THERE are two parts to the ascension story. First, Jesus was lifted up; then, he vanished from sight. It was not quite as dramatic an exit as Elijah made when he was taken up in a whirlwind by a chariot of fire, but it was not as final, either; for Pentecost followed, and with it came the rushing wind and the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit.
Over the years that followed, the two parts to the ascension narrative have been replicated. The Acts of the Apostles tells how the apostle Philip vanished from sight after baptising the Ethiopian eunuch. He reappeared at Azotus. Similarly, the imprisoned Paul vanished from his cell, to find himself, when he awoke from what he described as a vision, wandering in a city street.
In more modern times, there have been stories of saints’ bilocating: travelling as if in an instant from one place to another, and then returning. The 20th-century Roman Catholic saint Padre Pio was said to have done this on several occasions.
Accounts of being lifted up are associated with several holy people. The most famous example is 17th-century St Joseph of Cupertino, known as the “flying friar”. During his lifetime, there were numerous reports of his going into a trance and defying gravity. Sometimes, he would be lifted up to the top of a tree. On other occasions, he would hover three feet above the ground. When he met Pope Urban III, he spontaneously levitated as he knelt to kiss the papal ring.
The 16th-century St Teresa of Ávila was often elevated by what she called “attacks”. She found these times an embarrassment, and forbade the nuns in her convent from talking about them. She herself described these states of rapture, however, in her evidence to an Inquisition: “It seemed to me, when I tried to make some resistance, as if a great force beneath my feet lifted me up.”
Reports of levitation are not confined to the Christian tradition. A Victorian self-proclaimed psychic, Daniel Dunglas Home, performed gravity-defying feats as a party trick. In December 1868, he was witnessed floating out of a third-floor window at 5 Buckingham Gate, London, and re-entering the building by another route. Although Home was widely suspected of trickery, fraud was never proven.
Of the many stories of Eastern holy men flying, one of the most remarkable claims is made of the 11th-century Buddhist Milarepa, who, it is said, thanks to his training in yoga, pioneered long-distance flight.
A number of illusionists have perfected techniques to give the appearance of levitation. The internet provides a step-by-step guide on how to levitate in the style of the modern-day performer David Blaine. The trick was perfected by a 20th-century conjuror, Ed Balducci.
KEEPING one’s feet firmly on the ground, however, it is difficult to give credence to any of the historical accounts of levitation. Home performed his trick, it is said, in poor light. St Teresa and St Joseph of Cupertino lived at a time before photographs or video, and we have only the subjective accounts of witnesses who wanted to believe in the miraculous.
It is also difficult to argue theologically why God would go to the trouble of temporarily suspending the laws of gravity to make possible these rare cases of levitation.
Some Christians might argue that demonic spirits can enable the supernatural to happen. To my mind, that which is described as demonic is within us, and not an independent external force looking for ways to pursue a hellish and malevolent agenda of its own. But that is open to debate.
To take the sceptical approach and question the veracity of levitation leaves unanswered the question how the biblical story of the ascension should be understood. I am neither historian nor New Testament specialist, but work as an artist and prefer to think of the Bible in terms of metaphor and symbolism.
There is a universal notion — found in almost all of the world faiths — that “above” is heavenwards and “below” is an underworld of darkness. To go up is to ascend towards the light; to go down into the earth is to go to a lightless and scary place. In everyday speech, to go up in the world is to achieve success; to go down in the world is a sign of failure. In social terms, the “upper” class are those with wealth and privilege, the “lower” classes survive on what they can, and are often looked down on.
AS ALWAYS in Christianity, however, Jesus overturns expectations, and, although at the end of his earthly ministry he ascended in glory, he had first experienced what it was like to be at the bottom of the pile. He was ignominiously crucified and then, as the creed says, “descended into hell”. His earthly teaching emphasised, too, that it was those supposedly at the bottom of the heap who were the most blessed.
The historical facts of the ascension narrative aside, the symbolism of the event is a reminder of the nature of God — who can take us, with Christ, from the depths, and then raise us heavenwards.
Ted Harrison is a writer and artist.