Ascension Day

…the prayer of baptized people is going to be a prayer that is always moving in the depths, sometimes invisibly – a prayer that comes from places deeper than we can really understand. St. Paul says just this in his letter to the Romans: ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness… that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8.26). The prayer of baptized people comes from a place deeper than we can penetrate with our minds or even our feelings… and therefore it is a prayer that may often be difficult and mysterious… Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing – there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it feels dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian

So, as we come to this fortieth day of Easter, when we remember that mysterious scene at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, it seems right somehow to look again at this odd calling we find ourselves in. The disciples of Jesus were just like us: they wanted to know when their Lord would finally sort things out, put an end to Roman tyranny and all that went with it, and the messy, broken state of human life itself. “Lord,” they said, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ reply, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set…” reminds me of his sharp rejoinder to Peter when the latter queried John’s role in the kingdom, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

There is a lot not to know about being a Christian, it seems to me. We are often accused of thinking we know all the answers – and maybe some fundamentalists do think so – but really the way of Christ, while we follow it on earth, is a way of mystery and darkness more than anything else. “Faith”, said Jennifer Kavanagh, “is not about certainty, but about trust.”

For myself, I have found cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is in himself is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in human understanding, nor to be constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing, and by not knowing allowing myself to be known. Jennifer Kavanagh, a few pages on from the passage above, goes on to say that,

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.

Indeed that seems to be the crux of the matter for me. It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift that is Jesus himself. To pray “in the name of Jesus” is nothing more nor less than this; and it is with some such thought that the Jesus Prayer is so often referred to as “the prayer of the Name”.

We are caught up, by our baptism – and by that term I mean our entry into the life of the spirit, whether or not physical water is involved – into a life more than our own. All we are is, as Paul said, “hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.3) Rowan Williams continues (ibid.):

…we receive life from others’ prayer and love, and we give the prayer and love that others need. We are caught up in a great economy of giving and exchange. The solidarity that baptism brings us into, the solidarity with suffering, is a solidarity with one another as well… We are ‘implicated’ in one another, our lives are interwoven…

And so our prayer, whether we are aware of it or not, covers life itself, the broken, weeping, glorious becoming that is being made. We are not separated, and our breath is breathed with the breath of God.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

8 thoughts on “Ascension Day

  1. William F Rushby

    “There is a lot not to know about being a Christian, it seems to me.” “Faith”, said Jennifer Kavanagh, “is not about certainty, but about trust.”
    Mike Farley, what you have written here seems, in many ways, to be over my head. What immediately appeals to me is your emphasis on the mysterious aspects of Christian faith and your recognition of our limited human knowledge and understanding. In our human finitude, we are not going to be able to grasp the mind and will of God; we have to accept our own limitations and trust in Him. Some people think that, if they cannot understand, they cannot believe. If Truth is limited to only what we can understand, we are in big trouble, I am afraid!

  2. paulakst

    “…. whether or not physical water is involved…. ” – indeed, but surely the ‘ritual’ of water baptism is really just a distraction from the reality of spiritual baptism, which even the man John the Baptist stated – one greater than I….. implying, to those with spiritual sight, that baptism with water was to become a thing of the past, meaningless ritual (though, at that time, through tradition of men, people did continue to baptise with water…)

    1. William F Rushby

      I am not well qualified to determine whether water baptism was “a distraction” or a “meaningless ritual” in New Testament times. Apparently, the Lord Jesus Christ didn’t think so! As concerns the present time, my impression is that adult water baptism is an important expression of Christian commitment in Anabaptist churches with which I have had extensive experience. To insist that it was or is meaningless seems quite unfounded to me! Does Paulakst have first-hand experience or empirical evidence to support this claim??? If so, I would like to know the details!

      1. Mike Farley Post author

        Interesting that we are told that, well after Pentecost, Philip baptised the Ethiopian chancellor on the Gaza road. (One of my favourite accounts – hat-tip to Susan, my wife, for pointing it out in this context!)

      2. paulakst

        Thanks for responding to my comment! My first-hand experience is simply, that I have not myself ever been subject to the physical ritual called ‘Baptism’ – ie, that of being immersed in actual physical water or being sprinkled with water etc. and I personally don’t think it is necessary for either deliverance now or for ultimate Salvation at death. (One person I was speaking to the other day said I will go to Hell for this supposed failure, but that was just his opinion, and did not upset me at all (knowing that this was his religious stance, I didn’t take it personally.) We do know from scriptures that the word ‘baptise’ (in Greek) can also have another sense, in which case no physical water is involved, like the instance spoken of in “….how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3And did all eat the same spiritual meat; 4And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ….” where the word baptized, according to footnotes in the Complete Word Study New Testament (Editor Spiros Zodhiates) means in this case “to be identified with”. I am not arguing that nobody underwent this ritual in the times during or after Jesus’ physical manifestation on earth. However, it is surely notable that the man Jesus himself never performed this ritual? Some would argue that, as Jesus says in John 3.5 “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”, but this ‘water’ can easily be interpreted in its symbolic sense as for example in the cleansing of regeneration etc mentioned in Hebrew scriptures….
        When researching to answer you I found this useful link – and I would concur with the writer of this who says “…one thing is certain: “born of water” is not a reference to water baptism. Baptism is nowhere mentioned in the context, nor did Jesus ever imply that we must do anything to inherit eternal life but trust in Him in faith (John 3:16). Water baptism is an outward sign that we have given our lives to Jesus, but not a requirement for salvation (Luke 23:40–43).”
        Sorry that my answer is rather long, but I think it states the case quite well, and in fact that last sentence in the quote says it all! – ‘not a requirement for salvation’ So the question now is, why should I need to perform the outward sign? Since those with spiritual sight (which is the only people Jesus himself was addressing not the crowd who rejected him in the end) will discern whether or not I am a child of God in other ways (i.e. by the fruits of the Spirit).

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