Thinking Anew – Ascension and the mystery of the Trinity
Pope Francis: willing to say what he thinks. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP
Tomorrow is the feast of the Ascension. In the second half of the 20th century an Anglican bishop and theologian commented that if he had filmed the Ascension of the Lord most likely he would not have caught on video Jesus rising above the clouds. The bishop, who was a man of faith, was controversial. He was always trying to challenge people with the mysteries of Christianity.
From time to time every organisation throws up interesting people, who are not conformists or bound to the status quo, people who are not afraid to speak their minds. When that happens within religion it is a remarkable phenomenon to observe and a blessing to behold. We get hints of such an attitude from Pope Francis. He’s willing on occasion to say what he thinks, even if it might be in the tiniest way unconventional.
Of course, the church, the people of God, are duty bound to live and preach the Word of the Lord, the story that has been handed down to us from the time of Jesus Christ. But surely the Word of God must be lived and spoken in a language and style that makes sense in the “here and now” of our daily lives.
In last week’s edition of The Tablet, an English weekly Catholic magazine, writer Sara Maitland wrote on how the official teaching of the church has changed down through history. She cited examples, including doctrine on the Trinity and the church’s teaching on the geocentric universe. The church too has changed its teaching on witchcraft, evolution, interest on loans and whether women can vote. Maitland gives the example of how love changes and develops. She writes: “It is not that the beloved has ‘changed’ into someone else, it is that our capacity to see, to know, to understand has expanded, refreshed itself.”
So, what then does the Ascension of the Lord mean to us? We could easily get “bogged down” thinking in terms of someone hovering above the clouds. Alternatively, we could move beyond literal interpretation to dwell on the mystery of the incarnation. Our belief is that God became man, lived among us in an historical time and place, returned to the Father and then through the power of the Holy Spirit is present in some mysterious, yet real way in the world in which we live.
The feast of the Ascension is part of an intricate mosaic and is intrinsically bound up with the mystery of the Trinity.
Tomorrow’s feast is yet another signpost directing us towards God, who places so much emphasis on the idea of union, the idea of persons being so closely related with one another that they are united in one Godhead. Every time, we, in harmony and union with other people, speak well of others, do good to others, we are participating in the mystery of the Trinity and indeed making the reality of a Trinitarian God present in our world. I think it is in that context that we can best attempt to get any handle on tomorrow’s feast.
It’s easy to be aloof, rigid and unbending in our views and beliefs. But when people move outside such “lifestyle bubbles” and still manage to perform brilliantly, they are inspirational.
Last week on the Ryan Tubridy radio programme English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh was interviewed. I had just read one of his books Do No Harm. It is a collection of essays about his work. He readily admits that doctors can get corrupted by power, and he talks of how success makes us complacent. He is a man who has dedicated his life to helping people, making people better. Marsh is anything but a status quo man. He has no time for any of the nonsense that goes with privilege and position. His patients always come first.
Being involved in the betterment of humanity, working in communion for the good of one another, we are entering the mystery of the triune God. The Ascension of Jesus is part of that mosaic.