As we get closer to Pentecost, things get stranger and stranger. Just 40 days after the resurrection is the startling event known as the Ascension, which was marked just last Thursday. The bible records this extraordinary event in the most unadorned of ways. It says:
“After he had spoken, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”
Is that all? Just those few words to describe such an jaw-dropping event? Just one verse? You’d never guess that this is a central mystery of the church. What happened there on top of the mountain? What did it look like? Were the disciples scared? Surprised? WHAT HAPPENED?
It is, perhaps, the strangeness of it all that has led to what I sometimes think of as the church’s embarrassment over this story. In many streams of Christianity it never bears a mention, yet without it, the great quest of redemption is incomplete. Ascension stands along side the birth, life, death, resurrection and Pentecost as vital elements of our salvation. But some reckon this story as primitive, perhaps. Childish. Hard to sustain in a more scientific age.
And yet mainstream science is not worried about talking of multiple dimensions and multi-verses each overlapping and intersecting yet entirely separate. Is this not just as magical and strange? Celtic Christianity speaks of thin places. Sites where it appears that the normally opaque membrane between heaven and earth thins and paradise seems to draw close and press in. Perhaps the ancients understood more than they knew.
After the ascension there follows 10 days before the Spirit comes at Pentecost. Jesus is gone and so are the sporadic appearances. We could forgive his followers for feeling abandoned. 10 days to wait back in the centre of the drama in Jerusalem. Amid the murdering soldiers and the rejecting religious leaders. 10 days to ponder on the great mystery of the Ascension.
What would you do in those days?
Bizarrely, facing all they were facing, the disciples call a committee meeting, and announce an election for a new member to replace Judas. How very Presbyterian. It intrigues me, this period of the church year. The resurrection, strange unpredictable appearances, the mystery of the ascension, and just prior to Pentecost itself, a committee election.
But there’s something real in that too isn’t there? Pastor, theologian and writer Eugene Peterson says ‘we live in the midst of immense invisibles’. I love that phrase. The stuff that we can experience with our senses is not all there is. There are invisibles out there which are more real than all we can see, and Ascension reminds us of this each year.
But we make our way through our days and can’t avoid the burdening reality of committees and administration and the mundane grind of work and school and exams, of struggling relationships, bad investments, fragile employment, aging parents, wayward children.
We live, always, between, mysteries and committees.
A reflection used in Ballycrochan Presbyterian Church on 16 May, on the way to Pentecost.