The collapse of the difference between presence and absence

Liz Stuart, 16 May 2021

Daniel 7: 9–14; Acts 1: 1–11; Luke 24: 44–53

Here’s a proposition for you: at this time of year at least, Jesus is a bit like cat. If Jesus was a cat, what kind of cat he would be? I was thinking about this for probably far longer than I should have been, and I concluded that he would be like one of the cats in that film Artistocats –the Disney film, I don’t know if you remember it. One of the cats was called Scat Cat; I think it’s a character based on Louis Armstrong. He wears a bowler hat and he plays the trumpet. Scat Cat is bursting with joy. He’s as happy engaging with the rather dubious alley cats as he is with the felines of more noble birth. His joyful playing of ‘Everybody wants to be a cat’ shatters the structures of the house and then he leads this rag bag group of cats in a pilgrimage of dance and song through the streets, singing, ‘Everybody wants to be a cat’. Jesus, I think, would be Scat Cat.

Anyway, the reason why I suggest that Jesus was a bit like a cat after his resurrection is that it’s unclear whether he’s in or out. If you’ve known a cat you will know that you spend a lot of time standing by the door asking, ‘Are you going out or are you staying in?’ And you spend a lot of time muttering exasperations as you open the door through which the cat has just gone out for the two seconds it’s taken him to decide that he actually wants to come back in again. ‘For goodness sake, make up your mind, Tiddles.’

I think the disciples must have been in a constant state of bewilderment after the resurrection. First, they think Jesus is dead, then they discover he isn’t, but he’s alive in a different way than he was before. Then he keeps appearing and disappearing. And angelic figures keep arriving to tell the disciples off for looking for Jesus in the wrong place. Then, when he finally ascends, he does so with the promise that the Holy Spirit which descended upon him at his conception and then again at his baptism will be sent out to his disciples. What is going on? Is he with us, or is he not with us? Jesus, are you present or are you absent? Make up your mind!

I think that the Ascension teaches us that one of the consequences of the resurrection is the collapse of the binary difference between presence and absence. After the Ascension there is just presence. This is explained beautifully in the collect for Ascension Day that’s used in the Episcopal Church in America. It begins, ‘Almighty God, whose blessèd Son our Saviour Jesus Christ ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things’. Jesus now fills all things.

Jesus fills the spaces between us … There is nothing but him and he is nothing but love and light.

This is how he can be present – as present in bread and wine as he was to his family in Nazareth. It is how we can meet him in water poured over a child’s head, in a stranger on the train, in the whisper of breeze or the snuffling of a hedgehog, or a cross traced in oil on a dying brow. It’s why we can never flee from his presence; he waits with us in the dark nights of our souls and dances with us through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s how we have survived lockdown, because he has filled Zoom. He fills the spaces between us when we are apart and when we have to part from each other. And if we could but know it, he fills us. And because he fills all things, he drives out fear. There is nothing but him and he is nothing but love and light, but God. The feast of the Ascension invites us to be more attentive to how Jesus fills all things, to recognise him in the world around us, in each other, in ourselves. I see him in you.

Unable to perceive the shape of you
I find you all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with your love.
It humbles my heart,
for you are everywhere.

These words of the Sufi poet Hakim Sanai make our prayer today in this Ascensiontide. Amen.