Derby Cathedral, 29 May 2014 (Ascension), on these readings
It is difficult – at least, it is for me – to think about what Ascension looks like. There are pictures of it but they end up just as feet disappearing through a cloud. The whole mental picture of the heavens has changed for us – we can’t just say ‘God is up there’; we’ve been in space. And I propose, therefore, to offer you a different and not very conventional way to visualise what the Church has come to call the Ascension.
We are at an airfield. A small airfield, like they were long ago, no shops, no coffee, no palaver, basically a field; where you can just walk out and climb up the steps into the plane. And people have just done that, into the plane now taxi-ing on the runway. A little propellor plane, an aircraft of the precarious days of the Second World War. It’s been raining, and the lights reflect upwards from the wet tarmac. Mist is swirling around. In the plane – if it takes off, if it isn’t shot down, if they make it – is the embodiment of love, and the spirit of faith, and the flame of hope. All there, in that one frail little craft. It’s finished taxi-ing. It turns to make its run.
We’re not on the plane. We are watching from the sidelines, on the ground. We’re not going. That plane is carrying someone who has made us who we are, and because of who we are – because of who’s on that plane – we have had to be able to let them go. To be true to who’s on that plane, we have to stay on the ground. It feels as if part of ourselves is going with them. But they’re going; to be true to who they are, they have to go. And in the same way, some part of them stays with us.
And when you look at us you have to ask why. Look at us. We betrayed them. We felt they’d betrayed us. We lost them, and we resented that – we loved them and we made ourselves vulnerable and then they were lost, and what fools we looked. So we denied them. Nothing to do with us. Not one of that crowd, no. Don’t mention their name, don’t tell their stories, don’t play their songs.
They came back. Out of nowhere. From beyond death and betrayal, in a collapsing world, well beyond hope, suddenly one evening: they came back. There they were in the room. And because of that the whole thing is back in our hands, and transformed. Love is back and the whole possibility of love with it. Faith is alive and worth dying for. There is hope. Nothing is as it was, all the betrayal that happened did happen, this is not just a winding-back or an agreement to pretend all that didn’t happen. This is pure gift. And now, because of that, we find ourselves doing things we’d have said were completely out of character, things we wouldn’t have had the courage or the presence of mind to do or we just wouldn’t have seen why you’d bother when you could pour yourself another whisky instead. They’ve gone on the plane, and we let them go, and part of us is with them and them with us, and the whole world, including our forgiven selves, is a gift in our hands because they came back.
Also in our hands in this scenario, which you may or may not have recognised by now, is a pistol. Because this scenario is the end of the film Casablanca, in which we are being Humphrey Bogart, and in a moment, so that the plane will get safely away, we are just about to shoot Major Strasser of the occupation forces. This is one of the points where the parallel between this scenario and the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verses 44 to the end, is not really very exact. Another is that the role of Jesus, or of what I’ve been calling faith, and hope, and love, has to be shared between two people on the plane: the Resistance hero and Ingrid Bergman. So I think, having got this far, we’d better leave this way of visualising the Ascension where it is. Although there is one more thing I want to say about it.
The end of Casablanca, which is one of the great farewell scenes, is that because it is a story of love and loss and transformation and forgiveness which ends in letting go. The Ascension, likewise, is a farewell scene. Jesus has loved his people to the end and beyond the end. They have betrayed him and lost him and with him lost themselves. He came back. He is risen. They have found themselves forgiven and restored. And now they’re seeing him go – they’re having to let him go – and a bit of themselves is going with him, and something of him stays with them.
The embodiment of love. The spirit of faith. The flame of hope. Alive in the risen Christ. Something of us is there; and something of him is in us. If it were not for this, the question that the disciples are asked by the two men in white who come along – ‘why are you standing there looking up into heaven?’ would be both unreasonable and unsympathetic. But there is this. Something of humanity has been taken up into God. Something of God has been given to us and given again. Things have changed; the story is not going to go along in the same way now: there is no point in standing there staring upwards. And the disciples don’t. They go back to Jerusalem and they go out from there, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the ends of the world and certainly beyond their own limits.
And this is the one other thing I wanted to say, the one other point of this imperfect parallel. The film Casablanca doesn’t, in fact, end with the people left behind on the ground standing staring after the departing plane. It ends with the bar owner Rick, formerly sodden in despair, and the French chief of police, formerly deeply corrupt, walking off together to do things – good things – they would never previously have considered for a moment. Rick gets the last word, because you do if you’re Humphrey Bogart. He says to the chief of police: ‘Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’