Ascension Day 2021
As you might know, a small team of people have been working with our partners Dig Ventures on our new website. We’re proud of how it looks: and confident that it offers to those who want to see what we’re about here an attractive ‘window’ into the life of this parish.
Kim (my wife) has been populating many of the history pages. One of the pages she’s recently written was on ‘the door to nowhere’. This blocked up door above the pulpit.
This door was the way out onto the rood screen that stretched across the chancel ach. A rood is a cross. Most mediaeval churches had a large cross on display on the boundary between the nave of the church and the choir. Many positioned the Virgin Mary and the Apostle John either side of the cross: the fact that ours had a door (accessed by a spiral staircase in what is now St. Margaret’s Chapel) suggests that our was a substantial platform that could be decorated with flowers, candles or draped with coverings during Lent.
Beneath the rood was a screen: there have been many versions of this in St. Mary’s, mainly made of wood but at one point of cast iron. The last screen was removed in 1923.
Why do I tell you this? Because built into the geography of this church from the beginning was a separation between things spiritual and things temporal. That divide between ‘heaven and earth’ (in many churches) was represented not just by the screen but by painting the ceiling of the chancel blue and decking it with stars and angels. Beyond the screen was ‘where you met with God’ – never really said…but implied.
At the Reformation Thomas Cranmer told all churches to break down this divide by putting their altars in the middle of the nave. No pews then of course. God could be met and received in the form of Holy Communion in the ‘ordinary place’ by ordinary people. But the idea didn’t catch on. Most altars were made of stone and solidly built into the East wall of their churches: it’s hard to overturn deeply held, important religious instincts. Cranmer’s communion table wandered back to the top end of churches and the priests or monks who occupied the choir stalls were replaced by choristers in robes and surplices. God was again put back ‘up there’.
You might think that the message of Ascension Day is precisely this: that Jesus goes up to heaven and that is where He is, that’s where He should stay. Our East Window is unusual for a Victorian window: usually the theme chosen would be the crucifixion (Jesus presented to us on the cross). Not so here in Barnard Castle: we have the Ascension set before us each time we gather for worship: Christ triumphant – Lord of all creation.
Too often though we read the account of the Ascension and focus on Jesus’ withdrawing from them and yet the apostle Luke (in the 2nd volume of his writing, the Book of Acts) is at pains to tell us that ‘this Lord Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ We speak of His going. Luke speaks of His coming.
So why do we hear these words and automatically assume that they speak of some distant future event? The end of time, the 2nd coming perhaps? Might it just be possible that Luke spoke of us knowing Jesus’ presence now, in our lives? Might it be the case that rather than pushing Jesus away from us up to heaven and leaving Him there till the end of time, Luke imagined Christians experiencing Jesus’ presence here…and now…not just in the holy places but in the ordinariness of everyday life?
This Jesus who goes to represent us to the Father at Ascension tide also comes to us. He is present to us, unseen but no less real. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’. He is present to us in worship. He is present to us in His word. He is present to us as we break bread and drink wine together. He is present to us through one another – for each one of us is ‘in Christ’, has ‘put on Christ’. He is present to us through the gift of His Spirit. He is present to us in the faces of our neighbours most especially in those of the poor and the needy. He is present to us here, and there, and in every place. Risen and Ascended…but ever present. ‘Behold, I am with you’ he said ‘ to the end of the age.’.