Liturgical seasons are seldom in tune with the emotions of the immediate moment - perhaps Ascencion Day this week was an exception.
Ascension day is, we are told, a time when the disciples who were left behind after Christ’s ascent into heaven went down the mountain rejoicing. It seems paradoxical, to say the least.
They should have been silently weeping, as we are when we think of the children and young people murdered on Monday as they were partying in Manchester. How, then, can we speak of Christian joy and the hope bequeathed in Christ on Ascension Day?
Perhaps the difficulty lies in part with our tendency to over-spiritualise our great festivals. This one is especially hard to ground in something like reality, and yet it has to be grasped in a way which helps us make sense of the now and the ‘not yet’ – when ‘this Jesus shall come’ the angels said, in the way he had just left.
Perhaps more importantly, this final parting is axiomatic to the deeper truth of the Resurrection. If Christ had not been finally parted from his friends in this way, who is to say that he did not disappear only to die again (which would nullify the first death, both forensically and theologically) and then what? Is there a long since decayed corpse somewhere, as many would like to think, waiting to ‘de-mythologize’ the Christian story?
These are the kind of theological distractions which make it hard to make sense of the Christian faith and even harder to do so in the context of the times we live in. How might the Ascension of Christ, and the joy and hope of his disciples, help us come to terms with Monday’s atrocity? I think the clue lies in the undifferentiated nature of joy and hope. The two are of a piece. In terms of Monday, and of the intended collective psychological damage it is wreaking, these are made concrete in every look, word and gesture which speaks of compassion, the kind of compassion which comes from ‘being there’.
We are all called to ‘be there’, to ‘wait’ as the disciples did ‘in the city’. But we are called to do this while receiving the blessing which Christ gave to his friends even as he was parted from them. To receive such a blessing, especially in times like these, means owning the need for it – or owning the need for ‘mercy’, which is another way of talking about blessing. It was Christ’s parting blessing which gave rise to the disciples’ otherwise unaccountable joy and ongoing hope.
Hope is not wishful thinking. It has nothing to do with denying reality. Rather the opposite, in fact. Hope is the courage to own the reality of Monday night, with all its complex causes, including the benighted nature of the perpetrators’ own reasons for doing what they did. Christ’s blessing holds all of that darkness. This does not mean that all will be well in the best of all possible worlds. It means that anarchic forces, however they manifest themselves, will not prevail in destroying our humanity, what makes us persons in the fullest sense.