In older calendars the period following Ascension Day was a distinct liturgical season. Nowadays, though the theme of Ascension is still prominent, this Sunday is demarcated as the last Sunday in the season of Easter. Appropriately the Lectionary chooses Bible readings that will link the beginning of the season with its close. The passage from the first chapter of Acts recounts the final Resurrection appearance that Jesus made to his disciples – the occasion of his ascension to the Father. The Gospel passage – from John – is linked to this event by having a similar theme. Jesus expressly says “I am coming to you, Holy Father”. A key difference between the two passages, however, is that in the Gospel, he says this before his trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection, a point in time time when he still has a long and arduous path to tread. Yet importantly it is at this moment, and not the Ascension in Acts, that Jesus declares “Now I am no longer in the world”. What can he mean? Even when he has risen from the dead, he appears in Galilee. Doesn’t his departure from ‘the world’ have to wait for Ascension?
The answer to this question, and the
key to the mystery that underlies it, needs a proper understanding of the
relation between heaven and earth. Though ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ are often at war
within us, contrary to what people commonly suppose, this does not mean
that the spiritual, heavenly realm is radically divorced from the material, earthly
one. This week’s Gospel makes it plain that Heaven is not somewhere we travel
to at death, a place just like Earth only purged of all its imperfections.
On the contrary, Jesus came not to promise, but “to give eternal life”. And then the Gospel adds: “This is eternal
life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have
sent.” In other words, knowing God does not mean waiting until we die. Rather,
in Christ the human spirit is offered a way of living now that will continue and prove indifferent to death whenever that comes.
|Jesus Crucifio Xul Solar (1920)|
How are we truly to know God in Christ? Part of the answer lies in our own conduct. This week’s Epistle says “Discipline yourselves, keep alert”. This advice can only be part of the answer. The real Good News, thankfully, is that we are not at the mercy of our own, often feeble, efforts. When the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, which is a lot of the time, then “cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you”. Jesus is properly called Savior because he loves us in precisely the way that God does. Some familiar analogies illuminate the idea. While we hold out our hands, it is he who reaches down to us; we open our hearts, but it is his saving spirit that enters them. That, at any rate, is the promise of Pentecost, the season just about to come.