Art
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Job

The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski

The Ascension by Salvador Dali, 1958

Yesterday we had a funeral here at the church, and the opening words of the liturgy included, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places… where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Jesus this to his closest companions when they gathered in what they thought would be safety, comfort, and celebration, but for what ended up being the final supper Jesus took before enduring his suffering and death. Yet, this verse is among the most beloved and comforting ones, since it speaks of God’s eternal presence with us in all circumstances; this is why our funeral liturgies often make use of it. But, despite these words, do we really know where Jesus is? In that house “with many rooms, where we might be also,” our own final home and resting place – or, somewhere in this world as well?

A Zoom meeting with my colleagues working in the churches in our area has recently reminded me that the answer to this question probably isn't straightforward. One of the clergy present at the meeting had been a student at my previous church, and he mentioned that he still remembers my “Children's Focus” as part of Ascension day liturgy from many years ago! As it turns out, unlike some of my other children’s moments, the one he remembered was fairly tame, and only involved releasing a helium balloon. This was supposed to indicate that when something is out of sight, it doesn’t necessarily cease to exist, and might one day return – though we don’t know where and when. I think it wasn’t so much the memory of teaching or the balloon that stayed with him, but rather the reaction of one of our parishioners, who apparently exclaimed during the coffee hour that followed, “I finally get Ascension!” At first, we said, “what’s there “to get”?”; but, to be honest, then we realized that none of us truly understand Ascension… It just isn’t an easy thing to imagine because it is hard to reconcile with what we know about the way that the earth’s atmosphere transitions into the infinity of the cosmos; but taking it strictly metaphorically doesn’t give us a lot of hope for, one day, arriving where Jesus is. So whatever that parishioner at my old church understood then, s/he was a better theologian than I am now!

As you know, my trick for when I struggle to grasp something intellectually is to turn to visual art, tapping into the power of emotion where reason fails. And luckily, as far as Ascension goes, it has a plethora of visual representations; as of course it would, given how dynamic and alluring this episode is, and how elusive it is intellectually - not only to me, I daresay, but to many. What strikes me when I survey these works is that they show the same biases we espouse in our own thinking about Ascension. We can group them according to, first, how much they reveal of the borderline between the material and spiritual world, and of Jesus’ destination, and second, of how much of Jesus’ is left behind to be seen by his followers.

For example, while in the earliest works (4th century), we see the entire figure of Jesus, and even that the Father leads him by the hand up the mountain towards him, beginning with the medieval works, sometimes Jesus’ feet is all that is left for us to see of him - or even the footprints! Furthermore, while in the 1600s, his feet were shown pierced, 300 years later, they were shown whole. As for how Jesus travels upwards, all through the centuries, there was never a consensus whether Jesus should do so in a sphere of light (aka mandorla in the Byzantine icons) or engulfed by the swirling clouds (in Western art); or in a pillar of fire hinting at Exodus, or even using his own hands to break his way into the realm of heaven as shown by Giotto (1300s).

What is consistent, however, is that if a painting shows the witnesses of this event (people and/or angels), as most do, they are always shown in an attempt to fix their gaze on Jesus for as long and fast as possible, even as his body is leaving their sight. The most striking painting of all, to me, is by Salvador Dali, in which there is no crowd gathered; that is, we – the viewers – are that crowd. Just as the characters in traditional painting do, with the eyes of faith, we will always see God. As a famous saying of a medieval mystic goes, “the eye with which I see God is the same as that with which he sees me”. Consider pondering the phrase in the week to come; but, my main point here is that God never fully leaves this world. When and where we will see him again clearly will differ; perhaps, it will be in special places, but maybe, in events, people, or moments of self-awareness. So let us keep our eyes open for those glimpses of heaven on earth - the footprints of Jesus’ pierced feet, so to speak.

You might remember that Jesus once said that “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” I wonder if it meant that he had no specific place; that he was, and still is, in fact, at home everywhere: in the houses of his followers, in natural settings, in a boat in a storm, and the most tempestuous place of all - the human heart. The cornerstone of our hope is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and it still does. That the Word became glorified in resurrection, and returned to the perfection of its union with the Father; and we will, too. The most hopeful implication of “Where I am, there you may be also,” to me, is that “where you are, there I am also.” That is, in joy and suffering, in grief and delight, day by day, until our souls, too, travel upwards, carried by the stream of light and into God’s eternal embrace. Amen.

The Ascension by Hans von Kulmbach