When I was a small child I imagined that a group of us were standing in the dusty veld waving and shouting ‘Goodbye for now!’ while a smiling Jesus in pristine white robes skipped up a rope ladder that eventually led into puffy white clouds with silver linings. He was going home and we were sorry to see him go, but glad for him. He’d had a tough time with us and wasn’t sorry to be leaving.
Some of this understanding no doubt came out of my rare attendances at Presbyterian Sunday School and from reading the 12 volumes of Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, a popular children’s religious book first published in 1924 that gave me nightmares for years. I am probably still unlearning some of the disturbing sacrificial tendencies and self-punitive theology found in those curious morality tales.
Uncle Arthur was Arthur Stanley Maxwell, a British administrator in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I doubt very much that my parents knew he wasn’t a solid Protestant (defined back then as Presbyterian, Methodist or middle-of-the-road Anglican, definitions and types that no longer exist). They were agnostic, with a nominal idea that religion was good for people, mostly other people, and for children. My mother had been through some mission schooling with German nuns who taught her to knit (badly) and she had a rosary kept in a box with her jewellery. My father was Scottish, not at all interested in churchy stuff, and said that people had the morality they could afford.
Our education was scant and eccentric. I was sent off to a convent school for one term and then subjected to years of ad hoc correspondence schooling. We had a Bible somewhere in the house, black bound with coloured illustrations (Daniel with a black beard, swathed in blue and red drapes and gesticulating wildly in the lions’ den) marred by tiny print, incomprehensible and never read although we would look at the pictures and make up stories to fit the garish scenes. For good in-depth biblical understanding there were the terrors of Uncle Arthur and what happened to bad children.
Anyhow, my early understanding of the Ascension didn’t include any idea of the Messiah returning and there was no mention of the Comforter or Paraclete being sent to us. It was all about a departure, slightly unreal and bewildering. Belatedly, I now understand that the Ascension is about presence rather than absence. The Resurrected Christ ascends so that the Paraclete may come to dwell within and amongst us.
Because he wanted to come close to us definitively, he has gone away and taken us with him. Because he was lifted up (on the cross of death and to the right hand of the Father) he and everything in him have become near. The reason for this is that his Spirit – the Spirit in whom Christ is near to us, the Spirit upon whom Christ from eternity in eternity bestows the eternal fullness of life from the Father, the Spirit over and above which there is nothing that Christ could give in all eternity – this Spirit is in us now. He is in us as the basis of the nearness of eternal contemplation, as the basis of the transfiguration of the flesh. We notice nothing of this, and that is why the Ascension seems to be separation. But it is separation only for our paltry consciousness. We must will to believe in such a nearness – in the Holy Spirit…..When we are apparently estranged from the nearness of his earthly flesh, then we are the more united with him…..He takes on our semblance only to give us his own reality – the eternal, inexpressible reality that he received from the Father, that he gives us in his Spirit, and that we can receive because he, returning home with all that is ours, made it possible to share in God’s own life.