“The end of all things is at hand”
Ascension is apocalyptic. That is a loaded term and, perhaps, a frightening term since it is fraught with the images of impending doom and destruction. Yet apocalypse really means an uncovering, a making known, or a revealing of what is hidden. In this sense, it is actually something powerful and positive rather than fearful and paralyzing.
Everything turns on the sense or meaning of an end. End in what sense? Ascensiontide celebrates the end of Christ’s saving work in his homecoming to the Father having accomplished all that belongs to redemption. His homecoming is about our end with God, an end in which we participate now through the life of the Church. “It is finished,” Christ says on the Cross in what is regarded as the penultimate word from the Cross. It is an ending which is really about completion and accomplishment in the restoration of all things to God – something which is envisioned in the lovely passage from Isaiah at Matins in the harmony and peace between everything in creation and God. That is also what is shown in the imagery of the Ascension captured in Peter’s rich statement that “the end of all things is at hand.” That leads not to fear and anxiety but to charity and hospitality, to service and ministry “as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” It is now and always now.
To put in in another way, Christian life is always about living in the end times since everything is gathered to God. We are given a way to face suffering and death, hard times and sorrow with a good heart and with courage and even with joy so “that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” There it is, grace and glory! As the Matins lesson from Luke indicates, Christ’s Ascension leads to the disciples returning to Jerusalem not in sorrow but in joy, waiting upon the promise of the Father in the sending of the Comforter. This is the truest form of empowerment.
The term, apocalypse, serves to awaken us to that reality even in the face of the ups and downs, the catastrophes and challenges of our world and day. What is apocalyptic is not just about the rise and fall of kingdoms and of social and economic structures but about the making known of the love of God in human lives.
The Sunday after Ascension Day celebrates two creedal doctrines: the Ascension and the Session of Christ. They serve as important reminders to us about the essential life of God. The Ascension is not about a flight from the world. Christ’s “sit[ing] at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” as the Creed puts it, is not about the remote rule of God. In other words, we are being challenged in our thinking about the concepts of transcendence and immanence. We are meant to see the necessary interplay of these concepts. God is both beyond and yet always at hand. The world in God and God in the world.
This challenges the forms of our thinking about the world and about ourselves. We live at a time when the assumptions that have governed our modern thinking are no longer tenable, a time when there is the need to rethink our thinking about nature and about ourselves as part of creation. We can no longer pretend to be the dominant masters of the world. What is required is a renewed vision, what the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, called an instauration, a kind of renewal and a revisioning of ourselves in relation to the world in which we find ourselves. Religion is inescapably part (or at least should be!) of that renewal and revisioning. It means to recognize the interplay between transcendence and immanence that in turn changes our attitudes towards the world and one another. They are related concepts, not opposites.
Whitehead notes (rather wonderfully, I think) that “religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things: something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised: something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest” (Science and the Modern World, 1925). He doesn’t say which religion. But in the Christian understanding of things and especially on this Sunday, we can see in this passage what belongs to the teaching of the Ascension and the Session. It connects and holds together in a creative tension what otherwise falls apart into antinomies and opposites; either fleeing from the world to God or attempting to collapse God into the world.
Two relatively recent works bearing almost the same title speak to our current distresses about the contemporary world. ‘Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization’ by Roy Scranton and ‘Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis’ by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky. The titles seem ominous and threatening, catastrophic and, indeed, apocalyptic. Both works are serious about the unsolvable problems which we confront and yet each one points us to the need to reclaim the traditions of moral and ethical reflection in the face of our difficulties. In other words, how we think about our world and ourselves is primary. Learning to die is about learning to live. As dying we live!
Such is the power of things apocalyptic. They signal the uncovering of things which have lain hidden from view, the making known of things in the face of death and destruction, things which we have known but, perhaps, have forgotten. Such is wisdom. The great turning point, for instance, in ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ is the death of his friend, Enkidu. In his friend’s death, he sees his own mortality. It changes him profoundly and sets him upon the quest for wisdom, the journey of the understanding. That ancient, ancient story is suddenly very modern. Why? Because we confront ourselves in all of the catastrophes and chaoses of our age and are awakened to the wonder of God not in a Star Trek flight of techno-fantasy but in an awareness that the world, too, is redeemed to God, an awareness of what is at once fragile and yet persists about our world and about ourselves.
The Gospel for this Sunday makes abundantly clear that comfort is strength in the face of hardship and suffering. Such is the radical meaning of the promise of the coming of the Comforter, “whom I will send unto you from the Father,” Jesus says, “even the Spirit of truth.” That is enough and more than enough for whatever befalls us in our follies and fears. Here is the strengthening vision. It is found in the renewing of our lives in God’s will and purpose. Our end is with God in prayer and praise.
To reclaim the primacy of worship means to reclaim the wonder of God. It is the only antidote to the ways in which we have forsaken God and find ourselves adrift in an unsettled and complex world. Apocalyptic times awaken us to the balance and interplay between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God, God in himself and God with us, and the world in God and God in the world.
“The end of all things is at hand”
Fr. David Curry
Sunday after Ascension Day, 2021