- Published: Sunday, 24 May 2020 11:14
Last Thursday was Ascension Day. My earliest memory of that day is of setting off in crocodile from school in New Street Lymington to St Thomas' Church. I don't recall much from the school service, but I do remember Canon Bostock telling us that it was a 'Red Letter' day, so it was a very important one. Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday, and as such is easily forgotten. 40 days after Easter, it marks the ending of the physical presence of Jesus on earth. The festival owes its inspiration to St Luke, who recounts it twice - at the end of his Gospel, and at the beginning of his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles.
The apostles stare at the sky, as Jesus disappears from sight. In one of the chapels at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, there's a pair of feet disappearing through the ceiling. Pilgrims to the Holy Land will be taken to the traditional site of the Ascension, on the Mount of Olives. Now covered by a mosque, the visitor is shown a rock from which Jesus is said to have ascended; and on which he left the imprint of his right foot. 'And a cloud took him out of their sight'.
In the Bible, the cloud was the sign of divine glory. In the Old Testament when the presence of God appears on Mount Sinai, or in the Tabernacle, the portable temple of the Exodus, a cloud comes down. Clouds are, and they were particularly to ancient civilisations – mysterious, shining realities floating high in the heavens; or sometimes descending, and conceiling the peaks of the mountains. Their qualities of shining brilliantly and hiding made them a powerful image of the presence of God – the God who was the source of light, the God who dazzled and blinded, and couldn't be seen. His glory was a veiled glory. Thus the cloud expressed God's glory and presence. Out of a cloud a voice affirms Jesus as God's beloved Son at his baptism. On the mountain of Transfiguration a cloud descends and Jesus is glimpsed radiant with glory. At the Ascension he is taken up into the heart of God.
When Christians began to celebrate the great festivals of the Church's year and visit the holy places, the site of the Ascension didn't seem to be a priority. They went instead to Christ's birthplace. There, at Bethelehem, they affirmed that the Ascended Christ was the same Christ who had lived as one of us, assuming our human nature. As the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, 'Now, the word 'ascended' implies that he also descended to the lowest level, down to the very earth'. And St John in his Gospel tells us that in this coming down, in the Word become flesh, we see his glory, the heart and nature of God. And, paradoxically, that glory is seen most fully on a cross at Calvary, love and self-sacrifice unveiled.
The sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill was a complex and controversial character. He was born in 1882 and died in 1940. He was the inspiration behind London's Broadcasting House. He was also a gifted wood engraver. In 1918, he engraved his Ascension of Christ. There is the risen Christ, his arms and legs still bearing the marks of the crucifixion. Standing on tip-toe, he's looking heavenward, his left hand raised in blessing. He's in the very act of leaving the apostles. And it's interesting how Gill has chosen to portray them. Like their Master, the apostles are looking upwards; but this is the thing - their facial features, even their beards, are identical to his. The truth is - Christ's Ascension is theirs too. Life in God's nearer presence is our destiny too. In returning to the Father, Christ doesn't leave his humanity behind: no, he takes it with him; our humanity - praying for us to the Father just as he prayed for us on earth.
In the church's year, this Sunday, the last in Eastertide, is a Sunday of waiting, of expectation. The departing Lord said to his disciples, 'Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.' They see Jesus go into heaven, and on the Day of Pentecost, in a gale of wind from heaven, and in fiery tongues of flame, the Spirit comes upon them. They, the disciples, are heirs and successors; and they go out into the world to share his life, and to proclaim his good news. Without them, without their spirited mission we wouldn't be here this morning. And there's a challenge, because the ascended Christ tells the disciples to get on with being disciples, to be disciples for the rest of their lives.
This is still our mission today. Like Jesus at his baptism, like the apostles at Pentecost, we too have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We too have been sent out to be Jesus' hands and feet and eyes in today's world. And he gives us the same blessing and reassurance, 'Know this', he says, 'that I am with you always; yes to the end of time.'
(Image kindly given permission to use by the Tate Gallery)