Feast of the Ascension
Write your own ending ©Suzanne Grimmett
Are you the kind of person who likes a story to have a proper ending? Someone who likes the ‘i’s’ dotted and the ‘t’s’ crossed? If this is you, then you might find some movies probably are irritating beyond words. The classic movie which kept audiences perplexed and confused was Gone with the Wind, but I am sure you have had other cinema experiences or novels which left you with more questions than answers- sometimes, when it prompts us to greater reflections and self-understanding, that is a very good thing.
It seems the readers of the Gospel of Mark also didn’t like ambiguous endings. Scholars generally agree that Mark was the earliest Gospel, possibly being written down around 60-70CE. Scholars also agree that the early version of the Gospel ends with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome arriving at the empty tomb, being greeted by a heavenly messenger and then fleeing the empty tomb. If the Gospel of Mark was made into a movie in its original form, most in the audience I think would leave shaking their heads and wondering what it all meant and where this story was heading. The Markan communities in the second century clearly were also shaking their heads, so decided to add a more extended, more complete and happier ending- and it is this extended cut that we have heard tonight.
The new version adds extra elements which aren’t consistent with the rest of the Gospel of Mark, from the spectacular – picking up snakes and drinking poison- to a more conditional view of salvation with condemnation for those who do not believe. But there is contained in this ending, within the description of Jesus’ ascension to the heavenly realm, a theme that is a great gift to the continuation of the Markan tradition: the text tells us that the disciples “went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them.” Jesus is present in the disciples’ proclamation. The risen and ascended Christ works great works through the disciples who go out with the good news throughout the world and live out the gospel down the ages.
This, of course, is the good news of Ascension Day. By returning to the Father, the risen Jesus is set free throughout the world to live and work in the hearts, minds and spirits of all who are empowered by the Spirit to follow him. This is an open-ended project of which we are a part. Perhaps because the project is so open-ended, we need to retain something of the sense of the earlier ending of Mark, where we are left wondering in some bewilderment where the story could be going. The women who found the empty tomb flee in terror and amazement, saying nothing at first to anyone. There is an inconclusiveness to this that keeps us wondering about the strangeness of the empty tomb and the meaning of the resurrection in our lives. There is an incompleteness to the story that leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the ending is still being played out, and we, if we are willing, are invited to play our part as actors in this drama. Ched Myers also makes the brilliant point that because Mark’s Gospel demands a readerly resolution, ‘it subverts the possibility of a glorified christology, which might render the community passive. The empty tomb means the story of biblical radicalism can continue in the living and dying of disciples in all ages.’ (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 408)
We have a natural inclination as human beings to see the story ended, the tension resolved, and projects completed. The wide open invitation of the Ascension is to recognise that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves- a story where across our entire lifetime we will see no conclusion, a life where tensions will not be completely resolved, and any project we may complete is part of the wider, broader project called the kingdom of God of which we are each of us only a very small player. While the later ending of Mark points us clearly to the truth that Jesus the Christ is working with us and through us, the more open-ended story of Jesus told throughout this short Gospel is an invitation to embrace the difficult but also liberating truth that nothing we do is complete. In the words of Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador;
No statement says all that can be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything….we cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
But what can we do? We can attend closely to our lives and our relationships, that we may see signs of the kingdom of God emerging with all its endlessly new and creative possibilities and join our lives to this generativity. We can recognise our place in a world beyond all rivalries, where we know we are connected by the Spirit to one another, that we may joyfully begin a work that others may finish. Jesus being taken up to heaven is an invitation to join with the great cloud of witnesses from ages past to the ages yet to come, who find in the mystery of the crucified and risen Jesus a way of healing and new life. The challenge of Ascension Day is that we are confronted with the absence of Christ, with all its emptiness and longing, at the same time as the revelation of the presence everywhere of Christ- that there is no place we can go where Christ is not already before us. Our task is to live in that tension of ‘absent yet intimately present’, without seeking to resolve it or explain it away. We have no choice but to live with a holy longing, but this feast reminds us that this is not about looking up into the sky after a disappearing Jesus, but an awareness of the continuing communion of Christ with the disciples, with all the saints down the ages and with our small fellowship here this evening listening again to the good news, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”