The Revd Brutus Green
Some years ago I was pounding along on a running machine in a gym in Exeter. The machine was quite unfortunately lined up, though, and only half looked on to a mirrored wall which continued off to my right. I have a slightly obsessive need for order and really hate things not to be lined up. This was nothing to do with vanity. Anyway as I ran I found myself leaning to the right in order to catch my full reflection rather than just half of it. This in itself probably looked a little odd, but as I continued my right foot hit the side of the machine off the treadmill sending me into a double twisting backwards pike landing in a painful shambolic mess ten metres behind the machine. There was only one other person in the gym but it was a little awkward and I have since developed a deep mistrust of running machines.
Well, I was running in the park this week and had another awkward moment, running straight at someone, both of us side stepping towards each other in both directions. Like dancers. We avoided crashing into one another but it was pretty close. Afterwards though I had a moment of self doubt, questioning my motives. The person I was running towards was very attractive. Had I deliberately stepped towards them? Read their body language and subconsciously drifted into their way?
When we talk about beauty and desire we very often use the language of attraction. We speak of being drawn to someone. Pretty people are said to ‘turn heads’. In clubs I’m told people ‘go on the pull’; ‘falling in love’ suggests some involuntary movement. When we see something beautiful, when we feel attracted, we often find ourselves drawn in, pulled towards the object of our affection, caught up in a gravitational orbit of our delight.
The story of Jesus, which ends today; the story from the Incarnation to the Ascension is the story of the desire of God. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. The Son that revealed God to be love, love for the world. This love, this desire drew God into creation in the Incarnation. God was pulled into the centre of human history. The Ascension is the story of love returning, love reciprocated. Jesus, in his humanity loves God, and so is drawn back up to God, and offers in himself on our behalf the love of creation back to God, the consummation of the marriage of heaven and earth.
There is a prayer traditionally said during the preparation of the Eucharist, while the priest mixes water with the wine.
By the mystery of this water and wine
may we come to share in the divinity of Christ
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
This captures the essence of the Ascension. God comes full circle. On Christmas morning we sing “he came down from earth to heaven”, while tonight the choir sing “God is gone up with a triumphant shout”. The point is not so much that God did a thirty year dip, a cosmic road-trip, causing the Christmas shepherds to scatter in terror and the disciples at the Ascension to stare bewildered into space - like Superman falling from the heavens and rising in Lycra - it’s more like the hand of God plunging into creation and lifting the whole thing up to be close to God.
Having said that the mythological trope of resurrection and ascension has set itself at the absolute heart of our culture; so much so that it is the standard form for all superhero movies. Consider any Batman movie. Is there not always a moment when the Dark Night is believed to be dead before making a seemingly impossible come back, before disappearing again - usually to be found silhouetted on a roof top with the bat symbol projected on to the night sky. ‘Men of Gotham, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This batman, who has been taken from you into the sky, will come in the same way as you saw him go.’
If you happened to catch the last of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night trilogy, The Dark Night Rises, you will have watched Christian Bale as Batman get dumped down a well into a dark pit, a good Hebraic name for Hell. Eventually he escapes and saves everyone, at the end heroically ascending in his aircraft ‘the Bat’ to haul away a bomb that detonates over the bay.
The genius of this plot-line, following last Sunday’s sermon if you caught it, is that it frees the hero from a final situation of peace, with an inconvenient love interest, and so prepares the way for the sequel, the return of the king. The Gospel is of course the very prototype of this, even providing a sort of trailer in the form of the Book of Revelation.
Now in all this you might be forgiven for thinking - well it’s all just mythology isn’t it. I mean Obi-wan Kenobe is quite a bit like Jesus; only despite claiming to be more powerful than you can possibly imagine after being strucken down he doesn’t really seem to achieve very much. And Gandalf has his moments of resurrection and ascension:
‘Darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time... The stars wheeled overhead, and every day was as long as a life age of the earth... But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I've been sent back until my task is done.’
But isn’t this just stories? A variation of Elijah ascending in his fiery chariot, or some crypto-Egyptian or Babylonian myth. In the 60s there was a short-lived movement that attempted to demythologise Christianity, expurgating all the more far-fetched elements. I can imagine that the picture of Christ ascending into the clouds would quickly have been rationalised to a more straight-forward reading that the resurrection appearances ceased as the time of Pentecost approached.
There may be some mileage in this, but I’m reminded of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Charles asks him after mass about all that catholic nonsense to which he replies “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”
Then Charles asks about Christmas and the star and the kings, the ox and the ass. Sebastian replies, “Oh yes. I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.” Undeterred Charles says, “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” but Sebastian replies,
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”
The demythologising moment was very short lived in theology because it took all the colour out of religion. Perhaps it is a figure by which we understand that transition the disciples made from the experience of the resurrection appearances to the experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but the story has taken on a much more complex depth, not least because of its prevalence in myths, legends and fiction ever since, and because actually it’s by stories and anecdotes, not abstraction, that most of us understand the world.
More importantly, historically is the theological significance of the image of Christ’s descending and ascending, the tying together of heaven and earth, symbolised by the mixing of the earthly water and the heavenly wine. Born a hundred years after Christ’s death Clement of Alexandria interpreted this saying: ‘[T]he Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God.’ Athanasius, who we can thank for the creed, wrote more concisely: ‘For He was made man that we might be made God.’
It may seem very grand to say that we might come to be divine, but really it’s more to say that learning who God is in Jesus, we might become more like him, and when we finally approach eternity we might also share in the fullness of that divine vision. In these days more often than not it is the things of this world that gain our attention, that attract us, that pull us into their sway. Sometimes it is our own reflection. Such things will most likely cause us to topple and fall in our pride and vanity. Every now and then, though, we will glimpse something of beauty, experience genuine self-giving love for another human being, discover the divine in worship, beauty or charity, and be drawn a little closer to follow Jesus in that movement of ascension. Our ascension remains as yet incomplete but it is prefigured with Christ lifting up all creation to the Father. Through love He has shown us the way. By love we will follow him.