When I was a small child, I loved Ascension day because there was a half day from school after early Mass, sticky buns and country dancing. Now it’s more a day when I hanker after chestnut candles against blue skies, revel in glorious music and try my hardest to write a sermon that has no mention of the tips of Christ’s toes vanishing into the clouds…but I still love this feast, despite the problems that it might present to those who want to view their faith through a purely rational lens. In a world which, on the whole, doesn’t imagine heaven as a realm above the skies, we do rather struggle with the baggage of past understandings of the Ascension, and perhaps that is in part the reason that a festival that was once so significant that it involved a half day from school is now largely forgotten, even among the faithful. Today does matter though. It is a turning point.
“The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now” we sing, and it is tempting to think in terms of before and after, to see those two states in opposition to one another – and of course it depends on your perspective how you understand each part of the story.
There is one view for the eleven, left craning their necks for a last glimpse of the One who has given their lives hope and purpose through three extraordinary years…and pondering what his promise of “power from on high” might actually mean. For them, as for us, Ascension represents the start of a season of waiting in faith and in hope…and of trying to understand their new calling as apostles, those who are sent, rather than disciples, those gathered to learn.
And for Jesus? Well, when teaching children, I tend to explain today as “Christmas backwards” – but of course that is to oversimplify. While it is true that Ascension marks the end of Jesus’s physical presence in the world, it isn’t simply the moment when he returns home, takes off his humanity with a sigh of relief and everything goes back to “normal”…Things have changed for all time. The One who returns to glory returns wounded – for us and by us.
And the point is – the wounds are part of the glory! “The Messiah will suffer.” That’s essential…though not to assuage some cosmic system of justice. Some years ago, a speaker at a diocesan conference completely changed the way I was feeling about my beloved but rather struggling parish when she pointed out “The glory of God is as fully revealed on Good Friday as it is on Easter Sunday”. That enabled me to celebrate the church as it was there and then, rather than feeling frustrated that it wasn’t yet the gloriously confident, vibrant community of my dreams and longings. Surprisingly, (or maybe not really so very surprisingly at all) as soon as that happened, the church began to change….to see itself as revealing the glory of God in all the muddle and brokenness…and that fresh understanding began a process of healing and transformation. But that’s another story.
Last Sunday morning , Archbishop Justin gave us a similar message as he spoke about the tapestry – about the crucifixion, which is invisible from the nave, obscured by the high altar, but which literally provides the foundation for the image of Christ in glory which dominates our whole space. He pointed out, referring both to the tapestry, woven in a single seamless whole, and to the two moments of revelation “It’s ALL ONE.” Crucifixion and ascension are both alike manifestations of Christ’s glory
“And I, when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself”
Christ , risen, ascended, glorified, carries with Him both the marks and the lived experience of agony. They are for all time, - which means that our experiences of pain and suffering are part of what he carries with him for all time too.
This, of course, is also the message that our cathedral, ruined and rebuilt, carries to the world. We resisted the temptation to clear away the ruins, and recreate the lost cathedral – something done with startling effect in Dresden. Equally, we chose not to tidy up and build something new and different where the wreckage of the past had stood. Instead, we left the scars of history visible as a permanent part of our present reality. We do not cling to them with bitterness, but acknowledge that the pain was real, that places and people ARE changed and shaped by such experiences, that although we all carry our own wounds – of loss, disappointment, failure – yet we dare to move forward in hope of a new kind of future.
Often people describe the relationship of old and new cathedrals in terms of death and resurrection…That makes sense too, but the presence of the scars on hands and feet of Christ in glory reflects the wounds of the ruins on which he gazes out day by day. And it’s ALL ONE. Cross, pain and glory inextricably woven together in the fabric of our salvation.
In Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard, about the great medieval theologian famous for his love affair with Heloise, she describes Peter walking in the woods with his friend Thibault. They come across a rabbit trapped in a snare, and its suffering triggers a deep conversation about pain and the cross:
I think God is in it too.'.
'In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?' Thibault nodded.
'Then why doesn't he stop it?'
'I don't know,' said Thibault. 'Unless it's like the prodigal son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this,' he stroked the limp body, 'is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do.'
Abelard looked at him, perplexed. 'Thibault, do you mean Calvary?'
Thibault shook his head. 'That was only a piece of it - the piece that we saw- in time. Like that.' He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. 'That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ's life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because was like that, kind and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that for ever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped.'
'Then, Thibault,' he said slowly, 'you think that all of this,' he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, 'all the pain of the world, was Christ's cross?'
'God's cross,' said Thibault, 'And it goes on.'
Christ in glory continues to hurt for the pain of the world. That gives a particular kind of hope to those who are suffering here and now. To the family of a young mum with a life limiting illness, who will not live to see her children grown. To my friends who watch by their mother’s bedside, wondering if she will recover after the removal of a lung. To another who has been told that thereis no more treatment left. To others who have flown across the world to be with their dying son. To those forced from their homes by violence. To those longing for a fresh start and new possibilities.
All of those weeping, aching souls can know that their pain is known, understood, shared by the one who is all love. Christ’s triumph does not undo or override the struggles that are part of the here and now…It redeems but does not banish pain. It’s all one….
So Ascension is about so much more than vanishing toes or easy triumphalism. There is glory and pain intermingled, Rich wounds still visible above in beauty glorified. It is indeed a turning point, but not one that signifies Christ’s departure from the world – but rather that same world’s brokenness bourne by him up to heaven, where the hands which bless us in our weakness bear the marks of suffering too.