Cosmic Traffic

Sunday 8th May 2016
Year C, Ascension Day
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Ephesians 1.15-23
Luke 24.44-53

I think that the first time I began to question the idea of strict boundaries between classes of things was when I discovered that there was a plant, the Venus Fly-Trap, that consumes insects and can be fed on slivers of steak. Since then I have been deeply suspicious of rigid classification. After more than a century since Einstein's great work, there is no agreement on the relationship between waves and particles; and at a more human level, you will perhaps recall that I have mentioned the debate about the balance of nature and nurture and about the difficulty of drawing a clear line between illness and evil; but now I have to add a fascinating debate about how different human beings really are from the 'higher' animals and an emerging debate about the nature of gender, raised by people who deny that we can only be male or female. The first of these debates goes back to the horror which Victorians experienced when they learned that we might well have been descended from monkeys but we now have the de-coded genome as well as extensive studies of the behaviour of such creatures as marmosets and dolphins. The second debate is already entangled with moral issues because many people think that gender matters are fundamentally ethical not biological or psychological. The problem, I suspect, is that because of ethical relativism and the daft postmodernist view that all opinions are equally valid, people just want to have some safe boundaries which help them to understand the world.

Well, if that is the case, the Ascension is the wrong place to start because it is one of those startling examples of God's obvious ability to slip in and out of human time; but what puzzles me about this is not the concept itself but why we so readily accept the beginning of the Jesus story, the Incarnation, yet find it more difficult to accept its ending in the Ascension. If the Son of God can take human flesh then the same Son of God can dispense with it. So we are not so much faced with a theological as with a psychological problem.

A little context might help. The Bible is full of instances of what we might loosely call cosmic traffic going back to Abraham, if not further. God frequently made 'Himself' known to his Chosen People, notably to Moses, Samuel and David, and although the appearance of angels is particularly marked in the Gospel of Luke, there are many Old Testament precedents. Looked at in that light, the Ascension is yet one more piece of cosmic traffic which will be followed a week from now by our remembrance of a piece of traffic coming the other way, the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Now looked at in a wider context, we are participants in the cosmic traffic though, we would properly recognise, at a less significant level. We were created by God out of nothing; we are infused with Incarnational and Salvific perception by the Holy Spirit; we experience Jesus in the Eucharist; we try hard to pray to our Creator God; and we will ultimately, to borrow a phrase from the First Letter of John, "see God as He is" (1 John 3.3).

Having spent a little time on the theology, it might be helpful to reflect on how our understanding of such phenomena as the Ascension play out in what we, somewhat arrogantly, call a "scientific age". Looked at through the narrow lens of rationalism, the traffic between earth and heaven makes no sense at all but, then, a great deal of what we value most makes no sense to the rationalist including, for example: what we call love but which might more narrowly be termed altruism; the play of our emotions triggered by culture such that we care more about some characters in fiction than we do about real people that we know; and our species' long striving to know about ourselves and the cosmos. Rationalism is an immensely useful tool in some contexts but totally useless in others, so to use it to try to make sense of God is as ridiculous as the infamous chocolate teapot!

And, therefore, our ground for rejoicing on this day does not rely upon the sharp dichotomy between forensic rationalism and rather woolly emotionalism it relies, rather, on an understanding that, as far as it goes, rationalism confirms what our faith proclaims: we know, from human testimony, that God, in Jesus, has kept 'His' promises; we know from our own experience that love is superior to self interest; and we know that the human experience is not simply a set of physical transactions.

And yet, like much of Christian - and, indeed human - experience, there is a deep emotional conflict, or bitter-sweetness on this day which Luke tactfully plays down but which surfaces continually in the great discourse in John Chapters 13-17: it is all very well for Jesus to say that he has to go away from earth in order that the Holy Spirit can be sent but for the followers of Jesus this is exchanging the beloved figure for something altogether less tangible. But although the language of time makes it difficult to say anything coherent, the crucified, risen and ascended Jesus intercedes on our behalf before 'The Father' which is why we always pray to 'The Father' through 'The Son', not forgetting "in the power of the Holy Spirit" which is part of the great mystery of the Trinitarian economy.

This week, between the earthly departure of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit is a good time to contemplate the mystery of the Blessed Trinity before we celebrate it two weeks from now. This may sound rather abstract but my starting point is always to imagine the deity without one of its characteristics of Creator, redeemer and Sanctifier. Put this way, we are thinking about what God does, rather than what God is which is a more practical approach to understanding the wonder of God, and of ourselves.