I love taking school assemblies. It’s a real challenge to present the faith in an interesting way that children might understand; and that’s certainly true when it comes to the Ascension that we celebrate today. But this week I think I had a success, even a victory, and in a bit you will hear how.
Way back just after Christmas I did an Assembly on the real human Jesus. I showed the children a map, so they could get a geographical location, and then a picture of a Middle Eastern refugee family.I did that in order to break the conventional image of Jesus looking more like a Greek Apollo than a Middle Eastern Jew. It is so important to get over to the world that Jesus is a real person and not just another pretty fairy story that children can stop believing in as soon as they get older.
More recently I did an Assembly on invisible things, waving my mobile phone at them and asking them if they could see the messages flying between one mobile phone and another. We had that in the Gospel at Sunday Mass a few weeks ago when Doubting Thomas represented the 21st century idiot to us by saying “Unless I see it. I won’t believe.” How can modern people say this, and yet believe in any number of invisible things, that we know about now, that they didn’t back then? By the time the children had talked about electricity and wifi, I think they’d got the message.
But I took it further with them and pointed out that they were invisible too. I showed them pictures of the same person as a 3 year old, a 13 year old and a 40 year old and I pointed out that although his physical body had changed completely, he was still the same person. And that was how this week I got them onto the Ascension.
You see the mistake people make about Easter is to confuse the Resurrection, the risen Jesus, with his “Appearances”. John’s Gospel makes this crystal clear because when Peter and John run to the tomb, John sees an empty tomb, and then says of himself “He saw and believed” (John 20:8) At that point, neither of them see the risen Jesus, but John nonetheless realised what had actually happened. He did not have to see to believe. The others, especially Thomas, needed various appearances by the risen Jesus before they came to belief. So in some way beyond our understanding, but expounded by St Paul in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, (15:35-57) the visible physical body of Jesus is transformed into an invisible spiritual body. He then appears to them visibly in various ways to help them to understand what has happened, to get them to realise that since he and God the Father are one, his death rather than being the defeat they think it is, is actually God’s great victory.
And so we come to my great victory in the Assembly that I mentioned at the beginning. Having talked with the children about what it is like to be up a mountain, or any high place with a view, I explained to them that there on the mountain where the disciples could see much more than just the little bit of the world they lived in, Jesus appears to them for the last time, as in our Gospel today, (Matt 28:16-20) ; and there he makes clear that in his new risen body he is not just alive, not just present for them, but for the whole world, and for all time. As he says in the Gospel “And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’
Having explained this to the children I asked, as I always do, if they had any questions; and one little 6 or 7 year old put up her hand and asked, with eyes wide open in amazement, “Do you mean that Jesus is here now?” There was a moments silence, as I realised that she had got it, and then I said “Yes”. Oh was I pleased!
St Augustine put it more elegantly over 1500 years ago when he wrote “While in heaven Jesus is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. ……. He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he leave us when he went up again into heaven.”