Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ascension muddle

Okay, true confessions of a theologian.

Resurrection: check.

Pentecost, coming of the Holy Spirit (upon the COMMUNITY, please note -- this is not an individual-me-and-Jesus event): check.

Ascension? Unghh.

Then again, the disciples weren't too fond of Jesus running off to the nether realms, either.

The art is a mixed bag, too, and some of it raises my feminist Christian hackles. I do like the Dali one, more because in its typical Dali way it offers a perspective the other art doesn't. And the 14th c. Florentine piece above is my current favorite aesthetically (I am waiting for it to speak to me theologically, or perhaps I am not giving it a chance). But the art in between those two periods -- eh. (Note my sophisticated use of theological language here. At least I'm not using my doctoral training to obfuscate.) Like this and this. Boring. And male, male, male. And rather than both human and divine those pictures offer neither human nor divine presence. At least to these eyes.

But I am just a simple country ecclesiologist, so what do I know.

Perhaps, also --to get back to those unhappy disciples-- it is because of the sentiment expressed on the site where I found the Dali reproduction: l'Ascension n'est porteur d'aucune bonne nouvelle pour l'humanité! C'est un évènement qui concerne Jésus et lui seul... C'est Jésus qui s'en va, Jésus qui nous quitte... "The Ascension is not the bearer of any good news for humanity! It is an event that concerns Jesus and him alone... It is Jesus who goes away, Jesus who leaves us..."

Still, it's not just that.

The art of the Christian East speaks to me a little more (Egyptian 13th c. Anastasis [Resurrection] and Ascension and 15th c. Russian Ascension) -- in fact, have a look at that Russian one right here. Much more movement, and the angels are right among the earthlings. Poor Mary, though, is rather wooden and tiny; though centrally located, she almost fades into the foreground.
 As always, I find beauty and consolation, and some of the best Christian and Anglican theology I know, in the prayers of Janet Morley. I'd almost forgotten to go to her. Her collect for Ascension Day reads:

O God,
you withdraw from our sight
that you may be known by our love:
help us to enter the cloud
where you are hidden,
and surrender all our certainty
to the darkness of faith
in Jesus Christ, Amen.

The apophatic non-answer.

What think you all? Talk to me, and to each other, in the comments below.


EPRS said...

And just to complicate matters further, take a look at the BBC Religion and Ethics website which focuses on and points to the Ascension story in Mark in the context of post-resurrection sightings with a report of what Jesus had to say to his disciples (re: going forth, proclaiming the Gospel to the whole creation; indicators of salvation; and indicators of condemnation -- what it is that faith brings with it) just before he ascended --

"Ascension Day celebrates Jesus's ascension to heaven after he was resurrected on Easter Day.

A quotation from Mark 16:9-20 tells the story.

He appeared first to Mary of Magdala. She went and carried the news to his mourning and sorrowful followers, but when she told them that he was alive they did not believe her.

Later he appeared to two of the disciples as they were walking into the countryside. They also went and took the news to the others, but again they did not believe that the Lord was alive.

Then, when the eleven disciples were at the table. He appeared to them and reproached them because they had not believed those who had seen him after he was raised from the dead.

Then he said to them: 'Go forth to every part of the world, and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. Those who believe it and receive baptism will find salvation; those who do not believe will be condemned, Faith will bring with it these miracles: believers will cast out devils in my name and speak in strange tongues; if they handle snakes or drink any deadly poison, they will come to no harm; and the sick on whom they lay their hands will recover.'

So after talking with them the Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven, and he took his seat at the right hand of God."

The Ascension -- necessary perhaps, as a way of
dealing with the cessation of post-resurrection sightings by the disciples??

Jane R said...

Yes -- for sure the prelude to Pentecost and the transition.

I guess I was trying to make more sense of it existentially than why the feast came to be or why the event was (re)constructed by the early believers. Another friend (who might not like her name being quoted here, but you know her) notes in a private e-mail that she has always thought of it as "The great ecclesial enshrinement of the human experience of unending grief -- kind of a massive, eternal bout of traumatic loss morphed into a feast day." She notes that her Irish grief genes probably led her to that insight. Brilliant.

Thanks for visiting! Am sending you an e-mail in case you don't come back and check comments.

EPRS said...

Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
From the experience of witnessing the execution of Jesus
to the discovery of the empty tomb ...
to the several sightings of him & occasions of fellowship and conversation together with the Marys and his disciples ...
to his last words to them before he Ascended ...
to the wildness and wonder of the HolySpirit at
Pentecost ...
All, a sweep of grief with the power of epiphany and legacy of liberation way, way beyond any subjugation and execution, ever again.

R said...


Love the iconography and your reflections. I find the centrality of Mary in so many images a fascinating point of reflection and something to ponder and read more about.

I guess I can only at this point reflect with any coherence on what the ascension means to me, and far less on any existential implications.

I feel hampered by the images of the ascension in the Gospels, if only because the authors had a very different cosmological understanding than do we.

The "making room for the Spirit," explanation has always sounded a bit strange to me, even in light of traditional Trinitarian theology.

So. . .the mystery of the ascension means to me that the Risen Christ has vaulted the confines of a particular time and location -- no longer being bound by the peculiarities of this universe means that Christ may abide with us and in us in a much more profound way.

Not all that original, I suppose!

Jane R said...

Maybe not original, but helpful! And original to me today, because of the cosmological comments together with your reflection on Christ's presence with us.

Thanks for stopping by, Richard. It's good to have these conversations.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Jane, I love your reflection and your second icon. I like the Dali, too. The Ascension seems to be problematic for many Christians.

Richard, I like what you say, also.

What about this representation? That's what I decided to use. Here's my two cents about the Ascension:

Jesus left the earth with his resurrected body, but he promised to ask his Father to send the Spirit to teach us all the truths we need to know. I trust that the Spirit teaches us today if we open our minds and hearts to learn the lessons. Jesus promised to love us always and, with the Father and the Spirit, to make his home with us.

Upon reflection, not profound at all and really kind of airy-fairy.

Jane R said...

Thank you, Grandmère Mimi. I think it's the transition I find problematic, the transition to life in and with the Spirit (I've no problem at all with that life though!) and perhaps the spiritual lesson is there, in that leaving and changing of modes... In the representation you show, I most notice all those little angels! Perhaps, in that different cosmology to which Richard alludes, it is one more way of noting the way that Jesus is with us and yet in a totally different realm all at once -- though today as we celebrate his presence, more in that other realm. (I'm big on paradoxes and both/and, so satisfying theology is not linear or systematic for me, and I don't think it should be. This is why we have silence and poetry and art and paradox.)

I've got to dig up that piece I read about yesterday -- book in which Lutheran feminist writer Gail Ramshaw says something about why the Ascension is a problematic holiday for her as a feminist. I don't think it necessarily is, I am simply being in the muddle, right now, which I suppose is properly Anglican, though when I was a Catholic (so-called Roman) I muddled plenty to and found plenty of company in the church; Anglicans don't have a monopoly on poetry, paradox, and ambiguity, though we often think and act as if we did.

But maybe we are the muddle way and not just the middle way. ;-) Some would say so in a derogatory way, but muddle doesn't mean we don't have a relationship with Jesus or ponder the mysteries of God or believe in the power of the Spirit, or engage in the work of the church.

Thanks for coming and conversing and bearing with my ramblings.

Nina said...

Well, I have my problems with the Ascension on a personal level, but I've written that; on the theological level, I find myself disliking the transition. It feels...clunky. I need to work on why. The art has that same feeling to me--either it's disappearing feet, which makes me hysterical, or it's mandala as elevator, with optional angels instead of cables. Something to keep wrestling with in the hopes of being blessed by it, maybe next year.

Jane R said...

Sounds like you and I had some of the same things rolling around our heads this year, Nina. Thanks for your Ascension post over at your blog, too. Nice to share reflections.