My Father and Yours: Ascension Day 2018

When Mary Magdalene met the resurrected Jesus, he told her not to touch him. He still had a journey to make, he said: ‘I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God.’ Today we celebrate the moment when Christ fulfilled that prophecy and rose to join his God, who is therefore also yours and mine.

Jesus addressed this God of his and ours with the Aramaic term of endearment, Abba — father. We are inured to the embarrassing degree of affection expressed in such a name. But to Jesus’ contemporaries the thought of calling God ‘daddy’ was appalling. Ancient Israel’s priests believed their deity was untouchably exalted and would never stoop to such familiarities. For Jesus to suggest otherwise was worse than shocking: it was sacrilege. It is one of the reasons why they had him executed.

Jesus’ ascension secures for us a tender human companionship with God which remains every bit as gallingly provocative as it was when Christ first claimed it. If you think calling yourself God’s son or daughter isn’t enough to get you killed in today’s civilised world, that is a comfortable illusion secured for you by the relative safety of life in the modern West. There are radical Islamist regimes in which it is a crime to proclaim that the Almighty has children of any kind, let alone human ones. ISIS has murdered plenty of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East for standing by that very belief. Many of them died with these words on their lips: ‘our Father, who art in heaven . . .’

It is no accident that when Jesus faced down his deepest agony, when he sweated blood in Gethsemane and begged God for a way out of his grisly death, the name he used was Abba, father. Nothing could have seen him through that moment other than the insane conviction that though on Earth he looked like a powerless slave, in Heaven and in reality he was the cherished son of the Most High. He held to that conviction in the teeth of his suffering and proved the truth of it in his resurrection. That is why we can rejoice and insist that he is at God’s side to this day, interceding on our behalf.

Christ does not offer us some comfortable acquaintance dwelling in an inoffensive heaven. He offers us nothing less than a father, knowing from experience that nothing less can sustain us in our hour of need. We will not all be martyred; I hope to God none of us will. But we will all face rejection, grieve loss, see disease and feel fear. Every one of us will die. There are only two possible responses to such prospects and one of them is despair. The other is that defiant hope which cries out in unison with Jesus: Abba, father, spare me from death.

God did not spare Jesus. He will not spare us either. But whenever the anguish of that realisation draws from us a desperate plea for help, then we enter with Christ into the raw and honest intimacy which dares to call on God as father. Jesus’ darkest moment was also the occasion for him to solicit God’s deepest love, and that love will ultimately triumph over any horror that might cause us to invoke it — even over the horror of death. On Easter Sunday Christ walks ahead of us out of the tomb; today he ascends before us to the God whom he calls ‘Father.’ He wins for us the right to do the same.