Thursday, 1 May 2008

Ascension Day: a reflection

Salvador Dali: The Ascension (1958)

Patrick Comerford

Acts 1: 1-11;
Psalm 47;
Ephesians 1: 15-23;
Luke 24: 44-53.

May I speak to you in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

All this week the Guardian is running a series of small pamphlets billed as “The Guardian Science Course.” It began on Saturday with the Universe. Well, once you’ve had the universe explained to you, there’s not much left to explain or understand, is there?

Our view of the universe, our understanding of the cosmos, shapes how we image and think of God’s place in it, within it, above it, or alongside it. And sometimes, the way past and outdated understandings of the universe were used to describe or explain the Ascension now make it difficult to talk about its significance and meaning to today’s scientific mind.

The Ascension is one of the 12 great feasts of the Church, celebrated on the 40th day of Easter. In the Orthodox Church, this day is the Analepsis, the “taking up,” or the Episozomene, the “salvation,” for by ascending into his glory Christ completed the work of our redemption. On this day, we celebrate the completion of the work of our salvation, the pledge of our glorification with Christ, and his entry into heaven with our human nature glorified.

Today we celebrate the culmination of the Mystery of the Incarnation. On this day we see the completion of Christ’s physical presence among his apostles and the consummation of the union of God and humanity, for on this day Christ ascends in his glorified human body to sit at the right hand of the Father. The Ascension is the final visible sign of Christ’s two natures, divine and human, and it shows us that redeemed humanity now has a higher state than humanity had before the fall. That’s the theological explanation, in a nutshell. By how do you image, imagine, the Ascension?

When we believed in a flat earth, it was easy to understand how Jesus ascended into heaven, and how he then sat in the heavens, on a throne, on the right hand of the Father. But once we lost the notion of a flat earth as a way of explaining the world and the universe, we failed to adjust our images or approaches to the Ascension narrative; ever since, intelligent people have been left asking silly questions:

When Christ went up through the clouds, how long did he keep going?
When did he stop?
And where?

Standing there gaping at the sky could make us some kind of navel-gazers, looking for explanations within the universe and for life, but not as we know it. In our day and age, the idea of Christ flying up into the sky and vanishing through the great blue yonder strikes us as fanciful. Does Jesus peek over the edge of the cloud as he is whisked away like Aladdin on a magic carpet? Is he beamed up as if by Scotty? Does he clench his right fist and take off like Superman? Like the disciples perspective, would we have been left on the mountain top looking up at his bare feet as they became smaller and smaller and smaller …?

But the concept of an ascension was not one that posed difficulties in Christ’s earthly days. It is part of the tradition that God’s most important prophets were lifted up from the Earth rather than perish in the earth with death and burial.

Elijah and Enoch ascended into heaven. Elijah was taken away on a fiery chariot. Philo of Alexandria wrote that Moses also ascended. The cloud that Jesus is taken up in reminds us of the shechinah – the presence of God in the cloud, for example, in the story of Moses receiving the law (Exodus 24: 15-17), or with the presence of God in the Tabernacle on the way to the Promised Land (see Exodus 40: 34-38).

And Saint Luke makes a clear connection between the ascension of Moses and Elijah and the Ascension of Christ, when he makes clear links between the Transfiguration and the Ascension. At the Transfiguration, he records, a cloud descends and covers the mountain at the Transfiguration, and Moses and Elijah – who have both ascended – are heard speaking with Jesus about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 30-31).

So Luke links all these elements as symbols as he tells this story. There is a direct connection between the Transfiguration, the Ascension and the Second Coming … the shechinah is the parousia. However, like the disciples in our reading from Acts, we often fail to make these connections. We are still left looking up at the feet, which is the enigma posed by Salvador Dali 50 years ago in his painting, The Ascension (1958).

Well, let’s just think of those feet for a moment.

In our Epistle reading, the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians that with the Ascension the Father “has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things” (Ephesians 1: 22).

“Under his feet” … Salvador Dali’s painting of the Ascension, with its depiction of the Ascension from the disciples’ perspective, places the whole of creation under Christ’s feet. Of course, Isaiah 52: 7 tells us: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’.”

Feet are important to God. There are 229 references to feet in the Bible and another 100 for the word foot. When Moses stands before God on Mount Sinai, God tells him to take his sandals off his feet, for he is standing on “holy ground” (Exodus 3: 5) – God calls for bare feet on the bare ground, God’s creation touching God’s creation. Later, when the priests cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, carrying the ark of the Lord, the water stops when they put their feet down, and the people cross on dry land (Joshua 3: 12-17): walking in the footsteps of God, putting our feet where God wants us to, is taking the first steps in discipleship and towards the kingdom.

The disciples object when a woman washes and anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair, but he praises her faith (Luke 7: 36-50). On the night of his betrayal, the last and most important thing Jesus does for his disciples is wash their feet (John 13: 3-12).

Footprints … many of us have learned off by heart or have a mug or a wall plaque with the words of the poem Footprints in the Sand. We long for a footprint of Jesus, an imprint that shows us where he’s been … and where we should be going. The place where the Ascension is said to have taken place is marked by a rock with what is claimed to be the footprint of Jesus. And, as they continue gazing up, after his feet, the disciples are left wondering whether it is the time for the kingdom to come, are they too going to be raised up.

Yet it seems that the two men who stand in white robes beside them are reminding them Jesus wants them not to stay there standing on their feet doing nothing, that he wants us to pay more attention to the footprints he left all over the Gospels. Christ’s feet took him to some surprising places – and he asks us to follow. Can you see Jesus’ footprints in the wilderness? Can you see Jesus walking on the wrong side of the street with the wrong sort of people? Can you see Jesus walking up to the tree, looking up at Zacchaeus in the branches (Luke 19: 1-10), and inviting him to eat with him? Can you see his feet stumbling towards Calvary with a cross on his back, loving us to the very end? Are you prepared to walk with him?

Since that first Ascension Day, the body of Christ is within us and among us and through us as the Church and as we go forth in his name, bearing that Good News as his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 8).


A Greek Orthodox icon of the Ascension

Meanwhile, we are reminded by the two men in white: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1: 11). Between now and then we are to keep in mind that the same Jesus is “with [us] always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 20).

The disciples who are left below are left not to ponder on what they have seen, but to prepare for Pentecost and to go out into the world as the lived Pentecost, as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

The Ascension icon shows Christ ascending – and descending – in his glory, blessing the assembly below with his right hand, a scroll in his left hand as a symbol of teaching. Christ continues to be the source of the teaching and message of the Church, blessing and guiding those entrusted with his work.

As people sent to spread the good news, we must leave behind us the footprints of Jesus. Paul paraphrases Isaiah when he says: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10: 15). Our feet can look like Jesus’ feet. Our feet can become his feet until he returns in glory once again (Acts 1: 11), when he returns exactly as he ascended. And we need to keep the tracks fresh so that others may follow us in word, deed, and sacrament, and follow him.

And so, may all our praise be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at the College Eucharist on Ascension Day, Thursday 1 May 2008