Today, we observe and celebrate the Ascension of our Lord. It’s one of those days of our church year that ranks low on our list of holidays. It’s nothing like Easter or Christmas. It doesn’t help that Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday – 40 days after Easter, and if we didn’t choose to observe it on the Sunday after, like we do today, this holy day would be totally obscure. We don’t even miss it when we don’t observe it.
So what do we actually commemorate on this festival of the Ascension of our Lord? Well, we heard it in today’s gospel, or we could read about it in the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles: On Ascension Day the risen Christ, after having spent 40 days with his followers, is finally taken up to the heavens.
To the first Christians, this was an important event, so important that it was even included in the early creeds, like the Apostles’ Creed (which we recite pretty much every Sunday): I believe in Jesus Christ, ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. In fact, Ascension Day was one of the very first holy days to be commemorated in the young Christian community, centuries before Christmas. Isn’t that something?
Somehow the Ascension of Christ has lost its luster. And I personally think it’s a shame. So I invite you to explore Ascension Day with me and to rediscover it as a day that still has meaning for us, even in the postmodern age. And I want to do this through art.
There are plenty of illustrations of Jesus’ ascension; it is one of the favorite motifs of artists throughout the centuries.
The earliest known depiction of the Ascension is an ivory plaque from about 400 AD, either from Milan or Rome (see 2nd picture above). In this relief, we also find scenes of Jesus’ resurrection in the lower part. But pay attention to the upper right: here Jesus seemingly climbs up a stairway to heaven, aided by the Father who lends a helping hand. Heaven is just a few steps away from earth, and there is not great distinction between the two. I like that. And it seems this depiction reflects what Christians around the year 400 believed: that heaven and earth are pretty close to each other, and that consequently God is pretty close as well – that Christ is close and, indeed, could come back any day.
But throughout art history, the depiction of Christ’s Ascension became more and more esoteric, and even grandiose, and this is the kind of image we probably have in front of our inner eye when we think of the Ascension.
A picture by 17th century Dutch Master Rembrandt is but one example for that (see 3rd picture above). Now we see Jesus, an ethereal figure in white, taking off, his gaze enraptured and directed to the heavens, angels all around, whilst his disciples observe this spectacle from a dark vale of tears. These images emphasize the glory of Christ, who now will be seated in eternal majesty at the right hand of the Father, in a galaxy far, far away.
But now let me share with you my personal favorite picture of the Ascension, which shifts the focus back from heaven to earth.
Albrecht Dürer, a German artist of the late 15th and early 16th century, created the woodcut you see above (1st picture). That’s it, that’s the entire image, just 4 by 5 inches big; it’s not just a section of a larger image. All you see of Jesus is his feet, and somehow Jesus is lifted up like on an invisible elevator. So the focus is not on heaven, not even really on Christ, but on what happens on earth. We see the disciples, male and female, by the way, reacting in various ways; some are enraptured. Some seem mortified, shocked, even panicked. In the background, there is a raised hand that could be praising the Lord – but could also try to pull Jesus back to earth. Some seem ready for Jesus to leave them behind – but some obviously are not. Some just can’t let go.
And who could blame them? For forty days, the disciples were blessed with the presence of the risen Christ, in flesh and blood. And it may have stoked the disciples’ hopes: Maybe things would be like before? Maybe things would go back to ‘normal’? But Christ has something else in mind and heart for them.
And that’s where the number of 40 comes in. It is not a random number, but in Judaism is the sacred number that symbolizes fulfillment. It rained 40 days and nights when Noah was on the Ark, and it took another 40 days for the earth to dry up again so life could thrive on this planet once more. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness after the flight from Egypt before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land and begin a new life. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness after his baptism, before he began his ministry. The number 40 symbolizes a necessary journey and preparation, before the time is fulfilled and a new thing can happen.
The followers of Jesus Christ had 40 days of preparation, and now it’s time for them to move on and to do a new thing. And what have they been prepared for? To continue where Christ left off. To walk in Jesus’ footsteps. In today’s gospel, Christ’s mandate is described in a nutshell: ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.’ In the beginning of the Book of Acts, which describes the same story, Jesus’ mandate is a little more general: ‘you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ In short, Jesus cheers on his followers: carry on the work that I have begun. You can do it!
And why can they do it? For one, there is the Holy Spirit Jesus promises to send to help the disciples in their task. But Jesus has also left a strong mark on their lives. Dürer genially incorporates this in his woodcut.
If you pay close attention, you will see that there are footprints in the rock from which Christ takes off and which, by the way, looks very much like a globe. What a clever statement! Jesus Christ left a mark, an imprint on the disciples’ lives AND on the world. And, as the footprints also testify, it was not a ghost or a demon who walked with the disciples, but a man of flesh and blood – down to earth, a man of the earth.
Christ being seated at the right hand of the Father is an important statement of our faith and stresses Christ’s glory – that he is God and much bigger than us, and that he has the power to save as we cannot save ourselves, no matter, how hard we try – but it is just as important what happens on earth, as we, the followers of Christ today, are endowed with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that ties all relationships, that ties heaven and earth together. We, as the followers of Christ today, live as the body of Christ and continue in his legacy – proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins and being Christ’s witnesses not only in word, but also, and maybe more importantly, in deed to the ends of the earth and in the communities we live in. Christ’s presence today is mainly be felt and experienced through what we do in the name of Christ.
That’s why we are here today: because, throughout history, there have been the faithful who have continued to walk in Christ’s footsteps, embodying his love and grace and forgiveness, representing Christ on earth. And there are those who come after us who will carry on the legacy because they experienced Christ through us.
There are quite a few people out there who ask: where is God? Where is God in times of challenge and difficulty? Where is God in the time of the crisis we currently go through? Is God up there in some heaven, far removed and strangely unconcerned with all the pain and anxiety and grief we are going through?
Let me tell you: God is everywhere. God is in the helping hands of nurses and doctors and first responders and other people who give medical care. God is in the feverish brains of scientists who try to find a vaccine and a cure against the novel Coronavirus. God is in the voices of advocates who speak up against all the injustices, that may not be new, but that have been especially brought to light during this crisis. God is in the imagination of all those who understand that we shouldn’t, that we can’t ‘go back to normal’ once the Coronavirus crisis is more or less over. God is in the labor of all those who can’t stay home right now, but have to work, often under hazardous conditions, to keep our society going.
God is in all those who reach out to someone else these days, checking in, sharing the pain, the anxiety, the grief. God is present in you – and me. Christ’s presence today and every day is mainly felt and experienced through what we do in the name of Christ.
Christ left his mark on us. There are Christ’s footprints in our hearts. Christ may not be physically present with us today, but he is still in us and with us and through us – and through the Holy Spirit which binds us all together in love.
That’s what I want us to remember today. And that’s why Ascension Day is as important today as it was to the first disciples.
This post is also available in: German