Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ascension of the Lord - Ian Boxall

The gospel we have just heard depicts the ascending Christ in the guise of the high priest, with his hands raised in blessing. But I have to admit that, whenever I try and contemplate the Ascension of the Lord, the image that comes to me is not a pair of blessing hands, but rather a pair of feet, disappearing through the clouds. Many of you will have seen the pair of feet disappearing through the ceiling of a side chapel in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Pilgrims travelling farther afield may have visited the traditional site of the Ascension itself, on the Mount of Olives. Now covered by a mosque, one can see the rock from which, according to tradition, the Lord ascended, and on which he left the imprint of his right foot. I have a vivid memory of Staggers students, queuing up to try it for size – and one or two exclamations of ‘It fits!’

Even in this church, the Ascension has an association with Christ’s feet. On the reredos behind the high altar, there is a magnificent depiction of the ascended Christ, reflecting the prominence of the Ascension in Fr Benson’s theology. But owing to the rood screen, all you can probably see from where you are sitting is a pair of feet. It is as if the two men in white robes in our reading from Acts are saying to the apostles on the Mount of Olives: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? Why do you stand gazing at a pair of feet?’

Well, I want to suggest that this pair of feet, far from being a distraction from the mystery of the Ascension, actually takes us to the heart of what we are celebrating today. So that perhaps podology ought to become a subdiscipline of Christology. The first reason is that the Ascension does not simply remove Christ from our sight. In the Ascension, he takes our human nature with him, transfiguring it, taking it into glory. He goes not simply as God, but as one of us. Hence it is important that he goes with his feet, bearing the wounds of his suffering: transfigured, glorified, but not obliterated. He hasn’t left us behind so much as taken us with him. As Christopher Wordsworth’s Ascensiontide hymn puts it:

Thou hast raised our human nature
in the clouds to God’s right hand;
there we sit in heavenly places,
there with thee in glory stand.

Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
man with God is on the throne;
mighty Lord, in thine ascension
we by faith behold our own.

We now belong there, not through anything that we have done, but because he has gone there, feet and all.

But there is a second reason why reflection on Christ’s feet might help us to understand what we are celebrating today. The Ascension is as much a declaration of what Christ has done as of where he has gone. The New Testament is clear that, in his Ascension, Christ has been raised over his enemies, defeating them and in doing so setting his people free from their influence. Our second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians exploits the potential of Psalm 110 – a favourite psalm for the New Testament authors as they attempt to understand Christ’s resurrection and ascension – proclaiming that God has ‘put all things under his feet’ (Eph. 1:22): there are those feet again. In the Ascension, God has raised Christ from the dead ‘and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come’ (Eph. 1:20-21).

If this weren’t the case, then we would have no reason to hope in Christ’s ability to save: no hope of overcoming sin, no liberation from those things which enslave us; no freedom from the fear of death. But because Christ has been lifted up not just above ourselves, but above all these ‘powers’ which threaten to swallow us up, then all these enemies have lost their sting. Christ’s victory is assured. He has put them all under his feet.

I have already alluded to the centrality of the Ascension in Fr Benson’s theology. For him, as for St Luke, God’s people live constantly in the power of Christ’s glorious Ascension, his body the Church participating in the glorifying of his body at the right hand of the Father. Preaching a retreat in this house in the Summer of 1874, Fr Benson spoke the following words:

Examine thyself then, as to thy love of Jesus upon the throne of his glory. Do not think of that is if it were a world far away. Jesus is very near to thee; nearer than he could be when he walked in natural form upon the earth. Seek to live in his love. Look up to him in his glory. See ‘the heavens opened, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:55, 56). Meditate upon the glory of Jesus, and learn to live in the love of that glory, watching for it to shine out more fully. Yes, blessed are all they that love his appearing! (R.M. Benson SSJE, Look to the Glory (Bracebridge Ontario, 1966), p. 71).