• Going Deeper: Growing in Faith and Knowledge

Ascension

The Rev. Patrick Ward
May 30, 2019

Today’s the day: the Feast of the Ascension. Always on a Thursday, forty days after Easter, Ascension arrives as a day resonant with mystery and meaning. It’s a sort of pivot point in the cycle of celebration that begins with Easter and concludes a week from this Sunday with Pentecost.  Central to this cycle’s meaning is the idea that Jesus -- as a palpable human body -- entered and exited human history at discrete points in time. That he walked among us between those points in time as the greatest example we have been given of God’s love for us. And that he continues to witness to us though the power of the Spirit.

 

Christians throughout history have approached this story in different ways. Luke is the only one of the four evangelists who chooses to tell it as a literal ascension (twice, in his gospel and in the sequel Book of Acts). John’s gospel uses the word “ascension” perhaps more as a general term of exaltation and union with God, as does Paul in six references scattered through his letters. Architects and church decorators of the Italian Renaissance, cueing off of Luke’s imagery, sometimes painted or sculpted the soles of two pierced feet at the apex of the church ceiling. Contemporary theologian Rudolf Bultmann is more dismissive, writing in “The New Testament and Mythology” that "No one who is old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local heaven ... And if this is so, the story of Christ's ... ascension into heaven is done with.”

 

And then there is the wisdom of Gregory of Nazianzus.  Living in the late 300’s, Gregory was a cranky key player in the great councils where our creeds were formed. He served rather reluctantly as the Bishop of Constantinople. He had these words to offer in one of his orations as a warning to those who read scripture too literally, the way we would today read a textbook or a newspaper: “Some things mentioned in the bible are not factual; some factual things are not mentioned; some nonfactual things receive no mention; some things are both factual and mentioned.”

 

Gregory is not merely correcting literalists. He’s also writing to those of us who are convinced that if we can’t make rational sense of all that occurs in scripture we are compelled to file it away as irrelevant mythology. Gregory was a great proponent of the mystery of God. And he also realized that we as human beings often need to use human terms and metaphors in our attempts to put ourselves in relationship to God. One great and familiar example is “He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” These are words that Gregory likely helped to author.

 

So let’s come back, at last, to these 11 apostles gawping skywards as the pierced feet of Christ leave contact with earth for the last time. John Singleton Copley painted this scene, which you can see here or in our own Museum of Fine Arts. The image of those pierced, ascending feet conveys undeniable power. It’s a sort of final cancellation of death, isn’t it? A final reversal of the shame and agony of the cross. We understand none of it rationally. We understand none of it, for example, in the way we understand that rent is due on the first of every month or that the Bruins are playing the Blues on Saturday night.

 

Speaking personally though, I “get” Ascension. Or rather, it gets me. It gets me here, with you, every Sunday morning for example, at our voicing of these words: “Lift up your hearts.” “We lift them up to the Lord.” There it is. Ascension. Every Sunday morning. Something clicks inside and with nothing resembling ordinary understanding I grasp that we are all together on an ascending path where he has gone before us. “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Where this trajectory ends, of course, is in a place no thoughtful living Christian can ever define.  We wait in hope.

 

See you in church,

The Rev. Patrick Ward

Associate Rector

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