The Revd Brutus Green
It seems that passing 30 engages you in an everlasting battle against your waistline. I am now condemned to a me-against-a-32-inch-waist rancorous conflict for the rest of my life. Fortunately, West London is a runner’s paradise with some great parks and plenty to look at as I heave my plump body around gulping down the clean-ish air. Unfortunately, with our festivity-packed summer odd irruptions are beginning to erect themselves. The Royal Wedding thoughtlessly ruined my usual run, an oversight now repeated with the coming Jubilee weekend. So as I turned to run down the side of Buckingham palace this week I found myself diverted deeper and deeper into Green Park by some new creation. Keen to minimize my detour I was soon hacking through long wet grass, cursing Westminster council under my breath, aware that this is nothing compared to the giant obstacle course that London will become in July.
I was not the first to take this route, though; my footsteps were tracking those of others cut into the long grass. It is quite possible that within a week or two this newly hacked trail will become a de facto path. A lot of innocent grass is going to suffer but that is the price of innovation. This phenomenon is charmingly called ‘desire lines’ - because they are created organically by the common desire of walkers.
The story of Ascension is of an unusual desire line. Less horizontal, more vertical take off, Jesus intends us to follow him on a new path, a path determined by his desire to reconcile creation with God, as the Christmas carol tells us: “and he leads his children on to the place where he has gone,” or in John’s Gospel, “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
It’s a confusing story and leads to all sorts of difficult questions - like “where is Jesus’ body now?” And there is something odd in what the angels say to the disciples as they look on after the disappearing Jesus: “why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” It’s a non-sequitur. If Jesus is to return as he left then there is clearly good reason to stand looking up towards heaven. Intriguingly, we have another non-sequitur in John’s Gospel when Jesus famously says to Mary, “Noli Tangere - Do not hold on to me for I am not yet ascended to the Father”. Given that Jesus is physically standing in front of her, it makes much more sense for her to cling to him now, rather than when he’s ascended. And the reprimand can be no fear of physicality in the resurrected body; shortly after Jesus invites Thomas to place his hands in his wounds.
The point that Jesus is making is that the disciples need to transform the way they relate to him. Mary is passionately attached to the man Jesus. She has fully grasped the humanity of Jesus, but in her passionate attachment to him she has yet to fully grasp his divinity, and in this is his real purpose and meaning. She clings to his humanity but she needs to learn to see the whole of Jesus’ person. Likewise the other disciples need to stop looking for the man - now close, now far away - they need to see Jesus as the revelation of God, already present to them, linking heaven and earth like Jacob’s ladder.
We often find ourselves in a similar position. The creed almost encourages us to believe that there’s the Father who is God - creator, mysterious and transcendent. And then the Son who we have the stories about and is basically a great guy, someone we can relate to, and feel for. The creed says more than this but the human mind often likes to keep things simple - keeping God in heaven and Jesus in the world. But this means we’re still clinging to Jesus the man, looking for him in the distance. Instead of desiring just the man, we need to see in him humanity and divinity. We need to follow his ‘desire line’, seeking the reconciliation of creation and God. We also need to ascend to God. Now before you get your glue and feathers out - and we know how that ended for Icarus and the Heaven’s Gate cult - what I’m talking about here is being taken out of ourselves, raised by our desire for the divine.
The early church experienced this in the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost - a strange empowering flood of almost magical activity. Whatever we think of this sort of charismatic religious expression, moments like these can play significant roles in our own lives. Experience of God as particular feelings is certainly not essential to faith and many mystical theologians dismiss it as distraction. We do, however, experience moments of ecstasy which can transform our faith, our understanding of what God and we are about, inspire us and bring us closer to God in that sense of ascension. This might be through the experience of concentration or attention in prayer or meditation, it might be a moment of realisation as scales fall from our eyes in realising a deception or a very genuine truth - like Archimedes’ shout of “Eureka” in the bath, - it may be the sudden flood of compassion that we have for a person or situation; in prayer, in study, in contemplation - raised by music and liturgy, or even as it was for St John of the Cross, hearing a popular Spanish love song. It might be a rush of wonder at a mountain-top panorama. Equally, in our relationships there is a possibility for an ecstatic taking out of ourselves, the sudden empathy with a stranger, the incomparable love that may develop from our romantic and familial lives: transformation and ascension. For most people this achieves greatest significance when it is a ‘rational passion’. Feelings themselves often pass quickly, and cold sense-making can seem unimportant - but rational passion has the potential to change our mentality and our lives, a transforming ecstasy.
The nine days between Ascension and Pentecost are traditionally a time of prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and it is right that we desire this gift - that we seek to emulate Christ’s desire in rising to the Father, in marrying heaven and earth. And even if we feel a strong discrepancy between our prayers - all formal and orthodox - and our actual desires, which may be chaotic and unruly; that very discrepancy is a way of educating our desire, and leading us further up the ladder to the place where he is gone. For us, now, we are on that mountain with the disciples, raising our worship to heaven as Christ meets us in the physical elements, seen, touched, tasted by our senses, but containing the divine. Here we are witnesses to the union of heaven and earth wrought in the story we are retelling. Our prayers similarly struggle to drag up our desires for a moment from the gutter to gaze briefly upon the stars. Here we follow the desire line initiated by Christ and trampled over by countless generations of Christians. The path is well marked even if the wilderness always threatens to encroach again. And here we are blessed by Christ, as our great high priest blessed the disciples even as he ascended from them and they worshipped him. The story of Ascension is a story about the bringing together of heaven and earth - the raising up of humanity to God. For us now, in the middle of life, it is a reminder to seek God and pray as Jesus taught us: ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’.