Words on the Word


Acts 1.1-11: Why are you looking up?
Ephesians 4.1-13: He rose to fill all things.
Mark 16.15-20: Seated at God’s right hand.

If we consider the depiction of Christ’s Ascension in art through the centuries, we see a clear tendency. Ever more, as time passes, today’s event is represented as a distancing and a leavetaking.

A characteristic modern expresssion is Salvador Dalí’s Ascension from 1958. As spectators we stand beneath Jesus’s feet looking up into a vertical movement. The Lord’s face is invisible. He body is suspended in the middle of the picture, as if held by a magnetic field. Behind it, an atomic nucleus unfolds like a sunflower. Dalí had had ‘a cosmic dream’ about such nuclear flourishing in 1950, eight years before the painting was made and five years after Hiroshima. He entertained the idea that the atomic nucleus represented Christ’s unifying spirit. The unification we are dealing with is highly abstract. We can relate to it as a theorem. But what our eyes see gives us the impression of standing infinitely far from the depicted object.

What does such a catapulted, faceless Christ have to do with me?

The Christians of Antiquity saw the Ascension differently. They loved this motif. It often crops up in their meditations and in their art. We see an example of such art in the Roman basilica named after the brothers Cosmas and Damian, the physicians from Cilicia who died as martyrs in 303. Pope Felix IV had a church dedictaed in their honour in 530. The apse mosaic is fabulous. It shows us Christ, God’s Son, standing on red-white-and-blue clouds, but fully within reach of the apostles who surround him. When the apostles extend their hands, these are level with Christ’s feet. The Lord stands face to face with us, majestic yet friendly, inviting us. His right hand point upward, towards his Father’s kingdom; in his left he holds a scroll that makes us think of the Lamb’s scroll in the Apocalypse (5.1-5). It stands for God’s just judgement on the world. The Ascension naturally points towards the parousia, Christ’s second coming. As we have heard Paul say, ‘he who descended [by taking flesh in Mary’s womb], is the very one who ascended’; and he who ascended to fill all things is the same who will come at the end of time ‘to judge the living and the dead’.

Christ’s Ascension stands for a necessary connection between time and eternity, an alliance introduced through the incarnation that will never cease as long as the world exists. The first thing Jesus says about himself in John’s Gospel, a word directed to the Apostles, is: ‘Believe me: You will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’ (John 1.51). He is the ladder Jacob saw in a dream on his way out of Bersheba, a ladder ‘set up on earth, the top of it reaching to heaven’ (Genesis 28.12). Again in again in the past weeks we have heard Jesus’s assurance: I do not leave you orphans; I am always with you; you will no longer see me the way you see me now, but I will abide in you and you can abide in me (cf. John 16-17).

It is on the basis of these carefully repeated promises that the angels almost teasingly say to the Eleven who have just seen Jesus being lifted up and covered by a cloud: ‘Why on earth, Galileans, are you standing about here staring into heaven?’

Indeed, you whose eyes have seen, who have touched with your hands ‘that which was in the beginning’ (cf. 1 John 1.1.), have you not yet understood that there is no longer a categorical division between heaven and earth, that the kingdom of heaven is in your midst, that human nature is henceforth mysteriously present within the Blessed Trinity, united with God as a pledge of your own call to become Godlike?

For our fathers and mothers in the faith, it was evident that human existence unfolds within this sublime tension and suspension. They spontaneously turned East in prayer, longing for Christ’s return. The prayed with fervour: ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (cf. Apocalypse 22.20). They were conscious of their Christian calling, made possible through baptism, of ‘participating in divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4). They saw in the Ascension a motif that gave their own lives orientation and meaning; and they trusted the efficacy of Jesus’s prayer, spoken before he, raised up on the tree, would draw all things to himself: ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world’ (John 12.32, 17.24).

Brothers and sisters, we live in an age of banality and horizontality that has cut itself off from heavenly reality, a time that has largely lost the ability to think metaphysically, to perceive spiritually, and that therefore lives with a profound frustration expressed in tired purposelessness, as if we were sunk in some kind of collective depression.

We are not to condemn the world for suffering in this way. We are to comfort and illumine it. Into the ear of one whose soul is slumbering we are to whisper gently: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light’ (Ephesians 5.14). 

In today’s collect we read: Christi ascensio est nostra provectio. A ‘vector’ is a carrier. A ‘provector’ carries forward. Christ’s Ascension is not locked in time and space, in the unique exerience of an individual. For us who live as members of the Church, as members of Christ’s Body, the Ascension is a motor, a vital energy enabling our deepest potential at last to be realised by grace.

If we live lovingly on these terms, we shall be the leaven need to enable our flat and shrunken world to rise.