Written as a part of a Lent 2017 project.
This Sunday I will be teaching children at my church about the Ascension. This will be somewhat out of sync with the rest of the Christian calendar (Ascension Day falls on the 25th May), but we were looking to cover the latter half of Jesus’ life before the children go on holiday for Easter.
As such, I have been reflecting for the past few days on the story of the Ascension, and the nature of presence. Particularly, I’ve been asking what it means to be in the presence of God.
Lent is a time for introspection before the celebration of Easter. In traditional Anglican churches, the liturgy becomes sparser, with less singing and music. Any songs or sequences with ‘alleluia’ are removed from the service, and the ministers will wear a deep purple. The presence of God will still be identified in services, through the taking of mass, genuflecting, and crossing oneself. But what is noticeable is a feeling a lack, as if the spirit of the church has removed itself.
In some evangelical churches, the leader will call the congregation to worship by reminding them that God is present with them, even if the congregation feels ‘close to or far away from God.’ I have found that sometimes a proximity to God is used as a measuring stick within some Christian communities. People aspire to be ‘close to God’, and to feel that God is ‘far-away’ can be a cause for concern.
I wonder if this is a healthy. If we look at the story of the Ascension, Jesus describes himself as leaving his disciples, while at the same time saying that the Holy Spirit will descend upon them. He is both leaving and returning, becoming absent and more present. It is tempting to skip over the ascension en route to Pentecost, where the presence of God is given to believers in the form of the Holy Spirit. And yet I believe that it is an important aspect of any spiritual life.
In Lent, as with other times in a spiritual life, it can be healthy to draw away from the usual ways of encountering the presence of God. In this withdrawal, an absence, we understand ourselves as individuals, encountering loneliness as a realistic and normal part of human life. I am often frightened of being alone, and this is because I feel my presence more keenly in the presence of others.
But I do not stop existing by myself.
Being distant from God is not the same as being forsaken, and it shouldn’t be a subject of fear. As in the Ascension story, presence is a tricky thing, and it is possible to be both distant and close.
This Lent I am making my peace with distance.