Saturday, May 12, 2018

Thoughts after Ascension

In the creed we affirm our belief in the Ascension but my sense is that a lot of our daily living the faith is managed without much thought of the Ascension and without much realisation of the significance of the Ascension.    Sometimes theology can feel like an exercise in which we attempt to connect a series of dots (more or less in the dark) with a rough reasoning – ‘if this’, ‘then that’, and ‘what if’, then ‘maybe that’.   The problem is partly one of language and one of thought and imagination: we are manifestly out of our depth here.  Paul Tillich tersely noted the dilemma: “(the Ascension is) … another symbolic expression of the same event which the Resurrection expresses.  If taken literally, its spatial symbolism would become absurd.” (Systematic Theology (1968), II, p.187)

Chapel of the Ascension Walsingham
The problem is perfectly imaged in the Chapel of the Ascension in the shrine at Walsingham, where, in the ceiling, Christ’s feet are depicted hanging from the ceiling.  It looks very odd; even bizarre; it is a visual assault on the imagination; it is utterly dissonant with how we experience and comprehend the world.   Tillich’s reference to this as ‘absurd’ makes sense.

But, let’s go back to joining the dots: we start with the intolerable mystery of the Incarnation; “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” as John puts it.  The reality of Jesus as God in our flesh is fundamental to our faith.  It is this same Jesus who rises from the dead and the nature of his risen body, however many questions it presents, we affirm.  

That said, following the account of the ascension in Acts 1, we tend to accommodate vague notions that when Jesus ascended he also slipped away from the flesh, ‘dissolved’ into spirit and went back to being the eternal Son of God.  Does that mean that the Incarnation was only a temporary break from heavenly being? If so, does that leave humanity still marooned?  Or, has Jesus, the fully human one, the new Adam, gone within the veil in our name and even in our skin, so that we may follow?   If so, then the ascension does not signal a return to business as usual between God and humanity but it is the continuation and fulfilment of the Incarnation.   

The ascension is a hinge on which turns the work of Christ as our Lord and King; though the ascension has moved Christ from human sight, he will return in his full and true humanity as judge of the living and the dead.

But I still come back to the plaster feet of Jesus hanging from the ceiling of the Chapel of the Ascension: the image still shocks me.  It is unabashed and disturbing in its naÏveté.  But perhaps it is precisely through this that something profound becomes clear.  What is it about Christ’s feet?  The last Chapter of Matthew’s gospel (chapter 28) tells of the resurrection and of the two Mary’s encountering Jesus:

“Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Never until now has that been a detail that registered with me.  To worship is to bow low, to prostrate oneself, to get down to the level of the feet.  These women hold onto the feet of the Risen One.  We come as worshippers, closely tracing his footsteps, but we cannot any longer look below; instead as the Lord is moving beyond us to another realm, we are required to figuratively look upwards.   Our Lord has already taught us this when he washed the disciples’ feet.  When we learn such
humility that we turn toward our neighbour and bow down, then we are changed; this is a descent that carries us upwards.

It is Malcolm Guite’s  poem on the Ascension that I end with: astute; and as good a summary of the theology of the Ascension that one could wish for.   The poetry sings in us and moves us beyond the confines of space and time, as in the closing couplet.

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place,
As earth became a part of heaven's story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted,
 He took us with him to the heart of things,
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and heaven-centred now, and sings;
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light;
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.

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