Ascension, Glorification, Into the Womb of Sacredness’

Posted: May 16, 2023 in Uncategorized

‘Ascension, Glorification, Into the Womb of Sacredness’

It is the end of the Festival or Season of Easter. After some 50 days, following an agenda primarily set by the storyteller Matthew, even though the majority of gospel stories have been told by the storyteller/mystic we call John, we have run out of Easter type stories, or have we? We have arrived at a one-day Season, called Ascension Sunday. A Season which uses a heap of ‘up there’ mythical language “as naively as any passage in the New Testament”
to quote 1960s ‘Honest to God’ John Robinson.  (Robinson 1967:76). So, what are we now, to make of the Ascension story in the twenty-first century?

We read in John about a way of viewing Jesus in that Jesus will not leave them bereft, like orphans.  They “will see” him, even though no one else will.  (“…the world can neither see nor know him…”)  The formula “on that day” is used throughout the Old Testament, and the fourth gospel uses it here to underline Jesus’ relationship and identification with the Father.  What’s more, the community’s relationship with Jesus is the same as Jesus’ relationship with the Father, the first such statement in the fourth gospel.

The community “knows” the advocate, and, “on that day,” the community “will know” that Jesus is in the Father.  The word is ginoskoGinosko, as previously mentioned, is knowledge through intimate experience–“mystical knowledge,” you might say.  It is not so much a reasoned-based “knowing,” but more revelation-based “knowing.”

The fourth gospel anticipates some of the trinitarian debate that would come two or three hundred years later.  The Son is in intimate relationship with the Father, yet is distinct from the Father.  Jesus has a direct relationship with the Father, and a direct relationship with the community, though the community itself is in relationship with the Father indirectly, through Jesus. The Father is utterly transcendent, known only through the Son.  John Sanford notes that “in Christian mystical thought…the Father is God as the uncreated One, pure Being or Existence itself who cannot be known or described in any human categories.” 

The Father is beyond space and time, and, therefore, beyond reasoned and rational description.  The eastern tradition calls this “apophatic” theology, which means that God can only be described in negatives, i.e. without name, without origin, without end.  Gregory of Nyssa:  Not unlike the Great Dao which reminds us that the God we know is not God. “There is no way of comprehending the indefinable as by a scheme of words.  For the Divine is too noble and lofty to be indicated by a name, and we have learned to honour by silence that which transcends reason and thought.” (Against Eunomius, 10)

The question that reason leaves us with is:  If the Father is unknown, how can be the Father be known?   And the fourth gospel asserts that The Father can be known through the Son.  The Father cannot be known, but the Son can be known, and to know the Son is to know the Father. This suggests that there is a possibility that some of those who first heard or read the story of Jesus being ‘raised in glory’(like one of the ancient Greek heroes) 70 -90 years after the life of Jesus, actually believed he ascended to a literal heaven and would return from God’s throne ‘someplace up there’ at the end of time.  (Epperly P&F Web site 2005). However that could also be a retrospective interpretation imposed on an earlier questioning.

The challenge we have is that despite how the earlier communities made sense of their world it is not how we understand our world today. So, the Ascension story is a bit of a test case of our ability to cope with strange language, and primitive cosmology. A world that was three tiered where up there was an accepted reasoned or metaphorical interpretation. Remember that reason may not have been separated from non-reason in those days.

The challenge for us, it seems to me, is to find new ways and new phrases of contemporary significance beyond the traditional literal rationalized images of ancient knowledge for the telling of both the Jesus stories and the God story. In literary circles a new look at the concepts and language used to explain what we considered reality in the age of the story or, and of the storyteller.

Some reason-based questions in theology involve humanism, posthumanism, and transhumanism and these go to the realm of so-called artificial intelligence and the use of algorithms and their effect on thought and our understanding of what it means to be human. But that is another few sermons ahead, I am sure.

For today we might restrict ourselves to being a recognition that story and poetry, image, intuition and imagination are important and culturally influenced as to their proximity to a truth.

So, it is probable that we can be clear that the heart of this particular Jesus story is not about some pre-scientific form of space travel… Neither is it about a past moment in time, nor about some possible future event, usually called the Second Coming. It is primarily a story about our calling to engage in the reality of our world in order to heal and transform it. Thisworld and not some other. The call is to live in the world that is never as it seems, never about certainties, never discovered by reasoning nor fantasy but rather always that which is becoming. The call of the Ascension story is to look beyond the assumed, the presenting reality and to live faithfully in this life on the journey that Jesus chartered.

Likewise, when we are engaged in our God-talk it too needs to go beyond our traditional literal images. Images are far too important to be limited to rationalization. One person who has attempted this is Shirley Murray among others who as contemporary composers whose work invites us to imagine God or the sacred, differently, and to experience faith with some different accents.

We know of some of Shirley’s creativity as her contemporary hymns are often included in many Progressive services of worship. We are also reminded of the creative work of Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and theologian whose continuing invitation to us all is to consider the feminine image of God. Not in some cheap Hallmark Mother’s Day card theology, but addressing God in relational ways.

In one of her many reflections, she offers this: The God of history, The God of the Bible.
is One who carries us in Her arms after carrying us in Her womb, breastfeeds us, nurtures us,
teaches us how to walk, teaches us how to soar upward just as the eagle teaches its young
to stretch their wings and fly, makes fruitful, brings to birth, clothes the lilies of the field, clothes Eve and Adam with garments newmade, clothes you and me with skin and flesh and a whole new level of meaning with the putting on of Christ…
 (Winter 1987:20).

At one level this is an issue of justice in a culture of patriarchy. What is clear is that in our time the issues of exclusive language, human rights and gender equality are still with us. We are still influenced by the historic question of power and control and hierarchy of influence. And at another level this is about a different way of thinking theologically and imagining God. What we need to be careful of is that in reality this is not a not a very new way, because the feminine image of God has been around for generations. It can be claimed that the feminine was successfully buried by church patriarchy as ‘pagan’.

So, thinking theologically, which the biblical stories of the Ascension demands that we do, means more than just interpreting our given orthodox biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past! And to take seriously that this can be dangerous stuff. Jesus proclaimed good news yet this was in the main, rejected.
Not because it was good, or bad, but because it was new in his context.

So, this day, as the season which celebrates new or changed life comes to a close, maybe we could imagine the ‘womb’ of God’ or ‘the Sacred birthing of us’ to be wonderful,
creative, and caring human beings… Born in the image of the One who has borne us.
Pilgrims along the way – on a not-so-easy journey which Jesus first chartered.

Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Book, 1967.
Winter, M. T. Woman Prayer Woman Song. Resources for Ritual. Oak Park. Meyer Stone, 1987.


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