Back in 1907 when the 20th century had not long come into being, Robert Hugh Benson wrote of the things to come in his book, “Lord of the World”.
In it he described many things not yet known to man – aeroplanes and airports; electric lights, smokeless zones and temperatures measured in centigrade; a European parliament and even the abolition of the House of Lords, and a Home Rule Bill for Ireland. All this must have called for a great deal of imagination as well as a prophetic instinct; while for those around him in the first decade of the 20th century it may well have seemed like a writing of pure fantasy ! Now, of course, we know how accurately he had envisaged things.
But imagination can play an important part in our life of faith; in fact it may even be regarded as an essential part. How else can we begin to grasp the idea of Christ’s Ascension into heaven?
When the disciples first heard Jesus, before his death, speaking of leaving them in John’s gospel (16: 16-20) it caused great anxiety and puzzlement. “What does he mean? A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me”? Then in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, (post Resurrection), they are still puzzled (Acts 1: 6- 9), and ask him if the time has come for Israel’s Kingdom to be restored, and the yoke of Roman occupation ended. Jesus’ reply leaves them none the wiser: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set… but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” The disciples must have been even more confused. The reality of Jesus presence is to be replaced with the unreality of his absence. It is a sort of bereavement.
The absence of loved ones, whether caused by death or various forms of family ‘separation’, can leave a huge void in human life, requiring a mental effort of intellect, including imagination, to help us cope with a difficult situation. And so it was for the Apostles, until the first Pentecost.
When the Scriptures record Jesus’ return to the Father at the Ascension, it is, you might say, a celebration of separation and anticipation - and even imagination!
“Unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you …but if I do go, I will send him to you”, (Jn.16:7) Not only must we believe in the necessity of Christ’s return to the Father, but we also need to recognise the need for the essential “gift of the Holy Spirit” in our lives… to give us the power we need to be true witnesses to Christ in the world. In order to send the Holy Spirit into our world, Christ tells his followers that he must return to the Father.
In his book, Benson concludes his prophetic story with Christ’s second coming – the ‘parousia’. The story is placed in the then future (the rise of Communism, increased dominance of Humanitarianism, the economic struggle between East and West etc.,) and recognised the hostile world predicted by Christ when he tells his friends that they “do not belong to the world” (Jn. 15:18).
So the message of Christ’s Ascension into heaven and the promise he gives us that he will come again, tests our powers of imagination, while at the same time assuring us of the power given to each one of us by the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and in our Baptism and Confirmation.
The words of anointing, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit”, used at the sacrament of ‘Christian maturity’, indicate the power we have received, enabling each of us to be a witness to the Christ who died, rose from the dead, ascended to the Father, and who has promised to come again. It was this spiritual power that provided the energy to send the Apostles out to the whole world.