Today, we celebrate the Ascension. The Ascension is the revelation of humanity’s destiny. This is what humans were created for. Total communion with God. To be taken up completely into the divine life. But what does that mean?
One of my favourite philosophers, Eric Voegelin, has an essay called The Beginning and the Beyond. For him, this title captures two of the fundamental mysteries of existence. Where do we come from and where are we going? And as soon as we start thinking about these mysteries, we realise that they are pretty closely connected. Where you start can greatly determine where you can end up, and where you want to end up can greatly influence how you start. There is an old Irish joke about this. Someone asks how do you get to Dublin, and the response is, well, I wouldn’t start from here.
Given this is the end of Mark’s gospel, it makes sense then to have a look at the beginning. If, according to Mark, this is how Jesus finishes his earthly ministry, how does he choose to start?
Well, if you remember, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus chooses to start by repeating the words of St John the Baptist. His first words are: “The time is fulfilled; and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.” Repent and believe the Good news. It is worth having another look at this in light of today’s gospel.
The word repentance there, at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, actually translates the Greek verb metanoiete. This has a number of meanings but, as you might be aware, the base meaning is to change one’s mind. That means that Jesus is saying, Change your mind and believe the Good news. Think about that for a moment. Change your mind and believe the good news. The obvious implication from this is that we currently do not believe the good news. If we have to change our mind in order to believe the good news that means if we don’t change our minds, we remain in the dark.
If we understand Jesus’s words in that way, it greatly changes how we hear the message of repentance. One of our culture’s clichés about the faith is the idea of catholic guilt. Now there is a lot one could about this lazy trope, but I think the most important thing to say is that it completely misses the point. The idea of repentance is not about feeling guilty. First and foremost it is about believing the good news, the endpoint of which we hear about in our readings today. That we are destined for the heart of God. That our future is glorious and so therefore is our present. Humanity is created for the greatest possible outcome, communion in and through divine love.
Also, once we understand Jesus’s words like this, then Jesus’s words in our gospel today simply become a reiteration of that first point.
Jesus says, those who believe and are baptised will be saved; those who do not are condemned. This then becomes a tautology. If you believe the Good news and live it, then you will be happy. If you do not believe the Good news, then you will not be fundamentally happy.
As humans, we need to know we are loved. We need to know we belong. We need to know that we have a home to go to. We need to know that we are precious. Humanity is created for this. The human heart cries out for this knowledge. If people don’t know that, they are miserable. No-one has to condemn them. No-one has to pass judgement. They do it to themselves. Without this knowledge, without this belief, people begin to believe they are worthless. People begin to believe they are replaceable. People begin to believe they are unloveable. This is hell. The denial of communion and the denial of glory. The denial of love.
And so we need to change their minds. God came to do this and in our gospel we hear God sending us to keep doing this. This is who we are as the Church. We are the body of Christ. We are the ones who must constantly change our minds to believe the Good news so that we can proclaim the love of God to our brothers and sisters and help them come to believe. Help them find their home in God.