8 May 2016

Ascension

It is notoriously difficult to put together a clearly consistent picture of Jesus from the pages of the New Testament. So it is not surprising that different generations of Christians have seen him in different ways and, almost invariably, they have done so in terms of the culture which they themselves inhabit and of the preoccupations which concern them.

Thus in early mediaeval society where everyone had a place and knew it and where to a greater or lesser degree there was a system of mutual loyalty and protection, Jesus was primarily the Lord, Our Lord, the Lord of Christians.    

However, there have been other ways of seeing him. As the terrible visitation of the Black Death spread across Europe Jesus came to be seen as the Man of Sorrows, afflicted and horribly disfigured, without form or comeliness. Ninettenth century Englishmen of the upper classes pictured him as the ideal expression of the public school system: decent, fair, utterly reliable, playing a straight bat. On the other hand, people at the less privileged end of society saw him as dispossessed and powerless, edged out and marginalised. Not so long ago he was seen as a kind of Superstar, as a protagonist for the downtrodden.

Human beings inevitably have needs and ideals and throughout the centuries they have projected these on to Jesus. It would be interesting to know whether the significant figures of other religions come in for the same kind of treatment. 

Nevertheless, in whatever way we think of Jesus it is surely important that our image of him should bear some relationship to what the New Testament says about him - though it has to be acknowledged that even there, there are different ways of understanding him, different angles of approach to him, different pictures of him.  

If we would see Jesus we have to ‘turn’. Mary Magdalen at the tomb on the morning of the third day is bewildered by what she finds there – or rather by what she doesn’t find there. In dismay she turns from her conversation with the two figures she encounters – ‘she turned, and saw Jesus standing there but did not know that it was Jesus’ – that turning and facing in another direction, that change of perspective, is what Jesus has been urging on us all along right from the beginning, with his call to ‘repent and believe in the Gospel’ (Mk1.15).  

In the final book of the Bible, the Revelation to John, the visionary, hearing ‘a loud voice like a trumpet’, turns ‘to see whose voice it is speaking to’ him. In order to see he turns, he converts. He hears the voice, he turns to see and accordingly he believes; his faith comes from hearing but it is a faith seeking understanding. On turning he sees one ‘like the Son of Man’, the Jesus who ‘died and behold, he is alive for evermore and has the keys of Death and Hades’. He sees Jesus (he tells us) in the midst of the golden lampstands, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest, his eyes like a flame of fire and his feet like burnished bronze but still the Son of Man, the same person whom the disciples had known and followed.

The Christ of our faith is none other than the Jesus of history, the Jesus of Galilee, the Jesus who had called fishermen and tax-collectors, who had fired their imagination, challenged them, disturbed them, troubled them. It is the same Jesus judging, challenging, comforting the Church. John sees the ascended Jesus, who is now Lord and Christ - the one who in the days of his flesh opened the scroll of scripture in the synagogues of Galilee and who taught with authority and not as their scribes. Now in the heavenly places he takes from the right hand of the One seated on the throne the scroll ‘written within and on the back (and) sealed with seven seals’ It is the scroll of history and he, proclaimed  as ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David’, the one who has conquered, is also the Lamb with the marks of slaughter on him. ‘Firstborn of the dead’, he alone has authority to take the scroll of history, break the seals and open it and so reveal its meaning.   

In our celebration of Easter and Ascensiontide, in all our Paschal joy and exaltation and in our waiting for the promised gift of the Spirit, we can never forget this truth. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the one who has conquered, is also the Lamb, sacrificed from the foundation of the world. The risen and ascended One, the One who has conquered and has the keys of Death and Hades, the One who was dead and is alive for evermore, is the sacrificial Lamb by which we are saved. The central image of Christianity remains the crucified, and glorified, Lord Jesus.

When we celebrate the Ascension we are not so much remembering the last time that Jesus took leave of his disciples, rather we are trying to realise and celebrate the way Jesus is now, just as John attempts to realise it for us in the imagery and symbolism of what was revealed to him when he was on the island called Patmos ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’.   

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to’ Jesus. His life, focussed and summarised in his death, is now authoritative for all times and places. It sets the pattern and forms the God-given model for the lives of people at all times and in all places. That pattern of living - and only that - has any final value as a way of being human, for it is God’s way of being human.        

All this is only visible to the eyes of faith. Jesus is taken up as his Apostles, those who believe in him, look on. The fact that Jesus has gone up in the world, receiving - as his own - all authority, is not the kind of fact that is open to casual observation. It is only clear to those who believe in him. Or rather, believing in him means seeing in some way or another that God has given him his resounding ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen’. Faith means living as people who see that. It involves translating that vision into practice, whether the practice is of words in preaching the gospel, or the practice is of deeds, in the imitation of the crucified Jesus, from whom the Father will never withdraw his affirmation and assent.

        Eric Simmons CR