Ascension day last Thursday marked the end of our season of forty days of unremitting joy. So you can all relax now. You don’t have to be joyful any more.
Ascension is a funny old feast, and I just have to put to one side the idea of Jesus rocketing up into the atmosphere, difficult as that is when every picture of the Ascension seems to depict nothing of Jesus but a pair of feet. In the Chapel of the Ascension in Walsingham, there are a pair of divine feet, stuck into the ceiling, as though Jesus didn’t quite make it through the rafters.
Perhaps because of that, some churches slide past the Ascension and celebrate fifty days of unremitting joy, between Easter and Pentecost. But I think it’s important not to. We have a deliberate gap between Jesus Ascending and the Holy Spirit descending. This is Gap Sunday, and in the words of the underground tannoy, we should mind the gap – or at least be mindful of it. Because this gap, this in-between time Says something very powerful about who we are in this world. Jesus says in our gospel, be in the world but not of the world, and there is something very resonant about that in this time between times.
We see in our readings just what people do in this gap, when Christ seems distant and we do not feel particularly full of the holy spirit. The Apostles did what many of us do in those circumstances. They had a meeting. They elected someone. How very Anglican – they even began with prayers. The reading from 1 Peter speaks of being wary of the devil. That’s what people do when God seems distant – they have meetings, and concentrate on being afraid of stuff.
But when we put aside the attempt to fill the gap with business or fear, we find a Keats-like melancholy about the transitory nature of the world. In the world but not of the world.Jerusalemthe Golden, our next hymn, speaks very powerfully of being in the gap, the time between times. It was written by Bernard of Cluny (that’s theClunyin France, not Morningside). And is a vision of what is to come, the time beyond time, when everything, and everyone that has been lost in the trials and tribulations of this passing time will be restored. It’s a long poem and the rest of it reminds us that we are not there yet . The present time is a world of shadows, seeing through a glass darkly, in the world but not of it, where we can only hear the echoes of God’s laughter.
It’s a time of sunsets and wistfulness, this gap time. Often it makes me think of those I have known who have gone before. It reminds me of something my Grandad said to me when I was young. We used to go for walks together even though he was in his eighties, and he’d tell me about his childhood with his brothers. In the summer, when the sun was near setting, he and his brothers would watch until the sun had just disappeared over the brow of the hill. Then they would race as fast as he could, up to the top, chasing the sun, hanging on to it as it kept dipping over the peak, the firey oranges and reds reminding them of the day just past.
It can be easy to be wistful, like the Apostles staring into heaven, but the Ascension teaches us how to live in this time between times. It teaches us how to live faithfully, hopefully and lovingly.
The faith it teaches us about is not our faith in God. But rather God’s faith in us.
The Apostles proved themselves time and again not to be worthy of trust. They were dense, cowardly, argumentative, hard-headed – but they were the ones Jesus trusted. He trusted them. And he was right. That inadequate band of short-tempered misfits became the people the world needed them to be.
It is all very easy saying “Lord, we are not worthy”. But in the Ascension, God says something a great deal more uncomfortable. He says, you are worthy. The Ascension tells me that if God believes in us, so should we.
The Ascension shows us how to live hopefully. “Ye men ofGalilee,” said the Angels “why stand you staring into heaven?” Don’t just stand there.
I sort of imagine the Apostles after the Ascension, waiting, like a dog tied up outside a supermarket, ears pricked, anxious, waiting for their owner. But the angels moved them on. The hope given to them was inspiring and disturbing, it required a response, action. Faith is not a comfort blanket to keep us warm while we wait for someone else to do something.
The Ascension also teaches us how to live lovingly. The Ascension was as though Jesus’ love was too much simply to be contained in one body, as though it had to escape the confines of the physical world, to be as our liturgy says, in every place and at all times. The Ascension tells me that love is not like that, it is not a finite resource, it expands and grows, and should be given recklessly, to all.
But most of all, the Ascension, as well as teaching us how to live, I think teaches us how to die. For the Ascension, is in reality, a death. The first truly Christian death.
Jesus didn’t have to make a final farewell. He could simply have appeared less often. But this Ascension was a specific point of farewell, where Jesus said, “I’m not going to be with you any more”. It’s as liturgical as a funeral, and has the same flavour.
The Ascension, like a funeral are times of leave-taking, of love, of the vanishing from sight of someone whom we had once touched and known, seen and heard. There is the belief in a life being carried up into the love of God, who enfolds those who depart, there is the intensity of all that that person meant to us, gathered into one moment. And although they are parted from our sight, their love remains.
We live in in-between times, whether we realise it or not. When I was living in the Franciscan Friary inDorset, I knew I was in an in-between place, as I tried to discern my future, whether it was in priesthood or singing. And as you do in those in-between times, I thought of things past. And of my Grandad, and his chasing the sun.
And there was a very suitably placed hill, and a very beautiful spot for viewing sunsets. And so one day I chased the sunset, racing up to the top, panting and breathless, to bid it farewell. It was – one of those sunsets, firey and passionate, eternal and immediate.
And when I walked back, the world had been changed. The remnant of that orange red sun caught the hedgerows and dry stone walls and trees. Everything looked different. And I walked back, not turning my back on the sun, but towards the dawn, which I knew would come.
The Ascension teaches us how to live in this time between times. To turn our faces towards the New Jerusalem, with the remembrance of the firey passion of Christ’s love transforming the world as we walk towards it. So that even in the grief of things lost, we may hear the voice of the Angels, “you men ofGalileewhy do you stand staring into heaven?” For that which is now lost is not lost. For love is in every place and at all times.