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Espying the glory

by
23 May 2014

David Bryant on the meaning of ascension

Christ's earthly life ends in high drama. He is swathed in cloud, and disappears heavenwards, leaving his followers gaping. Artists struggling to portray this gravity-defying event have resorted to bizarre imagery.

Preachers struggle with the extraordinary narrative, and congregations bemusedly express credal belief, while paradoxically suspending reason. None of this gets us far along the Christian path. It is too visionary, too frothy.

Yet it would be a dire mistake tosideline the ascension. It is a powerful allegory, pointing to a fundamental theological truth. God lies beyond our human understanding or, as the theologian Karl Rahner put it: "God is Absolute Mystery."

The genesis of all this lies in the Old Testament. When Moses asks God his name, he receives a curt, uncompromising reply: "I am that I am." Later, his request to see God's glory meets with a chilling response: "You cannot see my face: for man shall not see me and live."

Nothing is divulged, and it cannot be; for there is a built-in invisibility, incomprehensibility, and otherness about God. All this comes over as a touch negative, and overly metaphysical. We need an ascension theology that gives us something to bite on.

We get precisely this in St Paul's letter to the Colossians. In a passage of soaring insight, he propounds a radical reshaping of the ascension myth. Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified rebel, is transformed into the one who is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation . . . he is before all things and in him all things hold together."

The impact of this is stunning. Jesus is no longer time-bound, culturally limited, and lumbered with the ethics and thought-forms of his day. He has taken on cosmic significance, and become universal, transcendent, and beyond time.

Simone Weil, the French philosopher, encapsulates this: "God can only be present in creation under the form of absence." Denise Levertov, a contemporary American poet, makes the same point in earthier language, in "Ascension":

Matter reanimate
now must relinquish
itself, its
human cells,
molecules, five
senses, linear
vision endured
as Man -
the sole
all-encompassing gaze
resumed now,
Eye of Eternity.

The carpenter of Nazareth has evolved into God, whose gaze enfolds the whole world. This compels us to rethink various aspects of our Christian living.

The eucharist becomes not just a redramatisation of the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples, a friendly get-together during which we eat bread, drink wine, shake hands, and recite the liturgy. It is a deep mystery in which we sometimes catch a flicker of God's glory, a taste of eternity. The cloud thins, and we experience a momentary foretaste of the cosmic Christ.

The compass of our prayer is expanded, too. It is not just a dialogue with the earthly Jesus, but a silent or word-studded waiting in the presence of the invisible God. The daily round and the slow unfurling of our lives can flower into a constant awareness of the God who lies beyond knowing. George Herbert's hymn hits the nail on the head:

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heaven espy.

The Ascension of the Lord is a poetic assurance that beyond the turmoil and uncertainty of this world lies an inconceivable glory, and an undying hope.

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