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The power and the glory


08 May 2005 11:00 | Fr John Cullen

NT: 1 Peter 4.7-11; Gospel: John 15.26 - 16.4a

As you went to cast your vote last Thursday, did you appreciate the significance of the fact that the General Election fell on what was for us Christians one of our major festivals: Ascension Day?

It's a very helpful coincidence, because it serves to remind us Christians of what the feast of the Ascension of our Lord really commemorates - and what it doesn't! It also has a very important message for those who were elected to office last Thursday, and for all who elected them. In fact one New Testament scholar refers to the Ascension as 'the most political of all Christian doctrines'.

First, the reminder to us Christians. Unfortunately when most people think of "the Ascension" we tend to think in crudely literal terms, and visualize Jesus moving through space. Perhaps you've seen carved bosses on the ceilings of churches or cloisters picturing a little cluster of clouds with the soles of two bare feet in the middle, literally "disappearing out of sight"! Or you might have in mind those classical paintings of the Ascension with Jesus in the process of levitation and the disciples looking on puzzled. And well they might be! But that image of the Ascension misses the whole point of what we are meant to be celebrating this week.

When we speak of someone being 'elevated' to the position of chairman or leader or bishop, we don't imagine them being taken up into the air and losing touch with what's going on at ground level do we? Or perhaps we do?!! When I invite you in the liturgy to "life up your hearts", your response indicates that you understand the poetry of the language. So when the biblical writers use language of Jesus being 'lifted up' or 'carried up into heaven' they are employing poetic imagery to tell us something about who Jesus was - not where Jesus went!

As the disciples gradually came to terms with the traumatic event of the crucifixion of their beloved Lord, and then the stupendous realisation of the resurrection, so they came to appreciate that there was more to this Jesus of Nazareth than even they had recognized. They knew Jesus as a man, and yet somehow that was not all there was to know about him. To appreciate fully all that Jesus was and did could not be understood just in human terms. There was another dimension to be acknowledged in their experience of Jesus, and that could only be fully understood in relation to God.

It was only slowly that all this dawned on the disciples. And those of them who wrote the documents that now form our New Testament found they could only express what they now believed about Jesus by bringing together sharply contrasting - even contradictory statements. In their sermons and speeches recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the letters of Paul, we read such statements as: "this Jesus who lived among us, and who was crucified, he is the Lord, he is the Christ, the anointed one of God, he is the Lord of glory".

The juxtaposition of the references to 'crucifixion' and 'glory' would have startled their first century Jewish audiences. But the incongruity, and therefore the impact, of the message is all too often lost on us. This festival of glory which the church celebrates from last Thursday until next Sunday proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the crucified one, cannot be accounted for merely as a good and holy man who lived his life in close contact with God. This festival proclaims that Jesus actually embodied God and showed forth uniquely the glory of God. To get across this astounding message of the 'exaltation' of Jesus, the 1st century writers resorted to the powerful imagery of poetry and symbolism; they refer to Jesus being "carried up into heaven" where he is seated at the "right hand of God". We do the New Testament writers less than justice if we concentrate on the imagery itself, and so miss the message they were trying to get across.

What we now refer to as the "ascension" of Jesus tells us, quite simply, that the full meaning and impact of the life and message of Jesus can only be fully understood if we see him in the context not of just of his humanity, but also of God. We believe that Jesus embodied not just human goodness, but also divine glory; he was not just a man who was at one with his friends and followers, he was also 'at one' with God.

So the message of the Ascension for Christians is not that at the end of his life Jesus was separated from us, that he left this world behind for some realm beyond the clouds. Rather it tells us that all we know about Jesus speaks to us of God. All we need to know about God we can see in Jesus: "In him all the fullness of God dwells bodily" (Col. 2.9).

And what does this 'most political of all Christian doctrines' have to say to the public at large - especially the newly elected and those who elected them? A great deal of the language we use at election time is very similar to some of the language of our Ascensiontide hymns. We talk about individuals or parties "getting into power", "taking control", "going up", "rising to leadership"; we refer to "authority", "forces at work", "overcoming principalities and powers": very 'political' language. But woe betides the individual or political party that is seduced by this language. The returning occupant of No. 10 Downing Street has learned the perils of exercising 'total control'. One of the other contenders for that seat of power is now paying the price of 'failing to deliver'; the other is left realising how elusive power really is.

The message of the Ascension for them, and for the electorate, is that real power and ultimate control belong elsewhere. The Ascension asserts the rule of Christ over all human affairs. It is the responsibility of Christians to ensure that all spheres of authority and power are brought under the 'just and gentle rule' of the love, the holiness and the righteousness of Jesus Christ. So when I put the cross on my ballot paper, I reminded myself that I wasn't putting someone "into power"; I was putting someone into a position of trust and responsibility in my community. One final word: I love the hymns of Ascensiontide. Perhaps you do too. But it behoves us to remember, first: we are singing poetry, not science; and second: be wary of getting carried away by what can too readily become an outburst of triumphalism. Thank God, the power and authority we are singing of belong to one who can handle them!

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