I am grateful to Canon William Gulliford, Diocesan Director of Ordinands, and my colleague on the diocesan Ministry Team, not only for offering his thoughts and challenges on the Feast of the Ascension for this week’s lectionary blog, but also drawing my attention to the beautiful Anglican church in Cadenabbia that is dedicated to the Ascension. For more about the church go to Church on Lake Como. William explores the lectionary readings for Ascension Day, Acts 1. 1-11; Ephesians 1. 15-end; Luke 24. 44-end
Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship; firstname.lastname@example.org
It is something of a deprivation not to be able to sing in church at the moment. With the perceptible reduction in infections the day may just be in sight when congregations can sing in services once again. In England we have been allowed to sing outside since Easter and in our church we have taken every opportunity in our church garden either at the start or finish of a service to sing when possible. It has been particularly moving at the end of funerals recently, to follow the coffin and as it is loaded into the hearse to sing together an Easter hymn. Ascensiontide has a host of full-throttle wonders, one of which is a Eucharistic hymn Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour. It has kept coming to me as I have been revisiting the various New Testament accounts of the Ascension.
On Easter morning a parishioner emerged from church, clearly troubled by the readings. ‘Where is He?’ my perplexed friend asked? ‘Where is he, when Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, ‘I am not yet ascended to the Father.’
I had not addressed this in any way in my sermon that morning, nor thought of this exchange as the cause for post resurrection puzzle. But this question has remained with me in lead up to Ascensiontide.
The Ascension has always signified for me the assimilation of the incarnate Christ into the fullness of God. I had seen in the Ascension a sacrament somehow of our becoming, or becoming again, what Christ is, because he had become what we are. In the context of the many sadnesses and losses of this pandemic, there is comfort in this, that the disjointedness of our human frailty is tended by the possibility of healing and transformation in Christ’s movement to the Father. But the question about Christ’s state between resurrection and ascension needled me, simply because I had not pondered it before. It has caused me to think once again about the Ascension within the divine the economy of salvation.
It might have plugged into a bewilderment I think I have always felt about the Ascension, with its inference of ascending, going up,as ifto defined place. Having been born a matter of days before the Moon landing, my whole lifetime has been overshadowed by the demystification of space travel, and a general acceptance of the infinite character of time and space.
Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy this year, in celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, the imagination is stretched by the mediaeval world’s mapping of hell, purgatory and heaven. Implied within the Comedy is a spatial sense of the locations of all three realms. The pilgrim, Dante, descends to the earthly depths of hell, climbs the Mountain of Purgatory before taking a space flight through our known universe. Dante is speaking in metaphors too, but the furthest reaches of space were metaphorical for him in the way that it cannot be for the modern mind, and he was only advancing what the Church of his day took for granted.
I have needed to remind myself of what the New Testament’s accounts say took place at the Ascension.
The key readings for Ascension Day present another potential conundrum. They are both from the pen of St Luke.
Luke’s Gospel gives Jesus a busy Easter Day evening. First, Jesus meets Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. As Cleopas and his companion are recounting their experiences back in Jerusalem, Jesus then appears to the assembled disciples. Jesus preaches again, and then takes them up towards Bethany, on the eastern side of the Mt of Olives, and ‘was taken from them into heaven.’ No indication of what time of day, but it seems it was the early hours of Easter Monday by then! The same author, at the start of Volume 2 says in verse 3 of chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles, ‘To them he presented himself after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the Kingdom of God.’ This time, without being precise about where the gathering has taken place, Jesus promises them the outpouring of power from on high. A cloud then envelopes him, and as he is taken from their sight. Two angels confirm that he has been taken up into heaven and he will come in the same way as they saw him go. The stage is set for the Feast of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit.
St Matthew’s account is quite different. The women, on their way back from the tomb on Easter Day, are told by the angel to tell the disciples to hasten to Galilee. But the women catch a glimpse of Jesus, whom they fall down and worship. He repeats the command for the disciples to proceed to Galilee. Once there, on an unnamed mountain, Jesus charges his followers to ‘make disciples of all nations…and lo, I am with you to the close of the age.’ It does not say he then ascended, but it seems it is the culmination of his teaching and earthly presence with them.
Shall we bypass detailed discussion of St Mark? Many scholars regard verses 9-20 of his Gospel as a much later patchwork of all the other Gospels, and so not original. However, whoever exactly wrote verse 19 the author still speaks of Jesus being taken up into heaven and adds that Jesus ‘sat down at the right hand of God.’
So, to the Gospel of John. In the Fourth Gospel we find the most intense accounts of Jesus’s presence with the disciples in those post-resurrection days. The meeting with Mary Magdalene in the garden by the tomb is perhaps one of the most moving in a Gospel which has especially beautiful encounters of Jesus with different individuals, and notably women. He meets with the ten on Easter Day evening and then the following Sunday with Thomas and the brethren. The addendum in chapter 21 with the rehabilitation of Peter is charged with the poignancy of forgiveness and release. As in Matthew, and again at odds with Luke, in that final account, we are in Galilee. Twice the Fourth Evangelist tells us of the many other things which Jesus did. The second time he underlines how uncontainable this would all be in a life-time’s library of books. But not a word about the Ascension.
There is an account we must not overlook, even if it opens up broader horizons still. Indeed, St Paul, who does not tell us what happened at the Ascension, or indeed when, in the sequence of resurrection narratives, has the Ascension in sight in much of his writing. (Colossians 3.1-4; Ephesians 1.15-20; 4.9-15; Romans 8.5, 6, 34; Philippians 3.19-21; 2 Corinthians 12.1-10). His own resurrection experience, on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.1-99; 22.4-16; 26.9-18; 1 Corinthians 9.1; 1 Cor 15.8: Galatians 1.16) extends the period of these encounters to the time of his own conversion after 34 AD.
For the sceptics, it could be said, having looked at different post-Resurrection accounts, that the Ascension is handled more differently by the four evangelists than the Eucharist, Jesus’s healing miracles, the Passion or even the Resurrection. Luke even seems to confound his own sequencing of it with two separate narratives. Certainly, Luke is the only Evangelist to imply, and only once, that the Ascension took place on the Mount of Olives and forty days after the Resurrection. Sceptics and non-sceptics would agree that Paul’s Theology is laden with a presumption of Our Lord’s Ascension. But despite being closer in time to those events, Paul gives us no clue of what it was like and when it happened as a distinct event.
Is there a way to harmonise these dissonant testimonies to Our Lord’s departure?
You will have got there before me, like John outrunning Peter to the tomb. The concluding line of the hymn I spoke of that the start, Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour spells the answer in just three words – Risen, ascended, glorified. The difference between these narratives need not be a cause for scepticism if we concede that it is but a trick of the post-resurrection light. Our Lord’s resurrection is a single and divine mystery from the moment the tomb is empty. Actually, St Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 15.
There is more insight than is immediately apparent as the Risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene. The understandable desire of the Magdalene to keep holding on to Jesus matched by his gentle separation from her, with the words ‘I am not yet ascended to the Father’, suggests that Jesus is not in an in-between or non-place. The emphasis is that Jesus’s departure is vital. It is not that he has not yet ascended, but Mary cannot see that his rising from the dead marked his Ascension too: the start of a new way of relating to the one she has loved so much. It’s as if John is playing out what St Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5.16-17 ‘From now on we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has passed away the new has come.’
Mary’s re-creation, in the early light of the first Easter morning, hints at what will happen to all believers, once Jesus has gone to his Father. His departure is the fulfilment of what he promises in Matthew’s Gospel ‘lo, I am with you to the close of the age.’
Mary’s experience of wanting and even needing to hold on to a dear departed loved one after their death is the most authentic experience of grief. Jesus indeed is gentle with her, not forbidding her touch, just gently stopping it, for his resurrection was his Ascension too.
William Temple in his readings in John’s Gospel says:
In the days of His (Jesus’) earthly ministry, only those could speak to him who came where He was. If He was in Galilee, men could not find Him in Jerusalem; if He was in Jerusalem, men could not find Him in Galilee. But His Ascension means that He is perfectly united with God; we are with Him wherever we are present to God; and that is everywhere and always. Because He is ‘in Heaven’ He is everywhere on earth: because He is ascended, He is here now. Our devotion is not to hold us by the empty tomb; it must lift up our hearts to heaven so that we too ‘in heart and mind thither ascend and with Him continually dwell;’ it must also send us forth into the world to do His will; and these are not two things, but one.