Not an Orphan

Many moons ago, when I was still a relatively young Christian, I did not like the feast of the Ascension for the very simple reason that physically speaking Jesus was no longer on earth after the Ascension. This must sound very odd. The bodily Jesus isn’t on earth at all now. But somehow, I felt as if he was from the moment of his birth as we celebrated it at Christmas to the moment of his ascension, Every year I felt ‘Emmanuel, God with us.’ God was somehow closer and more approachable.

Perhaps it was also something to do with my ability to comprehend God as long as he was in human form but not to begin to fathom the transcendental God, a God so mysterious and so other. All I knew of that God was,

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways.” (Isaiah 55:8)

I had not yet grown into the understanding and, more importantly, the experience of the “otherness” of God as not being “an other,” in the usual sense of that word: alien to me, foreign to me, someone strange and outside me. No, God’s otherness is ‘an other kind of otherness.’ He is so different that he pays those who have worked for an hour as much as he pays those who have worked a day; that he runs out to meet the younger son who has half destroyed the family inheritance and celebrates as if it were the son’s birthday; that instead of condemning a women for her sexual infidelity he makes those who accuse her realise that they are little better, and thereby saves the woman from certain death. God is so ‘other’ that he hears those who cannot cry out loudly, touches those who others believe are full of infectious diseases, pays special care to those who because of their gender are not allowed education, enjoys the company of those considered beyond the pale, and dies a criminal death on a rubbish heap. God is totally other because his ideas so often oppose our meagre ideas of human justice and care and show us deeply wanting.

I stopped feeling an “orphan” at Ascension time, when I realised that Jesus’ leaving the earth was not the end but the beginning of the gospel, as someone said. It is as if the gospels are the first book of a trilogy and we are in the second. The second book begins with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and once we have had even the slightest taste of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are not only comforted (the Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Comforter) but we understand.

In the Acts of the Apostles, despite Christ’s departure, there is no need to speak of an “absentee Christology”. Though absent as a character from the narrative of Acts after chapter 1, the influence of Jesus throughout the rest of the narrative is profound. His name occurs no less than 69 times in Acts. He is at the centre of the church’s controversy with the Jews. He guides the church in its missionary efforts; he empowers the disciples to perform miracles. The ascended and exalted Christ, though absent as a character, is nonetheless a constant presence throughout the narrative. (Mikael C. Parsons)

And as we walk with God, we realise through his presence with us in the Holy Spirit that we have not been left alone to deal with life’s issues, either. God is always very much, Emmanuel, God with us, guiding us and holding us close.