[L] The Sanctuary at The Ascension, North End, Portsmouth
Some of the Ascension children
Zacchaeus couldn’t reach Jesus for the crowds and had to climb a tree to see him. The woman with the issue of blood thought the crowd would hide her when she touched Jesus’ garment. And even in the desert, where he had gone for some peace, they saw him get into the boat and rushed round the shore to see him in their thousands.
So what hope did a blind man have of getting to talk to Jesus? But the day arrived when Jesus was going out of Jericho, and Bartimaeus heard the throng milling around the place where he was sitting by the town gate, begging. Not an easy time for a blind man – the risk of being trampled, suffocated by the press of the crowd.
As the noise grows louder, Bartimaeus realises that Jesus must be almost there; it is now or never. So he shouts out as loudly as he can, Son of David – Jesus – Have pity on me. That phrase found its way into Christian worship very early. Kyrie Eleison: Lord, have mercy: Lord, have pity. In the worship of the Eastern church it is a constant refrain, and here in the West we say or sing it at the start of Mass.
There are a few phrases like that in our prayer together that come directly from the Gospels; before Communion, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but speak the word only and your servant will be healed” That was first said by a Roman Centurion, asking for healing for his boy. Then in the old prayer book there is a similar phrase; ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table’: that was the woman of Canaan, asking for healing for her daughter … ‘even the dogs’, she said, ‘may lick up the crumbs under the table’.
So our worship is not an invention of Archbishop Cranmer at the time of the first Prayer Book in 1549. Rather, like all the missals and prayer books before, it drew on scripture to find the right words to say in God’s presence.
But blind Bartimaeus was not muttering a quiet prayer; he was shouting at the top of his voice - and he repeated it, ‘Son of David, have pity on me’. Those words, Kyrie Eleison, Lord, have mercy, have often been set to music; but too often they are made to sound very polite, quiet and pleading. They should not be marked p for piano or quiet but fff for fortissimo, very loud indeed. They deserve a great orchestral crescendo, a huge wave of sound – for that is how it was when Bartimaeus cried out hoping against hope that he might be heard in the great throng of people.
Do you remember another story of someone crying out: [Lk 18 1-7] “Jesus spoke a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, who feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubles me so, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.
And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge says. And shall not God avenge his own elect, who cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”
Perhaps our prayer needs to be more like the prayer of the blind beggar, or the widow pleading for justice. It may be that we give up too easily, supposing that God is not listening. No, he is teaching us; telling us that if we really want something we must be at least as insistent as a man asking to have his sight back, or a woman crying out for justice.
For many years, we have been praying for Christian Unity. It was in my first year as a newly ordained Deacon at St Mark’s, North End, that we went to a joint meeting in Portsmouth Guildhall - and for the first time since the Reformation the Roman Catholics were permitted by the Vatican to join in the Lord’s Prayer with other Christians. To tell that story now sounds as though it comes from the dark ages; but it is within fifty years. We prayed for Unity among Christians, and tried to do it our way; we made schemes for Unity with Methodists and with the United Reformed Church, and the schemes came to nothing. Then we worked at joint statements between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, and every time we seemed to have some agreement there would be part of our church which backed off, refused to agree to what everyone else had said.
Now, in this last week, it is as though a dam had burst; suddenly there is a real prospect for union between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Many Anglicans will not like this, at least not at first. But once some pioneers have shown the way, there may be many who will want to avail themselves of the offer which the Holy Father is so generously making towards us: for which Jesus himself prayed, ‘that they may be one, that the world might believe’
It has taken a long time; but fifty years is only a short time in the history of the Church, and in God’s eternal plan it is the blink of an eye; ‘for in thy sight a thousand years are but as yesterday’ …. If you prayed in the past for Unity, then pray now as never before. Be as bold as blind Bartimaeus, shouting out to the Lord at the gates of Jericho. Be as persistent as the widow, making the unjust judge listen to her. Lord, hear us. Kyrie, Eleison
A Flying Buttress, aka Jane Barnes, with another pillar of the church, Dorothy Worsfold, who has already steered the Ascension through two periods without a parish priest. Pray that a faithful priest may soon be found for that lovely Portsmouth parish.