Everything was going fine until I tried to put it back together again. I`m talking about my Mum`s transistor Radio. I was only about ten at the time and I was just fascinated by how it worked…. and how it stopped working. To this very day electronics has remained a bit of a mystery to me, though I know for some people it`s all very clear and easy to understand.
But it`s not like that with people is it? There are people with letters after their name who like to think they can take you apart and put you back together and figure out how you work but they flatter themselves don`t they? People are just not that simple. We`re all a bit of a mystery. We sometimes wistfully say, “You never really know some people do you?” or “It`s a mystery what she sees in him” because people are altogether different from transistor radios.
And that`s as it should be. I mean, a basic predictability in the person you`re relating to is vital if understanding and trust is going to grow but there will always be (indeed there must be) an element of surprise; something that we can`t calculate or predict; something of mystery in each person we meet. What matters is our reaction to this. So for example, in the presence of some people I get the sense that we just go to sleep. We assume and expect so much about their behaviour that we almost resent any indication of change. How dare they act unpredictably, “But you always….” we say, with no small hint of alarm
How different this is from simply enjoying the discovery of something new about them and regarding them as a gift. I mean we can all probably hold forth about an occasion when we felt as we say `pigeon holed` or diminished in some way. That`s why we get stroppy whenever a company`s understanding of customer service proves to be anything but… For we cherish our own uniqueness but as I say so often we struggle and remain fearful of the mystery and the unknown in others.
But what I want to suggest this morning is how important it is that we learn to embrace the presence of mystery in that person beside or in front of us. I mean, not only as inevitable (so get used to it) but it`s something which is also essential to faith and our approach to God as well. When it comes down to mystery I think it all boils down to the definition we use. You see we live in times where what`s called `rationalism` is in the air that we breathe. Fundamentally this means that we live with the notion that in the end pretty well everything should be knowable, measurable and comprehensible.
And so what we call `mystery` is the stuff that`s left over when we`ve reached the limits of our analysing. Mystery means the bit that we haven`t figured out yet. The problem, as I say is that along with this rationalism goes `reductionism` and we start to make things and people smaller, simpler and less unique than they are `for the sake of giving us the satisfaction that we`ve worked it all out`; in other words, we`re in control. But this isn`t what our faith teaches us about mystery. I looked at that incident in the Acts of the Apostles this morning and the disciples ask Jesus an honest and perfectly legitimate question to which he replies, “That`s not for you to know….” (Acts 1.6-7)
Now, at first reading it comes across as a bit abrupt. But I get the impression that they`re actually asking about something which can`t be boiled down to a matter of `information` as if there were some kind of cosmic timetable. In other words they`re actually asking about something they could never begin to comprehend. This is how our faith defines mystery.
What I`m trying to say is that mystery in this sense is not what`s left over when we`ve reached our limit. It`s not something we don`t know; it`s something too much to know. It`s completely beyond our ken; which kind of puts us in our place. And this I`m suggesting is fundamental and essential to faith because our sense of control is taken away. Before our God we are in the presence of one whom we cannot predict, manage, fathom or control. And this is where the expansive language and imagery of the Ascension leads us. This Feast of the Church`s year which is so often glossed over or forgotten is a guard against lazy familiarity and the unconscious assumption that we might domesticate our God.
Many years ago as I was thinking through whether I had a call to Ordination I was put in touch with someone called the Director of Ordinands. It was his task to help me through this process. His name was Michael and he was extremely kind and helpful to Margaret and I. Some years later I came across him again only this time he had become a Bishop and he was showing me around a parish he wished me to consider. I never forget how in a very subtle way he let it be known that I would be better calling him `Bishop` rather than Michael. Now, this had nothing to do with him being stuffy or anything like that. He remained very kind and wise and helpful. But that experience of distance; and perhaps less familiarity has stayed with me.
This illustrates, for me, something of what`s going on here in the Ascension. It`s not that Christ is any less intimate, loving, our Good Shepherd and all the rest but that we have to learn to see him on a much bigger canvas. And that means that there will always be much about him that we will never be able to comprehend. Mystery, in the best sense of the word is part of the deal. The rationalism with which we have grown up has taught us to experience life as a problem to be solved and people as objects to be categorised and controlled to suit. The prevailing models; the heroes of our day are the manager and the mechanic; those who know how to dismantle and re-assemble things. To acknowledge mystery requires a deep humility, a different set of tools and a fundamentally different outlook; like those of the poet, the artist and the lover.
Questions are, of course perfectly legitimate and necessary. Theology, as we call it, was once defined as `faith seeking understanding`. But there is always the need, in the end to move from the head to the heart. As the writer Ruth Burrows once said, “The hour set aside for prayer is not for thinking much but for loving much”.
In one of his letters St. Paul calls us `stewards of the mysteries of God`. He is quite clear that Christ is the full revelation of God to us. But our vision is limited and what matters is not what we understand but that we have been understood. Unlike many of us, Paul doesn`t retreat from the idea of mystery or regard it as an affront or challenge to his intelligence. It is simply a reminder that we live and engage with a God who is not and never will be in our pocket. To say as we do in our worship: “Great is the mystery of faith” affirms that there`s more going on than we can ever imagine or conceive and it`s only when this sinks in that worship can actually begin….. We embrace the mystery that we might be “lost in wonder, love and praise”.