The past week or so in British politics prove that sometimes things can change quite unexpectedly, and remarkably rapidly. Life itself is a process of constant change, isn’t it? All of us can point to many experiences of change in our own lives, brought about, perhaps, by health, age, relationships, career, finance, unanticipated events, and so on. However tempted we may be to think that faith, belief and church are fixed, they, too, are no less subject to change. No matter how much we might sometimes wish things could stay as they are – or even, perhaps, as they used to be – it’s impossible to go through life without facing up to the inevitability of change, the need to change, or that circumstances may well force us to change. Sometimes change is clearly for the good and we can be positive about it, especially when we feel in control of it. Sometimes, though, the opposite is the case. Change can make us feel apprehensive or threatened, and it can shake the security we thought we had. Even when we know it’s coming, it can seem too frightening to contemplate; and when it confronts us without warning, we may often struggle to cope.
Ascension Day and these next few days leading up to Pentecost, are the period of the Church calendar which brings fundamental change about, as the Easter season draws towards it close. The Ascension marks the moment when Jesus ‘goes away’, an experience of dramatic change for the early Christians. The biblical writers surround this event in stories which are every bit as mysterious and magical as those which surrounded Jesus’s entry into the world at Christmas. I guess we’ve all at some time seen some fairly comic depictions of the Ascension event, like the poster advertising the Ascension Day service, illustrated with a pair of feet sticking out of a cloud, a bit cartoon-like. Well, there are precedents: quite a few examples exist of feet disappearing into clouds in mediaeval and Renaissance art. I remember once Angela Tilby in one of her ‘Thoughts for the Day’ on the radio tell of a church in Jerusalem which treasures the impression of two bare feet in a bit of exposed rock in its courtyard, as though it were the authentic divine lift-off pad! They’re all based, of course, on the ancient belief that there was a three-tier universe, a flat earth in the middle, the tier under the earth and the sky above, the heavenly realm. So, Jesus’s departure, his ‘return to God’, could only be explained in terms of going ‘up’ into heaven.
That makes for a great story – which is, after all, its real value – but we now know a literal ascension makes no sense in the modern world: the earth is not flat; neither is it the centre of the universe. So the ancient theological language may feel inadequate, and certainly will not satisfy the modern rationalist mind. As so often, defending a purely literal reading of scripture seems like an exercise in futility. But the biblical writers were explaining their experiences of Jesus in the cultural context and thought-forms of their day. Today’s Church, today’s Christians, need to look much more closely at the symbolism underlying the scriptural accounts, exploring ways of interpreting the story which make sense in the light of our own knowledge, understanding and experience, and which can be expressed in a language that is accessible and coherent in the contemporary context. What really is being communicated through this intriguing story of the Ascension?
Well, the birth of Jesus tells us of the entry of the divine into our human experience. By the time we reach Ascension Day, the story has really come full circle, and Jesus’s earthly life ends by his humanity becoming one with divinity. The immediate, visible presence of Jesus among his followers ends as he somehow ‘returns’ to God. Even though Jesus had apparently prepared them for it, his followers found their world had changed. They had to move on, as his presence would now be felt in very different ways. They had to recognize that Jesus’s life could still transform theirs – even though he could no longer be seen – particularly in the ways they related to each other and to the world around them. In our own time and place, the call to us is to find out how that same recognition might lead to our own personal transformation, and our corporate transformation, not least in the Church. If we allowed the ongoing life of Jesus to be truly present among us, and prioritized his attitudes and values; if we stopped putting obstacles in the way, individually and as the Church, then the transition and transformation of which the Ascension speaks could potentially change the world of today very radically.
It is a paradox that the very moment when Jesus ‘goes away’, when his followers were forced to change and to stop regarding Jesus’s physical presence as their primary focus, that he becomes more deeply and permanently present to them. Jesus has hallowed this world as the arena of God’s activity. His continuing presence in the world today is seen in the way his life transforms other lives, which then go on to transform the world around them.
The transition involved in the Ascension is one we all need to go through. At every real place of growth in our lives, every point when the world looks new and different, we’re bound at first to be thrown off-balance by whatever’s made the difference, and we may well regret having to leave the past behind. But Ascension Day encourages us to see these times of transformation as something to embrace, not fear. I realise it’s easier said than done; moving on is rarely without some pain or loss. But we cannot cling to the body. It’s no use trying to reach the dangling feet to pull Jesus back down to earth. We must let him go and we must move on. But we must also let his life change our vision of the world. As Jesus takes his leave, he points us towards the God he called Father, and enables us to go on our own journey towards the divine, by the path of commitment to the world – to truth, peace, justice and love – which he himself took. And, in taking his leave, he promises that his own spirit will be forever both our guide and our comforter – though, in the Church calendar, at least, we must wait expectantly for that gift at Pentecost. But there’s only ten days to go….