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Ascension: Two Moments in Time

May 27, 2001

Ian Lawton

Sunday after Ascension     Easter 7     John 17:20-26


Last night I lay in bed looking up at the stars, pondering the wonder of creation, the intricacy of each of these tiny lights in the sky, examining my small place in this cosmic marvel, and then the thought struck me - where the heck is the ceiling?


When I reflect on the reaction of the disciples to the event we call Ascension, it seems to me that they would have had mixed feelings: political victory … miracle of miracles … just as he said … but also Where the heck is he going? and What the heck are we going to do now?


We so often picture Heaven as a place in the clouds or beyond the clouds, or at least somewhere high, which is very strange when you think about it. Yet it's no wonder when we have stories such as this in the Bible. I want to explore this passage with you now, and I want to replace the vision of up, up and away for miracles with the notion of inside and outside experiences. The thought I am working with is this - Each moment happens twice - once on the outside and once on the inside'. Is it just possible that rather than looking beyond our comprehension for signs of spirit, that the connection will be made as we connect the outside and the inside worlds? Let me put it another way.


If the Ascension is about the coming together of two spheres, with Jesus symbolising the connection between high Heaven and low earth … is it just possible that the journey of Faith is the growing awareness of ourselves to the point where our inside vision becomes more and more in tune with our outside reactions?


Let me first take a step back. Where the heck is the ceiling? What is going on in this episode? There is enough inconsistency between the Gospel accounts of what we call 'ascension' to at least cast doubt on the literal occurrence of Jesus' ascension. This strange episode may need some other explanations. But I'll leave that question to the liberal scholars. It doesn't interest me. Far more intriguing and far more fruitful is the question - what was going on for those first disciples? What profound experience and insight did they gain to lead them to articulate their faith as being somehow like their leader rising right before their eyes and lifting their heads to the clouds in wonder. It seems to me that they had one of those collective moments of such power, an inside and an outside connection, that telling this story was the only way they could express the depth of their delight.


Of course the disciples had minds full of ascension. It was hardly a new concept. After all, in the Hebrew Scriptures the stories of Enoch and Elijah would have immediately brought to mind ascension moments of mystical visions. And Greek legend had Hercules deified through ascension and Zeus lifting Ganymede to heavenly immortality. And don't forget that these same disciples had seen Jesus talking with the ancient Elijah high up a mountain. And remember that these disciples had already seen Jesus, the dead man, walking in their midst. So, that they would articulate their wonder as ascension is little surprise.


What can we take, in this day and age, from such an unlikely story? It's about connections. It's about what Ignatius of Loyola would call the 'via positiva'. Rather than trying to encounter God by leaving behind our senses, our imaginations, and our intellect, instead we seek an awareness of God through the everyday objects in creation and the ordinary events in history. Sensory prayer brings understanding of God, using imagination in reading the Gospel stories to enter into a relationship with Jesus and his family and friends. These are the things of a connected spirituality. Working towards finding grace in our own lives, and recognising the power of this grace. Connection of life and attitude, right and wrong, private and public issues, contemplation and action. Involvement in political action and basic compassion and kindness become matters which are not worldly, or profane, but deeply spiritual matters. In fact the distinction between spirit and flesh begins to evaporate. And there you have the connection. The outside and the inside. The growing integration of the two. The finding of God inside and out, expressing grace inside and out.


Let me be as blunt as I can be. God is in all things, and found through all things. That is a basic fact of creation. God is rarely found in the miraculous, the Ascension-style experiences. Yet God is often found in ordinary matters which offer such profound insight that our only means of expression is in image and emotion beyond comprehension; Ascension-style stories. As it was for the disciples, so it will be for us.


Ignatian spirituality urges journeyers to live each moment as an act of grace. The thought I offer today: each moment happens twice - once on the outside and once on the inside. Live each one. Subject and object, instinct and reaction, vision and practicality, surrender and control, high and low, myth and fact, fate and chance, insight and confusion, future and memory, being and becoming, contemplation and action.


With this open and honest living will come confidence, tempered by humility, to make difficult decisions. Sometimes they will be counter-cultural choices, often creatively proactive. Bringing together the outside and the inside.


I finish with a poem / prayer from Michael Leunig:


We search and we search and yet find no meaning.
 The search for a meaning leads to despair.
 And when we are broken the heart finds its moment
 To fly and to feel and to work as it will
 Through the darkness and mystery and wild contradiction.
 For this is its freedom, its need and its calling;
 This is its magic, its strength and its knowing.
 To heal and make meaning while we walk or lie dreaming;
 To give birth to love within our surrender;
 To mother our faith, our spirit and yearning.

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