Our village primary school used to go across the village green to the parish church for two special occasions a year. One was the annual nativity play, a great occasion for tea towels and old curtains, and the other was today, Ascension Day.
The service on Ascension Day was memorable because we all had to take bunches of flowers with which we decorated a big wooden crown; because there was a lady who used to sing the “Alleluias” with a very loud quavery voice that used to make small boys giggle; and because, after the service, we had the rest of the day off school.
The children leaving the school that summer were allowed a special treat at the end of the service, the opportunity to go up the church tower to look across the countryside around. Our church tower was not very high, but climbing it seemed a special moment, a rite of passage that would not be repeated.
Our family were not churchgoers, we really professed no faith at all, apart from putting down “Church of England” for our religion when asked to state such information. Despite our nominal connection with the church, the teaching of the Bible at the primary school was very strong and there were many stories that were baffling to a small boy.
The Ascension story was one of the stories that seemed odd. Why was there joy about what happened? If I had been one of the disciples, I wouldn’t have wanted Jesus to go away, I would have wanted him to stay with me. I would have wanted him to still be a friend who sat and shared a meal. I would have wanted him to still be a friend who cooked breakfast on the lakeshore. I would have wanted him to still be a friend who would sit down and talk with me. When the teacher read the story from the Bible about Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear Jesus talking about leaving and going back to heaven. Why would he do that after coming back from the dead? Didn’t he know that people needed him?
However, the world does not operate according to the wishes of small boys. The Ascension Day service remembered the moment forty days after Easter when Jesus returned to the Father. No-one could explain why this had to happen, but there were a lot of things in the life of a small boy that were without explanation.