There are very few statues or sculptures of our Lord’s Ascension. It’s always difficult to convey movement in a statue. How on earth do you depict Jesus going up into the heavens? Painters certainly show it as a stately and seemly movement – so the sculptor cannot show hair or clothes being ruffled by high speed, upward travel. How, then is movement to be expressed?
A number of churches have tried to rise to this artistic challenge. One congregation has commissioned a vast helium balloon of Jesus in a cloud. The Shrine Church at Walsingham adopts a different approach. Its Chapel of the Ascension has a cloud sculpted into its roof, with two feet sticking out.
I must confess, when I first saw the Chapel roof, my reaction was to collapse in fits of giggles. Because sculpture cannot easily convey movement, there is an unfortunate ambiguity. It isn’t entirely clear whether the feet are on their way up or down. It rather looks as if the ceiling has fallen in, and someone’s feet are now dangling through the roof.
But once you’ve got over its unintended comedy, the sculpture conveys some fundamental truths about the nature of the Ascension.
For it shows us who and what has gone, without telling us precisely where he has gone. We know who has gone: Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord. In the Walsingham sculpture, the feet ear the wounds of the cross. We know what has gone: Christ’s physical body. In the Easter season the Gospels have been emphasising over and over again the physicality of Christ’s resurrection. Our risen Lord is not simply some spirit who has shuffled off his mortal coil. In the resurrection God not abandon our physicality – he rescues it from death.
So we know who and what has gone – but where exactly has our ascended Lord gone? Christians disagree on whether the story of the Ascension should be taken literally. But even if we take it completely literally, we cannot imagine that Jesus’ body continued to ascend on the other side of the cloud. Today’s Gospel reading makes that clear: Jesus tells his disciples he is going back to the Father, not on an extended voyage into outer space.
That’s what I like most about the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham. We only see the feet. When we think about what lies on the other side of the cloud, words and images begin to fail, and so they should.
The Christian faith is that human beings have a physical and spiritual future. Our story does not end with death, and its continuation is not merely about some kind of half-life in a world of ghostly shadows. Our story – our whole being – is taken into God; the God who holds the world in being, but whose presence in this world is obscured by sin and death.
The Bible is somewhat reticent about what this future will be like. It is of necessity a mystery, because our future with God is beyond human understanding.
That shouldn’t surprise or trouble us. I don’t know how many of you saw last term’s debate between Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins in the Sheldonian Theatre. (If you didn’t, but are still interested, the footage remains online at archbishopofcanterbury.org) One thing that this debate made clear is that the difference between Williams and Dawkins lies in the ambition and scope as well as the content of their picture of reality.
Richard Dawkins longs for a day when an exhaustive and comprehensible explanation of everything is on offer – a scientific theory which will account for and describe reality without remainder. Rowan Williams thinks the world is more mysterious than that.
The position of Archbishop Rowan, and indeed of any thoughtful Christian, is that there is an inexpressible depth to the world. As Christians, we’re not in the business of offering a comprehensive explanation of every detail of reality. We recognise that many aspects of reality can be researched and understood, but others pass human understanding. As one writer has put it, life is not simply puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced, a gift to be lived.
This is not a plea for blind faith. As the Archbishop’s dialogue with Dawkins made clear, Christians can give good reason for thinking the world has this kind of depth. There is a genuine argument to be had between those who think science can one day explain everything, and those who think that the scientific account of the world leaves open some further question about the origin and destiny of our world. This is the true boundary between faith and reason. If there is a God who passes all human understanding, our knowledge of that God will depend not only on our reasoning, but on his self-revelation. And the Christian faith is that God’s self-revelation is centred on Jesus Christ, His Word made Flesh.
The Letter to the Hebrews talks of Jesus as the ‘pioneer of our salvation’. A pioneer leads the way through uncharted territory. Jesus, who lives the life we ought to have lived, and dies the death we ought to have died, shows us that there is a hope beyond the grave. In his resurrection, we see that our personality and our physicality have a future.
In a moment, we will recite the Creed, which sketches out the shape of this future hope. It speaks of Christ ascending into heaven, of him coming again in glory, establishing a kingdom which shall have no end. But beyond this the Creeds, and the Bible, do not go into huge amounts of detail. We are given an array of pictures of what lies beyond, but they are just that: images and metaphors, glimpses of a glorious future that is beyond our understanding.
These glimpses of the future are given so that we might have the confidence to live with love and courage here and now. As St Luke recounts the Ascension, angelic figures ask the disciples “why do you stand looking at the clouds?” And in today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of his disciples not being of the world, but being sent into the world – sent to proclaim and embody the love that flows within the heart of God. As we heard in our Epistle, No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
How does God abide in us, now that our risen Lord no longer walks among us? How are we to have the grace and power to embody the very love of God? The answer is in the next verse of the Epistle: By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.
That is why these days between the Feast of the Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost have a special significance in the life of the church. We rejoice that the pioneer of our salvation has borne our wounded humanity into the life of God – with the hope that gives us, both of the safe keeping of those who have gone before us, and of a day when the whole creation will be renewed in love, in beauty and in justice. And we rejoice that God has sent his Holy Spirit, that the love, the beauty and the justice of Christ might take flesh in this world, here and now.
This year, Christian Aid Week overlaps with these days of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost. This is a good reminder – that the hope of an eternal future with God does not leave us gazing fondly into the heavens. Rather, God calls us to be inspired by that hope, and sends us the Holy Spirit, that Christ may be made present here and now. As Christian Aid’s slogan puts it, we are called to believe in life before death as well as afterwards.
After we have said the Creed, offered our Intercessions and shared the Peace of Christ, Fr Michael will lead us in the Eucharistic Prayer: taking bread and wine, ordinary elements of the physical creation, and praying these words
grant that, by the power of thy Holy Spirit, we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine, according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed body and blood;
The Holy Spirit enables the Church – through the sacraments, through our common life, through acts of love, mercy and justice – to embody as well as proclaim her ascended Lord. So as we gather at the altar, we another of today’s prayers has already been answered For earlier in the service, Fr Michael sang today’s Collect:
we beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Spirit to comfort us and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before.
In this Eucharist, we are both comforted and exalted. We are lifted to glimpse something of our glorious future in Christ. It a future in grow in communion with God and all his children – those we see here, and those from whom we are now divided by distance or by death. And this foretaste, this glimpse of glory, is not given not to distract us from our earthly pilgrimage. Rather, it gives that pilgrimage its direction, its confidence and its power.