It’s Ascensiontide. Some of you will already know that, to others it may come as a complete surprise.
In July I will have a new book out that tracks the round of the church year, as well as exploring other themes of life and faith.
It’s in the format of scenarios involving Sid and Rosie, a couple in late middle age – their conversations and life together.
I thought you might enjoy to read the chapter for Ascensiontide (Chapter 18), seeing as that’s where we are right now. It has a reading part, then a questions to play with part, then a prayer.
18 – Living the Ascension
“The Ascension – ” Sid swirls his wine thoughtfully in his glass, gazing moodily into its dark ruby depths – “Jeepers! I mean, what are we meant to do with it? Where do we go with that?”
“What?” Rosie, sitting beside him on the garden bench, her feet up on its matching table, eats another olive from the glazed terracotta bowl on the tray between them. “D’you mean, what use is the concept for practical purposes?”
She turns her head to see his reaction, squinting against the rays of the low evening sun. Sid nods. “Yes,” he says. He hears the eagerness steal into her body, her voice, her mind, as she starts, “Oh! Well – ”
Her enthusiasm brings a smile into his eyes.
“Ascension is ever so practical! It’s just the best thing!” Sid knows he has the dish of olives all to himself for now.
“One of the most destructive things in life is, surely, clinging,” she says. “If we cling to what’s tried and true it feels safe, but we miss so much – it stops us growing and changing, developing. If we cling to the past in nostalgia we become discontented and ill-adjusted, unable to embrace the here and now. Goodness me, the number of churches I’ve had to do with that simply could not let go of the past! Not useful things of the past, I mean, like wisdom heritage – a fine preaching tradition or a body of theological scholarship – no, just types of seating or old buildings past their use-by date, or old artefacts of indifferent quality. Nostalgia – oh, it’s a killer! Like the cobwebs that tangle the unwary butterfly.
“Of course, it’s just as easy to get mired in bad memories of the past – like Aunt Ada Doom and her ‘I saw something nasty in the woodshed’; making things that befell us long ago our excuse for settling for less ever afterward.
“Life only becomes possible in any real sense if we’re willing to move on. And that can cost everything. Think of a caterpillar. It has to dissolve – actually become liquid inside the chrysalis if it ever wants to become a butterfly. You have to let go of the past, of what you know, of the comfortable familiar. It’s the only way.
“If you want to make any progress in any kind of spiritual discipline whatsoever, you also have to let go of physical stuff – what you own and even your body. All of us get sick, all of us will die one day – and so will everyone we love. Clinging is pointless, because impermanence is part of the human condition. We have to learn to let go.
“And things – our possessions – people think they’re inert, lifeless, but it isn’t so. I kid you not, every mortal thing you own, it has an agenda, needs, it calls to you, claims you. The only way truly to be free is to get rid of it – cut free, travel light, walk through life like a pilgrim. Clutter, memorabilia – all our hoards; they are not neutral, they interfere with our freedom, weigh us down. I promise you, this is true.
“Some of our clutter can’t be itemized materially – it’s status, achievement, snobbery; or a cluttered schedule, a crammed diary. These are all forms of clinging, Sid. Neediness gone mad.
“And then there’s clinging relationships – whether that’s in terms of manipulation or toxic codependency or bearing grudges or just being unwilling to move on. Situations where people drained of love trudge resentfully along together, unwilling to do the soul work to get to understanding and tenderness, or forgive and cut loose.
“God is Spirit, and in his presence is fullness of joy. Where his reign begins, it brings liberty – lightness. Clinging is probably the closest thing to Hell imaginable.
“So, there you have Jesus, fresh out of the tomb, recently crucified. Betrayed and abandoned by his friends and fellow Israelites, let down by his government, tortured. What’s not to resent? Blame, recrimination, offended hurt, would seem to be the order of the day. And it was no light thing, that suffering. It passed into his very identity. Even in his risen body, the scars of the nails and spear became his badge, what made him recognizable. But he left that behind, somehow; he knew how to let it go. He didn’t come back snarling, all ready for red-hot revenge; he was able to move on.
“Not everyone felt the same. Mary, wanting to cling to the man she loved, in the garden; Thomas wanting to put his fingers into the nail-prints, the spear-scar. They had no vision for anything bigger – they just longed for the same old same old; our Jesus, back again just like before.
“But he said, don’t cling to me – I am not yet ascended to the Father. I doubt they could make much sense of that, and nor can most people who don’t appreciate the lethal drug of clinging, that deadens the spirit and binds us into the material realm.
“When he left, when he ascended, you’d have thought that was simply the end. Finito, Benito; gone. Turned out, it was just the beginning. It showed what he meant about the seed falling into the ground and dying to allow the harvest to come. That wasn’t about his physical death and resurrection only, it included letting go of everything – relationships, the concentration of the Spirit in his own person, the whole lot. As it turned out, the incarnation of God in Jesus was a stage in an unfolding process, the creation of an open way linking earth to heaven for all time.
“The Ascension must have seemed like a loss, a disaster – a second whammy after they lost him at the crucifixion. How could they have predicted it would open the floodgates for Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on humankind once way had been opened?
“And what is true of Jesus is always true of us too, because he was as human as we are. If we can find courage and love and hope – just like he did – to let the old stuff go; everything, the relationships, the achievements, the loves and the wounds, the betrayals and the friendships, all the ground we gained, even life itself – then way opens to blessings unimagined. We make space for the Spirit to pour through.
“I mean, how can anyone say that isn’t practical? Living the Ascension is the most useful, realistic, life-affirming path it is possible for anyone to take. Plus it cultivates trust, in life and in God; it says ‘I believe’, unwaveringly, through whatever circumstances conspire to throw at you.”
Sid looks at the last olive in the dish, hesitates, then pops it in his mouth. He sets his emptied wine glass down on the tray. “I thought you’d know, if I asked,” he says, glad he married this rather odd but very articulate woman.
He gets to his feet slowly, conscious of being more creaky than once he was.
“I’ll put the pasta on,” he says, looking down at her, loving her. “The sauce is all ready. We can eat out here.”
He moves to go, then pauses, thinking. “This business of living the Ascension,” he says: “it’s not all for the ultimate and the life hereafter, is it? If you can let go of all the clutter and clinging, let go of the past – well, it makes space for life and loving here and now, too, doesn’t it? It makes room for today.”
“Well, I’ve always thought so,” she says. “Bring some more olives out with the pasta, would you, my darling?”
For sharing and wondering
- Do you enjoy eating outdoors? Or does the sun get in your eyes, the sand in your sandwiches and every mosquito in the neighbourhood try to join in?
- Make a list of your possessions that you regard as essential, and a list of reasons why you keep the things that are not.
- What things – happy or sad, physical or invisible – might it be time for you to let go of now, after carrying them with you a long time?
Into the Mystery
Help us to travel light on this pilgrimage with you, walking Jesus, ascending Jesus. You were born under a star, you slept many a night under the stars, and you ascended to the stars in the end. May the freedom and mystery of the cosmic scale on which you live illuminate the ordinary fabric of our day-to-day detail of our lives.
 From Stella Gibbons 1932 comedic novel, Cold Comfort Farm.