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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

19 May 2023

The deeper meaning of the ascension remains vital, says Malcolm Guite

I USED to find Ascension Day challenging and difficult, and this was because, at first, I tried to understand it only at a literal level. In an age that conceived the heavens, the dwelling place of “God most high”, as, in some sense, literally above us, a place in or beyond the sky, it made perfect sense, if one wanted to envisage Jesus’s returning to the Father, bringing with him his humanity and ours, to the heart of heaven, to picture him literally and physically ascending in a kind of holy lift-off.

But, once we had begun to understand the solar system, let alone explore it for ourselves, the literal understanding of ascension made no sense at all. Indeed, on a spinning world, the very direction of such an ascension is changing every second.

And yet the deeper meaning of the ascension, the truth to which that old image gestures, to which it bears witness, remains as essential as ever. Heaven is not a physical location to which we can navigate in the present frame of time and space; indeed, St Augustine knew that ages ago when he said that we do not come to heaven by navigation, but by love.

Heaven is the centre of that immense mystery from which time and space themselves came into being; it is the heart of God himself, the source and centre of all, and yet transcending all creation; and the metaphor of height, of the mountain above the valley, suggests something of that transcendence.

But, by itself, unmodified by other metaphors, the metaphor of height may be misleading. Dante deals with this difficulty brilliantly when, after his long ascent up the spiral path of mount purgatory, up to the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise, and then his glorious ascent with Beatrice up through all the spheres of the heavens, as the medieval mind imagined them, he discovers, when he gets to the highest and outermost sphere, that he has really been moving not outwards from sphere to sphere, but inwards into that centre of pure love from which the cosmos radiates like the petals of a rose.

Of course, the most important truth that Dante mediates is that Christ’s ascension is our ascension, too; he takes us with him, our great high priest who has passed into the heavens. I tried to suggest a little of that in my own sonnet on the ascension in the lines:

We saw him go and yet we were not parted,

He took us with him to the heart of things,
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and heaven-centred now. . .

But the English mystic who really understood the ascension, and saw it in the light not just of the resurrection, but even of the cross, was Thomas Traherne. In one of his meditations on the cross, he has those astonishing lines: “The Cross of Christ is the Jacob’s ladder by which we ascend into the highest heavens. . . Teach me, O Lord, these mysterious ascensions. By descending into Hell for the sake of others, let me ascend into the glory of the Highest Heavens.”

That gets to the heart of the meaning of the ascension, and that provocative plural, “these many ascensions”, makes sense of that great moment in every eucharist, the Sursum Corda: “Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord.”

Perhaps we can lift our hearts only in each eucharist because Christ has lifted them already — because, as St Paul says, our “life is hidden with Christ in God”.

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