Sermons from St Faith's

Fr Gerwyn Capon: Ascension Day 2006

‘Risen, Ascended, Glorified’

The great cornerstone events in the life of Jesus have inspired painters and various artists to create many wonderful images that help us draw near to the mystery of our faith: the Incarnation, Mary with the Infant Jesus, the scene around the Crib, the Cross, the Risen Christ bearing his wounds to the first believers. Whether we are looking at Giotto or Caravaggio, a fresco by Fra Angelico or Michaelangelo, the Church’s iconography has been pretty camp at the best of times but when we come to the Ascension, pictures suddenly begin to lose the plot, I feel. Take for instance the frescoes, if that is not too generous a term, around the little altar in one of the side chapels at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, dedicated to the Ascension of Our Lord - it is Blackpool gone to the Wash - lurid blue swirls and puffy white clouds and an image of the soles of Jesus’ feet disappearing into the highest heaven, rocketing like superman into space. The artist has tried to inject some kind of 3-D perspective on the figure of Jesus with the result that it looks as if Our Lord and Saviour has been subjected before take off, to a quick bit of emergency liposuction. Perhaps that’s the way of it, how else are we going to have the confidence to hang around the celestial city in the company of all those heavenly bodies without spending eternity in abject paranoia?

In Rome recently I managed to see, in the Vatican Museums, one of the most thought- provoking depictions of the Ascension, completed by the artist Raphael; Christ is taken up into heaven, heaved up by accompanying angels, his right arm held tightly by God the Father at the wrist. It is a scene almost of rescue - Jesus has accomplished his mission and is now  taken back  into the safety  of heaven,  rather like  a man  being hauled  back into a boat from the sea. You get the impression that Jesus is welcomed back into the embrace of heaven, having been so coldly and dangerously treated whilst he had existed in the realm of humankind. An interesting perspective but not one, I fear, that I warm to. What we celebrate at the Ascension is much more profound I think and does not involve Jesus escaping from us back to safety where he can remain unmolested but rather, it is we who are carried into the safety of heaven with him.

What we see in Raphael’s picture then, is a rescue, our rescue, our very being taken up into the life of God. In Raphael’s picture, it is possible to see the tension of the sinews and muscles of the arm stretched out holding Jesus - God using all his strength as it were, because it is not just Jesus who is being lifted up, it is the weight of all humanity that is being brought up into his presence, and into his love. God is welcoming humanity back into the society of the eternal things, so we are again united with what God envisaged and intended from the beginning. This is the deepest mystery of the Ascension and the firmest hope we have - as God came down as the Word, so the Word now takes us back into the life of the Father.

About this mystery, all that Leo the Great could say of the Ascension, preaching to his students, was this:  And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a faith that is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened through the spirit of God.

Many theologians have written of the Ascension that it is a crowning moment for Jesus; he is lifted up, as St John records. This “taking up” of Christ has significance for the church in that through it, the life of faith is explained, sustained and completed.

Life is explained because through The Ascension we see that the life we receive by faith, now has a destiny - to be with God. We are not just a load of chemicals and protoplasm - we are now joined with God through Christ and inseparable from his love - we are given meaning, ultimate meaning. So life is explained. Through the Ascension, life is sustained - Jesus has left his Spirit here - the spirit that is the engine of the Christian life, the spirit that kindles in us the life of faith and holiness of living. The spirit keeps us trusting and hopeful.

And if the Ascension explains life and sustains life, it also completes life. Jesus says, as St John records, “when I shall be lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself” - for in Jesus we find all that we need, the complete life that brings all our broken pieces into one, for it is through the risen life of Christ that all are made alive.

So whatever your picture is of the Ascension, let it call us to risk being lifted by Christ, to allow him to do this for us. We are more important to God than we dare sometimes to think, for as that early church Father Ireneus has said the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God. We are made for the life of heaven.

“Alleluia, alleluia – Risen, Ascended, Glorified”

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