Ascensiontide Reflections

On the outskirts of Bexhill in East Sussex, near a former parish of mine, stands a grand mansion, now divided into flats, but once the home of an Indian prince. The prince’s wife died and he erected a shrine to her memory in the grounds; it is so positioned that, at certain seasons, the moon shines right in to it, to light up a diamond that marks the spot where the lady’s ashes are buried. And there is the most haunting inscription – the hours part us, but they bring us together again. So much of the mysteries of life and death, of love and loss seem to be encapsulated in that memorial. The hours part us, but they bring us together again. Anyone who has lost a loved one will understand the truth of that message – the inner longing to turn the clock back to times when you were together, the knowledge that such times can never be again, but the understanding also that when time has run its course, lovers will be reunited, for ever.

That pain of bereavement is something we all experience – losing a parent, a spouse, a child, and it is an ache which lasts as long as love endures. Indeed, lovers die a little death every time they are parted from each other – to give one small example, but one which has stayed with me – I remember from childhood days a friend going off to do his compulsory Military Service, and his fiancée weeping on the station platform. If we can recall from our own personal experience how it felt, then we can begin to understand some of the pain of the apostles when the Lord was taken from their sight. Note the phrase in Acts of the Apostles “they still had their eyes fixed on the sky as he went away” – it recalls for me so many funerals where the curtains have finally closed at the crematorium, or where the mourners simply do not want to leave the grave after the interment – it is as though they hope that a miracle is going to happen, the departed loved one will return, and it has all just been a bad dream.

Icon of the Ascension (unknown painter of Candia / Public domain)

In that account in Acts, we see and in some measure identify with the pain of separation from Jesus, someone deeply loved, and someone who has, time after time, demonstrated his love for his friends. Even when we know that something like this is going to happen, we still do not know how we will feel when it is actually upon us. We lose a loved one and we wonder how on earth we are going to cope, and you can feel that, in the scene described in Chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles. The hours part us, but they bring us together again.

Yes, in many ways what we are witnessing here is a bereavement experience. Yet it is not really of the same order as that of the Indian prince. I know nothing of how he spent the rest of his life, whether in constant mourning, as though the clock had stopped when the beloved died, or whether he rebuilt his life, who knows, maybe with a new love. The temptation for the apostles too must have been to stop the clock, to live in the past. But the Lord, before he left them, had given them his instructions – to stay in Jerusalem, to wait for the gift of the Spirit, and then to be his witnesses throughout the world. All the rest, as they say, is history, for they had learned through the events of Good Friday and Easter to be obedient and to trust, and though, of course, they remained rooted to the spot, as the Lord left them (and we can understand all the conflicting feelings they must have been experiencing), this was the not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

Now the Lord was placing his full trust in his friends, now his work was to be fully shared with them. But the Lord’s command was not just to the apostles, it is to us too. We too have watched him die, we too have seen him rise from the dead, we too have heard his words of peace and reassurance, and now we too are told to carry forward his work in the world. It can actually be a lot more comfortable to spend our time with our eyes fixed on the sky than to become embroiled in the sin, the disorder, the brokenness of the world, but that is the true vocation of the Christian. It was G K Chesterton who said that the trouble with Christianity is not that is has been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried. The gift of the Holy Spirit, promised by the Lord before his Ascension, is for us too, and in the power of the Spirit and through lives of personal holiness, lives dedicated to Jesus’ way, lives consecrated to the causes of healing, forgiveness and justice, we are to bring Christ to this generation, as the apostles did to theirs.

It is a particular feature of the Western World today that men and women will seek any number of cures for their brokenness, from drugs, pornography, violence, through exotic eastern religions to ouija boards, astrologers and clairvoyants. But such things are not authentic ways of living: Jesus in his Ascension shows us the way not simply to new and truly authentic life, but to glory too: our task, in the power of the Spirit, is to make these known to the world. Unlike the Indian prince and his wife, we are not separated from Jesus – he is with us to the end of the world, for that is his promise: it falls to us to make his abiding presence known to others also.

Fr. Edward Bryant

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