Pastoral letter: feast of the Ascension
Jesus said, ‘but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder…’ doesn’t it?
As the lockdown starts to be lifted slightly, it may be worth taking a few moments to remember what we had forgotten. The things the absence of which made us forget: the value of quiet roads, time with family, receiving the care of those living close by; the sound of bird song, empty skies. And to remember things the absence of which has made our hearts grow fonder: the physical presence of friends and family; social interaction; gathering in worship.
In its original form the quotation was, “Always towards absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows.” The line was penned by the hand of the Roman poet Sextus Propertius in the first century BC and gives a better sense of the meaning of the phrase in common use today: when lovers are parted from each other, their love – or its pull – grows more intense. That is not always our experience of ‘absence’. What is it that leads us to forget or to feel loss when something – or someone – is absent, rather than to forget?
We recently marked the VE day, marking 75 years since the UK’s allies’ victory over the Nazi regime in Europe. Included in the service is a refrain taken from the poem For the Fallen by Robert Binyon:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
As I gathered with members of the public and St Lawrence’s at the Eastcote War Memorial, I joined in with the response, “We will remember them.” The seventy five years that have passed mean that this day marked personal loss in the second world war for fewer and fewer people, but the service is a poignant reminder of the cost of our freedom. That freedom is a lasting epitaph to the second world war effort and those who lost their lives. I would advocate recalling our freedom’s price in our present day. The absence of loved ones through war will always leave the pain of loss; but absence of war tends not to remind us of the value of freedom – it is easy to take this for granted.
This year, we had a new bank holiday to help the UK remember VE day. Similar holidays and acts of remembrance of various kinds help us to ‘re-member’ – to put back together - our memory of things that have happened that are important. Some of these are religious feasts: Christmas and Good Friday; and some of these are in place to remember absence: the absence of loved ones, the absence of war.
Many countries on continental Europe mark the Feast of the Ascension with a bank holiday, which help their people remember its significance. Since Bank Holidays were introduced in the UK in 1871, there has never been a day to mark the Ascension of Christ, this despite it being one of the nine principal feasts for which observation of which is obligatory in the Church of England. The low profile of the feast of the Ascension absence doesn’t seem to have made the heart grow fonder for marking the Ascension.
The feast of the Ascension also marks the beginning of an absence: the day on which the risen Jesus was taken up bodily into heaven. Has that absence made the heart grow fonder, or has it led to Christ being forgotten?
Traditionally, the feast of the Ascension has been a time to remember Christ’s authority. How can an absence make us think about power or authority? The things we’ve had to endure the absence of in lockdown remind us of our place in the universe. A tiny virus a few millionths of a millimetre across has caused our economy to grind to a halt and for us to be captive in our own homes. And yet we’ve been reminded of joys and pleasures we had lost. The authority and power of the nature has been revealed in our loss of freedom, as well as nature’s beauty.
The Ascension marks the transition from Jesus being constrained by having a physical body to being able to be everywhere present through the Holy Spirit. With Jesus’ absence, the Jesus movement could transition from being the one – Jesus Christ – to the twelve – to being made up of every disciple of Christ ‘to the ends of the earth’. As such, Jesus’ influence was no longer limited in time and space, but could be present in every country, every ethnicity, every culture.
So whilst we may not have a bank holiday to help us to remember the importance of the Feast of the Ascension, we have a far greater gift in the person of the Holy Spirit who makes Christ present in all that we do. But there is also a challenge for us to remember: with Christ present in every country, every culture, every disciple what is it we must do to make his power and authority known?
The departure of Jesus’ physical body brings a two-fold demand for us. The first is to re-member: through our prayer and reading of Scripture and worship, to put back together – with the help of the Holy Spirit - the presence of Christ in our own lives. The second follows: to step into Jesus’ shoes and be his presence for others; to be Christ for others. When we see a world that labours under an absence of love, we are re-membering what has been lost, and we are being called to be the answer, in our words and actions and prayer. It is through these that all people will know God’s presence and his absence – so that hearts can feel the tidal pull for the love of the One who is Love.
With my good wishes for a joyful Ascensiontide,