The names of the victims of the Manchester Arena attack begin to be disclosed, photographs of their faces are shared. We know the name of the suicide killer, and of others who are suspected of some involvement, including the killer’s father and brother. We are told that there is likely to be a terrorist cell connected with them, and that troops will be on duty outside public buildings that might be vulnerable, including York Minster. The voices of the shocked and affected are heard from prayer vigils and public gatherings. Flags fly at half-mast and the nation keeps a minute’s silence.
And what do we do? We meet in this ancient Cathedral, where prayer has been valid for centuries, through history’s ups and downs, through times of political and social turbulence and relative calm, and we celebrate the Ascension of the risen Christ.
We have sung,
“O Christ our hope, our heart’s desire,
Redemption’s only spring,
Creator of the world art tough,
Its saviour and its king.”
What are we to make of all this?
I wonder, how do we think of Christ’s ascension? After forty days of resurrection appearances, he goes off to heaven to be seated at the right-hand of God. Is this a well-earned retirement with enhanced benefits after an intense and costly ministry? One wonders how much of a rest heaven is for the ascended Christ. St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (1:15ff) tells us that Christ rules there above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers and lords – having a title superior to all titles of authority in this world and in the next.
Has Christ retired from the world? Has he given up on the world and decided to reign in heaven because doing so on earth seems like an impossibility? And so he promises the Spirit, to be a comforter?
When evil raises its ugly head, as it did in Manchester earlier this week – as it has in London and Nice and Paris and many other places in similar terrorist attacks, as it has consistently throughout the history of humanity – since Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, as it were – then it is tempting for those who feel they know God to conclude that he has retired from the job of ruling over earth as well as heaven, or at least taken a retreat.
Isn’t this what Jesus himself was tempted to think on the cross? “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me.” Thus he employed the words of the psalmist that would have been recited in heart-felt fashion by hundreds – thousands – over the centuries. And won’t the families of the Manchester Arena victims be thinking exactly the same – even if not in those precise words – right now. And yet we say, “let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
The stained-glass window in the south transept of this Cathedral is one image that suggests that Christ has fled. Feet are seen disappearing into the sky. But the Ascension surely isn’t about Christ’s retreat from a failed ministry and the impossible demands of an ever-rebellious world. Don’t we come and celebrate this evening (on this, one of the great four feast days of the year – the others being Christmas, Easter and Pentecost) because we believe that the resurrection and the ascension together speak about Christ’s determination to reign in the world as he does in heaven? The Ascension expresses the truth that Christ – the Sprit of Christ – is to be everywhere – on earth as well as in heaven. And that ever-present Spirt will come at Pentecost.
Can you imagine what it does to you to feel that God has forsaken you, or that he is totally absent? Perhaps you couldn’t imagine. Or perhaps you can imagine it all too well. From time to time I have had to sit with people who feel utterly let down by God, who feel that he has abandoned them to their sufferings while he is living it up somewhere else in glorious, exalted splendour.
“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
The darkness and the fear resulting from a sense of God’s absence can be utterly paralysing.
Presumably, it must be something like this that the disciples feared when Jesus, according to St. John 17, assured them that they would not be left comfortless. It must have been something like this that they felt on Holy Saturday when their friend had been so cruelly put to death.
To be distant from God must surely be the definition of hell. St. John of the Cross (a 16th century Spanish Carmelite, a mystic and teacher of the faith) wrote of the dark night of the soul. The nearer the mystic gets to the trophy of the living God, the more possible it is for him to feel utterly distant and frighteningly isolated. Again, think of Christ on the cross; he had never been nearer to God, it just didn’t feel like that. And so it can sometimes be for us who are mere mortals on the path of Christian pilgrimage. So it can be for those who find themselves in an intense tragic darkness into which evil forces have dragged them. It feels as though God has fled, abandoned them to a wicked world. And yet the truth is that Almighty God, the one who knows what it is like to have a child cruelly snatched from life, this God is nearer to them than they could ever imagine.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of our risen Lord. We affirm our faith, from an imperfect and sometimes-cruel world, that in the End Christ will be triumphant. He will reign on earth as he does in heaven. The forces of evil will not prevail against him.
And knowing the end of the world’s story, we begin to recognise his heavenly reign even when evil attempts its worse. The outpouring of love and sympathy since Monday evening gives us an insight. The dedication of the emergency services; the determination of bereaved parents not to allow the terrorists to conquer their spirits; the countless prayers said and candles lit. In these acts and responses, the eyes of faith recognise the light of heaven shining in the darkness. On this feast day, we assert that it always will. And in the End, Christ will be victorious.