Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Collect for Peace

It is a cold winter evening ...

You will remember the Collect: “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

To reflect on that collect is to enter deep into the origins of the Book of Common Prayer: to note not just the particular genius of Cranmer in the 16th century, but also touch the spirit and character of deep devotion and reflective prayer first couched in Latin and part of the liturgical practise of religious communities in the medieval and the ancient church.  There are deep roots here.

The poise and balance of the collect still affect us as we listen, though familiar as it is over the years.  It reminds us that prayer, shaped and polished over time, is not just a verbal impulse of the spirit in the moment but a direction of the soul that shapes and forms us.

The first part addresses God and is a reminder of God as presence, source and purpose of all that is holy, good and just.  That directs, attunes us if you like, to recognise the nature of God and of the signs of God’s presence and action in all the world about us.

From that fundamental recognition there is a primary petition for the correct disposition of the soul: “Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give…”  The phrasing is reminiscent of the old BCP blessing which spoke of “the peace of God that passeth all understanding”, and it is a spiritual anchor for to know that peace, to abide in that peace, is to live in Christ.

From that orientation there follows a series of consequential petitions:

1.       “that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments;” we know the ease with which we become distracted by many cares and competing allegiances – and this is a highly realistic request that we set our hearts in the right direction and be firmly focussed.
2.       “and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness.” This closes the circle of the prayer and returns us to that petition for peace with which the collect began.  But, as I observed in the reflection this morning, the  prayer is not a petition that we don’t feel fear but a prayer for deliverance from fear of our enemies – whatever these enemies may be.  To abide in Christ, to abide in the peace of his presence, is to be steadied amidst whatever fears may assail us.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Leaning into Fear: the dark rabbit-holes of doubt



Don’t be afraid.  It is a phrase that introduces all the resurrection appearances of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid” – but those words are difficult to respond to when you are confronted by the inexplicable otherworldly reality of one you have seen die.  

But in our own time, how can we not be afraid – a writer was asked “How would you live if you had no fear?”  She pondered long and hard before she anwered, “The question frightened me a little, for it involved asking harder questions about faith, confronting deeper insecurities within myself, and creeping farther down the dark rabbit holes of doubt that lie in wait in all the scary corners of my mind…which made me wonder, “Is hope really the thing that keeps me from disbelief? Or is it fear?”

Tangled in the question of fear and of faith is how we may think of God; for instance, are we torn between fear or trust? I like the way C.S. Lewis has the Beavers describe Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe:

"[Mrs. Beaver says] if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn’t safe?" said Lucy. "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe?" ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you."
(And in those stories, you may remember how that truth about Aslan is also balanced by the vision of the children - especially Lucy - burying their faces in Aslan's mane.)

The story of Hagar and Ishmael always catches my imagination and makes me wonder about the domestic hazards of Abraham’s ménages à trois: the tangle of relationships, the friction as Abraham tries to manage Sarah and provide for Hagar; the rivalries over the children, over the property, over him.   It must have been complicated and, running through it all, for all involved, a disempowering undercurrent of fear.  My heart goes out to Hagar as the issue comes to a head and she is taken out and summarily dismissed from the household, the community and from all the security that she has known. Her world dissolves.  Gone, all gone,  in a moment!

Claude Lorraine (1600-1682) The Banishment of Hagar
Now imagine that someone you really respect and trust comes to you and, looking serious and sympathetic, says “Do not be afraid.”  Do you feel your pulse quicken?  Does the heart seem to go in the mouth? Is the breath a little short?  Are you suddenly operating on a different level as irrational fears, projections, confusion and panic flood through you?

The fact is, of course, that our world is not safe and our calling to follow Christ is not so that we can feel safe.  As the gospel this morning clearly shows us, fear is part of the journey.  So we need to recognise fear.  Lean into it.  Work with it.  We have to learn to acknowledge and engage with what is uncomfortable and unpleasant.  This is part of the way of the disciple.   Perhaps we can learn to place our fear in God’s hands and learn also to be kind to ourselves, accepting that we are vulnerable; if we can’t give such kindness to ourselves how is it possible for us to offer kindness and mercy to other people?

Our calling is certainly to learn not to be afraid.  In this gospel Jesus is teaching his disciples; preparing them for what their calling will make them face, dangers, humiliations, death.  He encourages them and reassures them at the same time: don’t be intimidated, be honest and faithful.  Keep the last day in mind.  You are loved.  And by losing your life, you will find it.  Sound advice to them and to us as we follow in The Way.

You may remember that critical phrase in the Collect for Peace in the BCP Evensong: where we pray to be “defended from the fear of our enemies”.  We seek defence not from the experience of fear but from fear of our enemies – whoever or whatever they may be.  We name them; pray for them;  we hold them and ourselves before the Lord.  In so doing we lean into our fear and begin to change it and ourselves into an aspect of love.

You will remember that collect: “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

Monday, June 19, 2017

Grenfell Towers, a society divided ...

In the quietness of Evensong on a midwinter Sunday night, a very brief reflection on the readings and how they speak to us right now.  The horror of Grenfell Towers invites the deeper insight of the gospel.

Choral Evensong 18 June 2017
Readings: 1 Samuel 21:1-15; Luke 11:14-28;

“Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house…”

This is a familiar passage, so much so that it has passed into our language as a piece of proverbial wisdom in the form “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand” and we most commonly associate it with the nightmare of civil war.   However the truth is that there are other forms of division in a society rather than civil war, and we tend to repress acknowledgement of such divisions, we can get by very well pretending that all is well … until something happens: as it did this week.

What happened was the inferno that was Grenfell Towers – the home of 127 families, in Kensington, the richest borough in England, where a block or so down from what was Grenfell Towers are houses that sell for tens of millions; many of them allegedly empty as property investments.  Almost side by side two different worlds have coexisted: the super-rich and the very poor in crowded accommodation.  In a cruel irony, the Council had Grenfell Towers smartened up by installing cladding.  Tragically (to save a paltry£ 4250) it opted for a cheaper cladding which had no fire retardant – and it was through this cheap cladding that the fire spread.

Now we hear repeatedly of horror at cuts in Council spending (as a result of austerity measures imposed by Government) and the consequences that include considerable deregulation, a lack of building inspectors and similar cost-cutting.  Regardless of the public outcry and the political storm that has erupted, Grenfell Towers is an inexcusable tragedy and a judgement upon the economic and social policies of neoliberal economics, the deceit of ‘trickle down’ wealth and the divisions created by financial austerity.   I think The Observer has rightly summed up what has happened and the desperate need for change:

“The horrific images of people signalling for help at the windows of a blazing Grenfell Tower will remain imprinted in our collective memory long after the demolition of its charred remains. They lived in one of the richest boroughs in one of the richest cities in the word. Yet the state utterly failed in its responsibility to provide them with the most basic of protections. It continues to fail to provide the survivors and relatives with the assistance they so desperately need. This grim insight into the society that we share with Grenfell Tower’s inhabitants should shake us all.”

Grenfell Towers is a terrifying example of the consequence of the unacknowledged divisions in a society; an example of what happens when wealth is so inequitably distributed and of the hazards that follow.  A kingdom divided against itself … we have seen the reality of that and we now see how grief and suffering will turn to rage.  No good society can live like that … New Zealand should take heed.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

On being 'A New Creation' - reflections on stewardship

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

From the readings this morning:  If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

I want to hold those words from our readings today in our thoughts as a firm centre to which we keep returning.   I promised that I would preach on Stewardship – but I find it hard so to preach.  Why? It embarrasses me.  I don’t like asking for money.  But why should I be embarrassed? (After all I am not seeking something for myself but for the Cathedral.)  Just asking this question has nudged me in to reflection and maybe discovering something about myself; maybe something I’d rather not find.  

I think we avoid frank talk about money because it has something to do with that intimate place in our heart where we need security, and we do not want to reveal our need or give away our security to someone.  And that we fear being dependent on others because the idea of dependence is a threat to our security.  Think of those advertisements for KiwiSaver; or the shining ads for upmarket retirement homes. And there is all this pressure on us to secure our future and have control of our lives as much as possible. (Very unbiblical; - cf Matthew 6.19-21).  

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

I keep returning to these verses and pondering the phrases – ‘a new creation’, ‘abide in my love’ – at their heart is the experience of a daily conversion, and of a closeness to God that puts all fears, all self-consciousness and pride in their proper place.  That is the mystery of faith and the freedom and the wholeness God calls us into.   It is that same mystery upon which this Cathedral is founded and to which it daily gives witness.  Our pioneers in the faith built this Cathedral to do exactly that: in the midst of the city it is to give witness to God.  The imposing architecture, the many steps, the great doors, and the Bishop’s Walk with Bishop Nevill holding the miniature of the Cathedral in his hands, are all expressions of the vision of this place – it witnesses to the glory of God; it calls us all to wonder; it summons our city to faith.

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

Of course times have changed since those early days: our society; and how we speak of faith and share the gospel – these have changed also; yet the vision endures and we continue to serve all in this city; we are inclusive and we endure.  In the Cathedral archives are the lists of endowments and diverse bequests and to scan these lists is to read a living testament and a continuing story of faith and vision.  The interest earned by those endowments keep the Cathedral going; our forebears in the faith are working still with us in the present – even now with each quarterly run of interest payments across the years - they still help to sustain the shared vision of the Cathedral as the place in the midst of the city where we bear witness to God.

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

What does it mean ‘to abide in my love’?  I know it is conditional: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” But what I keep coming back to is to ask what it is like to ‘abide’ in God’s love; that lovely homely word ‘abide’ and ‘on a good day’ (as a much loved bishop used to say) I have this sense of being at home, at peace, surrounded and supported by love.  A good place!  And then, when in that place, I understand what Paul had in mind when he said “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation”

As we grasp the truth of being that new creation we discover a new freedom and that includes our attitude to money.  The fact is that once our giving reflects our hope and our faith, we are changed.  Our hearts are re-engaged by the act of giving; our faith grows as giving expresses our commitment.  As we give we become a new creation.  
Only in this way can we secure the future of this Cathedral and its mission in this city.  

We are all in this together, contributing across time and space, to bring into being something of the kingdom of God; we are all co-workers , looking toward a new creation;  we are working together  to sustain, re-create, reform and renew this cathedral.  We all have a part to play.   In that private space where we make such choices, the opportunity is ours.

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

With Dorothy Sayers at Evensong: Trinity Sunday 2017

With Trinity Sunday now past, I post this reflection from the Choral Evensong.

It is common for clergy to dread Trinity Sunday and the sermon that is required; equally I suspect the dread may be shared by the congregations that will listen. 

You may recall that one of the characteristics of discussions about the Trinity is how we are frequently drawn into the game to find analogies that help us to comprehend what otherwise seems bizarre and incomprehensible.  So drawn from common human experience one of the analogies has been water: the common element is H2O but there are three distinct forms – water, ice and steam.  I suspect Trinity Sunday sermons are dotted with illustrations of that kind.  I am not convinced that such analogies help but we tend to look for them.

One of the best analogies was proposed by Augustine who saw a human analogy, what we call the psychological analogy, and he spoke of the human soul comprising memory, understanding and will – and in this, he found a psychological analogy with the Holy Trinity.

In 1937 detective novelist Dorothy Sayers, the author of the Peter Wimsey Crime novels, wrote a play for the Canterbury Festival (about the building of the Cathedral) called The Zeal of Thy House.  At the end, the angel St Michael makes this speech:

“Praise him that hath made man in his own image, a maker and a craftsman like Himself, a little mirror of his triune majesty.
For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.
First: there is the Creative Idea; passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning; and this is the image of the Father.
Second: there is the Creative Energy, begotten of that Idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter, and this is the image of the Word.
Third: there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively coul; and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.
And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other; and this is the image of the Trinity.”

Sayers has drawn upon Augustine’s analogy but shifted the analogy from the human person to the human work.  As a writer Sayers speaks from her experience of creation and for anyone who has known that creative energy, that moment … which may simply begin with something like “I have this idea for a book”.

For the artist there is no real peace until moment is brought to completion and we realise that this creative energy images the life of God in us and that we are collaborators with God in such work – as Paul hints …  (Romans 8)

"19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God."

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Trinity - a necessary cognitive barrier?

Not that long ago I was in a church assembly where folk were invited to share their faith: where some had spoken of Jesus, one spoke of the Trinity and, most daringly, of perichoresis (a Trinitarian buzz word that summarises the way Father, Son and Holy Spirit live and relate, one to each other, separate persons but ever one God.)  My heart sank – he was absolutely right, theologically and spiritually spot on – but this assembly, theologically informed though it was, you could feel it drift away at the mention of perichoresis

Now that is my sense of what happened.   Maybe I am wrong or unfair to suspect that the heart of the meeting was not with the Trinity; that it wanted a more accessible faith; that it wanted a strong and tidy concept it could nail to the wall.  'Jesus' sounded familiar; sounded biblical; sounded evangelical.  We know Jesus was human; we can identify with Jesus.  Jesus just feels more accessible than the Trinity.

Yesterday during a pastoral visit a parishioner said to me something like, “I don’t envy your job, how can we speak of God any longer?”   That has always been a problem.   We have never had the language to speak of God.  Our best thinkers have always known that God cannot be contained in the net of language; God is not an object to be accounted for; the word ‘God’ is, at best, a metaphor – drawing us beyond ourselves and our frames of reference.  

And yet the task of theology, the business of faith, is to make sense as best we can of the God we encounter in our lives; in scripture and in the life of the church: that is where the doctrine of the Trinity has its source – it confronts our experience of God and the impossibility of our experience. 

The mystics have always understood the problem, for example a superb illustration from the classic The Cloud of Unknowing:

‘Now you say, "How shall I proceed to think of God as he is in himself?" To this I can only reply, "I do not know."
With this question you bring me into the very darkness and cloud of unknowing that I want you to enter. A man may know completely and ponder thoroughly every created thing and its works, yes, and God’s works, too, but not God himself. Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him we can love him. By love he may be touched and embraced, never by thought. Of course, we do well at times to ponder God’s majesty or kindness for the insight these meditations may bring. But in the real contemplative work you must set all this aside and cover it over with a cloud of forgetting. Then let your loving desire, gracious and devout, step bravely and joyfully beyond it and reach out to pierce the darkness above.”’

Celtic Knot as Trinitarian symbol
The writer of The Cloud reminds us of the limitations of thought – and nudges us beyond thought and towards silence; ‘to reach out to pierce the darkness.’

The doctrine of the Trinity trains us beyond thought: it is a mystery; a cognitive barrier that resists all our attempts to understand, simplify, domesticate or explain God.  The Trinity takes us beyond all that we think we know – it is so contrary to the way we understand the world.

In the wisdom of the church, we embrace the Trinity as the utter mystery of God, defying all our logic.  We are taught to use the Trinity as the proper formulary for our prayers: as a liturgical church we pray to God the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.  To learn to pray and think in this way opens us to think of God and all creation in terms of a deeply rooted relationality: a perichoresis of continuous movement, a perpetually open system, and to be at home with a sense of God encompassing both transcendence and immanence.

One observant commentator highlighted the effect of being formed in a Trinitarian faith.

“Once trained in the Trinity, it's not a great leap to consider the God of multiple dimensions, multi-universes, string theory, and hyperspace. Opening to new perceptions of God's self-revelation is as natural as contemplating innovations in theoretical physics. As I learn and grow I can open to God's Reality more fully if ever increasingly more humbly. Awe deepens.”

Friday, June 9, 2017

Election Thoughts: "a country made for angels, not for men"

A beautiful winter morning in Dunedin: it is not as cold as we normally expect; not a breath of wind; this stillness; this calm clear light; this reach from hills to sea; and this little city with our harbour mill-pond of the moment – all this at a glance transcends thought and touches prayer. There is a kind of directness in such prayer: at its core is a surge in the heart, a sense of love and gratitude at something so freely given.

From such awareness come a sense of responsibility and recollection of one of poet James K Baxter’s early lines about this land – “a country made for angels not for men.” On such a morning that is a kind of truth that strikes the heart and holds me still - just wondering.

In an election year I ask what kind of country does one long for?  More than that, what dreams do others hold – and what possibilities might be on the cusp of realisation if we could just see them?  This is the heady stuff of a lifetime ago; of student talk in the pub; but also of hopes and dreams never quite lost, what Yeats called the rag and bone shop of the heart, and what I call the kingdom that is yet to come.

How may we imagine the future for this land and if we think of a trajectory that is the future is there also a trajectory for our deepest hopes and where may these lines meet?  That is more than mere dreaming; something I judge a primary spiritual task as our thinking and our prayers shape us and even start to shape something beyond us.

Which brings me to the point that I want to engage the Cathedral in for this election year: this Sunday evening on TVNZ1 at 8.30 pm and for 5 consecutive nights (11-15 June) there is a programme developed with the University of Auckland, featuring various ‘Futurists’.  The programme is called ‘What Next’ and, managed by Nigel Latta and John Campbell,  will consider the following questions: 1. Your Future and Technology; 2.The Future of our Environment; 3. The Future of our economy; 4. The Future of our Lifestyles.  Underlying all these questions are primary theological questions and I can’t wait to see how these issues are discussed and, in turn, what theological reflections will be raised for us.

So, in a word, I encourage the Cathedral community to watch these programs, take notes and ask how this program raises questions that I as a person of faith should address and reflect further on.  This is especially relevant as we near Social Services Sunday and our General Election in September.

Of course – who knows how this show will work – I don’t see any theologians in the Think Tank!  That does not matter, it is enough if we get jolted into thinking more deeply and engage in conversation.  The Think Tank will go live on Facebook if you want to check that out - Futurist Think Tank, check it out on TVNZ.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Beyond the Blanket-Word 'Spirit'

It was in the course of an electoral synod (i.e. a synod in which we nominate someone to be a bishop) that I heard a speaker talk about a nominee’s faith, it went something like this:  “I asked (N) how he nourished his faith and he said ‘each day I try to fall in love with Jesus’.”  That is truly a beautiful answer, a beautiful thought.  Another candidate was quoted as saying simply ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’.    The effect of hearing these things is heart-warming; the name, the thought of Jesus draws us back into the heart of the great story and our way of thinking about the mystery of God is firmly framed by Jesus.

Now on the day of Pentecost there is a sense in which we (almost) stop speaking of Jesus and must instead speak of the Spirit.  In that moment we become more conscious of how we speak of Jesus because he has always been the way we comprehend and speak of God and humanity.  The humanity of Jesus so naturally and substantially frames our humanity and our world in relation to God, whereas the word Spirit does not. In fact mostly the term Spirit feels like a kind of blanket-word that covers a wide range of vague concepts and diverse experiences and phenomena; it is a cloudy word that is difficult to examine.

The thought of ‘Spirit’ is unsettling!  At their core the metaphors of wind (and fire) are images of power and unpredictability; a power that can take hold of us and change us, beyond our imagining – and certainly beyond our natural capacity; as with the disciples on the Day of Pentecost.  The other word associated with Spirit is ‘breath’ a most intimate and fundamental sign of life – in our breath is our essential reality, the mystery of life and the mystery of our origin.  The biblical words that express the spirit are the Hebrew ‘ruach’ that has at its root the meaning ‘air in motion’ and, similarly, the Greek root pneu that connects to both wind and breath.  The unsettling aspect is that Spirit, while so central to us is essentially beyond us and our control.

In the life of the Church, the Spirit is an unruly and untidy aspect of our faith.  Points of doctrine, matters of ethics and details of faith may all be contested as Spirit and Word are played against each other; an evolving Spirit-led faith against a certainty grounded in scripture.  When encountered this sort of tension is extremely painful and difficult to navigate.  Yet as the experience of  the Spirit ‘ignites’ the disciples at Pentecost, so the experience of the Spirit is always to draw us into an enlarged awareness of God; it may be a troubling and diverse experience – but that is part of the journey.  The Spirit moves us beyond false dualisms into the mystery that flows through all that is: we are made aware of  God beyond all our mental and spiritual constructions.  

Few writers have expressed this insight more concisely than James K Baxter in his poem ‘Song to the Holy Spirit’ (printed in the New Zealand Prayer Book in the order for Midday Prayer, p.157).  Through the enlarging vision of the first stanza and then in every stanza that follows, Baxter’s metaphors provide ever more images from the natural world to ground and enlarge the ways we think of God.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,
Inside and outside the fences,
You blow where you wish to blow.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the sun who shines on the little plant,
You warm him gently, you give him life,
You raise him up to become a tree with many leaves.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are as the mother eagle with her young,
Holding them in peace under your feathers.
On the highest mountain you have built your nest,
Above the valley, above the storms of the world,
Where no hunter ever comes.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the bright cloud in whom we hide,
In whom we know already that the battle has been won.
You bring us to our Brother Jesus
To rest our heads upon his shoulder.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the kind fire who does not cease to burn,
Consuming us with flames of love and peace,
Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
In the love of friends you are building a new house,
Heaven is with us when you are with us.
You are singing your song in the hearts of the poor.
Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to the Father.

The rustling of the olive trees speaks of the movement of the wind. The Greek work for spirit has the suggestion of breath or wind; the Hebrew word - Ruach - actually means the desert-wind, that powerful unseen force that sweeps across the face of the earth, none knows whence or whither. The wind - the Spirit - it bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest its voice, but thou knowest not whence it cometh and whither it goeth. But you can feel its breath on your face if, hearing it pass, you go out and stand in its course. So is everyone that is born of the Spirit. Don't ask for credentials. Don't wait till you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you, or its destination before you spread sail to it. It offers what you need; trust yourself to it.

-William Temple 1881-1944
Readings in John's Gospel

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Living in the Light, Working with the Light

Attached as a post is the text I used for a radio broadcast on our community radio station, something most of the inner city churches share in.  As luck would have it, my turn coincided with the Sunday after Ascension and this strange feast was an opportunity to reflect.

This week Thursday 25 May was forty days after Easter, it is a day we know as
Ascension Day.  For centuries this has been the day when the Christian has observed the memory of Jesus’s bodily ascent to heaven.  This is the day when the Easter season is complete,  Christs’s work is now done and he departs, leaving us, the church, to carry it on.  The number forty is based on Luke’s comments in Acts 1:3: ““He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”

The famous Roman Catholic scholar and apologist Ronald Knox was at one time chaplain to a girl’s boarding school and he wrote an extraordinary little book on the Apostles Creed  with the engaging title, Through the Creed in Slow Motion. However when he came to the chapter on the ascension, he said very little and pointed out that he didn’t think there was much that we could say because, after all it was all happening in a cloud and out of our sight so no description could be much use. Instead he made his readers think as he began to question some details, for instance the allusion to the forty days. He asked why Jesus took so long before leaving his disciples for another dimension – for example, why did Jesus not ascend on Easter Day?  Knox talked about what is to have friends and what it means to say good bye and how the disciples needed time to  be able to say goodbye and to come to grips with the mystery of the resurrection and time to come also to realise what the church was going to have to be and do.  That makes perfect sense to me.

Talking about this, I also have in the back of my mind the memory of a meditation on the subject by Rowan Williams’ the former Archbishop of Canterbury.  He begins with the simple analogy of what it is like for us in the morning us when we wake, look for our glasses and first turn on the light – how in the bright glare of that first light we need a bit of time to adjust and take our bearings, don’t we?

Williams suggests that the gospels are full of that kind of early morning disorientation as the disciples first try to make sense of the resurrection; and that it takes them quite a while for the understanding to dawn that the resurrection shows God at work; and, even more than this, for them to understand that they no longer need focus on the event of the resurrection itself but instead to allow the resurrection to become the light by which they (and we) start to see the world. 

Ascension Day marks this subtle shift in our attention as, because of Jesus, we see and understand the world differently.  In the light of the Ascension we start to understand Jesus as the power now within us working to change and transform us to see the world with faith and hope and love.

To live like that is to include everyone, exclude no one.  It is to care for our world, our planet and all the species we share it with.  To understand the world in this way is to see clearly for the first time; it is truly living in the light and working with the light.

We see this clearly in action this past week in response to the Manchester bombing – despite the horror and darkness, even through the darkness, the affirmation of love rather than hate has been clear.  That is living in the light and working with the light!