Ascension-Tide has wonderful hymns, one has kept coming to me as I have been revisiting the New Testament accounts of the Ascension, Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour. Let it hover in the backs of your minds for a moment.
On Easter morning a parishioner emerged from church, puzzled 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.”
The question about Christ’s state between resurrection and ascension struck home. I had not pondered it before.
It might have plugged into a bewilderment I think I have always felt about the Ascension, with its inference of ascending, going up, as if to a defined place. Having been born a matter 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. Ironically, the descent into Inferno is the beginning of the ascension of the human soul. 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.
The key readings, both from the pen of St Luke for Ascension Day present another potential conundrum.
Jesus has 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 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 must have been the early hours of Easter Monday by then! The same author, 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.
St Matthew’s account is 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. 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 ascended, but it seems it is the culmination of his teaching and presence with them.
For the sake of time shall we bypass discussion of St Mark whose original version may not have included the Ascension?
In John we find 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. As in Matthew, we are in Galilee. Twice John tells us of the many other things which Jesus did. He even underlines how uncontainable this would all be in a life-time’s library of books. But not a word about the Ascension.
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 forty days after Easter.
Is there a way to harmonise these dissonant testimonies?
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.
There is more insight in the account of Jesus’s appearance 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. It’s as if John is playing out what St Paul says (in II 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…, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has passed away the new has come.”
Mary’s recreation, 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 completes the promise in Matthew’s Gospel “lo, I am with you to the close of the age.”
Mary’s experience of needing to hold on to a departed loved one, is the most authentic experience of grief. Jesus is gentle with her, not forbidding her touch, just gently stopping it, for his resurrection was his Ascension too. What a comfort to many whose experience of this year has been one of managing grief in ways which have been so disrupted by the pandemic, not being with the dying, not attending their funerals, not sharing sympathy in their wake. Jesus’s resurrection placed him, Paul says (Eph 1: 22, 23), at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, the head over all things, but his humanity reaches out to the sorrowing and grieving. “Blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted, blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God.”