Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Giotto, The Ascension (c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

Hail the day that sees him rise,
glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals giv’n,
enters now the highest heaven.

–– Charles Wesley (18th century)

At once the disciples wept and, groaning deeply,
said to the teacher,
“Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?”

–– Romanos, Kontakion for the Ascension (6th century)

O envious cloud,
do you grudge even our brief delight?
Where do you fly in such haste?
Your departure, so splendid and bright!
But how poor and blind you leave us!

–– Fray Luis de Leon ((16th century)

 

This is the fortieth day of Easter, Ascension Thursday, commemorating the cessation of resurrection appearances and the exaltation of Christ into a state of divine glory and universal presence. The liturgical texts and hymns are festive and celebratory: the divine fullness, hidden and humbled in the life of a first-century mortal, is lifted high once again, but without discarding the humanity assumed and hallowed in the Incarnation. By ascending, Christ does not abandon us to “earth’s broken Eden,”[i] but rather makes the way for us to follow, deeper and deeper into God. Our humanity, made glorious in Christ, is joined to divinity forever.

O strong Ramme, which hast batter’d heaven for mee,
Mild lambe, which with thy blood, hast mark’d the path;
Bright torch, which shin’st, that I the way may see . . . [ii]

Still, the day has always felt bittersweet to me. Amid all the festive imagery of a glorified Christ taking up his rightful crown as “cherubic legions shout him welcome to the skies,”[iii] and despite the promise that we now have a Mediator who, as one dear priest put it to me long ago, “whispers our prayers into the ear of the Father for all eternity,” a sense of ending and departure is there as well. The companion who once graced his disciples with the intimacy of daily presence, even after his death––where is he now?

Those once blessed,
now sad, afflicted,
those nourished at your breast
and now by you dispossessed,
where will they turn their faces? [iv]

Divine absence is a common theme in our time. In the secular imaginary, where heaven is but empty space, the Ascension is a flight to nowhere. It’s not just a matter of declining interest in the labor of belief as other matters compete for our attention. For many, “God” is simply no longer even thinkable. Divinity seems a term referring to nothing in contemporary experience. The vocabulary and grammar necessary to speak God into being have become, for many, a dead language.

Climbing high into the mountains fifty years ago, on the lookout for divine presence, Czeslaw Milosz saw only absence––“the mighty power of counter-fulfillment; the penalty of a promise lost forever.”

No eagle-creator circled in the air from which the thunderbolt of its glory had been cast out.

Protective spirits hid themselves in subterranean beds of bubbling ore . . .

God the Father didn’t walk about any longer tending the new shoots of a cedar, no longer did man hear his rushing spirit.

His son did not know his sonship and turned his eyes away when passing by a neon cross flat as a movie screen showing a striptease. . .

And those who longed for the Kingdom took refuge like me in the mountains to become the last heirs of a dishonored myth. [v]

The Ascension does not only signify absence, however. It also promises a new form of presence, which I have written about in “Ascension Day ‘Charade’: The Puzzling Exit of Jesus.” But absence is as fundamental to faith as presence, and deserves to be treated by Christian communities with equal respect and attention.

Since most churches, unable to get good attendance at weekday liturgies, now celebrate the joyful glories of the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, perhaps we should consider devoting Ascension Thursday to the honest contemplation of its shadow side. What if God’s friends were to gather annually in an “upper room” for an Ascension potluck or pub night to share their stories and their wonderings about the experience and meaning of divine absence?

Might we then, like those first disciples left behind on the Mount of Olives, find the sincerity of our questions and the depth of our longing answered by the winds of heaven and the fire of unquenchable Love?

So now, be joyful and radiant,
be glad, and sing a new song.
For everything that may happen, happens for your sake.
It was for you I came down and went through all . . .
It is for you again that I ascend into heaven,
to prepare the place
where I must be with you. [vi]

 

 

 

 

[i] Denise Levertov, “Ascension,” in Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess, Peggy Rosenthal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 567.

[ii] John Donne, “Ascension,” in John Donne: The Complete English Poems (London: Everyman’s Library, 1985), 433-34.

[iii] Isaac Watts, “Morning,” in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991), #163t.

[iv] Fray Luis de Leon, “The Ascension,” in Divine Inspiration, 566.

[v] Czeslaw Milosz, “How It Was,” in Czeslaw Milosz: New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001 (New York: Ecco, 2003), 232-33.

[vi] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension,” in On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, trans. Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (New York: Harper Collins, 1995).

Ascension Day “Charade”? – The Puzzling Exit of Jesus

Ascension Day at the Episcopal Theological School, May 4, 1967 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

I first fell in love with Ascension Day in the seventh grade, when my Episcopal school in Los Angeles kept the day holy by giving us the afternoon off. When solemn high mass ended at noon, 350 boys raced out of chapel to make the most of a sunny spring day. I may not have had a keen grasp of the Ascension’s theological significance, but if it meant a half-day vacation, I was all for it. So how did I spend that free time? I went to see the Crucifixion.

My father, James K. Friedrich, priest and film producer, was shooting the last episode of a 6-hour miniseries on the life of Christ. I met my friend Ricky McGarry, whose Catholic school also observed a half-day, and we took a bus to Hollywood’s Goldwyn Studio to visit the set. The irony of going to “Golgotha” on Ascension Day escaped me at the time. Although it could be said that the Fourth Gospel sees as much glorification on Mt. Calvary as Luke sees on the Mount of Olives, this was not an argument a seventh-grader was prepared to make.

The Rev. James K. Friedrich on the set of “Crucifixion and Resurrection” (1956)

My most memorable––and notorious––Ascension Day came a decade later, reported under the title “Ascension Day Charade “ in The Christian Century magazine.

On Ascension Day, May 4, approximately 40 men and a few women and children gathered at a conspicuous place at noon and conducted a premeditated, burlesque celebration of the day of Christ’s “Glorification.” To one end of a long cord they had fastened several gas-filled balloons; to the other, a crude effigy of the Christ made of tissue paper and cardboard. As high noon approached, the crowd began a hilarious countdown beginning at 100. The volume of the shouting and the air of boisterous jollity heightened until with a mighty shout of “Zero” and “Blast-off” from the crowd the cord holding the balloons and the effigy was released. A naïve bystander did not realize what the raucous crowd was mocking until, as the balloons ascended dragging behind them the paper Christ, he heard one of the men quote Scripture: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Who were these people? Were they Russian atheists or members of the Chinese Red Guard taunting Christians with their gibes? Were they “hippies” taking a trip on LSD or Black Muslims reviling Christianity? Where did this parody of the Ascension occur? It occurred on the campus of a highly respected seminary, and the men who contrived and conducted it were seminarians, studying for the office of pastor, prophet and priest in the high calling of Jesus Christ.

The unsigned editorial went on to shake its finger at such “profanations,” expressing “revulsion and pity,” and “a heavy sense of abiding sadness” over the “absurd and despicable” actions of those naughty seminarians.

On the day designated by the church and by generations of Christian people as a reminder of the exaltation of Christ, these people debased the Christ… What will they try next for thrills? The Black Mass?[i]

But another mainline publication, the Methodist Christian Advocate, jumped into the fray on the students’ behalf. It couldn’t resist needling the low church Century for fussing over a liturgical calendar item to which their liberal mainline constituency in fact paid scant attention. And it worried that the establishment’s “disturbing defensiveness about surface material” may signal that its symbols are already on the decline. In contrast, said the Advocate,

the seminarians who are able to deal so lightly with symbols of a previous day… are indicating a certain freedom toward their faith. Be reminded that they are seminary students, who presumably have some desire to serve their world through their church. Their lightness toward tradition may well reflect a desire to shake loose from dead forms in order to better serve the God who has called them.[ii]

Dear reader, it may not surprise you to learn that this controversial liturgical observance was cooked up in my seminary dorm room. A youthful Religious Imagineer, joined by two other first-year students at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was seeking a dramatic finish to a series of spontaneous “art actions” during a four-day gathering of major church leaders. The conference agenda was certainly serious and daunting––the reunification of ten American denominations. But the addition of news media and right-wing Christian protestors to the mix was too tempting to resist. It seemed a good time for some religious guerilla theater.

Our helium-powered ascension was not mockery but play, with precedents going back to the medieval practice of tying a rope to an effigy of Christ and pulling it up through a hole in the church ceiling on the Feast of the Ascension. But in the late twentieth century, the explicitness of a material ‘figure’ rising into an empty sky prompted some discomfort among the Christian modernists in the crowd. How much were they being asked to believe about the Ascension? What was really at stake in our ‘Ascension Day Charade?’

The four gospels describe the earthly life of Jesus, his death, and various appearances to his followers after the resurrection. But only Luke describes the moment the appearances ended. Matthew provides a farewell scene on a mountain, but we never see Jesus actually leave. Instead, he promises to be with us always, to the end of time. Mark concludes his account with three women being told by a mysterious figure that the risen Christ is “not here.” But if they go back to Galilee, they will see him there. It’s like the teaser in a season finale: To be continued. John, who devotes several chapters to a long and moving farewell speech at the Last Supper, ends his gospel with a another conversation over food––a picnic breakfast at the beach––but now the talk seems less urgent, as though Jesus and his friends have all the time in the world together.

Only Luke delivers the emotional image of seeing the Incarnate One go for good, like Shane riding off into the sunset. As I wrote in my 2014 post on the Ascension, “Where Did Jesus Go?”:

Luke might have had Jesus disappear around a corner, or over a hill.
Or the disciples might have looked away for a moment, or blinked,
missing the exact moment of vanishing.
But the cloud is a nice touch. Artists have always loved it.
In any event, Jesus is suddenly gone.

Christians ever since have been left with a number of questions? Where did he go? Is he still locatable in space and time, or is he only in a transcendent, placeless realm? What form did he take in order to be in a ‘place’ beyond embodied existence? What does it mean to say Christ is still present and in relationship with us? Does the Ascension tell us anything about our own future?

If Jesus exchanged the spatially locatable body of a first century Jew for the omnipresence we attribute to the divine, can we still say he is fully human, or did the Word “unbecome” flesh in the Ascension? Did it somehow reverse or cancel the Incarnation?

Martin Luther, insisting that the ascended Christ was not “a stork in a nest in a treetop,”[iii] argued for his ubiquitious presence in the here and now, but that still leaves the particularity of Jesus in question. As one contemporaray theologian has framed the dilemma, “Christ everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.”[iv]

One ancient solution was to understand the Church as the continuation in space-time of Christ’s incarnate presence. Jesus’ individual body was succeeded by the community of the faithful, the visible ‘Body of Christ’ in the world. As Ephesians says, “The Church is Christ’s body, the completion of him who himself completes all things everywhere” (Eph.1:23). But where is the church which has truly fulfilled this high calling, except in momentary flashes of grace? We may be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, but we are still not all that good at it, despite centuries of practice. The perfection of Christ is not contained within the ecclesia, though we may hope to meet it there.

It was easier to take Luke’s ascension imagery seriously when the cosmos was vertically arranged into earth below, heaven above. The heavenly realm might be invisible, yet it could seem nonetheless near enough to shed its influence on the world below. Indeed, many paintings of the Ascension show heaven to be, as the Celts say, only about a foot and a half above our heads.

Pietro Perugino, The Ascension of Christ (1495-98)

Recent centuries have abandoned such a dualistic cosmos. Heaven as a separate place in the old sense has receded into infinity––and beyond!––distant and remote, unengaged with the mechanisms, causalities and presences of this world. But a God who has nowhere to ‘be’ in space-time is a God without ‘existence.’ In modernity’s cosmology, it isn’t just Jesus who has ascended out of sight, but the entire Godhead. The question became not just ‘where is Jesus?’ but ‘where is God?’

Theologians have puzzled over the seeming ‘unthinkability’ or absence of God within the social imaginary of modernity. I won’t go too far into the weeds to catalog the rich variety of their responses here, but they include thinking of God not as a noun (an object among others) but as a verb (known through actions, situations or relations), or expanding the notion of transcendence to mean not only ‘beyond’ but ‘within’––the hidden inner source of every possibility which Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘the dearest freshness deep down things.’ But whatever the approach to the mystery of divine presence and absence, language fumbles when it reaches beyond the senses. In the matter of the divine who, what, where, when and how, words fail.

The true God is the unknown mystery of the world whose holiness is violated as soon as God acquires a name. God is beyond being and nonbeing, belief and unbelief, theism and atheism. God is hidden, holy, mysterious, the ineffable source of revelation and grace.[v]

The Ascension epitomizes the dilemma of locating and describing ‘the unknown mystery of the world.’ We may catch a glimpse the disappearing feet, but if Jesus has indeed returned to God, where exactly is that? And how do we ourselves get there?

The Ascension of Christ, Limoges (Late 16th century)

A nineteenth-century Danish theologian proposed a temporal approach to the question of ‘where.’ Instead of looking for the ascended Christ in space, might we discern him within the unfolding of time, replenishing and perfecting the world ‘with the energies of the future’?

The presence of Christ in the universe must be looked upon, not so much as actual being, but rather as an essential becoming; it must be treated as a progressive advent, a continual coming, in virtue of which, by the growing development of his fullness, he makes himself the center of the whole creation; and the creation itself is thus being prepared and created anew as a living, organic, and growing temple of Christ.[vi]

To contemplate the mystery of the ascended Christ as a process, shaping the interrelated destiny of everything that is, may prove a way to collapse the infinite distance between earth and heaven into a nearness, a presence, which can be known and experienced even if not understood. Wherever Christ went, it was to prepare a ‘place’––or situation––where we all may become our truest selves, completed at last in Christ’s glorified and expanded body. Like Dante at the end of Purgatorio, through the mystery of ascent we become ‘rifatto … puro e disposto a salire a le stelle’ (‘remade . . . pure and ready for the stars’).[vii]

So the ultimate question for Ascension Day may not be ‘where is Jesus?’, but ‘where are we?’ And where do we need to go from here to be with Christ and in Christ? An old shape note hymn says it perfectly:

Then he arose, ascended high
To show our feet the way…

 

 

 

 

Related post: Where Did Jesus Go?

 

[i] “Ascension Day Charade” (unsigned editorial), The Christian Century, vol. LXXXIV, No. 21 (May 24, 1967), 675-76.

[ii] “Jesus in the Clouds,” Christian Advocate, vol. XI, No. 12 (June 15, 1967)

[iii] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Edinburgh, Grand Rapids: T & T Clark, 1999), 269.

[iv] Ibid., 12.

[v] Gary Dorrien, The Word as True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 238

[vi] Hans Martensen, in Farrow, 192.

[vii] Purgatorio xxxiii.141-143.

End photo by Marilyn Robertson.