Autumn and winter, the twenty metre stretch of grass path up to my front door becomes a mud slide. Every year at least one of us goes head over heels. We often resort to trudging through the tussocky long grass between the apple trees instead. But with bins or shopping or suitcases it’s not practical.
So, my friend, Paul, is digging out a proper path this spring using his mini-excavator to strip off a few inches of chalk and flint (there’s hardly any topsoil here) in order to lay the foundations for a new brick path.
During the course of the dig, we’ve unearthed the usual bent nails, a shilling, fragments of mass produced willow pattern chinaware, the stem of a clay pipe. The fields round here are littered with lead musket balls from the Civil War.
If you make the effort to crack them open, the flints are full of fossils. And from a young age, my friend Noah was able to return home after any walk over the downs with pockets full of meteorites: gobs of iron, a giant’s knuckles. He could just reach down and pick them out of ploughed fields like potatoes. I’d think about their cold, dark journeys of billions of years through empty space, their blink-brief trajectories across the night, then aeons in Earth’s dirt, waiting for Noah’s hand to fish them out of oblivion.
I suppose I’m still thinking about Ascension and the upturned faces of the disciples. There’s a danger that, in looking up, at shooting stars, say, we fail to notice what’s under our feet, remnants, buried, the left behind.
The Bible is built on a remnant. The Jews who return after Exile in Babylon are referred to as the Remnant.
But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts.Zechariah 8:11
Confusingly, the few Jews who are allowed to remain behind after the fall of Jerusalem are also called a remnant.
The captain of the guard left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.Jeremiah 39:10
And the disciples, the earliest church, left behind at the Ascension, are themselves a remnant of Christ’s ministry. The New Testament tells the story of the birth of a ragged remnant.
Mark’s gospel is generally accepted as the earliest of the three so-called synoptic gospels. And Matthew mines about ninety percent of Mark for use in his own gospel; Luke uses about fifty percent. So only tiny little bits of Mark remain unique to him, bits ignored and left behind by the later evangelists.
In my mind these passages are like fragments of things left to lie forgotten in the ground, remnants. This is one of those remnants:
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”Mark 4:26-29
A whole parable. Not just a disembodied china handle or coinage in a forgotten currency or a musket ball in a world without muskets. Surely this passage is serviceable?
Actually, I think it’s more than serviceable; I think it’s a passage particularly rich to reflect on at Ascensiontide. While our attention tends to be drawn to the special-effects display of the Ascension itself and the drama of the coming of Pentecost, we can easily forget what’s left behind: us.
So this parable represents us as the left behind. But it’s also about us: we are grounded, growing somehow, like seeds hidden in the soil. And at this tiny parable’s heart lies the biggest question of all: why is there something rather than nothing? The very best answer to that question – despite all our science and cosmology – remains nested neatly in the parable too: not entirely sure, so we’d better just get on with it.
Christ came to the left behind, to the forgotten, the broken, the not entirely sure. He came to the poor man dying at the rich man’s gate, to the tormented man abandoned to live amongst the tombs, to the widow who gives two pennies out of her poverty, all that she has. To tax collectors and prostitutes. He promises the Kingdom to a thief dying next to him.
To be left behind like this, like the parable in Mark’s gospel, like the disciples, is to be the remnant, is to be chosen. He came to us.
You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.Acts 1:8
What, us? With our bare feet planted on the earth. Us, bent nails, useless coins, broken and forgotten? How can we do any of that?
I’m not entirely sure, but we’d better just get on with it.
When I first came to live in this village there was a falling-to-bits harmonium in a forgotten corner of the church, full of mice and woodworm. It was a remnant.
When Simon Jeffes, founder of the Penguin Café Orchestra, came across an abandoned harmonium in an alley off a back street in Kyoto he fell in love with it, restored it and wrote this much-loved piece of music for it. To me, it feels like a hymn to the remnant, to the left behind – full of slightly unhinged, joyous momentum, like the disciples after the Ascension.
that you should have sent your beloved Son to us
who are broken and buried in the world,
is beyond our understanding.
Yet we live and grow in the mystery of your love.
Give us the grace, we pray, to love the left behind,
to care first for the forgotten,
to look out for the overlooked,
and send us to the ends of the earth,
as you sent out the disciples,
to sing of your glory forever
through your son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.