I’ve lately been reading a book by Iain McGilchrist about how the modern Western world has become increasingly left-brained ever since the Enlightenment. We are obsessed with taking things apart to see how they work, and then trying to build them up again. It’s a very useful skill, but it is only one part of how we relate to the world. The ancient and mediaeval and non-Western cultures have been much better at prioritising the right-brain ability to see the bigger picture. It’s in the right brain that music, art, poetry and metaphysics flourish.
Every year when we come to the feast of the Ascension, I realize that we post-Enlightenment folk have turned a celebration into a problem, and it’s because we are so earnestly literal-minded in a way that our ancestors were not.
Rowan Williams quotes the novelist Anna Mason’s words: “There is a kind of truth which, when it is said, becomes untrue.” In other words, any attempt at expressing the inexpressible in human categories is doomed to fail. God is not an object in the universe and cannot be adequately spoken about in human language.
So what do we do with a story that attempts to describe the resurrected Jesus disappearing into the sky? First of all we should look more closely at what is actually said. The event is described in Acts as a cloud receiving Jesus, and in Luke as Jesus being removed from the disciples’ sight in the act of blessing them. Whenever we hear of a cloud in the Bible, we know that we are in the mysterious presence of God, especially when a cloud appears on a mountaintop, a place of awe and wonder. And remember that the disciples’ eyes are opened when Jesus blesses the bread at the supper in Emmaus – in the act of blessing, he is made known.
I think we can draw two conclusions from these accounts, using the imaginative faculties of our right brains. Somehow, when Jesus no longer appeared to his friends on earth, they became convinced that he was at one with God – that’s the cloud that removed him from sight – and that in his withdrawing from them he was blessing them. They tried to hold two things simultaneously in mind: Jesus is now completely at one with God, and Jesus is now actively present in the believers on earth.
Like so many things in the Christian faith, this is a paradox beyond the limitations of our modern minds. The Bible accounts try to put into words a sequence of events – resurrection, appearances to the disciples, ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit – that cannot be laid out on a dateline. Taking them one at a time may help us to reflect and meditate on different aspects of our faith, but we mustn’t be chronological fundamentalists.
What happened on Easter Day and afterwards remains beyond our language and our understanding. What we have is an emptiness, an absence, of the slain Jesus in the tomb, and then a fullness, a presence, of the risen Jesus in the Christian community. Living in that new reality, the first Christians struggled to find ways of expressing how one led to the other.
As I am sure we are all aware, the stories of the resurrection appearances differ in the four gospels, and I am delighted by this. There is a mysteriousness that the witnesses simply couldn’t pin down. Each one told their own story in their own way. And I think that that richness and elusiveness persists in the story of the return of Jesus to his Father, and to the coming of the Holy Spirit. The whole experience was simply beyond the powers of description. Whatever it was, it was bigger than their usual categories of thinking.
But what the disciples knew for sure was this: they had been cast down into the depths of despair, and now they were full of joy and energy. They had felt abandoned and alone, and now they were empowered. They were transformed from a rapidly disintegrating band of losers into a new thing on earth: the Body of Christ. This didn’t come from an exercise of their imagination: it came from outside them. It was realer than anything they had ever known.
They knew this from their experience, not from thinking abstract thoughts. God had moved powerfully in ways they hadn’t been able to imagine. They could only witness to the changes that occurred in their own lives, as they accepted the extraordinary gift of the good news that makes the whole world different.
The Methodist writer J. Neville Ward writes of the Ascension that “We think of Jesus and God together now, to be trusted and loved, as indeed life is to be trusted and loved because it is God’s love expressed in time. All this is faith; no one knows it to be true, no one knows that it is not true.”
God’s love expressed in time: that is a way to think of Jesus’ life on earth, and it is also the way to think of our life in the Body of Christ. What God gave to us in the human person of Jesus, God continues to give to us as we live the risen life in our generation.
We don’t need to understand or explain anything in our left-brained way. We need to open our hearts to the right-brained vision of life lived in all its fullness.
So the keynotes of the feast of the Ascension should be joy and thankfulness. Nothing is taken away. God pours out the gift of the divine life not just on those who walked and talked and ate with Jesus, but on everyone who is baptised into his death and resurrection.
We observe the last nine days of Eastertide as a time of anticipation of the coming of the Holy Spirit. But remember that it is still Easter, the season of the resurrection. We don’t leave Easter behind as we celebrate the Ascension; we don’t put the Ascension in the past as we celebrate Pentecost. We are celebrating three different facets of the one divine gift of love expressed in time – love that conquers death, love that dwells with the Father, and love that empowers us to be the Body of Christ on earth.
The cloud of glory surrounds us too as we meet to celebrate the heavenly meal that unites us with the risen Lord.