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Up, Down, and All Around – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Before I entered monastic life, I experienced the Ascension in both its scriptural telling and its liturgical observance a bit the same way I experienced a lay-over between flights. Why this seemingly unnecessary stop on the journey from Easter to Pentecost – and so close to our final destination? Jesus had risen. Why did he now need to go up still farther – to a Heaven I certainly believe in but did not (and do not) regard to be “up” at all?  In the monastery, where scripture rains from above and seeps up from below until it gets inside you, it was clear that the Ascension meant more – much, much more than I had assumed. But it still felt like an irritant – a grain of sand that might produce a pearl – one day. 

My relationship with the Ascension is now very different. I now delight to get off the Easter-to-Ascension plane, stretch my legs, and take in the breath-taking view before climbing aboard for the Ascension-to-Pentecost leg of the journey. I understand why lay-overs and way-stations are necessary on long journeys – and what they can do to shift the perspective of the traveler toward the terrain. I understand that “direct flights” in the spiritual life are available only to angels. I do not understand the Ascension, anymore than I can levitate – or fly. But I love the Ascension because I love the Ascended Christ and I sense now more than ever what his Ascension means for us here below. 

So what happened? This shift began in me by means of images before it took hold by means of words. Sacred images directed me back to sacred words, and then I looked up – and out – and I saw differently. 

The icon of the Ascension of Christ is a powerful and mysterious teacher.[i]In the upper half of this icon, the ascending Christ sits within a series of concentric circles supported by two (or more) angels, his right hand blessing the gathered apostles below. The Mother of God – as the personification of the Church – stands still at the center, her hands raised. The apostles, in a great diversity of gestures and expressions, appear to move around her, looking and pointing upward, or looking at one another. Two more angels are in their midst, gazing at the group, and pointing upward. The center of gravity in this icon is clearly the assembled gathering below. But while gazing at them, I would notice my gaze continually wander upward toward Christ – whose right hand of blessing pointed me back downward, in a cycle. Rather than feeling a vertical arrow into the stratosphere – the feeling that had so bothered me in my initial encounters with the Ascension – I felt a counterbalanced tug from above and below at one and the same time. This reminded me immediately of these lines from St. John of the Cross: “In this nakedness the spirit finds its quiet and rest, for in coveting nothing, nothing tires it by pulling it up, and nothing oppresses it by pushing it down, because it is in the center of its humility.”[ii]I felt both elevated and grounded. 

When I turned to ancient and Medieval images from the Western Church, another thing happened. In the vast majority of these images, the apostles and the Virgin are similarly gathered and gaze upward. But above, we see only a pair of feet in the process of disappearing into a cloud.[iii]Now, I had seen these images and had previously found them cartoonish and vaguely embarrassing. But as I returned to them more frequently, I realized that if I looked long enough at the feet of Christ dangling there in heaven, I felt the urge to look down at my own feet. The sensation of his feet there and my feet here felt less hard-and-fast. The image evoked my sympathetic, somatic participation precisely because the rest of the figure I knew to be Jesus was swathed in a cloud and I was free to try his feet on for size. My feet were there – and his feet were here. 

Well, all this led me back to the texts we heard this morning, to discover that the central theme of the two passages that recount the Ascension lies not in the fact of the Ascension itself, but in the significance and consequences it has for the Church and for the world.

The angels say to the gathered apostles “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking upward into heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” While the icons and the images of the Ascension helped me enter a space between and beyond the tension of up and down, above and below, these angelic words help me enter a moment between and beyond the tension of future and present, the now and the not-yet. The Ascension of Jesus – who has taken our human nature with him far beyond all heavens to fill all things – invites us to be his Body in precisely this in-between space and this in-between moment. This space and moment comprise the essence of who and what we are as Church. As individuals looking up at the sky or listlessly down at our shoes, we are subject to all the emotional and existential vicissitudes that come with such hope and fear. But as the Church, we are invited into beyond poise and counterpoise into a loving equipoise that cannot be disturbed by the world and only deepens the further we give ourselves away in loving service. We gaze upward, but only because we love the one who has taken our hearts with him to our eternal home. And we gaze down because this is our sphere of action. And we gaze around because these are the holy companions with whom we journey homeward and find ourselves already home. 


[i]Ascension icon from Pskov-Perchersky Monastery, Russia.

[iii]Ascension of Christ, from the Shaftesbury Psalter (English, 12thc.)

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