Magazine article The Christian Century

Two Ascension Stories

Magazine article The Christian Century

Two Ascension Stories

Article excerpt

AS I WRITE this, it is Palm Sunday. Christ has entered Jerusalem on a donkey. A strange king, this, who makes his triumphal procession only to be anointed with death--and a strangely privileged donkey. Augustine says we should all wish to be Christ's donkey, carrying Christ, a weight that exalts and a burden that sets free, into every situation. A rarely sung verse of the "All Glory, Laud and Honor" processional hymn for Palm Sunday echoes this point: Sis pius ascensor tu, nos quoque simus asellus ... ("Be thou, O Lord, the Rider, / And we the little ass: / That to God's holy city / Together we may pass.")

As you read this it is Ascension Thursday, or thereabouts. Christ has entered the heavenly Jerusalem, ascending by means of a divine cloud rather than a humble donkey. The disciples who watch him disappear are understandably awestruck. Two men in white robes--angels, who are always on hand for revelatory events--rebuke them: Why are you standing there staring stupidly at the sky?

The Feast of the Ascension is overshadowed by Easter, which it fulfills, and Pentecost, which it anticipates. But a case could be made that when the disciples caught their last sight, then lost sight, of the living God (a moment touchingly portrayed in Christian art as two departing feet just visible beneath the cloud), both Christianity and its rebel child atheism were born. Doubters and believers alike, we are left staring stupidly at the sky.

In the Wakefield mystery play for the Feast of the Ascension, the apostle Philip calls out to Christ: "Lord, if it be thi will, / shew vs thi fader we the pray; / we have bene with the in good and ill, / and sagh hym neuer nyght ne day." To which Jesus points out that whoever sees him sees the Father--but a moment later Jesus is gone, and Mary keens, "All myghty god, how may this be? / a clowde has borne my childe to blys; / Now bot that I wote [know] wheder is he, / my hart wold breke, well wote I this."

If it is fitting for the disciples and Mary, it is fitting for us to be puzzled by the ascension. As John Henry Newman puts it in an Ascension Day sermon, "This, indeed, is our state at present; we have lost Christ and we have found Him; we see Him not, yet we discern Him." There are no footprints in the sky, but, as Newman says, the ascension of Christ "is a sure token that heaven is a certain fixed place, and not a mere state." By the same token, the ascension means that embodied human nature--Christ's donkey--has a place in heaven. …

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