Reflections on Ascension Sunday

This is the reflection that I put together for my worshipping community, the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay.

Today we recollect the Ascension of Jesus the Christ back to God the Father where They reign united in eternity. This is the seal of everything else the incarnate God achieved for us during His sojourn on earth. God the Word, existing in eternity with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, in great and glorious compassion for the human race descended, took on flesh, and pitched His tent among us. He dwelt amongst us feeble, frail humans for about thirty years as one of us (in every way but sin!), and then He was abandoned, tortured, and brutally executed—only to triumph over the powers of sin, the flesh, the devil, and death, trampling down death by death and rising to new life in a glorified body that can walk through walls.

And here is where many Gospel presentations stop. We say: Do you acknowledge the great and glorious message of salvation that comes from putting your trust in this Jesus whom the authorities of this present darkness killed but whom God raised to life? And we repentant sinners answer: Yes. God, be merciful to me!

In Acts 2:24-36, St Peter ends the first proclamation of the whole Gospel by an Apostle thus:

For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ (Ps. 110:1)

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Jesus is not just some guy or even some god who came down and died and rose again to save me from my sins. He has returned to the Father where He reigns and hears our prayers and is with us always to the very end of the age. By ascending, Jesus empowered the apostles to take up His mission to preach salvation to the ends of the Earth. An earthbound teacher would not be able to do that, but a risen, ascended, and reigning Lord could.

Given the importance of the Ascension, I would also like to say that this is a real, historical event, as real as Julius Caesar being stabbed to death on the Ides of March, 44 BC. While this probably should go without saying, I mention it because meditating on the reality that lies behind the words of Scripture can help us see the hand of God at work as well as the hearts of the Apostles. So, based on the narrative in Acts 1, Jesus rose up from the ground with the Apostles watching. Then a cloud hid Him from view, and He disappeared from sight.

I hope that it is a well-known fact that Heaven is not actually “up there” in the sky. We live in a one-storey universe. If “heaven” is the dwelling place of God Almighty, where Jesus now reigns with God the Father, it’s right here and now. In his book Miracles, C S Lewis posits the idea that, whatever the historical reality of what happened to Jesus at the Ascension, the Apostles perceived it as Him rising up from the earth because that’s what their minds can process.

I think He actually did rise up from the Earth, and that when the cloud enveloped Him, He entered the heavenly realm with God the Father (whatever that means!). Without denying the historicity of the event, we can simultaneously affirm its symbolic resonance. Encounters with God in the Bible are often literal mountain-top experiences.

When Moses met God for the first time, He spoke to him out of the burning bush on Mount Horeb, in Sinai. When Moses met with God and was given the Law, it was on a mountain, maybe the same one. When Solomon built a Temple for God to come and manifest His real presence amongst His people, it was on Mount Zion. When Elijah defeated the priests of Baal and God manifested Himself with might and power, it was on Mount Carmel. When Elijah encountered God in the “still, small voice”, it was on a mountain.

And so it goes, up to Jesus.

When Jesus manifested His glory to the disciples in the Transfiguration, it was on Mount Tabor. When He gave the new Law in His most famous sermon, it was on a mountain (it’s not called the Sermon on the Mount for nothing!). Tradition tells us that the Place of a Skull, Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, was a hillish-mountain.

These are just a few examples, but the point is: People meet with God on mountains. And the ascent to God becomes an important symbol and metaphor in Christian spiritual literature, whether we think of St John of Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel, or the Syriac Book of Steps, or the lives of monks and hermits who lived on mountains such as St Antony of Egypt, the monasteries of Mount Athos or, most dramatically, Meteora in Greece. St Gregory of Nyssa gives an allegorical reading of the life of Moses in which Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai to meet with God is seen as our own ascent, as we leave behind the various things of this world, including even sense perceptions, for Moses enters the cloud on the mountain—as the title of a mediaeval mystical book calls it, The Cloud of Unknowing.

God is the Lord of all history; He has engineered these symbols to draw us to Himself. Christianity is the myth that comes true. So when we consider this pattern, it is only fitting that when God, Who inspired Scripture and Who made Himself manifest to the human race in these locations, chose to return to the Heavens, He would rise up from the earth. And then, as Moses entered the cloud on Sinai, so also did Christ enter the cloud before leaving our plane of existence and joining the Father in eternal glory.

Our response to this? Worship, comfort, assurance. Let us take to heart these words from Hebrews 4:14, 16:

Seeing that we have a great high priest that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, one of Edinburgh’s empty churches

Saint of the Week: St. Bonaventure

For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.

Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.

Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.

He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.

In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.

In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.

St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.

Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.

Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.

The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.

We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.

A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.

How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.

This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.

*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).

**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.