Into God’s World
The Ascension of the Lord. Fr Allan White finds a warning to the Church – and a word of encouragement – in today’s feast.
In some ways the feast of the Ascension seems a bit of a ‘Cinderella feast’. It is overshadowed by the two great feasts of Easter and Pentecost. As a result there is often a tendency to play down the Ascension even further, stressing that the Risen Christ and the Ascended Christ are the same and that the feasts are simply liturgical ways of saying the same thing. The trouble with this view is that it makes the Risen Christ too present, ubiquitous, embodied in the world of the here and now. He has disappeared leaving only his memory with us and therefore we cannot talk sensibly about his coming again.
In our efforts to escape from a primitive scientific view of a double-decker with Jesus safe in heaven while we still struggle on earth we can fall into the alternative danger of identifying Jesus too closely with ourselves, with our projects and above all with the Church. A distinguished Scripture scholar, Tom Wright gives a timely warning or the dangers of ignoring the Ascension he reminds us that, if we play down or ignore the Ascension, the Church expands to fill the gap.
On great feast days, at the Office of Readings (or Matins) we sing the hymn Te Deum: ‘We praise you O God’. In it we proclaim that he will come again to be our judge. The feast of the Ascension is the enthronement feast of Christ the King. Now he sits in glory at the right hand of the Father in the place of honour, showing us the way to true humanity. The feast of the Ascension is the reminder to us that he is not yet all in all, that we still have to complete our pilgrimage, we have not yet arrived. All that we do, all that we profess, all that we offer in his name is measured against this judge whose judgment is perfect love.
Jesus, our King and our Judge, has gone ahead of us. He is present with us through the power of the Spirit, forging the Church into an instrument and servant of that love and mercy, but he is not a prisoner of that same Church. It is still subject to him and to him alone. If we forget the Ascension, if we try to forget that we stand under judgment then we can believe too little and too much about the Church. If we make the Church into a kind of incarnation of the Spirit we confuse the biography of Jesus with the life history of the Church. Our systems, our structures and our concerns effectively replace the Lord; his face is merged into our profile.
We therefore claim too much. Experience shows us that structures, institutions, processes often disappoint marked as they are by human failure and frailty. If we narrow the gap too tightly between Jesus and the Church we are in danger of disappointment, depression and a flight into fatalism when we find that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels.
Jesus has gone ahead of us into God’s space, into God’s world; and our world is now ruled from his throne as he draws us into that space and into that movement. When we speak of Jesus ascending into heaven we must interpret that against the Scriptural background of space and time. We should not focus on a vision of two specific localities which are related to each other in a kind of space-time continuum but we should stretch our imaginations and try to think of two different kinds of ‘space’.
Jesus has entered God’s space, a different kind of space, with a different kind of time. God’s space and ours, what we call heaven and earth, are different but not far from each other, different but not distant. In professing that we are being drawn after him to where he has gone before we are proclaiming that one day these two will be united in a totally mysterious way and that Jesus will be present to us in a radically different way to the way we now know.