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

Leo the Great, Second Sermon for the Ascension

Let’s stay in the fifth century and go back a few decades from the Rogations to Pope St Leo the Great’s Second Sermon for the Ascension. It begins thus:

The mystery of our salvation, dearly-beloved, which the Creator of the universe valued at the price of His blood, has now been carried out under conditions of humiliation from the day of His bodily birth to the end of His Passion. And although even in the form of a slave many signs of Divinity have beamed out, yet the events of all that period served particularly to show the reality of His assumed Manhood. But after the Passion, when the chains of death were broken, which had exposed its own strength by attacking Him, Who was ignorant of sin, weakness was turned into power, mortality into eternity, contumely into glory, which the Lord Jesus Christ showed by many clear proofs in the sight of many, until He carried even into heaven the triumphant victory which He had won over the dead. As therefore at the Easter commemoration, the Lord’s Resurrection was the cause of our rejoicing; so the subject of our present gladness is His Ascension, as we commemorate and duly venerate that day on which the Nature of our humility in Christ was raised above all the host of heaven, over all the ranks of angels, beyond the height of all powers, to sit with God the Father. On which Providential order of events we are founded and built up, that God’s Grace might become more wondrous, when, notwithstanding the removal from men’s sight of what was rightly felt to command their awe, faith did not fail, hope did not waver, love did not grow cold. For it is the strength of great minds and the light of firmly-faithful souls, unhesitatingly to believe what is not seen with the bodily sight, and there to fix one’s affections whither you cannot direct your gaze. And whence should this Godliness spring up in our hearts, or how should a man be justified by faith, if our salvation rested on those things only which lie beneath our eyes? Hence our Lord said to him who seemed to doubt of Christ’s Resurrection, until he had tested by sight and touch the traces of His Passion in His very Flesh, because you have seen Me, you have believed: blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29).

Sermon 74, 17 May 445

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, my photo

Ascension in the Merovingian World

Bobbio Missal, fol. 146v
Bobbio Missal, fol. 146v

Lately, my wanderings have brought me into the sixth and seventh centuries in Gaul and northern Italy — particularly, into places assorted with the Irish mission-monk Columbanus (543-615) who founded several monasteries in Gaul/France and northern Italy, notably Luxeuil and most notably Bobbio where he died. If his letters are genuine, he corresponded with popes and supported the continuation of a two Easter system (Irish [Old Roman] and Roman [Dionysius Exiguus]). He was also in league with northern Italy’s supporters of the Three Chapters, some of whom were in schism with Rome over the issue. (I’ve blogged about the Three Chapters Controversy a few times; most clearly here).

Liturgically, besides the pertinent chapter in Columbanus’ Rule for Monks, I have found myself with Irish and Gallican service books from Bobbio and Luxeuil as a result of this Columbanus investigation. This needs quick clarification before people start ranting about early medieval independence from Rome. First, the Irish service books I’ve been playing with are in Latin, such as the Antiphonary of Bangor and the Stowe Missal (this book has no relation to Columbanus); there are Latino-Irish hybrid litanies, as I’ve found. But a lot of Irish-Celtic-Insular Christian stuff is in the Latin language, despite Ireland and Scotland never really being politically Roman and Wales just barely.

If you read St Patrick’s Confession or the Life of St Columba by Adamnan (or Adamnan’s De Locis Sacris) — or the works of St Columbanus! — you’ll find a sense that these Insular church leaders saw themselves as part of a big Christian church that included the Isles, Gaul, and Rome.

Second, the Church in Gaul did not have a Late Antique or Early Mediaeval independence movement. They were certainly liturgically distinct, and they had their own monastic traditions, and so on and so forth. But they copied far too many papal letters in their canon law books, sought legitimacy from too many popes, and considered too many popes legitimate heads of the western Church to take ancient Gallicanism seriously as an independence movement. I’m sure someone has found a way to read the texts that will seem to prove me wrong. Have at me!

Nevertheless, liturgy before print and before Trent was never united. That’s almost the point of calling the English book of services the Book of Common Prayer. In the Early Middle Ages, it was even less completely united — the regularisation of canon law, biblical texts, monasticism, and liturgy of the Carolingians would work against such local trends, but it there was always a force for diversification in the Middle Ages. I’ve written before about this elusive quest for common prayer.

This is a very long preamble, but this is because most of us have far too many misconceptions about the Early Middle Ages and the mediaeval church. They may not have been as centrally organised as they are now, and they may have disputed just what it meant for the Bishop of Rome to hold primacy, but the Christians and Churches of western Europe saw themselves as structurally and organically united, and division and independence were problems for them.

Anyway, here’s some liturgical stuff from the Merovingians.

Around the year 700, someone put together a lectionary in Luxeuil, one of Columbanus’ monastic foundations. The readings recommended in that book for the Feast of the Ascension are Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 4:1-13; John 13:33-35, 14:1-14; and Luke 24:49-53. Maybe use some of those in your devotions today or in this season of waiting betwixt today and Pentecost?

A much more significant liturgical product of the Merovingian world is the Bobbio Missal (Paris, BnF, lat. 13246). This manuscript was found in Bobbio Abbey — the monastery where Columbanus died — in the 1600s by Jean Mabillon. Mabillon dates it explicitly to the 600s; Rosamond McKitterick places it towards the end of that century or the turn of the next. It is of southern Gallic origin, and seems to represent some sort of ‘Gallican’ usage — certainly not Ambrosian, Mozarabic, or Roman.

On the feast of the Ascension, we encounter this in the Bobbio Missal (fol. 146v-147v):

O Lord, our God, you are wondrous in the highest—you ascended above the heavens of heavens for the raising of the trophy of your flesh between the service of the angels, you bore it when they rushed to your arrival in the power of heave—grant us something of the ascension in our hearts so that we may also follow you there with faith where we know that you reign at the right hand of the God the Father.

The Secret

The mystery (sacramentum) of the Lord’s Ascension — of our Lord Jesus Christ who, after he was called, ascended to the Father, in order to send the multiplied joys of our faith —  celebrates that he hinders for us the memories of his promise so that we may be worthy to run with joy in his second coming. [apologies for this translation]

Contestum

Truly Almighty God is, indeed, worthy though Christ our Lord who died for our sins and rose for our justification, who broke the bronze doors and iron locks with the bindings of destroyed hell, then rising from the dead, on the fortieth day, with all his disciples watching, he ascended to heaven because he himslef is our expectation whom we expect to come from the heavens to strengthen the body of our lowliness with the body of his glory.

So if you were a catholic Christian in southern Gaul in the 600s, and you turned up at Eucharist on Ascension Day, you would likely have heard those Bible passages read, and those prayers prayed!

Ascension

Chapel of the Ascension, Walsingham

Two weeks ago, it was Ascension, but I was technofasting then. So here are my thoughts this year on Ascension…

There is no reason to disbelieve the Ascension in the face of modern astronomy and physics. This is the thing that’s been nagging at me about the Ascension since a comment someone made at Christmastide that everyone’s friend J S Spong says that if Jesus really ascended, he’d still be going up.

And then on the Sunday following Ascension, the minister where I was worshipping carefully passed over talking about the literalness of the Ascension to talk about its meaning for our Christian lives today (fair enough) — which prompted someone at coffee hour to comment that the feet in the ceiling of the Chapel of the Ascension in Walsingham was the height of fundamentalism. Perhaps she meant that spatially.

First, re Walsingham. It is art. Even those who reject a literal, historical reading of the Ascension will have to admit that a pair of feet is a pretty impressive way of making the point. Jesus floating in the air is a visual representation of his leave-taking of this sphere of being. To put a pair of feet in the ceiling of a chapel is a vivid, potent way of making tangible this piece of the Christian story.*

Moving on, then, to Spong and other suchlike folks. There is no reason to assume that if the Ascension occurred, Jesus just kept on going. None of us believes that Heaven is ‘somewhere up there’. If the Kingdom of the Heavens is in our midst, then it is another sphere of being that overlaps with ours. Even in Dante’s Paradiso, you cannot reach the Primum Mobile and the Throne Room of Heaven simply by going up. It is a spiritual realm. For Jesus to get there, he will have to have crossed the boundary between the physical and the spiritual worlds, into the realm reserved for the numinous and luminous.

Therefore, I have no difficulty imagining Jesus having ascended. Indeed, it makes the most sense to me. Had he simply vanished from sight, the Apostles may have expected him to come back a few days later. In the Forty Days after Easter, he did have a tendency to do odd things, like vanish into thin air or walk through walls.** Therefore, to make his point and make it dramatically, he ascended from the Apostles. And then, when the cloud covered him (as in Acts 1), he took his glorified, human body to the Throne Room of Heaven.

It’s not that hard to imagine. It’s not that hard to believe.

The physics of the Ascension have nothing to do with modern vs. pre-modern, of Ptolemaic astronomy vs. Copernican astronomy vs. Einstein.

Finally, if perhaps you still aren’t sure, there is always C S Lewis’ remarks in Miracles, where he observes that, since Heaven is not ‘up there’, but possibly imagined as being such by a first-century fisherman, when Jesus did actually have his final leavetaking of this Earth in his physical body, the only way the disciples could describe it was by him ascending, regardless of what actually went on.

At the end of the day, what the Ascension means, rather than what precisely occurred that day, is that Christ returned to the Father so that he could be with us always (to the very end of the age). This is what matters most, not the mechanics of a miracle. Pope St. Leo the Great, my dear friend, says this:

Truly it was a great and indescribable source of rejoicing when, in the sight of the heavenly multitudes, the nature of our human race ascended over the dignity of all heavenly creatures, to pass the angelic orders and to be raised beyond the heights of archangels. In its ascension it did not stop at any other height until this same nature was received at the seat of the eternal Father, to be associated on the throne of the glory of that One to whose nature it was joined in the Son.

Since the Ascension of Christ is our elevation, and since, where the glory of the Head has preceded us, there hope for the body is also invited, let us exult, dearly beloved, with worthy joy and be glad with a holy thanksgiving. Today we are established not only as possessors of Paradise, but we have even penetrated the heights of the heavens in Christ, prepared more fully for it through the indescribable grace of Christ which we had lost through the ill will of the devil. Those whom the violent enemy threw down from the happiness of our first dwelling, the Son of God has placed, incorporated within himself, at the right hand of the Father, the Son of God who lives and reigns with God the Father Almighty and with the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen. (Sermon 1 on the Ascension [Serm. 73]), trans. Freeland and Conway for Fathers of the Church).

This is the mystical vision of true orthodoxy. God became man so that man might become God. Therein lies the true message and mystery of the Ascension.

*This relates to my frustrations with people who think that Handel’s Creation/Die Schöpfung is ‘naïve’ because it takes Genesis literally. And, given the mediaeval propensity toward allegory, does everyone actually think that they all believed in a literal Garden when scribes made illuminations? To take a powerful story that carries with it spiritual weight and express it artistically is not the same as, say, this website.

**This is because he was more real, not less. As a more substantial being, a wall was as nothing to his glorified flesh. C S Lewis observes this somewhere, but I picked it up from the Rev. George Sinclair.