Given on Sunday 5th June 2011 at The Abbey by Canon Jim Richardson, Canon Pastor
You only have to walk around the Abbey to realize that our medieval predecessors were incredibly expressive and imaginative in the way they depicted the stories of their faith. The remarkable roof bosses, the misericord seats, and the other carvings in wood and stone that adorn this building. We don’t have, as in York Minster, any depiction of the feet of Jesus disappearing through the ceiling, though we do have his footprints carved on the High Altar (Victorian) reredos. Both the disappearing feet and the footprints represent the Ascension of Jesus, which we commemorated last Thursday. And straightway we see the problem that this major festival raises. It is not so much that it falls in the middle of the week, rather than on a Sunday – so can Christmas: it has much more to do with our incomprehension over what the Ascension signifies. In a high-tech secular society, the idea of Jesus ‘taking off’, like some kind of heavenly astronaut, is regarded as sheer nonsense – even if we are more than happy to watch and enjoy the sci-fi of Dr Who on television, or the Harry Potter films at the cinema. I suppose we are able to suspend belief when we know that what we are watching is not real, just a bit of fun. But this will not do when we speak of Jesus.
So what is the Ascension all about?
Neither the first Christians, nor the medieval church, were as literalist and naïve as we in our own world sometimes presume. They knew exactly what they were doing. In describing great spiritual mysteries, they employed the most wonderful poetry, symbols, and images to put across their message of what had happened. They realized well enough that God, who is spirit, is not literally sitting on a throne somewhere in the sky. They had the sense to recognize that the Ascension was first and foremost a spiritual experience beyond ordinary human understanding, not a scientific dogma. They were content to know that by virtue of his exaltation, their Lord had left this human scene, and entered the heavenly realm, where he had been invested with dominion, power and glory. He had returned ‘home’. He could not stay with us as he was. Only by his Father’s side – which in itself is a symbol – could he send to us his Holy Spirit. We really do not have to strain our credulity by thinking of heaven as ‘up there’. Heaven cannot be described in terms of place, any more than in terms of time. It is in eternity, where neither time nor space exists, as we know them.
So the biblical picture given to us of the Ascension is a symbol steeped in the traditions of scripture. The ‘cloud’ into which Jesus entered, is, in Anglicised Hebrew, the shekinah – the cloud of the divine glory, the sign of God’s presence. It is not just any cloud. It was the cloud that came down on Mount Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments; the cloud that filled the Temple when Isaiah had his vision; the cloud that overshadowed the mount of Transfiguration. Into that cloud Christ entered when he departed from his disciples.
The Ascension is, in a sense, the other end of the Incarnation. ‘I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world’, said Jesus (John 16.28), ‘again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.’ The Ascension has, then, a two-fold significance: a backward, and a forward look. It looks backward to Our Lord’s finished work in his earthly ministry. Those disappearing feet in York Minster bear the imprint of the nails of crucifixion: they are an important image in saying that we come to God by way of the Redeemer, Jesus. Thus the Ascension completes Our Lord’s first task. Never again would the disciples see him in bodily form. But they would enjoy his presence in a new way.
Thus the Ascension also looks forward. Jesus is our advocate in heaven. In other words, we have a friend in court. We may often feel forgotten, wretched, disheartened, and alone, but there is forever one who never fails to remember us, and bears our name upon his heart. And, in turn, he calls us, trusts us, to continue his work in the world. This evening we are waiting with the disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He is the spirit of truth, guidance and power. With him are the Father and the Son. The New Testament does not conceive of the glorified Jesus as being inactive. On the contrary, it sees him as still at work, with us, in proclaiming God’s message of forgiveness, transformation, and life in all its completeness. We are commissioned to make Jesus real for others, by what we are, do, and say. Through the Holy Spirit, we are Christ’s body in the world, a world he gave up everything to rescue.
What a calling that is! When I so often feel I am just not worthy, or in any way up to the task – perhaps at the end of a bad day – that other promise of Jesus is a great source of encouragement and renewal, and enables me to get up next morning, ready and eager to try again:
‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’
Amen and Amen.