Our village primary school used to go across the village green to the parish church for two special occasions a year. One was the annual nativity play, a great occasion for tea towels and old curtains, and the other was Ascension Day. The service on Ascension Day was memorable because we all had to take bunches of flowers with which we decorated a big wooden crown; because there was a lady who used to sing the “Alleluias” with a very loud quavery voice that used to make small boys giggle; and because, after the service, we had the rest of the day off school.
While our family were not churchgoers, and really professed no faith at all, apart from putting down “Church of England” for our religion, the teaching of the Bible at the primary school was very strong and there were many stories that were baffling to a small boy.
The Ascension story was a story that seemed odd. Why was there joy about what happened? If I had been one of the disciples, I wouldn’t have wanted Jesus to go away, I would have wanted him to stay with me. I would have wanted him to still be a friend who sat and shared a meal; I would have wanted him to still be a friend who cooked breakfast on the lakeshore; I would have wanted him to still be a friend who would sit down and talk with me. When the teacher read the story from the Bible about Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear Jesus talking about leaving and going back to heaven.
The world does not operate according to the wishes of small boys, though, and our service remembered the moment forty days after Easter when Jesus returned to the Father: no-one explained why this had to happen, but there were a lot of things in the life of a small boy that were without explanation.
If Christmas was about God taking on our flesh and blood, then the Ascension was about God taking that flesh and blood back to himself. It was about God taking back to himself all the thoughts and feelings and experiences of our human lives. The Ascension meant that God would know himself what it was like to be one of us because someone who had become one of us had gone to be with him. God would know happiness and sadness, he would know joy and pain, he would know love and tears.
The Ascension meant that God would understand us. Perhaps even a small boy would have understood what it meant for someone to understand.