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
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