Easter VII, 24th May 2020
No one’s going to win any prizes for creative writing these days by ending a story with that familiar phrase ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. As nice an idea as it is, it’s become hackneyed; a cliché - and it doesn’t really fit with what we know about life. In literature, in film, in television, we’re used to things being left unresolved. For the writer who wants us to keep reading or watching - or to tune into the next episode or season - or just leave us wondering and questioning at the end of a film - the cliffhanger has become an indispensable device. Scheherazade in the 1001 nights saves her life by cutting off her stories at a crucial point. It’s said that in 1841 American fanboys thronged New York harbour awaiting the ship that was carrying the latest instalment of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. ‘Is little Nell dead?!’ they cried hysterically from the docks. And in modern television, from Sherlock to Madmen to Twin Peaks, Game of Thrones, Friends and Breaking Bad that pre-credits shocker is a familiar, maddening and highly successful way of holding on to our attention. Who can forget the earnest frenzy with which the nation waited to know if there’d be justice for Deirdre Barlow, or the wild frustration as the world asked itself that vital question - who shot J.R. - or The Simpsons’ Mr Burns or, a little closer to home, poor old Phil Mitchell?
On Thursday the Church kept the great Feast of the Lord’s Ascension - the closing chapter of Jesus’ life on earth. Fr Morris preached beautifully about how our Salvation is bound up with the whole of Jesus’ life on this amongst us, and pointed out that the earliest ‘Ascension Day’ celebrations took place not in Jerusalem or even on Olivet’s peak but in Bethlehem - bringing full circle the beautiful, saving story of the Incarnation.
‘The hour has come’ says Jesus in today’s gospel reading. ‘I have finished the work that you gave me to do’. His identity is revealed, he has come into his own, the king has returned. All very neat and tidy, we might think. And yet, we can’t quite hear this morning’s scripture and come away with the idea that that’s that - that all is resolved. Story over, mystery revealed, problem solved. Back on the shelf the gospel goes along with Homeland Season 8. For - though we might not be left with as crass a cliffhanger as we’ve come to expect from television’s soap operas - it’s clear, isn’t it, that there is more to come. St Luke in our passage from the book of Acts puts the disciples and Our Lady back in an upper room - scene for them in recent months of such expectation, hand-wringing, anxiety, fear and joy - here they regroup and gather to pray. For the Ascension, that apparent conclusion to which they have just been so dramatically witness, has already given way to expectation, to anticipation. St John’s gospel may come to an end, it’s resolution summed up in this final prayer of Jesus - but the next box-set, the Acts of the Apostles, is yet to come. We know that next week is Pentecost but for them the way the Holy Spirit would come, and whence He would lead them, was yet to be revealed. The second reading too, from first Peter, puts the emphasis on what is yet to come - reminding us, reminding them, of the tribulation, the suffering that they know, despite this recent glorious fulfilment of Jesus’ earthly career, awaits them all. And of course, all of scripture looks forward to the time when the Lord will come again - ‘will come’, as the preceding passage of the Book of Acts has it, ‘in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’. Resolution and anticipation, then, now and not yet, fulfilment and, yes, work to do, acts with which to be getting busy. Our salvation is revealed - the cliffhanger of the Cross is resolved - we don’t need to wonder about who God loves, like viewers of Friends in 1998 wondered who Ross was in love with, because we’ve been shown that God loves us all. But in the glorious light of this love there is, for us, more to come.
There are a few things I want to suggest to you that this open-endedness; the spiritual-cliffhangers of Holy Scripture, tell us about our lives of faith and how they might encourage those lives. The first thing to note is how it draws us into the story - indeed reminds us that it is our story and not one that ended two thousand years ago. Scripture is not a sealed off account of past events but a portal through which we might enter the living, current drama of our salvation. At his Ascension, Jesus draws humanity toward heaven and prepares a future throne for us there. By engaging with scripture we begin to make ourselves ready for that journey. And our journey of faith, as was the disciples’ is open-ended. We do not know where opening ourselves up to the spirit will take us. This story is ‘to be continued’ and it is continued for and by each one of us. Just as the disciples knew the certainty of what the Lord had done for them, and knew his prayers for them yet did not know what was next, so we, heirs of those disciples, go forward confidently, faithfully, into the unknown. We might consider when we pray imagining ourselves in the scenes of the scripture we hear at Mass or read in our own time - imagining ourselves there with the disciples, working out how it might be that God is calling us to act in this finished and yet unfinished story. Who will we help, reach out to, reconcile with? How is the Christian story - the story we read about in Holy Scripture - going to continue in your life, today?
The story being unfinished also reminds that we never stop learning or growing. There is no end this side of heaven to our growth, no point in our earthly lives at which we become what God ultimately wants us to be. No point at which we can convince ourselves that we can say say - I’ve got it and you haven’t. Reminding ourselves of this will help us in our humility, help us in our patience with and kindness to others. Help us in being quietly receptive to thew promptings of the Spirit. Not to give ourselves the fixed and solid boundaries that stop us from learning and listening. Not to insist that ‘I’m this sort of person’ or ‘that sort of person’ and imagine we can’t change. To remember on the one hand that there’s always work to do, always prayer to work on, always discipline to improve - but on the other too, that there is always the abundant forgiving grace of God, through Confession, that wipes away the sin we imagine will always be ours. To allow ourselves to be shaped by what, by who, God brings us into relationship with. The unfinished story of our salvation might give us joy that there is always more to learn about our God and about his world, about others and about ourselves, and that there is always room to move toward his perfection and better reflect his glory.
Putting ourselves alongside the disciples at this time when certainty and uncertainty meet, we might also allow ourselves to grow in strength of spirit, to develop the Christian character that will help us to deal with the times of difficulty in which we all, at different times in our lives and in different ways, experience. And help us to be there for others in their struggles. We’re reminded that life is costly and full of grief and sadness. That trials can burst upon us in the midst of joy. Acknowledging that difficulty is ahead does not mean dwelling on it. Rather we dwell, with the disciples, on the surety of what Jesus has done for us, the surety of his prayers for us now, and the surety that whatever happens he is with us, and has a plan for us, even to the end of the age.
And finally that ‘to be continued’ element of our faith allows us a glimpse into the vital, dynamic, loving, relational being that is our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to remember that it is into that relationship, into that perfect story, that we are all ultimately called. Called not merely to look upon heaven, to admire the finished product, to feel satisfied that we now have the equivalent of the complete set of Desperate Housewives, but to belong and to be, with, through, in our Creator, truly ourselves. There is ahead of us a glorious light and when He comes again, then we might, with no doubt and no embarrassment, say ‘and they all lived happily ever after’.