Discipleship in Difficult Days 13: Ascensiontide – the days of dialectic

This week we offer another of Sam Wells evocative prayers, a poem written for and used on Ascension Day this year, a fascinating quote about the Ascension that I recently discovered, and two meditations from me – one focusing particularly on ‘Ascension’ and the period between Ascension and Pentecost and one linked specifically to the Gospel reading for the Sunday after Ascension. Next week’s blog will feature a short article by Canon Robin Gill, one of the two Canon Theologians in the diocese, exploring ethical issues relevant to these ‘difficult days’.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

ascension day at Mont voirons

Monts Voirons, Haut-Savoie, France, where in previous years Holy Trinity Geneva have celebrated the Feast of the Ascension

A Prayer on Easing of Lockdown

O God, the light of the minds that know you,
life of the souls that love you,
and strength of the hearts that serve you:
meet us when our minds seem stuck in confusion, our souls stand lost in despair and our hearts are plunged in desolation.
Give our hands good work to do,
that in serving the needs of others
we may rediscover ourselves while finding you  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Canon Sam Wells, Vicar, St Martin in the Fields, London)

 *****

Ascension in virus times
What can the Ascension mean
In these our virus times?
It can become our sursum corda,
to lift up our hearts to the heavenly realm
to see Christ enthroned above,
beyond the transient, ephemeral world
of plagues and torments,
famine and wars.
But if, for a moment,
we can ascend in heart and mind with Christ
in his glorious home-coming
still we are timebound,
clothed in the garments of mortality.
Like disciples at the glory on the mount,
we have to make our way back down again,
face old problems,
confront new reality.
And so I call Ascension a sure promise,
a glimpse of the beyond,
that where Christ is, we will be too,
raised up in our transfigured humanity,
partakers in his life of love;
for now Lord, we are here
just where we are with all its dangers
mindful of many others in their sadness,
thankful for your words
‘I will be with you always,
even to the end.’
(Canon Alan Amos)

 *****

I happened upon this comment via one of the blogs that I myself regularly read, and think it offers an important insight into the meaning of Christ’s ascension.

The Ascension: Christ’s continuing incarnation
‘The ascension is so central [to Christianity] because it assures us that the Incarnation continues. Christ didn’t just come among us for thirty-three years, slumming, as it were, and then when his work was done, say, “Phew! I’m glad that’s over! I’m going to unzip this skin suit and get back to heavenly living,” leaving us here on our own. He went into heaven with a pledge of all that we are going to become. Tertullian, I think, was the first one to put it that way. The Spirit, in scripture, is the pledge of Christ’s presence in us, but Christ’s continuing body is the pledge of what we’re going to have in heaven. So the ascension tells us that Christ has not let go of our humanity. He truly wants to take human beings where we’ve never gone before: into the very life of the triune God.’
(Gerrit Scott Dawson)

 *****

Ascensiontide: the days of waiting
I expect it is heretical on my part (but that is part of the joy of being a lay theologian – one has more freedom to be heretical than do the clergy!) but I have always preferred the understanding of the Ascension that is offered in the Gospel of John to that which appears in the writings of Luke, especially in Acts. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say – how the Ascension has been interpreted in Christian history based on the writings of Luke. Often the celebration of the Ascension has been linked to a certain rather crass kind of triumphalism – with ‘crowns’ featuring largely in the music, and with the celebration of Christ’s kingship being enacted in such a way that risks forgetting that the New Testament itself (1 Corinthians 15.24) makes it clear that Christ ultimately hands over the kingship to his father.

 The Ascension in the Gospel of John feels rather different. The reference to it comes during the meeting between Jesus and Mary in the garden and Jesus’ words, ‘Do not keep holding on to me, for I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God’ (John 20.17). It speaks to me of the tension of presence and absence which for me is an essential aspect of biblical and Christian faith, an encouragement to hope and a longing for the ultimate vision of God. Ascension is a celebration of absence, but an absence that calls us on to renewed vision, to the ministry of the kingdom, to Jerusalem and eventually to the ends of the earth.

In my years spent reflecting on the Bible one of the themes that has always spoken powerfully to me is that of a God who is both present and absent, ‘an elusive presence’ as Samuel Terrien put it, a God who sometimes saves his people by hiding himself. It is a theme that runs through the Old Testament but which is also true for the New. Sight and quest for vision, holding on and letting go, Jesus leaving the disciples to ascend into heaven, yet as the end of the Gospel of Matthew makes clear (Matthew 28.16-20), Jesus promising to be with his disciples till the end of the age. These are the elements that make up the dialectic of our faith. St Augustine of Hippo summed it up splendidly: ‘If there is no joy there is defect in us: if we feel wholly safe, we exult wrongly’.

One feature of these current ‘difficult days’ of the virus is that in so many ways, and not just physical, we have learned that we cannot feel ‘wholly safe’. However we are still called to be people of ‘joy’. Such a dialectic is also part of the ‘learning’ of the days between Ascension and Pentecost, the days that we are currently living in the course of the Church’s year. Jesus has left us to return to his father. But things are not as they were, for we are in the time of yearning and longing for the Holy Spirit which we have assured will shortly be shared among Jesus’ followers. Things are indeed not as they were. In the midst of absence there is the promise of presence. This year that promise can perhaps speak to us in new and unexpected ways.

The unity of love
‘Love changes us, but we remain who we are. This is one of the great mysteries of being alive.’ I am grateful to Canon William Gulliford, my colleague in the Diocesan Ministry Team for this comment which appeared in his sermon for last Sunday. It has set me reflecting all week. It has linked in my mind with the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday – even though actually the word ‘love’ does not appear in the portion of John 17 which is selected by the lectionary for tomorrow.

St Augustine of Hippo (who I have quoted already in this week’s blog!) memorably describes the Gospel of John as a place where children can paddle and elephants swim. That has certainly been true in my own experience. I have been engaging ‘academically’ with this Gospel for 50 years now, but I still find myself discovering new treasures contained within it.

wcc tapestry

One of the glories of the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva where I had the privilege of working for seven years, is the tapestry in the Visser t’Hooft hall, which along with the chapel is the centrepiece of the building. It depicts a range of church buildings of all shapes and sizes, reflecting the diversity of world Christianity, surrounding a depiction of the Ascended Christ. Underneath the figure of Christ are words in Greek taken from John 17, which can be translated into English as ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17.21, also see verse 11). The words are the underpinning of the ecumenical movement. As John 17 makes clear, this potential unity of Jesus’ disciples is fundamentally grounded in the existing unity of the Father and the Son.

One ‘theme’ that I have enjoyed exploring more deeply in the last year or so, has been the links between the Gospel of John and the story, told in Genesis 22, of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. It has long been realised that many early Christians saw in the ‘near sacrifice’ of Isaac a sort of prototype for the actual sacrifice of Jesus, the Son, on the Cross. It is fairly widely recognised that this motif is present in the Gospel of John. But there is, I believe, quite a profound link between this ‘theme’ and John’s exploration of the nature of love.

The first time that the word ‘love’ appears in the Old Testament is in Genesis 22, at the point where Abraham is apparently being asked to offer his son, ‘Take your son, your only Son, whom you love, even Isaac…’ (Genesis 22.2). So it is interesting, and not, I think, coincidental, that the first time the word ‘love’ appears in the Gospel of John is precisely at one of the points where the description of Jesus as the ‘only son’ makes a link to the story of Abraham and Isaac very likely, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’ (John 3.16).

Now there is much else that could be explored in relation to John’s use of the ‘sacrifice of Isaac’ motif. But for my immediate purposes what is fascinating is that one of the powerful motifs present in the story of Genesis 22 is an emphasis on the unity of Abraham and Isaac (see for example Genesis 22.6, 8 which speak of the father and the son walking ‘together’). This is somehow reinforced by the fact that in Hebrew (and other semitic languages) the words translated ‘together’ and ‘only’ (son) are very similar.

Does the deep emphasis in John 17 on the unity of the divine Father and only Son somehow draw on the ‘unity’ of the father and the son in the story of Genesis 22? I suspect that may be the case. And if so what does that imply – not least for Jesus’ disciples who are also to be caught up in this unity? First, I do think that it helps to underscore the fact unity and love are profoundly interconnected. Although the word ‘love’ does not actually appear in this precise part of John 17 it is notable how the chapter (and indeed the entire Farewell Discourses) culminates with a reflection on unity as a marker of love (see especially verse 23). But beyond that – if we connect the theme of unity in John 17 with Genesis 22 it offers a hint of the profoundly sacrificial nature of both unity and love… which is I think very true to this Gospel’s understanding. The unity of the Father and the Son, and the unity of Jesus’ disciples in his name demand sacrifice, and a willingness to be changed on the part of the participants. They are not possible without it. This is something that the ecumenical movement continually has to learn and re-learn.

But the question of the relationship between unity, love and sacrifice cannot be far away from any of us in these difficult days, in which our theology is having to be re-explored to help us to meet the challenges with which we are all presently being confronted.

 

 

 

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