trusting us to continue his work.

In the College, we are reaching the mid-point of term. In the nation, too, we are (we hope) coming over the peak of the current crisis. We are hitting what has been called the ‘third quarter phenomenon’, over the worst but newly aware of how far we still have to go. The disciples may have faced an acute crisis on Good Friday, and come through it to the glory of Easter joy, but it is the Ascension which marks the beginning of the long haul.

"O GOD the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen."

 

For information about Sir James Thornhill, I’m indebted to Jeremy Barker for sight of his pamphlet “Sir James Thornhill and the Painting of the Ascension in the Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford” which is published by The Friends of Sherborne House.

You can read my theological reflection from 2018 on the Thornhill painting and the Ascension on the Mary Magdalen School of Theology website.

  • An Easter Reflection from the Chaplain

    6 April 2020

    This week marks three years since I returned to Oxford as Chaplain of Queen’s. I was initially overwhelmed by the city’s bustle and energy: the crowds on Cornmarket, the revellers along the Cowley Road, the tourists and buses and bicycles at the front of College all apparently trying to occupy the same patch of street. How different now. If church services were going ahead this Holy Week, we would have been singing words from the Biblical book of Lamentations. It opens with the words 'How lonely sits the city that once was full of people…'

    This Lent, we have all given up more than we ever anticipated. Many clergy, myself included, have drawn on that parallel in sermons and reflections. But now Easter is almost upon us, spring is bursting out all over, and yet new life seems a long way off.

    I recall my disappointment as a child on breaking open my Easter egg and finding nothing inside. The minister at our school assembly tried to tell us that the hollow egg represented the empty tomb, but I was having none of it. Even at primary school, I was sceptic enough to know that my empty egg had nothing to do with Jesus’ tomb and everything to do with Cadbury’s profit margins!

    But whether or not you have an Easter egg this year – and wherever you stand on whether they are essential items! – it remains true that Easter is an encounter with emptiness. The Good News of the Resurrection was announced by what wasn’t there in the empty tomb. Absence can be eloquent.

    This Easter will be an Easter of absences. We will feel the absence of family members during a holiday season. Many are feeling the absence of normal routines and activities, the emptiness of days with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Some are missing their work, frustrated that they have no focus for their energy and purpose. For others, on the contrary, both homes and days are full to overflow. Juggling work and caring responsibilities, they are missing out on expected holidays and much needed space to recharge. We are running on empty.

    But this too is an eloquent emptiness. The cloisters of the College stand empty out of concern for the safety of staff and students. The empty streets speak of solidarity. And our homes hum with hidden life, bursting out anew in compassion and creativity and connection.

    The empty tomb itself came first as a disappointment. Mary Magdalen, going to visit the grave of her friend, was deprived of her anticipated opportunity to grieve – as sadly many will be right now, due to restrictions on attendance at funerals. She was deprived of closure, deprived of the comfort of being physically close to the one she loved. Those who visited the empty tomb did not go away rejoicing, but disorientated, not sure how to live in this new world.

    If this Easter feels a little hollow, maybe it can be the emptiness of an open hand, ready to receive and to give. Let’s not be too quick to fill up the emptiness.

    I’ll leave you with the hymn (listen to 'Love is Come Again' on Spotify) I chose for my first service in the Chapel three years ago:

    Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain
    Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
    Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
    Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

  • A reflection at the start of Trinity Term

    27 April 2020

    Life in Oxford is dominated by the University Calendar, with its rhythm of terms and vacations. Normally, the break is a time to draw breath before the tide turns and term hurtles upon us with a great crash of collections and club nights. But this is a very different start of term, and the start of a very different term. For undergraduates and tutors, there will at least be the schedule of teaching (though lectures may have been ‘delivered’ already, to an audience of one webcam). But for some of us it’s hard to believe term has begun at all.

    The Church has its own calendar, and in this period after Easter many of the Bible readings are taken from the Acts of the Apostles. This is St Luke’s account of how the growing Christian community sought to organise itself in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Their principles were immediately confronted with practical questions of how to take good decisions, include people from different backgrounds, and share limited resources. It seems particularly resonant this year, as we experiment with what community might look like for the College and for wider society as we come through this epidemic.

    These weeks after Easter are also marked by the tension between presence and absence. In the first Virtual Chapel service, we heard the story of the encounter on the Road to Emmaus: Jesus’ unrecognised presence revealed in the breaking of bread. Towards the end of term we mark the feast of Corpus Christi (from which another college takes its name) which likewise honours the ongoing presence of Christ in the sacrament of holy communion. In between come the two feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, when Jesus’ bodily presence is exchanged for a new way of encountering the divine through the Holy Spirit.

    It is through our tradition of breaking bread together that Christians experience both the presence of Jesus and our own presence with one another, as the community of the Church. Oxford, of course, has no shortage of its own traditions! I notice that #MayMorning is due to go ahead online later this week, including 6am singing from our neighbours at Magdalen, and I look forward later in term to seeing what virtual trashing may look like! As we come to terms with the strange tension of presence and absence represented by our virtual interactions, we may find our traditions (digitally reimagined) more important than ever.

    The Catholic priest and missionary Vincent Donovan in his book Christianity Rediscovered describes what he learned from the Masai Christian community in East Africa. Coming to the Christian faith without Western cultural presuppositions, they described the Mass as ‘making church’. Through them, he recognised church as neither a building nor a group of people, but something that is actively chosen and created.

    Christian communities in the UK are now facing the question, what does it mean to ‘make church’ when we cannot meet to break bread? The College too is facing a question of identity. What is The Queen’s College when it is not a cluster of quads in the centre of Oxford, when we do not eat together in hall or look out at the same view or walk in and out through the same lodge? I hope we will be gentle and patient with ourselves and with one another, as this term we learn new ways to ‘make college’ together.