Saturday, June 6, 2009

A (late) Ascension Thursday reflection

Well, I meant to post this about two and a half weeks ago, on Ascension Thursday. But I had a lot of work, and wasn’t able to. Better late than never, I suppose.

Ascension Thursday is the day, by tradition 40 days after Easter (though some apocryphal sources claim it actually happened 18 months later) when Christ ascended into heaven, borne upward to heaven on a cloud: “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). There’s much to say, of course, about the meaning of the Ascension. Why did he choose to ascend to heaven and leave us behind on earth? Why didn’t He tell his followers when he would return? Why did he choose to leave us to our own devices? But rather than try and think about what the Ascension means, I’d like to take a more mystical approach, and to try to imagine in my mind’s eye what it must have been like. Because some things can’t be explained by words, but only by imagination and experience.

I lived for almost three years in a village on the west coast of Madagascar. This was a dryland region, with an average of 800 mm of rain a year, and in some years (like the second I was there) much less: it was not uncommon to have parched, unforgiving years with very little rain, in which those people unfortunate enough not to have access to a river or a rice paddy would look on their fields with agonized dismay as they saw the corn shrivel up and die, and the sweet potatoes they planted produce only tiny slivers of roots. Rain did fall that year, thank God, but not much of it; it was a year of hunger, of suffering, and despair (though worse in the far South than in the West; we at least were spared an actual famine). Living in a dryland part of the world like western Madagascar, where a day’s storm could make the difference between survival and starvation, one learns to look at the clouds every morning, hoping to see in them a sign that this day will bring life-giving rain. People in my village dwelt obsessively on the weather, and on the state of the clouds every day, and on how likely it looked that there would be rain. Living there, I also became trained to look up at the sky every morning and hope for clouds. We in the West tend to forget the importance and mystery of the clouds, especially as they must have appeared to people in a premodern, dryland culture like first century Palestine.

The Apostles, I’m sure, were as enthralled by clouds as people in my village. I’m sure as they stood ‘gazing into heaven as he went’ (Acts 1:10), they were doing something they were accustomed to do every day. But this time the clouds were something special, for they carried within them the incarnate God. What was it like for them? Take a few minutes and sit back and close your eyes, or if you choose look upwards at the sky. Try to imagine what it must have looked like, and try to imagine yourself there, at that scene, sometime shortly after the first Easter. Let every sensory stimulus you experience now fade into the background, and imagine yourself as part of that crowd. In my mind’s eye I imagine them staring upwards, and realizing for the first time the beauty of this earth for which Christ had died.. I see the group of them standing there, and above them the clouds drifting. Maybe it was a blue, rainless day, with only a few clouds scattered high above, alone and isolated like islands in the vast blue ocean, rocks in the sea gladdening the hearts of exploring sailors; maybe it was an overcast day, with the blue of the sky replaced and blocked out by a grayish-white dome that stretched from horizon to horizon. Maybe it was a day when the winds were blowing strongly and steadily, and the clouds drifted across the sky like ships crossing the ocean, like the ships that would one day carry the Austronesians and the Europeans all over the earth’s surface.

Maybe it was one of those days with feathery clouds, that spread out at their edges like fingers, so ethereal and insubstantial that they seem to gradually fade into the sky around them, drifting and swirling, dissolving and reforming. Like the fronds of an aquatic plant, or the tentacles of a sea anemone, slender and sinuous. Maybe it was one of those days when you can see colors in the clouds: whiter above, darker beneath, and where you can see regular ripples, heavy black clouds alternating with thinner, lighter, white areas of cloud, so that it looks like you’re looking upward at the heavy scales on the stomach of some giant snake. Perhaps this was how the myth originated, common in the time of Christ (it is referenced in the traditions about St. Thomas the Apostle, e.g. “I am son of him that girds the world about” in the Acts of Thomas), that the world is girded around by a huge snake.

Maybe it was one of those days where the clouds are thicker in some areas and thinner in others, where you can almost see through the cloud layer in places, as if they were windows in a house. Maybe the clouds were twisting and turning in strange and wonderful shapes, appearing in our eyes like dragons spread out across the sky, or like horses, or like eagles. I wonder, sometimes, if this is where we got the idea of dragons.

We are told that he was lifted up by a cloud, and again that he was “carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51), not that he rose under his own power. That presumes that something carried him up from the ground. But we know that clouds don’t normally float around at ground level. Perhaps, though, there was a mist or fog that surrounded him. And perhaps, veiled in this mist, he slowly began to rise and to fade from their sight, as a bird fades in our sight as it flies away, and gradually merges with the sky. We’ve all walked, ridden our bikes, or driven through thick fog. It’s dangerous, obviously, because it reduces visibility: but like many dangerous things it’s also beautiful. To walk through a thick mist, a fog so thick that water collects on your skin, so thick you can’t see more than fifty yards ahead, and to walk through it like you’re swimming through the ocean, is an experience not to be missed, because it takes the ordinary scenes that we’re accustomed to- the road down which you’re used to walking or taking your bicycle every day- and makes them eerie and unfamiliar. Western Madagascar didn’t have enough rain but it often had mist and I remember taking my bike down the sandy dirt track that constituted the Route Nationale on some very misty mornings. In that mist that enveloped Christ were water droplets suspended in air: two of the substances that we need most urgently to live, and the two basic fluids that make up the environment around us. And by enveloping himself in mist, Christ showed again that He was intimately associated, in love, with the materials of this earth, that he loved not just us, but this whole earth that, though it was now in subjection to a dark and evil “ruler of this world” (John 12:31), still had once owed its origins ultimately to Christ himself: “In Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). He came not just to make us new but to make the earth new: “and I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). Mist, too, is gentle and cooling, especially in a hot place like Palestine: it must have been a perennial source of wonder to the apostles, who didn’t know about suspensions and solutions, how something could be a mixture of liquid and vapor, and how water in the mist could turn to water vapor on your skin. They perhaps saw this as a miracle, whereas we see it as a simple example of condensation, but after all, aren’t the laws of physics themselves something of a miracle?

What time of day was it when the Ascension happened? I like to think that it was three o’clock, the hour that He died. And maybe, just maybe, the apostles stayed till the evening. Maybe they stayed till they could see the sun setting, shining ever more vivid and more colorful the closer it came to sinking below the horizon. The closer it gets to fading away for the night, and leaving us in darkness, the more beautiful and more intense its colors become. Perhaps they were reminded- perhaps St. Peter, the fisherman, was reminded most of all- of the dorado (mahi mahi, as we Americans know it), called lampuki at Malta, which in life carries brilliant golden, green and blue colors, and which in its death throes changes to a dazzling range of bright colors, one after another. And perhaps, most of all, they were reminded of how Christ was more exalted and more acclaimed by the crowd in the moment of his death then he had been through the three years of his ministry, and how it wasn’t till the moment that he breathed his last that the centurion, hireling of a swollen and decadent empire, finally recognized that “truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). It is said that Christ will come again from the east, but I like to think that he disappeared from them in the western sky, such that as they gazed after him they looked into the sun setting on the thirty-odd year period of the Incarnation. As yellow turned to orange, orange to pink, pink to an ever darker and deeper purple, before the light of the sun faded and the light of the stars and moon became the only guide to walk by: through all of that I see the apostles standing there, unable to tear themselves away. Could you have? Having spent three years in the presence of the word made flesh? After that, what more could life offer you? Wouldn’t anything else be an anticlimax? It is implied that among the followers of Christ at this time where ‘the women’, including presumably Mary of Magdala, the one who had, the first time she met Christ, bent down and “wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head” (Luke 8:38). Can you imagine being confronted, in the flesh, with a person that would compel you to such a supreme act of self-surrender? And once you had, could there be anything worse than seeing him leave you, even to be borne on a cloud into heaven?

It’s helpful, I think, to read the apocryphal gospels too; it’s always helpful to remember that what we know as the New Testament was picked from out of many writings about Christ that circulated in the first few centuries. There are just a couple of apocryphal accounts of the Ascension that I’ve been able to find through a quick google search. The ‘Pistis Sophia’, possibly written in the second century, describes a pillar of light descending and enveloping Christ. The “Secret Book of James”, written between 100 and 150 AD and apparently drawing on separate traditions than our four Gospels, describes the Ascension thus: “We heard with our ears and saw with our eyes the noise of wars, a trumpet blast, and great turmoil.” No clouds, here, but apocalyptic imagery. But are these two descriptions contradictory? Maybe not. In the midst of gazing up at the clouds, following the fading Christ with their eyes, the Apostles may have heard and seen fleeting images of the world as it would be when Christ returned, and glimpses of the conflict between good and evil that would only intensify, and have intensified, in the 20 centuries since Christ left us. Maybe they saw images of his return, in which He would appear not as a wandering carpenter but as a multiply crowned king: “His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems” (Revelation 19:12). What has Christ left us to expect on his return? Because perhaps the Apostles saw a little foretaste of His return in those moments that they witnessed his departure. But that’s a different story, for a different time.