There are always two images that strike me when I begin thinking about the Feast of the Ascension. The first is from the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk, where you can find the Chapel of the Ascension. Above the altar you can see two feet disappearing into a cloud. I think I remember that the feet actually poke out from the canopy and for me at least, it gives quite a comedy effect. The second image is from the Church in Western Australia where I was Rector. Sarah Davies, a local artist, was commissioned to create the Stations of the Resurrection which included an awesome rendition of the Ascension. In her painting she inverts the perspective, so instead of looking with the disciples into the heavens, we look with the eyes of Christ down towards the disciples who are bathed with light and hope. This is not so much a picture of absence and withdrawal, but you get more a sense of Christ expanding to fill the entire world with his light and life, in which discipleship itself is recast as a yearning towards the life of heaven.
Comedy moments aside, I do think both ideas of ascension are significant, and Luke certainly wants to keep a sense of tension in his narration of it. There is something about withdrawal, absence and mystery as Christ is taken into the clouds. Not just any cloud, but the shekinah glory itself: the darkly mysterious cosmic dwelling of God. There is something here about the life of Christ not being able to be captured or controlled. It is a life that evades us, escaping all our attempts to domesticate or normalise it. As the sixth century Pseudo-Dionysius beautifully puts it,
‘we offer worship to that which lies hidden beyond thought and beyond being. With a wise silence we do honour to the inexpressible.’
What we need to keep in mind here is that even as God’s being is inexpressible and ungraspable, so too is ours, our humanity constantly eludes us, the secret of who we are an unfathomable mystery, the deep ‘image of God within us.’ I think this is what Paul means where he talks about our life being ‘hidden with Christ in God.’ And this should mean that we are never able to reduce the human to the level of the functional or the measurable, whether in terms of economics, rights or even the status of refugees. When we are confronted with any human person, we are confronted with a sacred mystery.
But this hiddenness needs to be kept in tension with the reality of blessing and the enfolding of an even greater gift of presence. I love the image that Luke gives us, where even as he blesses, Christ is taken into the heavens. For what else is blessing than the promise of the life of heaven here with us today? And the disciples are not to be left bereft and alone, but Christ’s departure opens the way for the abundant gift of the Spirit, the double-measure of Christ’s life now available to the whole community wherever they are gathered, wherever they may be.
Behind Luke’s narrative of the ascension lies another older story from the pages of the Old Testament, that of the prophet Elijah being taken into heaven in the Second Book of Kings. Elijah – like Christ – is an awesome figure, championing the cause of justice for those who have none, speaking truth to power, exposing the illegitimacy of royal power and privilege, healing and restoring those who are sick, a firebrand of spiritual power and purpose. But it is time for his departure, and his disciple Elisha walks with him. Elijah instructs the younger prophet to ask him anything in his final moments, and with extraordinary bravery and audacity, Elisha asks him for a double-portion of his spirit. The older prophet tells him that if he sees him ascend then he will know the gift has been given. And then he is taken in a whirlwind, lifted up into the heavens by the very chariots of God and is gone. The scene is electric as Elisha gathers up his mentor’s mantle, strikes the waters of the river, and cries out ‘where is the God of Elijah?’ Immediately the waters part to his left and his right, a visible sign that the spirit of his master has now passed to him. And Elisha strides back into a conflicted and dangerous world to complete his master’s work, with a new sense of vision and purpose.
What is important for us, is that the disciple seeing his master ascend is a sign that the gift has been given, that the mantle is passed on, that the work can continue. And this is the same for us. As those first disciples watched their Lord ascend, he promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit, ‘the double portion of his spirit’ if you like. This fiery and uncontrollable presence of God would continue to be a disruptive and provocative movement of justice, compassion and love in the world, but now that same Spirit would be working through them, through us. Ascension doesn’t mean we are to be ‘so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good,’ rather it means that, like Elisha, we are driven back into a conflicted and dangerous world to complete our master’s work, ourselves with a new sense of vision and purpose. We have seen him ascend, so let us wait to be clothed with power from on high. AMEN.
Fr Ryan Green