A Reflection on the Ascension
Friday, 22nd May 2020
I am writing this on Ascension Day. If churches were open (and they are not), if public worship was held today (which it cannot be) and singers could sing (which they cannot) we might be hearing one of those familiar Ascension Day anthems, like God is gone up. Or, if we could sing hymns (and we really must not) we might have a stab at Hail the day that sees him rise. Ascension Day knows where it is going. It is going up.
Now, ‘up’ we think, is where authority and power can be found. We talk about ‘high-ranking’ and ‘higher’ powers. It is a fundamental assumption for us that ambition will get us ‘to the top’. So, up is where the action is. Ascension Day then, can be a bit of a pain in the neck, as we all crane our heads to look upwards, to where the ascended Christ has sits down on a throne, on the right hand of power. Think of all those wonderful paintings in the domes and ceilings of our churches and palaces where God sits on high, deciding things, ruling, and generally being the boss and top dog. Ascensiontide really does invite us to look up to God (which is no bad thing) and to think about his power (which might be a bit more problematic).
I have listened to many conversations about decision-making and authority in the last few days. Are we following the science? Who gets to decide whether children return to school? What does moral authority look like in this crisis? Is the government offering strong leadership? The questions matter; lives and livelihoods are at stake. We need people who can make the right decisions; we rely on them. We have depended absolutely on the expertise and decision making of the medical profession and we will on go on doing that. I live in a world where people have power and authority. Where decisions are made that affect me. I do not always like it, I am not always sure the decisions are wise or right. I am married to a primary head teacher who has spent the last two weeks juggling what has often seemed like contrary and conflicting decisions. It is not always comfortable living under authority. I do not always look up to some of the people who have power. Even so, sometimes my life depends on them; sometimes I need them to do what they must do. They have their privileges, but they bear great burdens. In the Abbey we pray for them daily. People ‘on high’ can be a bit problematic
So, today, I would like to tidy up a little confusion. Looking up, on Ascension Day, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that the God is just another decision makes, the biggest boss of all. That would be, I am afraid, bad theology. God does not make decisions about us. God did not, at the end of last year, decide on a pandemic, nor tomorrow will God make the rain fall on Oswaldtwistle or the sun shine in Clyst Honiton. God does not change his mind, nor do one thing one day and another the next. God has no agenda and no ‘to do’ list. God is ever the same. God is always and forever a pouring out of love. No whims, no fancies, no decisions, and no strategy. On Ascension Day, Jesus carries his life (and yours and mine) into the heart of that love, forever.
We do not keep Ascension Day well if we give ourselves a pain in the neck. We do not keep it well if it makes us grovel in exaggerated obedience. God is indeed the only One who can create, the only One who can redeem. All things do depend on God. Even so, there are no decisions to be made and it is not obedience, or resignation, that is required from us. It is not power that we worship, it is love.