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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Election and the Ascension: a theological meditation on leadership

Three days since we went to the polls. How long ago it seems. But far from the election clearing the air, the atmosphere is still febrile. Time will tell whether things will stabilise or whether the nation will find itself pulled apart by social forces that may not be contained for much longer.

But whatever is on the agenda, what we want to be reassured about in our political leaders is that they have not been elevated far above our sight and our common human experience.  We need to know that they are not absentee incumbents but still belong to our world, still get their hands dirty, still share our hopes and fears for the future.  We all know how risky high office can be; we have seen it corrupt men and women, and some of us know from within how easily we begin to have inflated ideas about ourselves and our power. 

Thursday is Ascension Day. I think it holds up a mirror to all who find themselves exalted in public places.  ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?’ asks one of the psalms we shall sing.  ‘Those who have clean hands and pure hearts; and has not lifted up their mind to vanity, nor sworn to deceive their neighbours.’  That rite of entry into the sanctuary may especially have been meant for the Israelite king to remind him of his place in the divine scheme of things and not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think. 

In his ascension, Jesus mounts the throne of his glory. But it is not the ‘happy ending’ to an earthly career, the tidy closure we would like to see at the end of the story.  Nor is it the restoration of an earthly kingdom as the disciples so much wanted, or even the promise of it.  Still less is it that he has abandoned us as if he had disappeared, though it may seem like that as we gaze like the disciples into an empty sky.  It affirms what Jesus has been proclaiming throughout his ministry, that God reigns, and he calls us to embrace his reign with joy and become subject to it.  It affirms that the exalted Christ ‘fills all things’, as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it. It affirms that it is our own destiny to be exalted with Christ, and that is wonderfully to glorify and ennoble our human nature.

But we need to get 'glory' in perspective. The ascension is of a piece with everything Jesus has been to us in his incarnate life. The scriptures speak of his exaltation in the imagery of the coronation of the kings of Israel. But if we follow that imagery back to its source we are drawn back to the obligations of kingship as well as its privileges.  The king is to be loyal to the covenant between God and his people; indeed, he is there to guarantee all that it promises: peace, wellbeing, justice, the care of God’s humble poor. 

In one of the psalms (82) God sits in a cosmic court with all the heavenly beings gathered round him for judgment.  Are these beings worthy of their exalted status, to be called elohim, gods?  The test is simple.  ‘Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute; rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’  It is the mandate for wise and just government in any age. But they fail it dismally.  ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?’ So they are toppled from their thrones.  ‘I say, you are gods, nevertheless you shall die like mortals and fall like any prince.’  To be dethroned is the destiny of those who aggrandise themselves, who forget who they are and to whom they owe account.   In Jewish tradition this saying is applied to corrupt leaders who have forfeited the right to govern.  They have ascended the hill of the Lord, only to fall from the pedestal by the sin of pride.  

The exalted Christ is not like them.  For he bears the imprint of the nails on his body, and takes us with him into God’s very heart. The Letter to the Hebrews says that even in its imagined heavenly realms, he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He can help those because he himself was tested by what he suffered. Jesus is not simply one of the elohim in the psalm but is above all other principality and power.  Yet, exalted though he is, he is always present to the lowliest of his family, the hungry and naked, the voiceless and the poor, those whom St Matthew calls ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’  

So humility and service characterise the ascension of Jesus. There is no pomp and ceremony, no whirlwind or fiery chariot or a fanfare of trumpets. He was and is the Son of Man who healed the sick and spoke kindly to the neglected, who washed his disciples’ feet, agonised in Gethsemane and went out to die.  Any other messiah would not have been born in a stable, executed between thieves, raised secretly behind a stone, or ascended without ceremony on an obscure hilltop with only a handful of witnesses to tell of it.  Only this Messiah could bear the marks of the nails in his glorified hands and feet and be pictured as a Lamb upon a throne.  Only this Messiah could be both priest and victim and make his approach to us in lowly bread and wine so that we might welcome him, and exalt him in our hearts. 
I call this kenotic ascension. The word means self-emptying. For Jesus' way of exaltation is in the spirit of the whole story we tell about his abasement I which he takes the form of a slave and lays down his life for his friends. As he says in the upper room, 'I am among you as one who serves' - not only in his days on earth but always. The foot washing affirms for all time that it isn't Olympian grandeur that God cares about. It's self-giving service of every kind that is exalted and blessed in the gospel, because in the imitation of Christ, truth and justice are honoured, mercy and peace meet together, and in the movement of self-giving love, the poor are not forgotten.
We who are in ministry need to remind ourselves of this, whether we are in the service of church or state or serve in any other representative role. Public office holds many pitfalls: the higher we climb, the better we become known, the more proficient we become, the more we are at risk of the sin of pride and the further there is to fall. But Jesus' exaltation models a more excellent way of leadership. St Theresa famously said that we are the only hands and feet Christ now has to do his work in the world.  But not as an absentee or remote sovereign. Far from it. The ascension affirms that he leaves the world only so that he can be present to it for ever. 'It is good that I go away.'
It's this quality of 'presence' that we all need, especially in our leaders, as together we endeavour to construct a society that serves the common good and thereby points to the promised kingdom.

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