Let’s talk about the elephant in the room first. The elephant is Jesus travelling upwards towards the skies above and disappearing from view behind clouds. Taken literally it makes no sense for a great variety of reasons, like the mode of travel (levitating?), asphyxia due to the lack of oxygen at high altitudes, heaven not being in the lower orbit… If read literally, the descriptions of the Ascension of the Lord make no sense in light of our current scientific knowledge. The clue is in the word ‘literally’ – the descriptions in the Bible are not forensically detailed reports of the event. They are fictionalised stories. Before you completely lose faith, I must explain the meaning of this phrase. Many modern films have this notion ‘Based on true story’ or something similar. Then they use a variety of tools specific to the visual medium of film to tell the story in an engaging, moving way. Many details in the film can be historically or factually fictional, but the story as a whole is true. That’s the meaning of the phrase ‘fictionalised story’. This is the way to interpret today’s event. Jesus returns to the Father while urging his disciples ‘not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for what the Father had promised.’
The Ascension of the Lord is the moment when the disciples’ attention turns from looking backwards to looking forward. Since the death of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday they have – firstly – been dealing with their loss and – secondly – the incredible resurrection of Jesus. Even today’s gospel reads that ‘the eleven disciples […] fell down before Him, though some hesitated.’ But from now on the disciples are focused on the future: ‘when the Holy Spirit comes on you […] you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.’ From now on ‘all these [disciples] with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus.’ (Acts 1:14)
It reminds me of my final days in the seminary. Having studied hard for six years my fourteen colleagues and I went away to a retreat centre. Effectively separated from the outside world we spent a week in prayer. We were not discerning our vocations; that had been completed a year earlier with our diaconate ordination. Now, at a week-long retreat, we were getting ready for the mission that would be officially handed down to us at the priestly ordination.
Something similar is happening now around us. After two months of lockdown, heavy restrictions and closed down churches there’s talk about easing those and a phased transition to (a new) normal life. Call it a coincidence, but tomorrow, on the very day of the Ascension of the Lord, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is going to present the Scottish Government’s plans for easing restrictions. From then we will be looking forward to the future, perhaps finding new effective ways of living our lives. In a providential way, the Ascension of the Lord this year is going to be our turning point. Just as with Jesus’ disciples nothing really changed for another ten days, so we won’t see any dramatic changes on day one. But as their minds shifted from misery to hopeful expectations, so our minds might shift from the current ordeal to a brighter prospect.
As Winston Churchill once said, ‘never waste a good crisis.’ I strongly believe that the time we’ve been through has had a purpose for each one of us as individuals, as families, groups of friends, neighbours, workplaces, wider communities and – last but not least – the community of the Church. How we will emerge from this crisis depends on each one of us, on our decisions and the attitudes we have or will adopt. The first signs are very encouraging. I hope they will last and develop into more permanent features in our lives and our communities. The ten days in the run up to Pentecost was the time of prayer for Jesus’ disciples, getting themselves ready for the future. Then the doors were thrown open and the Apostles emerged fearless and bold, ready to face whatever would be thrown at them, because now they believed Jesus’ words: ‘know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’ Do you believe that too?