Friday, 6 May 2016

Ascension: chronos and kairos kiss each other

One of the great insights of the early twentieth century was the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their deep explorations into human personality and the world of what they named as the ‘psyche’. Their voluminous work is not something many of us have waded into, me least of all, so, like many people, I know their work in that sort of ‘pop psychology’ way.

One of the insights derived particularly from Jung was about human personality and the different types of person: this is used in the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator: so we may tend to be either more introvert or extrovert, sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving. For some people this is a deeply helpful tool of understanding for others, and for other people it is absolute rubbish!
Freud gives another polarity: retentive or expulsive personalities. Being Freud it relates to nappies and basic human actions, and there I will leave that aspect. Essentially a retentive personality is someone who is insistent upon the smallest detail of something, one who feels a need to be in control of all aspects of his or her surroundings, controlling, ordered. So what sort of personality wrote this phrase?

‘I decided after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you…’ (Luke 1.1)

It sounds a rather ordered personality, precise and careful. The author is, I’m sure you guessed, St Luke. Luke gives us a most orderly account and plenty of detail. It is Luke who gives us the celebration of the Ascension tonight, forty days after the Resurrection of Jesus; he’s that precise and, just to keep it all tidy, the Day of Pentecost falls a nice round fifty days after Easter. Luke inspires the putting of the Annunciation a neat nine months before the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

Our liturgical practice mirrors Luke’s neat and tidy scheme. Indeed priestly literature in the Bible demonstrates this tendency: the orderly seven days of creation forming the seven day week; the rubrics and liturgies of the Pentateuch. Priests, and Luke, enjoy chronos the ordering of time, from which we take the word chronological, measured time.

We have something of a contrast in the Biblical tradition of the prophets: they  tend to let it all hang out, talking in big brush strokes, setting hares running and not thinking through the consequences.

St John’s gospel curiously echoes aspects of that. Very untidily – but I would say that wouldn’t I, I’m a priest – there is no moment when Jesus’ risen body disappears from our sight, although he does tell Mary Magdalene, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’. (John 20.17). But if that’s the Ascension he comes back, whereas for Luke the Ascension is the tidying up of the earthly body of Jesus.

If we took the liturgical year from John it would look all very different. We might call it expulsive, but a better word would be kairos another Greek word that is about time, but more about time as a fulfilled moment. Time, as we will all have experienced, is something of quality of experience as much as measurement. How long has this sermon gone on? Dangerous question! If it’s boring you silly you might say 20 minutes at least, but if you’re interested and engaged you might say 2 minutes. Time flies by: well, chronos doesn’t; kairos does.

So what do all these threads say about the Ascension of Jesus? It is a fundamental and often overlooked festival, not just because it always falls on a Thursday, and not a Sunday, but because it is a major collision point where the retentive and expulsive tendencies of scripture and human preference run into one another, and where time and space is unbounded, and a new cosmology is shaped. The Ascension and its difficulties take us literally into places where our language and speaking cannot go, caught between the poles of Him being here or not.

In Luke’s account of the Ascension the disciples are busily asking Jesus the tidying up question, ‘’Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ But that’s the last we hear of them: Jesus’ answer, and what they see, renders them silent, gawping up into the skies. From that moment Luke’s passion for things chronological fades and whilst the Day of Pentecost falls on the fiftieth day what it unleashes is a swirling maelstrom of confused language, visions, dreams and wonders, people are taken to places, figuratively and literally, where they never expected to go. The Risen and Ascended Jesus appears to Saul and dazzles him.

Jesus ascended into the heavens and inaugurates the age in which his Body, the Church, becomes the vessel which, at the very least, will bear his life and grace to the world, spilling out expulsively from Judea to the ends of the earth.

The Ascension of Jesus undoes our efforts at retention and the compulsion to tidy up and hold onto God; it also tells us that just as the climbing plant cannot climb without a trellis to support it: the risen life is to be lived in the real and actual world and it is not a pie in the sky. It is into the space that a new creative space is created and engaged with in the Eucharist, where we meet the Christ who commissions us. The Eucharist is the trellis that means earth meets heaven and heaven touches earth.

In the psalms we read,

Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall flourish out of the earth: and righteousness hath looked down from heaven. (Psalm 85: 10-11)

In the Ascension retention and expulsion are met together: chronos and kairos have kissed each other. And in the inadequate language given to us, God’s truth shall flourish out of the earth, and righteousness hath looked down from heaven.

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