Children dance with expectation; there is nothing at once so joyful and so painful as waiting.
After waiting comes fulfilment, which is nearly always a bit of a disappointment. Expectation is often steeped in illusion and wishful thinking; it enlarges everything beyond the dimensions of the real. The reality, when it appears, looks smaller than our idea of it.
Christians are sometimes described as “people open to the absolute future.” This is good of course – better than when the Church thought it had everything packaged already. There’s a necessary openness to the future: the final description of God in the Bible is “the One who makes all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Yet sometimes you wonder if we aren't being put back into the Old Testament time of waiting. There’s a kind of ‘futurism’ abroad now. Isn't there any fulfilment already? Hasn’t anything taken place already in Christ?
Assuredly it has. If it were not so, then the Good News would not be Good News but only Good Advice; the world and its future would rest entirely on our shoulders – and that would make for very dour joyless religion. “From gloomy saints,” wrote St Theresa of Avila, “good Lord deliver us!”
"Go back and tell John what you hear and see," Jesus said (Matthew 11:4). He didn’t say, "Tell him what our plans are for the future." No, the blind see again, now; the lame walk now, lepers are cleansed now, the deaf hear now, the dead are raised to life now….
But, we might ask, is it still happening? If so, where? When did I last see a blind person having his or her sight restored? Or someone being raised from the dead? Show me! "Tell John what you hear and see." What do we hear and see in our time?
Are we to strain our ears for 'messages' and our eyes for 'visions', as many are doing now? I think that would be to miss the point of the Ascension. Jesus was taken up into heaven, out of our sight. "When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?'" (Acts 1:9-11). When he did appear they didn’t recognise him very well. Even Mary Magdalene didn’t recognise him at first. In other words, it required a different kind of seeing – seeing from the heart and the spirit, not from the eyes. The preoccupation with 'messages' and 'visions' in our times represents a return to eyesight, and it gives the impression that this is superior to faith. Religion is always only millimetres away from superstition; that is why there is such need for great care.
What kind of seeing are we talking about then? Seeing in faith. Yes, but how am I to know that this isn't just a faded version of the other? What does it mean to me, for example, to say that Christ is risen from the dead? It means a great deal in itself, but nothing to me unless I am also in some sense rising from the dead, now. Some things can be understood only from the inside. Standing back waiting for a vision or a message is not faith.
Joy is one of the chief characteristics of Christian faith; naming the fruits of the Spirit, St Paul put it right after love: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). As desire is about the future, joy is about the present; it is about Now. (You may or may not be interested to know that this is the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas.) There is joy when we put ourselves fully into something. Small children, when they laugh, are all laughter; when they cry they are all sadness. But as we grow up we learn to drag ourselves along: half-way into things and no more. Half in, half out. If you walked like that you would resemble a person a hundred years old. We have to learn to go fully into everything we do and say and think: to die into everything. Then we will know what it means to see and hear, and rise from the dead, now.