As an intern at Anchor Community Church (United Brethren), I have the opportunity to plan an Ascension Thursday service. This is something new for this community and, quite honestly, for me. Several things make this a tricky service to plan. Some of them are practical: the church never gathers on Thursday evenings. Others are theological: many of the congregants aren’t sure why the ascension matters. I have a few ideas to draw folks to the service and a few others to help them leave praising God for presiding as the Church’s heavenly priest.
One way that I hope to do this is to encourage the church to see the bizarreness of the ascension. This, I hope, will not leave them confused, but help them to experience the wild reality that Christ’s ascension, similar to the incarnation, unites creatureliness within the divine mystery. To do this, we will reflect together on Salvador Dali’s The Ascension of Christ (see below).
This image is fascinating! I am struck by the perspective of Christ’s body. Christ’s feet meet us in the center of the image. We may perceive ourselves beneath him, as if he is going up. Yet his body seems to move into the image. His gripping hands are empty to our eyes, yet one gets the sense he is holding onto the unseen workings of the world, pulling them with him into wherever he is going. The two nuclei may represent transitional realms between heaven and earth or the other members of the Trinity. We are at least aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence, as the dove bridges the gap between one of the nuclei and the created world.
Christ is not the only figure moving in the painting. The woman’s face, Gala, is being drawn by the Spirit, upon its wings, into the presence of the ascended Christ. This point of contact is essential for understanding the work Christ continues to do in his ascended role. Christ continues to advocate on our behalf, Christ is constantly “priesting” the church, in the words of Cherith Nordling. So it is no wonder that Gala’s face expresses an unexpected calm in light of the utter chaos and darkness that continues to surround her on earth.
Karl Barth picked up on these same themes in his sermon “Look Up to Him” (in Deliverance to the Captives [Wipf & Stock, 2010], pp. 43-50). Barth emphasizes the strangeness of the ascension by trying to name where Christ went.
He is above, in heaven. We are below, on earth. When we hear the word ‘heaven’ we are inclined to think of the great blue or grey sphere arching over us with its sunshine, its clouds and its rain, or of the even higher world of the stars. This is what we may have in mind right now. In the vocabulary of the Bible, however, this ‘heaven’ is nothing but the sign of an even higher reality. There is a realm above and beyond the world of man, which is lost to our sight, to our understanding, to our penetration, and even more to our dominion. It is way above and beyond us. In biblical language, heaven is the dwelling place, the throne, of God. It is the mystery encompassing us everywhere. There Jesus Christ lives. He is in the centre of this mystery beyond.
Above and beyond. Though we cannot grasp this movement, Christ is at its center. Dali captures this by putting Christ’s feet at the center of the image, extending Christ’s arms beyond the nuclei, and by obscuring his face from our vision. Christ is somehow moving inward, into “the mystery encompassing us everywhere.” In the inward movement, however, Christ is moving above and beyond our perceived reality.
As Barth continues to reflect on Psalm 34:5, he turns his attention to the “darkness” of earth. “Reading the newspapers,” he tells the congregation, “looking around at the world and into our own hearts and lives, we can’t possibly deny that the earth is really dark.” There is a constant threat of being put to shame. Yet, when we look upon the ascended Christ, when we “look up at him,” we can never be put to shame.
And this is the power of the relationship [between God and ourselves]: what is true and valid in heaven, what Jesus Christ has done for us, what has been accomplished by him, man’s redemption, justification and preservation, is true and valid on earth also. The Father does not put us, his children, to shame when we look up to Jesus.
We, like Gala in Dali’s painting, have faces that shine – perhaps not with luminosity, but surely with assurance – in the truth that Christ’s ascension seals the relationship of God to humanity, a covenant between heaven and earth. Despite the darkness, we know that, in the “mystery encompassing us everywhere,” there is a light.
Have you planned an Ascension Thursday service before? How did you engage congregants? Share your insights and thoughts in the comments below.