Some of the changing emphases in Church life can be discerned from the changes in the collects that are set for each Sunday. They do what they say: that is ‘collect’ our thoughts and focus them on the one thing that we ask of god on a particular Sunday. Since there is more flexibility in the choice of collect, it this raises the question for me ‘What kind of thing do I want to say to God and ask of God on a particular day, via this prayer?’
But for today, the idea of the ‘Ascension’ presupposes a world view that we do not share. We still think that ‘up’ is good and ‘down’ is bad but we do not necessarily think that God is ‘up’ in heaven above the clouds any more.
So what do we make of the collect from ‘Common Worship’ for this Sunday, which happens to be a re-working in modern language of the 1662 Collect? It goes
Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens,so we in heart and mind may also ascend and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns etc.
Provided that we can make the adjustment about Jesus being ‘in the heavens’, this collect tells me that Jesus is with the Father (see the end) and he reigns there. So that has to be pretty good. We get the message that where the power lies is where Jesus is. It seems as though the power is ‘down here’ on earth, but since Jesus has ‘ascended’ we now believe that true power lies not with ‘worldly’ powers, but with the crucified Jesus Christ.
We then ask that we ‘in heart and mind’ that we might also go there and be with Jesus. What would that get us? We would be with Christ. Good. There are times when I feel God’s absence. I can’t go to be with Christ bodily because the resurrection has not happened to me yet, but I can in my imagination, and with my desire (heart and mind) live as though I am with Jesus.
This collect picks up the themes of several of the Epistles. The letter to the Hebrews says ‘Here we have no abiding home, we seek the commonwealth which is above’ or the passage in Colossians 3:2: ‘Since Christ has ascended to the heavens, let us seek those things that are ‘above’ where Christ is’ This collect emphasises the alternative nature of Christian life. We are not ‘born’ of the earth, but ‘born’ of heaven. It is Christ who determines our reality here, on earth.
The alternative collect for the Church of England says this:
Risen Christ,you have raised our human nature to the throne of heaven: help us to seek and serve you,that we may join you at the Father’s side,where you reign…etc.
The Roman Catholic one says something similar.
God our Father, make us joyful in the ascension of your Son Jesus Christ .
May we follow him into the new creation for his ascension is our Glory and our hope, for he lives etc.
Notice that these two collects fill out the picture of the first one a little. The first collect simply contrasts ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’. But for these next two, where Jesus is, is not just ‘heaven’ but ‘the Father’s side’ and ‘The new Creation’. There are elements of the idea of ‘transformation’ in these collects. It is not just Jesus who has changed, but we are being changed ‘from glory into glory’ till we too can take our place with Christ. We are ‘in Christ’. So just as he heralds the ‘new creation’ so we who are ‘in Christ’ are a new creation. Our human nature has been transformed by participating in the divine nature Christ. This is one of the prayers that is said at the Eucharist. The President prays ‘As Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity, may we share in Christ’s divinity’. Christ’s transforming power changes all that it touches, not the other way around.
But these collects also bring a note of warning. The Roman Catholic collect acknowledges the truth that although Jesus has been raised into the new Creation, for us it is a ‘not yet’ fully realised experience. We may not be ‘joyful’ at the prospect of losing Jesus according to the flesh. Part of the preface for today’s Eucharist says the same thing, which I find very moving. It says ‘He has been taken from our sight, not to abandon us, but to be our hope’ In times of difficulty, I need lot of hope!
The Anglican collect says that unless we ‘seek’ Christ, and ‘serve’ him, then perhaps we won’t join Him at the Father’s side. Being part of ‘raised’ human nature means that we are enabled to act in Christ-like ways. That is how we become part of Christ’s reign.
So the two more modern collects still keep the pattern of the ‘alternative’ presented by Christian living, but they direct our attention to the fact that it is we who are being transformed into Christ’s likeness. There is a little more inclusion of ‘us’ in this prayer.
The last collect for today, which I came across, says this.
God of Majesty,you led the Messiah through suffering into risen life,
and took him into the glory of heaven:
clothe us with the power promised from on high,and send us forth to the ends of the earth
as heralds of repentance and witnesses of Jesus Christ,
the firstborn from the dead.
We ask this…etc.
This collect also explains the idea of heaven a little. Jesus who was crucified is now risen and is in glory and majesty with God. The prayer then goes on to ask something for us. This time we ask not that we go to be where Christ is (yet!) but that we are given power, and ask that we be able to be faithful witnesses to Christ. So the beginning and end of the collect draws our attention to the reality of Christ’s alternative life as we are now accustomed to seeing, but the main thrust of the collect is that because the crucified on is now in Glory, we can be given what power we need here and now on earth to help to be credible witnesses of this alternative way of being. We like him are not subject to the forces of death, or destruction, even though like him, we suffer. But we don’t have to live by those rules any more. But we are able to be credible witnesses to the fact that there is another way of being. This collect completes the movement from ‘going to heaven to be with Christ’ to ‘being demonstrations of heaven on earth till the whole creation is renewed.’ That, I find very challenging, because there are many times when I actually do live as though the forces of darkness rule me, and not the forces of life, which are ‘in Christ’.