Monday, May 22, 2017


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?

Jesús Crucifio, 1920 - Xul Solar
Jesus Crucifio Xul Solar (1920)
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. 

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. 


Ascension day (Easter) - Niko Pirosmani
Ascension Day --Niko Pirosmani

Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. Yet, while this means it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter  and and Pentecost, it has rarely been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church or the practice of individual Christians. Perhaps this is in part because the event it commemorates -- the ascension of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke (though that is also true of the Epiphany). Perhaps it is because over the centuries its precise location in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But mainly, I think, it is because the theological significance of the event it celebrates is very hard to separate from the Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

One way of identifying this significance, however, is to note the special way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. Peter, John Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched and listened to him over the years of his ministry. It ended in apparent failure of course, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, they were granted a second opportunity to be in the privileged company of the Son of God.

In the pursuit of our discipleship we do not have these advantages. We must live in faith in a way that those few Galileeans did not have to do. Ascension marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight"  meant that  for a time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his ascension required them to prepare themselves for what the rest of us rely on -- a Holy Spirit that draws us into the eternal life of the Father whom we do not see and the Son whom we never met.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


Figures on the Terrace by the Acropolis -- Lawrence Alma-Tadema

In the passage from Acts for this Sunday Paul preaches in front of the Areopagus, a rocky platform beside the Acropolis in Athens. This is a key moment in the history of Christianity and the world. Two great cultures meet for the first time -- the religion of the Jews and the philosophy of the Greeks.  Athens and Jerusalem are the streams of thought and culture from which all the most important aspects of our civilization take their origin – philosophy, theology, history, the arts, the sciences and technology. Both Jew and Greek were passionately concerned to understand how the lives of human beings could be rooted in reality, how they could transcend individual fads and passing fashions, and be lived in harmony with the whole creation. 

St Peter -- Crivelli
When the Epistle for this Sunday says “even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed” it could be taken to be stating one of Socrates’ most fundamental ideas. This shows that -- despite Tertullian's famous question "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" -- in certain ways Jew and Greek were not so far apart. But while the Greeks looked to philosophy to understand the world (today it is science to which people turn), Peter thinks a more fundamental requirement is that ‘in your hearts you sanctify Christ as Lord’.

Paul is clear about this vital shift of perspective. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth . . .will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead”. The implication of this is that humanity needs more than science or philosophy, valuable though these are.  At bottom, the ‘Spirit of truth’ is not something impersonal – knowledge -- but something personal -- love. It is only when we grasp this profound insight that our experience of human nature (who we are) and of the human condition (the world in which we find ourselves) can be fully reconciled. The world that God has made for us may be studied as a physical system governed by causal laws of "matter in motion". There is undoubtedly a lot to be learned from studying it that way. But the Christian religion holds that inquiries of this kind cannot sound reality's depths. Rather,  the world is a cosmic expression of Divine love, and animated by that love.

In the Gospel, Jesus identifies the Spirit of Truth as a Holy Spirit and promises a truly remarkable kind of intimacy with this love. We are not orphans in an alien cosmos because, he says, ‘I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’. That is why Peter thinks that a 'sanctified heart' matters more than intellectual understanding.