‘After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ (John 17:1-11)
Here we are in the shadow of Ascension: that day of the Church calendar having passed last Thursday, and which is arguably one of the least celebrated and most avoided holy days of the Christian year – and for that reason alone it’s going to be my focus for today. I think that our discomfort with Ascension has something to do with our modern-day tendency get overwhelmed with contemplating the mechanics of such an event. Wrapping our heads around resurrection is challenging enough, but Ascension is right out there. As some of you have heard me say before, many years ago I had a friend who said that whenever she thought of the Ascension, the mental image she formed was of a big fluffy cloud with two feet sticking out the bottom…. hardly an inspiring image of what is in reality a deep theological truth, important enough to turn up in the Creeds, and just about every Eucharistic prayer, and many of our favourite hymns. So if we’re going to say we believe it and pray about it and sing about it, I guess we might as well come to grips with it.
Luckily, there’s no real need to resort to wild imaginings where Ascension is concerned if we think about it as spiritual concept that got described for us in scripture in physical terms; and what it asserts for us theologically on one level is that Jesus, who was available only to a relatively small handful of people at a certain time and place in history, is now a universal presence accessible anywhere, anytime to anyone who calls upon him. Second, and no less important, is the understanding that when Jesus became incarnate, he took on our human nature; therefore when he went back to God, in whatever way that happened, he took our nature with him to be substantially present in the mystery that is God. So it is through belief in the Ascension that we are able to say that God is in us, and we are in God. And although it comes toward the end of the Easter season, as a kind of post-resurrection wrap-up, in some respects it’s also a completion of the Christmas story, of the Incarnation, as metaphorically the pristine and unmarked essence that Jesus assumed at his birth is returned to God bearing all the wounds and scars that life handed him.
This was a crucially important concept to first century Christians, because in the belief system of Jesus’ time, whether you were a Jew or a Gentile, physical perfection was equated with moral perfection – with Godliness. So, to be marked or scarred or imperfect in some way was a sign of God’s rejection, or God’s judgement on you or your family; and that was an immediate recipe for exclusion and marginalization. So within the popular culture automatically existed significant resistance to the idea that somehow a crucified and broken man could have been the Messiah, God’s representative on Earth. It just didn’t sync with the common notions of purity and holiness. So the early Church embraced the concept of Ascension, because to them it asserted something that had Jesus had been teaching all along: that you could you could carry all of life’s imperfections, you could be suffering under the weight of disease or some other personal calamity, and still be loved by God. God showed no partiality where the human condition was concerned, and the Ascension was the great continuing theological equalizer.
So at Christmas, Christ came to embrace our humanity, to fully live the human experience, to live what we live. But at Ascension, he took our humanity back with him into eternity, wounds, scars and all. He took with him the world’s brokenness, a world where, as we are all too aware in our time, twisted and misguided souls like to make political statements by blowing themselves and dozens of innocent people up; the same world that had mistreated him, and whose scars he carried. And God not only welcomed and absorbed it all, but even went a step further and promised to make all things new, as St. John the Divine is fond of saying (Revelation 21:5).
So – despite some issues we may have intellectually with the mechanics of Ascension as described in Scripture, we really can’t let that distract us from the underlying truth it conveys: that we are present with God, as God is present with us, and nothing can ever keep us apart. There is no condition of humankind that can keep us separated from God and God’s love. That means that we can be our honest selves, with all our weaknesses, failures, and imperfections; which also means that we are free to love and forgive others for their weaknesses, failures, and imperfections. And most especially, in the face of the evil perpetrated on innocent children in Manchester this past week, as well as countless other places in the world where such atrocities now seem to happen with monotonous regularity, we are free to invite God’s mercy rather than God’s retribution, and trust that God’s love and power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine – and indeed, in the fullness of time, make all things new.
For this we pray and together say Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams