We believe that through death, Jesus, who shared the same flesh and blood that we do, was able to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Hebrews 2: 14-15, 18)
These lines from Hebrews are appointed for reading at Morning Prayer today, the Feast of the Ascension.
Yet the scripture that comes to my mind this morning is a different one—from the words in John’s Gospel (3:13-15) addressed by Jesus to Nicodemus:
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
The story of the Israelites in the wilderness, after the liberation of the Exodus and before setting foot in the land of promise, comes at a point when they have become homesick for the food and security they enjoyed in captivity. They are weary of the journey and fed up with the leadership. And they are being bitten by snakes and dying of the poison. It would be easy to compare them to the protesters unhappy with the constraints put in place during this pandemic.
This “already and not-yet” feature of our life in Christ is paradoxical and sometimes frustrating. I wonder how the apostles felt when their teacher and friend, who had miraculously come to accompany them after his death, was swept away?
Both scriptures point to Jesus’ death, while the Ascension sweeps the risen Jesus up into the heavens in the sight of the apostles. The spot he last touched on earth and, supposedly, left his footprint in the dust, is venerated today by both Christian and Muslim pilgrims.
But the Ascension is much more than a sort of heavenly springboard. It’s a touchstone moment when the nature of the God we believe in was manifested to those first followers. As the distance between earth and heaven is overcome by Jesus, so we who are in Christ are also brought near in an effective way.
In the context of Morning Prayer today, the Ascension renews our confidence that our prayers are heard. Elizabeth Shama, who emails the weekly intercession sheet from the Cathedral office to the prayer team and clergy, recently sent this quotation from William Templeton along with it: “When I pray, coincidences happen. When I don’t, they don’t.” And so we pray this morning for each other and for all that is on our hearts. For those suffering from the coronavirus, and those who love them. For those in the midst or aftermath of cyclone Amphan. For the Rohinga refugees in Cox’s Bazaar who face the double force of both these devastations. For the whole connected life of our planet and those who seek to remedy our misuse of it. For wise leadership and living followship & fellowship in the nations and in our faith communities.
Liberation is not instantaneous. We are Easter people, and we are also trudging towards the promised freedom. An awareness practice—which includes looking calmly and unflinchingly at whatever is “biting us”—is not just a means towards our health and wholeness as individuals. It equips us for the long haul—keeping the Christ life alive in us for mutual service and for our mission in the world.
Ascension illustration from Psalter of Elinore of Aquitaine (public domain); Chapel of the Ascension (photo from TripAdvisor); Owl visits Cathedral (photo by Jeffrey Mackie).