Bishop Huovinen’s sermon at the celebratory communion service of the Diocese of Helsinki Senate Square 21 May 2009, 12:00
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:50–53)
Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you what you love.
Our eyes reveal that which we hold dear. Our gaze betrays that to which we are attached. The thing we look upon most is closest to our heart.
Fifty years ago when the Diocese of Helsinki was established, there was much less visual stimulus than there is today. Television was still relatively new and there were not many advertisements. Nowadays there is so much more visual stimulus. What do we gaze upon?
When I was a little boy, I used to sit next to my grandfather in church. I used to wonder why he shut his eyes every now and then, and so one time I asked him. My grandfather answered, “When I pray to God, I don’t want to look at anything else. I close my eyes so that I can talk to God in peace.”
Today we live in a world where we have to ask ourselves whether it is a good idea to look at everything. It is important that we are able to look at everything, but it is not beneficial for us to look at everything. There are a lot of things that we would do better not to look upon. There may be wisdom in the old children’s song: “O, be careful little eye, what you see”.
* * *
We cannot completely shut our eyes, nor should we have to. We always have to look at something. So what should we gaze upon?
There is one thing that we can gaze upon that is more important than anything else in this world, and that is a child. We should gaze upon children, because in children there is life and our future.
I suspect that the most important gaze in the world is that between a child and its mother. A mother’s face and a mother’s loving gaze create the first contact between a child and the outside world. Being looked at in the eyes is the foundation of a harmonious and whole life.
It is through our eyes that we create interaction and a certain connection. A look has a curious kind of power. A look gives us new life. A look gives us strength and the assurance of human dignity.
A child that is looked upon feels loved. A child that looks upon its mother and father feels safe. When we look upon a child, we look upon the most important thing in the world. Every child and every human being wants to be looked at and seen.
If we turn our gaze away from children, we neglect life, our humanity and our future. If, instead of gazing upon children, we gaze upon money, careers and success, we have not understood what life is about.
In the opening hymn we thanked God for not letting even the smallest one of us be forgotten and for turning His gaze on even the most insignificant.
Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you what you love.
* * *
Today, on Ascension Day, we should ask ourselves what we are looking at and who is looking at us.
The Bible tells us about how Jesus’ disciples looked at that which was dearest to them: their teacher and master. The disciples were used to looking Jesus in the eyes, but then they lost him. The Gospel of Luke tells us that “he [Jesus] withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
It is difficult to truly understand what actually happened. It must have been something mysterious, because the disciples were confused. And neither can we understand what Jesus’ ascension really means.
Ascension Day reveals to us that we cannot see God and Christ with human eyes. We can, in the words of the well-known hymn, “turn our eyes upon Jesus”, but God is always greater than what we can see with our eyes.
At first it might seem like Jesus ‘withdrawing’ from us is a great loss. The disciples were no longer able to physically touch their master. There was no longer anything certain and concrete for the physical eye.
Sometimes we, too, wish we could find sound proof or a guarantee of God’s existence and his significance. We want to be able to see with our own eyes and be convinced.
But perhaps we are fortunate not to be able to see God in the same way we can see each other or this square. God is a mystery.
The fact that Jesus was taken up into heaven before his disciples’ very eyes shows us that he is more than just a wise Jewish teacher. If we could see Christ with our own eyes, we would only have an earthly Jesus. All we would have left would be the lofty thoughts and encouraging moral teachings of a preacher from days gone by. The fact that Jesus ‘withdrew’ teaches us to look deeper than an earthly Jesus to find the mystery of faith.
* * *
It is interesting that, according to the Gospel, Jesus disappeared while he was blessing his disciples. “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
Christ was taken up into heaven in order to be able to look at all people; at all the children that God created. Heaven is God’s residence, the place from which he looks upon the whole world. If Jesus had remained in Jerusalem and in Palestine, he would have been merely a teacher and master in his own day and age.
But because Christ was taken up into heaven, he is the Saviour of the whole world, the God of all the ages and of all the nations. Christ was taken beyond this time and place in order to be present everywhere. This truth is mysterious. It is difficult to understand, but at the same time it gives us comfort and joy. Christ ascended into heaven in order to be close to all of us.
Even though we do not see God, He sees us. Though we do not always believe in God, God always believes in us.
* * *
At the beginning of this service we sang a children’s song, which talks about turning our gaze toward heaven. We turn our gaze toward heaven in order to see God. There is another children’s song that asks God, who is a friend to all children, to turn his gaze upon us.
Is there anything greater in life that we could wish for? Is there anything more comforting than God, who is a friend to all children, turning his caring gaze on us and watching out for his children wherever they go?
The core message of Ascension Day is this: Jesus has ascended and gazes upon every single person. When God looks at a person, His look is full of love. God’s gaze is a creative gaze. God’s gaze makes a person precious and worthy of His gaze. When God looks at us, we are seen in the most intimate way. When God looks at us, we can live, hope, believe and love.
Jesus’ ascension is a mysterious combination of his apparent withdrawing from us and his continuing presence with us. We regularly experience this contradiction in our lives in a very real way. God is far away, yet very close at the same time.
Jesus ascended into heaven in order to reach the lowest and most hidden of places. There is no place we can hide with our shame and our anxiety that Christ cannot find a way down to us. Christ wants to lift up every lost person and orphan to partake in the joy, the brightness and the peace of heaven.
* * *
The future of the Church and of the Diocese of Helsinki depends on two gazes. It is important, both spiritually as well as physically, that we gaze upon children. Children, after all, are the future of this country and of the church.
All of our gazes and looks, however, have meaning purely because God originally looked upon us and because he continues to look upon us. God’s gaze creates life. It is for this reason that this service, like all our services, ends in the words of the Benediction, asking God to lift up his countenance upon us. It is under God’s gaze that we have hope and a future.