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Reconciling the eternal with the here and now

08 May 2015

Rather than struggling to understand the ascension, we should focus on the truth it contains, says David Bryant


Going up: The Ascension of Christ by Hans von Kulmbach (1480-1522)

Going up: The Ascension of Christ by Hans von Kulmbach (1480-1522)

THE ascension of Christ is an enigma. It looks alarmingly like a curt goodbye to God. Add to that the curious events of Christ levitating and disappearing into space, a numinous mist rolling up from nowhere, and two strange men in white robes lurking on the hilltop, and the mystery deepens.

There is every indication that the Christ story is over. It has dissolved into billowing clouds, upcurrents of air and incredulous church choirs singing Wesley's naïve hymn: "Lord, though parted from our sight, Far above the starry height. Grant our hearts may thither rise, Seeking Thee above the skies." To be blunt, the story taxes the most fervent of believers.

THE nub of the problem lies in our approach to the narrative. We ask whether it is historically accurate, instead of searching for the truth it contains. The latter lifts us out of the impasse; and the key word here is paradox. The ascension story illuminates the truth that the God who disappears from the world on a hilltop at Bethany is at the same time an integral part of it. The French philosopher Simone Weil had a quirky way of expressing this: "God can only be present in creation under the form of absence." Angelus Silesius does even better. "He is pure Nothingness. He is not now, not here. I reach for Him and see Him disappear."

This is by no means a revolutionary concept. Turn to the New Testament, and there is a constant see-sawing between the absent God and the present Lord. The carpenter of Nazareth is also the unknowable, cosmic God of St Paul. The baby in the Bethlehem manger doubles up as the inaccessible light of the world. The Jesus who eats fish for breakfast is also "the image of God, the first-born of all creation". This seems like an Alice in Wonderland theology, but it is simpler than that. The ascension myth urges us to search for the Holy One in the world and in the cloud of unknowing. Both spiritual journeys are valid.

IT IS relatively easy to see God in the natural order. The Victorian poet Joseph Plunkett renders that possibility vividly. "I see His blood upon the rose and in the stars the glory of His eyes." For him, the eternal snows, the rain, thunder, birdsong, and every flower are all carved by God's hand, and thorns and trees are redolent of the wood of Calvary.

To find his presence in humanity is a more serious challenge. Yes, it is readily visible in the face of a smiling baby, in the kindness of strangers, the interchanges of lovers, and in the visage of those dear to us. But unearthing it in the dark places of human behaviour is a tough assignment. Dostoevsky comes a long way to showing how this is possible in his novel Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov, a penniless student, murders an elderly pawnbroker and her sister using an axe. There follows a terrible tale of guilt, fear, self-hatred, and horror. In the end, Sonya, a young prostitute, persuades Raskolnikov to confess his crime publicly in the town square. She hangs a cross round his neck, and he kisses the earth. His punishment is banishment to Siberia, and she promises to accompany him. The book hits a triumphant note of renewal. Every situation has the potential to be redeemed by God's love.

So far, so good - but that leaves the taxing task of finding God in Silesius's emptiness, and in the vanished Christ of the ascension. Our immediate response is one of dismissiveness: it is impossible, a philosophical absurdity, a playing at semantics. Turn to the mystics, and we are brought up with a jerk and forced to rethink: this is precisely where they did find God.

Listen to Richard Rolle, the early Yorkshire mystic. "The lover of the Godhead is full of joy in the deepest corners of his soul, because his whole being is beamed with love for the unseen Beauty." Hildegard of Bingen claimed that God could not be understood, nor divided, nor begun, nor ended. The anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing depicts God as for ever incomprehensible. All we can do is to kneel humbly before him, with ceaselessly flowering love.

To fret over the historicity or otherwise of the ascension is to struggle with an insoluble conundrum. To see the ascended Lord in the glory of nature, the sweep of humanity, and in the empty silence of contemplative prayer is a spiritual odyssey.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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