Join me, if you would, in my liturgical TARDIS. The clock is set for exactly 500 years ago today. It’s Ascension Day 1521, and we find ourselves materializing in, of all places, the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral. As we emerge blinking into the mixed clouds of dust and incense, we hear an extraordinary sound in the distance – it’s a mixture of liturgical chant, and gruff physical exertion. We walk into the space at the rear of the Nave of the Cathedral, and see an amazing sight – a larger-than-life-sized papier-maché figure of Christ, zooming upwards with surprising speed from the floor of the nave into the tower. At his feet is a small group of sweaty monks in a heap, exhausted from heaving on an elaborate rope system to assist the Lord’s flight.
Mediaeval Monasticism does Fresh Expressions. And it’s true - that really is what we would have seen in Durham Cathedral 500 years ago. But if we could set our clock to 2000 years ago, in the real Galilee, or Bethany, or Jerusalem (depending on which account we read), what would we have seen there? A human rocket, as in Durham? Or something else entirely? Would we have seen Him, being carried up to heaven in glory? Would we have seen the cloud take Him from our sight? Would we have seen anything at all?
I think we know that if we constrain ourselves to human understandings of space and time, we surely miss the point of this story. And while the story is, obviously, all about Him, it is just as much about us.
Matthew and Luke have much to say, but so does John, and one text in particular has lodged in my mind as I prepared these words. In the middle of that vast, dense, emotional setting of Jesus’ last hours with his disciples, in chapters 13-17, John records Jesus saying this: ‘I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away’. (1) Without His departure, we will not be able to receive the measure of His gift. (2) Without His departure, we will not enjoy the blessing of the Spirit. (3) Without His departure, we cannot be the visible, generous people of Jesus Christ that is our longing, and our goal.
‘Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads’ wrote Thoreau (4). He was speaking of the beauty of a winter landscape. But his wonderful words might apply equally well to our task, and our calling: and it is at the heart of the meaning of the Ascension of Christ.
1. John 16.7 2. Ephesians 4.7 3. Acts 1.8 4. Thoreau, Walden, ch. 16