A sermon for Ascension Day, preached by Graham Low on 21.5.20
As we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord, it is interesting to see how artists and sculptors represented it. Many have painted it but few have sculpted it, perhaps it is hard to convey movement in a statue. How can Jesus be depicted as going up into the heavens? A sculptor can’t show hair or clothes being ruffled by movement, up or down.
In the Chapel of the Ascension at the Anglican Shrine Church in Walsingham a ring of cloud has been sculpted into its roof. Within the ring is the bottom of a richly ornate tunic, and two roughly life-sized feet, marked with the wounds of the cross, and attached to stellate gold beams. Above is deep blue sky with stars. It is both comic and ambiguous: you cannot tell whether the feet are coming up or down. It can look as if the ceiling has fallen in, and someone’s feet are now dangling through the roof.
Once you have overcome the comedy, this sculpture makes a point about the Ascension. The physical body of Jesus has gone but where?
Since Easter the Gospels have assumed the physicality of Christ’s resurrection, rather than a spirit who has shed mortality. He is an entity that God has rescued from death.
So where has our ascended Lord gone? Jesus tells his disciples that he is going back to the Father, not on an extended voyage above the clouds.
The appeal of the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham is that we only see the feet. When we wonder about what lies on the other side of the cloud, words and images fail.
The Christian faith points us towards a spiritual future. Our story does not end with death, or some kind of shadowy half-life. It is about being taken into the being of God.
The Bible indicates that there will be a glorious and mysterious future with God, but it is beyond human understanding. That shouldn’t surprise or trouble us. Science embraces doubt and uncertainty: not knowing about much of the inexpressible depth of the world is to be welcomed rather than feared. Faith encourages us to know more about the creative force of the universe – God. The Ascension is a pivotal point in belief in God.
Belief stems from a place of human intuition. It has a sense of surprise, awe, epiphany, wonder, of being beyond. These senses of God’s creation are just as much a starting point for scientists, as I have been, as for theologians. We are far from understanding the whole of reality. The more we know, the more we realise we do not know. Life is not simply a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced, a gift to be lived. This gift to be lived is enabled by God through the Holy Spirit, which we shall celebrate with joy in ten days’ time.
In this Eucharist, we are both comforted and exalted. Here we glimpse something of our glorious future in Christ, with God and all his children – those with us now, and those from whom we are now separated by distance or by death. And this foretaste, this glimpse of glory, is not given to distract us from our earthly pilgrimage. Rather, it gives that pilgrimage its direction, its confidence and its power.
It is good to be reminded that the hope of an eternal future with God does not simply leave us gazing fondly into the heavens. Rather, God calls us to be inspired by that hope, and sends us the Holy Spirit, that Christ may be made present here and now. As Christian Aid’s slogan puts it, we are called to believe in life before death as well as afterwards. Amen.