The waiting game

It used to be the case – and I’m talking some years ago now – that during the Eucharist for Ascension Day a server would solemnly approach the Paschal Candle with a long candle snuffer and put it out.  That could have been during the reading of the account of the ascension from the Acts of the Apostles or after the Gospel or when in the Creed we said ‘and ascended into heaven.’ But wherever it happened in this dramatic act, the point was made that Jesus was gone.

The Paschal Candle, first lit from the new fire at the Easter Vigil, inscribed with the year, marked with the symbols of the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega, and ‘wounded’ in five places, becomes from that point onwards a representation of the presence of the Risen Lord, who in his incarnation enters time – the year; as Christ encompasses time – the Alpha and Omega; bears the marks of his passion – the wounds; and yet is alive as the flame denotes.  But in fact Ascension Day, the fortieth day after the resurrection, if you follow St Luke’s chronology, is not about the absence of Jesus from that point onwards but his continuing presence.  So the flame is not extinguished but continues to burn until the fiftieth day, the Day of Pentecost, when that one flame is then ignited as a myriad of flames, on the heads, in the hearts of the disciples, the apostles, the church, us.

So the candle stays and the server has no job to do!

Before Jesus is taken from their sight on that holy mountain he says to his friends gathered around him,

‘stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ (Luke 24.49)

and in the Acts of the Apostles we hear how they responded to this command

‘When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, … constantly devoting themselves to prayer.’ (Acts 1.13, 14)

Like so many things that Jesus asks of them, asks of us, it was a tough call.  They were already outside of the city which had proved to be a hostile and dangerous place.  Ok, they had some friends there but lots of enemies, people who had a vested interest in making sure that the story about Jesus did not get out. They were already on the road that led them back to Galilee and their homes and their families and their nets and their seat of custom. After all, it was via this mountain that they had first arrived to triumphant shouts and much excitement just 48 days before.  They could leave and have a life! But Jesus asks them to go back, through those walls, through those gates and into that room, to stay, to play the waiting game.


Parson James


There’s just this waiting game
And I don’t know how to play
It’s enough of a fight staying alive anyway
Yes, there’s this waiting game
And I don’t know how to play
It’s enough of a fight staying alive anyway.

Those are lyrics by the American singer-songwriter, Parson James, and they speak of a young gay man from an inter-racial background wanting to escape but knowing he has to wait.

Staying with it, staying there, not knowing how to play it, not sure if you have the ‘fight’ in you, it’s a tough call.  But this is what Jesus asks of those eleven and his mother, Mary. ‘Stay here in the city’. And that room that they went back to was packed full of emotion and memory.  It may well have been the room they used for the Last Supper, the room they retreated to after the crucifixion, the room Mary Magdalene left early in the morning to go to the tomb, the room she came back to with unbelievable news, the room in which Jesus appeared, without and then with Thomas.  Now it became the church, the first church of the Church, where the body of Christ gathered in prayer. It would be the room into which wind and flame would break, from which they would be expelled and from where they would be sent to live out their apostleship, their ‘sentness’.

Last week was another that began and ended with horror.  The events in Manchester were a manifestation of unbelievable evil and distorted religion and there is no other way to describe it. The images we woke to on Tuesday morning and since have been heart-rending.  Then on Friday the news from Egypt of twenty eight Coptic Christians slaughtered and another thirty-odd injured, on a pilgrimage to a monastery, was another tragedy being faced by the members of that ancient and holy church.


Staying in the city


But alongside the terrible images were ones that I found strengthening. The crowds out in the centre of Manchester, lighting the flame, standing in solidarity, being brave, being united, in the city, was my encouragement.  ‘Stay in the city’ says Jesus to us, keep the flame burning and don’t extinguish it, for as St Matthew tells us in his account of the Ascension

‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28.20)

The Alpha and Omega God, who bears the wounds, who is the light in the darkness, even when the clouds obscure our sight, doesn’t send us back to the city alone but is there with us, in the square, in the arena, on that bus, in that crowd, with the dying, with the wounded, with the compassionate, holding the afraid and wiping every tear from our eyes. Jesus knows he is asking a huge thing when he sends us back to play the waiting game, when he asks us to stay, but in asking he doesn’t leave us but stays with us – and that is why we never extinguish the flame.

Stay with us Lord,
as we stay with you,
in Manchester,
in Egypt,
in every place of pain,
of terror, of distress,
for we know that even in the darkness
your flame of life
gives light.

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Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

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the personal views of the Dean of Southwark