I ascend to my Father and your Father
Homecoming is a powerful theme which has a certain resonance for us in the face of the current forms of ‘The Age of Anxiety’, to use W. H. Auden’s phrase (and title) in which we find ourselves. We are coming in one way or another to the end of the School year, a year marked by all manner of ups and downs that have required considerable flexibility and agility and much patience and forbearance for everyone connected to King’s-Edgehill School. There is much for which to be quietly and prayerfully thankful, much that has to do with commitment and working together. The headmaster, administration, staff and faculty and especially the students are rightly to be commended. Let us press on in the same spirit right to the end, whatever that end looks like!
The idea of homecoming is an ancient theme that reverberates down throughout the ages. It informs, for instance, the logic of Homer’s Odyssey, the story of his return from Troy to Ithaca by way of the idea of learning through suffering that such a journey entails. One of the graphic and telling illustrations of that theme is the story of Menelaus wrestling with Proteus (ToK students will no doubt recall this, whether fondly or not, I forebear to say!). At issue is the idea of homecoming in terms of truth and self-knowledge, of knowing where you belong in the order of things, the so-called cosmos. One of the telling features of that endeavour is the idea of a struggle to get to the underlying reality of things rather than being simply stranded on the surface appearance of things. Proteus is described as “the ever-truthful old man of the sea” but to get to him and the truth which he holds is a struggle. It doesn’t come easily. You have to work for it. You literally have to hold on in and through the changing circumstances and appearances of things until the truth presents itself to the questing mind. In this case, after changing in and through a whirlwind of natural forms, Proteus is only and truly himself when he finally speaks. It is an intriguing concept which goes to the idea of logos, word as reason, which concerns both the world and ourselves in it.
What he has to say concerns what is missing in Menelaus’ homeward journey, namely a respect for the various principles that govern the world. So too with us. Without an understanding and an honouring of the various components that make up the phenomenal world, we ourselves remain incomplete and homeless, bereft of the place of our belonging, at lost in our world of uncertainties. Yet home is where we belong in some sense, the place of our abiding in truth and in the truth of ourselves. It is a powerful image not so much about our uncertainties but about our awareness of our uncertainties which paradoxically give us a sense of certainty. Our unknowing is not without our knowing (and vice versa).
In the Jewish tradition, the theme of homecoming is best captured in the “going up to Jerusalem,” a theme which carries over and informs the Christian journey of Lent and Easter which ultimately culminates in the Ascension of Christ. The Ascension – the ultimate going up – is the homecoming of the Son to the Father. It belongs to the radical meaning of Christ as “the Son of Man” in The Book of Daniel being brought to sit alongside “the Ancient of Days”, God, (a point which N.T. Wright nicely makes in a collection of essays ‘Christ Unabridged: Knowing and Loving the Son of Man’, SCM 2020). Christ ascends to sit “on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” as the Creeds put it. I well remember the head of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in his Encaenia address at my B.A. graduation (long, long ago) saying with a distinct Scottish burr that this was ‘a place much to be preferred’ in a strong and complete contrast to ‘the gentle-Jesus-come-and-squeeze-us’, or ‘you-are-the-cream-in-my-coffee’ forms of sentimental religion. The theme of homecoming is, we might say, a wee bit more robust!
But what does this homecoming mean? It means the gathering of all things back to God from whom all things come. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega and while we have not been able to gather at Christ Church in this School year of 2020/2021, either for the Advent/Christmas Lessons & Carols or for the annual Cadet Church Parade, yet the symbolic significance of that building’s structure should not go unremarked. The beams which hold it up are in the shape of the Greek letters, Alpha and Omega, which signal, in the Christian understanding, the idea of our being enfolded in the all-encompassing love of God for our humanity. The whole building signals the motion of the spirit. It is about the lifting up of our hearts. “We ascend,” as Augustine famously says, “in the ascension of our hearts.” How badly we need to recall that in our times of anxiety which drag us down and bury us in our fear and worries.
I like to think that such ideas and images shape the spiritual imaginary of the educational life of the School. It is altogether about an ascent to the truth which is always and by definition greater than us. It is altogether about our commitment to the struggle, to the love of learning and to the care and compassion for one another that such a journey entails. The point is that we don’t journey alone.
One of the great lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps, will be about the deepening of our appreciation, our toleration, and our genuine care and compassion for one another. That would be the great antidote not only to our ‘covidious times’ but to our divided world of fractious polarizations and endless animosities. The Ascension reminds us of the homeland of the spirit that belongs to the radical truth of the dignity of our humanity. Jesus’ words to Mary give that journey an intimacy and a joy, one that I hope resonates with our students, both those who are leaving us this year and those whom we hope to see again next year. Our Grade 12 IB Diploma students are finished for the year; some are leaving for home even as I write.
But there is the strong sense of how the School remains our home and theirs as being an important place of belonging in the project of education. KES is their alma mater in a profound sense, their ‘nursing mother’ in learning, as it were. We wish them all the best even as we press on to the end of the year in the spirit of the journey of love and learning, come what may in these anxious times. Jesus’ words to Mary give us heart and courage. “I ascend to my Father and your Father.”
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy