A Sermon preached by Fr James Heard for Ascension Day
In some old stately homes and hunting lodges, one sees deer’s heads on the walls, complete with antlers, which are probably annoying from the point of view of dusting, but very useful for hanging Christmas decorations. It’s often been observed that the stag must have been going at quite a rate to have got its head through the wall like that! The same could be said of the famous chapel dedicated to the Ascension in Walsingham, which features two plaster feet sticking out from beneath the ceiling! Jesus must have had quite a G-force to have achieved such vertical take-off speed in the space of two metres!
But, of course, the plaster feet are just a pictorial representation of something impossible to represent. Christians have never imagined that the Ascension was a spatial journey in the way that the Space Shuttle embarks upon spatial journeys. When the Russian cosmonaut returned to earth and declared that he hadn’t seen heaven, his observation didn’t trouble the faith of Christians. When we say the Apostles’ Creed – ‘He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father’ – the creed is making a theological, not a geographical, point. The theologian, Oliver O’Donovan, puts it like this: ‘we do not think of the incarnation and ascension as journeys through space from one location to another, like a journey between the earth and the moon… These events are transitions between the universe of space and time that God has made and His being which is…beyond it.’ With any talk of God we have to use metaphors, we use art, poetry, and at the Ascension we have to use spatial language such as ‘up’ and ‘ascended’ because we are creatures of space and time and cannot think without the help of such dimensions, but that doesn’t mean that we think of heaven as being literally ‘up there’.
But once we have disposed of the rather crude and simplistic ideas of ascension, we are left with the question of what the Ascension means.
At the Ascension, we celebrate, as it were, Jesus' disappearance. At Easter we celebrated the appearances of the Risen Lord to the disciples. And now we celebrate that they ceased. Jesus withdraws and is seen no more.
Timothy Radcliffe describes the whole long history of salvation throughout scripture has been of God's slow disappearance. At the beginning, God walks in 'the cool of the day' in the garden, just like one of us after a hard day at work. But God comes to Abraham and Sarah in fire and smoke in the night, and then as three mysterious strangers needing food. He wrestles with Jacob. But the time we get to Moses, we have only a voice from a burning bush, and unbearable visions on the mountain. Then with the establishment of the Kingdom of David, God is seen no more. He speaks through the voices of the prophets. Finally he appears in an ordinary man who dies on a cross and shouts out, 'O God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' Today he disappears altogether.
But this isn’t to suggest that God becomes completely absent but rather so that we may become more intimate. We lose God as over against us, God perceived as a powerful stranger, the great big boss who runs the Universe, we lose that picture of God so that we can discover him at the very heart of our existence. St Augustine famously said, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Or as Thomas Merton said, we loose him as an object so as to find him as a subject, the core of our own subjectivity. We do not look at God so much as with God.
Most of us will live through moments in which God appears to disappear from us. We lose God. When we are children we may loose God as the old man with a beard in the sky, as we shall lose Father Christmas. As we grow older, we may lose God as a comforting presence, or Jesus as our friend.
Perhaps this is simply part of the natural process of maturation – I tried explaining to my daughter that it would be strange if I called her when she goes at university to remind her to brush her teeth. Hopefully, we instill good habits now so that our children internalize them and grow into healthy responsible adults.
I went through a period in my life when God seemed to have gone. All of my old certainties about life and faith and God unraveled – what was happening was that I was going through the critical or adolescent dimension of faith, asking difficult questions. It was actually when I did my first degree in theology. It was a rather frightening and disorientating experience, feeling that I had tumbled out of belief and that the world had no meaning. I remained agnostic for many years. And part of the problem was due to the tradition I was in at the time, which didn’t know how to handle such doubt – I was told that it was either the devil attacking me or due to sin in my life, which only made me feel worse. There is a fascinating PhD on such people who go through periods of doubt and questioning, perhaps experiencing God’s absence, and because they had grown beyond the maturity level of the church or minister, they left church. But interestingly they retained a faith.
But going through this experience of God’s absence, experiencing profound doubt, we discover that we have to wait until God gives himself more intimately, unexpectedly and differently than we could have guessed.
At the Ascension, as we celebrate Jesus’ disappearance, we await Pentecost when we are filled with the Holy Spirit and we, the church, the body of Christ, are to stand on our own two feet. To be Christ’s feet and hands and eyes in our community. With the disciples, we are invited to rejoice today at the disappearance of Jesus. It is all part of God making his home in us.
The Church should be a sign of our home in God. But let's be honest. It doesn’t always feel like home. Lots of people don’t feel at ease in the Church. This may be because we feel that God doesn’t want us here. If that is the case, then we are living with some image of God that needs to disappear. Maybe we still have God as the celestial policeman, the accuser of sins, God as the eternal parking attendant, waiting to catch us out, or God as the great President of the Universe.
In which case, we have not yet fully celebrated the Ascension. We must let these images of God disappear, fade away, so that we can discover the God who delights in our very existence, and dwells at the core of our being.
Or maybe it’s other people who make us feel ill at ease, not at home. We may feel that we are not proper Christians or second class because we are gay, or divorced and remarried, or poor, or rich, or because life has just taken unexpected turns. Most lives do! In which case rather than be angry or internalise that rejection, we must show compassion to those whose lives are haunted by oppressive images of God.
The apostles who witnessed the disappearing of Jesus still clung on to images of God that took time to go. It took them time to realise that the God who only wanted to have Jews in his community was gone and that we Gentiles also are at home.
The chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem is both a Church and also a mosque, it’s a shared holy place for Christians and Muslims. It’s a sign of God's unimaginably spacious home. Happy Ascension!
Mike Lloyd, Café Theology
Timothy Radcliffe OP