The importance of Mystery

Sunday 21st May 2023
Year A, Ascension Day
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Acts 1.1-11
Luke 24.44-53

Today marks the end of Christ's mission on earth and also the first of three pivotal events in the establishment of his Church on Earth. Today he returns to the Father, next Sunday the Holy Spirit will inflame the hearts of the leaders of the nascent Church, and the Sunday after will mark the consolidation of the doctrine of our Triune God. Claire noted in her sermon for Easter 2 that in Saint John's Gospel the Spirit is infused into the Disciples on Easter day but in placing the infusion of the Spirit after the Ascension, saint Luke has a much better sense of shape.

It is also Luke who gives most attention to the Ascension: it is implied in Matthew 28.16-18  but not mentioned in Mark and John; but Luke, in our two Readings, shows the event to be both an end and a beginning: the end of the mission of Jesus described in his Gospel and the beginning of the new Church described in Acts.

So why has this mighty event lost its place in the Calendar to be relegated to Sunday? I suspect that the answer falls into two related parts. In the first place, it is impossible for us to make a mental image of what exactly happened on that day; the paintings of Jesus in vertical take-off often look somewhat equivocal and our imaginations are confused by the accounts of the Risen Jesus who isn't recognised by Mary Magdalen at the tomb nor by Cleopas and his companion on the way to Emmaus but whose wounds Thomas is invited to touch. He is and simultaneously is not what he was before his death; and then, to complicate matters further, there are angels in attendance. So if we find that difficult, imagine how his poor followers felt.

But whichever way we think of it - and because of our imaginative problems our thought necessarily has to be primarily abstract - Jesus said he would return to the Father and to the Father he returns. The second timeless person of the Blessed Trinity was incarnated in time and, in ascending, went back to his timeless state. The idea that the Incarnate Jesus dropped in and out of time, first proposed in the Prologue to John's Gospel, is a difficult concept because it embraces two ways of being which are totally different: time and timelessness are necessarily radically different, classically seen as opposite but, I would argue, in Trinitarian terms, complementary. Angels also, throughout the Bible, slip in and out of time.

The second problem arises because of a heresy that has persisted in the Church since the days of Saint Augustine in the early 5th Century who, drawing on the philosopher Plato and his successor Neo-Platonists, ranked the spiritual aspect of humanity over the physical. From that root error arose the idea that the soul is not only superior to the body but separate from it such that the idea developed in contradiction to the Creeds, that the soul goes to heaven to be with God but not the body. How this is supposed to work out at the end of time is a subject for another day.

But the idea that elements of God's created world can be transformed from the timeless to time and vice versa, or from the spiritual to the physical and back, or that the timeless and things in time and the spiritual and the physical can be combined, is a central concept in divine being and, by extension, divine creation.

So, after all that theology, why does this matter?

In the first place, why we were created to exercise free will imperfectly so that we needed to be saved from death as a consequence of wrong choices, is the central mystery of Christianity. Secondly, time and the timeless, the spiritual and the physical, are bound up in the mystery of the Eucharist. And, thirdly, and most broadly, the Church of which we are Members spans time and the timeless, the physical and the spiritual, in the Communion of Saints where we, the Church Militant, are bound up with the Church Triumphant.

So far, so good. I am not saying anything which is not contained in the Creeds.

But the ultimate reason why all this theology matters is that its absolute mystery, majesty and grandeur should keep us from the worst sin of all, from pride, from thinking that we know the nature of the terms between the Creator and us as creatures. In simple terms, we do not know and so, as I have said before, it's best to be realists and admit our inadequacy in the face of divine mysteries. Which, in turn, means that we have to be much more careful than we often are in making theological statements because they are not like propositions in physics but are, rather, tentative and provisional statements which express our best efforts to turn God into human language. If I have one over-riding concern about the state of Western Christianity it is that there is far too much certainty which provides a basis for the criticism of others and of difference.

I just want to give you one example because it has been cited twice in recent weeks in Eucharistic Services: in the hymn, in Christ Alone, there is the following lines: "... on that cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied." The phrase about the wrath of God being satisfied is embedded amongst a string of Evangelist-attested events with which it is given false parity. Apart from treating the Trinity like three human beings who make some sort of gruesome deal, there is no Scriptural warrant for this highly speculative Medieval idea developed by Anselm of Canterbury. I therefore say this to myself: theologians have to be very careful not to get above themselves.

Too often, with our two thousand years of history and our sophisticated education, we are tempted to use the techniques of rationalism to frame our relationship with God but this is futile. Jesus was born Incarnate to save us from our poor exercise of free will and after dying and rising from the dead he did what he said he would, and "returned" to the Father. His earthly gift to us was the Church which exists to support a believing community in coming to grips with the mystery of God and we should therefore be very careful how we treat this gift as the conduit from God to the world of the Good News of Salvation.

For this reason the Church is both precious and fragile and has been, and continues to be, seriously damaged by over confident controversialists; the Ascension, as one of the great mysteries of our relationship with God in Jesus, should at once fill us with wonder and humility.