Ascension Day 2017: St. Mary’s Iffley
by Canon Anthony Phillips
If we were to recite the creed, which we shall not to-day, we would assert: ‘He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father’. I suppose that none of us actually believes that Jesus is sitting somewhere up there in a chair at God the Father’s right hand. We readily accept that this is theological language used to describe the sovereignty of the risen and ascended Lord. The right hand seat was the place of honour at Jewish meals, the place where the chief guest sat. Jesus has that place of honour over all creation. He is the first begotten of the dead, the Father’s only son. But if this language about sitting is theological, it seems to me only honest to ask whether the other language about the ascension is also theological.
Here we run into difficulties for the New Testament is by no means agreed as to what happened after Christ’s death. Go to Queen’s College Chapel here in Oxford and in one of the large stained glass windows in the apse you will see at the bottom a group of people looking skywards. Above them are a mass of grey puffy clouds from the bottom of which two feet stick out. That is the ascension according to Luke.
Travel now to Chichester and at the end of a side aisle in the Cathedral you will find Graham Sutherland’s painting of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus on the morning of his resurrection in the very act of ascending to his Father. Mary is portrayed as very much the former prostitute of later Christian tradition. Clad in a bright green dress, fully bosomed she crouches with arm outstretched towards her Lord. Jesus dressed like the gardener she had supposed him to be is wearing a long white robe with a battered straw hat on his head. He is climbing some steps and leans over the banister arm extended to fend Mary off. It is the moment he utters, ‘Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’. This is the ascension according to John who then goes on to describe the giving of the Spirit that very night to the frightened disciples locked in behind closed doors.
So in my view honest enquiry into the Biblical evidence will leave one very uncertain as to precisely what happened following the death of Jesus. The four gospels cannot be harmonised at this point, and attempts to do so are at best based on inspired guesses and hypotheses and at worst on an improper use of the material. What we have in the gospels is not an original single resurrection account, but four separate expressions of the Easter faith, complete in themselves and peculiar to each evangelist’s own understanding of what those events meant. We are, whether we like it or not – and many don’t – forced into an agnostic position in which we simply have to say, I don’t know what happened. There isn’t sufficient evidence to be sure what occurred, and now it seems we shall never know.
What we have to recognise is that the Easter events have been recorded by Jews who in typical Jewish form have expressed what happened in a concrete and materialistic way, largely out of fear that the risen Christ might be thought of as a ghost. Had Greeks first composed the Gospel narratives we might instead have had a series of abstractions to replace the well-loved stories which conclude our Gospels.
The proper question we need to ask ourselves is not, ‘Did it really happen like that?’, but rather ‘What did the evangelist mean by describing it in that way?’ For incarnation, resurrection and ascension are not ordinary happenings, the sort of events about which one can read in history books. Rather they are mysteries consequent upon the life and death of a man who lived within time, but which are themselves timeless. This is their unique significance. For these mysteries are contemporary to each and every man and woman: their truth affects each and every one of us in the immediate now. As mysteries they are not capable of ultimate explanation, but rather are to be experienced and lived out. When we say we believe in our creed, we appropriate them to ourselves, make them real within us.
All this is brought out by Luke in his description of the ascension in Acts, itself modelled on the one other Biblical ascension, that of Elijah. The prophet had a faithful disciple, Elisha, who knew that his master was about to be taken from him. After a long journey the two prophets come to the river Jordan, and wishing to cross it, Elijah struck the water with his rolled up cloak. Immediately the water went back, and master and disciple walked through on dry ground.
On the other side Elijah asked Elisha to make one final request of him, and the disciple asked that the master’s spirit might fall on him. Suddenly a chariot and horses of fire appeared and Elisha saw Elijah taken away into heaven. But as he went, Elijah dropped his cloak.
Elisha was now alone on the wrong side of the Jordan. He picked up the cloak and hit the water just as his master had done. Again the water rolled back, and Elisha walked through on dry ground. His last wish had been granted: the spirit of his master had fallen on him. And as the narrative goes on to describe, Elisha in his ministry performed even more wonderful acts than his master.
In his final conversation with his disciples, Jesus too talks about the spirit: ‘You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you’. And their mission shall far exceed his: ‘And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth’. And so it turned out.
On Pentecost the Spirit was given and the disciples went out to perform their mighty works, so that Luke could conclude his narrative in Acts with the risen and ascended Christ being proclaimed in the very capital of the empire, Rome itself. So fully did the two chief disciples, Peter and Paul, appropriate the mysteries of the risen and ascended Christ that they died in the same manner as their master, crucified in the Neronian persecution.
Luke writes that all who read him may likewise do still greater works. They have no cause to complain at the cost. But this kind of discipleship would be impossible were it not that of his grace the Master has provided us with a place where we may affirm our faith, appropriate the mysteries – the Eucharist. Here his body, now risen and ascended, is once more broken for us, his blood spilt, broken and spilt that we might take it and make it our own. And having made it our own, we go out to be witnesses of his risen and ascended presence, manifesting his glory as we allow ourselves to be broken and spilt that his love might be seen to earth’s farthest corners.
Luke ends his account of the ascension with the two angels asking the disciples; ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?’ The risen and ascended Christ seated at the right hand of the Father is to be seen on earth in those very disciples – in the mystery that is his church – in you and me.