The Ascension                                              

I am a great admirer of the Roman Catholic church for all sorts of reasons but I do think they get some things wrong. One thing they get wrong is to move the feast of the Ascension from the Thursday, 40 days after Easter to the Sunday after. I think people should come to Mass on Ascension Day itself as I am sure people did here. However, the Roman practice does give me the excuse to preach today on the Ascension and I want to do that because I think it is a glorious mystery, much misunderstood.

The Ascension poses problems if we think about it. For one thing, now that we know that heaven is not up in the sky why should Jesus go up? Then we would ask what happened to his body? Did he really take his physical body into heaven with him, or was it transformed somehow into spirit? Where is heaven if it is not in the sky? Is it just another dimension of this world, one we can't see but from which they can see us? Should we ask these questions? Yes, I think it is important to ask these questions. God has made us rational creatures. He has given us the power of reason. He expects us to use it to understand all we can. But sometimes we find we really can't understand and that is important. There are things to do with God we will never get our minds around. If we could get our minds around them, they wouldn't be of God. We know Jesus is God and man, and there is much theological writing which explains what that means in wonderful and fascinating terms. Just how God and man can be in one body, we never will understand, just as we will never fully understand how some bread on the altar can be the body of Christ, or some wine his blood. The fact we can't understand it doesn't mean it doesn't happen. It just means we are taken into a mystery which fills us with amazement, devotion and joy. That is much more exciting than something we can neatly work out and solve. Mystery is the essence of the Catholic faith because the Catholic faith is of God. It doesn't dispense us from using reason but it takes us beyond reason into the very heart of God.

When we find ourselves drawn into a mystery we are asked to trust God; to trust the Jesus who is drawing us. The Ascension tells us we can. it is a kind of pictorial representation of a truth: that Jesus, whom we get to know in the Gospels, Jesus who has shown that he loves us on a Cross, Jesus who is completely trustworthy, is with God. The mysteries of Christian life are not just the unintelligible behaviour of a God we can't understand. They are the loving actions of a God who gave us Jesus and to whom Jesus himself returned. Jesus came from the Father and returned to the Father. He send us the Holy spirit to keep on teaching us. We often don't understand what we see; we don't understand what the Spirit tells us but Jesus is there and we can trust him. He takes us by the hand and leads us into the mystery, or into the darkness and we can trust him not to let go.

This is not just a nice bit of devotional theology. Some people are genuinely distressed when they can't understand the mysteries of our faith. They have to learn to trust Jesus and wait for a deeper, different understanding to come their way. There is an arrogance in human reason which sometimes prevents us understanding the mysteries of God. Jesus asks us to wait, to listen humbly and see what he has still to reveal.

Or when some of us look at the recent history of Zimbabwe and see how people go on and on suffering... why does God allow it, why doesn't he stop it? Or in Burma which has suffered from tyrannical rule for forty years, why doesn't God stop it? We can suggest reasons in all these cases and sometimes we can begin to see that God is working deeply in a situation. We can see Christ in the lives of the people there. Yet sometimes we must just believe that in the darkness, beyond the confusion Jesus really is there, making sense of it all. The Ascension tells us this is so; it is the great sign of hope. We have the same kind of struggle, much closer to home when people we know get sick, maybe with cancer, or leukemia, or Altzeimer's, or some other horrible disease. Why does God let this happen to nice good people. If people must die, why can't they die quickly, painlessly, cleanly? Why does God impose such suffering? Again we are asked to trust. This is God working; we have seen in Jesus just how much he loves us. Jesus ascended up on high to be with the Father and he is there now. We mustn't panic.

Even in our Church today we are called to take the hand of Jesus as we walk into a dark future. I don't need to tell you of all the confusions outside the walls of this church. With synods, Bishops, revision committees all trying to change the church as we know it what will the future be? Will there be real bishops? Will we have a real church? Is the whole thing going to unravel and leave us like children on a darkling plain? We don't know. No one really can tell us. Is this another time when Jesus is asking us to put his hand in his and walk steadily into the dark.

That sounds scary, but actually it is wonderful. As we walk into the dark holding Jesus by the hand we will come to know him better. We will be very close to him. We will feel his love. We will discover we can trust him, that he is not leading us into danger, that he will not let us go. We will learn that his promises are true "Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest"...."I will be with you even till the end of the world"..."I will send you the Comforter who will led you into all truth". We can put away our fears and walk on confidently. Jesus is not going to let us go.

Nicolas Stebbing CR