Into the singularity we fly
After a stretch of time in which we leave
Our lives behind
Writes the dying poet Clive James in Event Horizon. His imagery is particularly resonant today as the church is celebrating the Ascension of Jesus.
Traditionally, the Ascension happened 40 days after Easter when the resurrected Jesus was physically lifted into the heavens. It’s a triumphant feast with the understanding that Jesus reigns at the right hand of God the Father; from where he sends his Spirit to empower and inspire the Church. However, the poetry of Clive James, full of the pathos and the imagery of impending death, should encourage us to rethink such victorious images.
Firstly, it’s not appropriate to think of Jesus as ascending to a place “up there”. We know that heaven is not beyond the clouds and hell is not under our feet. We struggle with these simplistic images of place in the age of the Hubble telescope. Jesus did not ascend beyond the clouds any more than Clive James will be “drawn into the unplumbed well”, to use the poet’s imagery. The Bible is a collection of books which rely upon metaphor to explain what is beyond our own limited and immediate understanding.
Secondly, Christians who take the Ascension as a great triumphant event have missed the fragile and wounded nature of this feast. Luke’s Bible account of the Ascension was written from the perspective of the rubble of Jerusalem’s Temple. The Christ, the chosen of God, had come to the people of Israel and it was expected that he would release their land and their nation from Roman occupation. Instead, Roman armies had destroyed their Temple and ransacked their city. Luke is writing from the perspective of national humiliation and writing about someone who still carried the marks of torture, shame and death on his body.
Too often a triumphalist interpretation Christianity offers a belief system on which we dash our disappointments and failures. This caricature is often summed up in Marx’s paraphrase, “Religion is the opium of the masses”. What Marx actually said was, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” The humiliated, doubting and suffering Christ gives breath to our oppressed sigh, a heart in the face of brutality and a soul amidst brutality. In short Christianity offers beauty in an indifferent world. This God does not triumph over suffering but is alongside us in our fear and incomprehension.