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The Ascension – A Necessary Mystery

By Canon Ian Morter

On Thursday 13 May we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of Christ. Coming forty days after Easter, it is the last of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his disciples. It marks the end of his earthly presence with them and is the completion and fulfilment of Jesus’ ministry, as he blesses and encourages his disciples to continue his work by taking the good news of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

We are told in Saint Luke’s Gospel that ‘Jesus led the disciples out as far as Bethany and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them he withdrew from them and was carried up to into heaven’. The Acts of the Apostles records the event in these words, ‘as the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight’.

As many of you will realise by now, I am very much drawn to the world of art and take whatever opportunities I can to visit some of the leading art collections in this country and in Europe. Many an artist has tried to depict the Ascension of our Lord, the disciples looking heavenward at the levitating Jesus and many of these paintings, for me, raise a smile. The visual arts do little to help us understand this mysterious event. This is why I am very much drawn to the painting ‘Jesus Ascending’ by the contemporary American artist Carole Foret.

Jesus is being taken from the world and in the light of a cosmic cloud is being received back by his Heavenly Father into his Kingdom. From the Gospel’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, we understand that he was physically raised from the dead. He was not a spirit or apparition. He joined the disciples, eating supper and breakfast with them and he encouraged Thomas to touch him. But Jesus was not confined to normal physical restrictions. Jesus appeared in a locked room and was seen by many people in a variety of places and circumstances. So it is reasonable to expect that having overcome mortal death, something had to happen to enable the risen Jesus to leave this earthly realm.

The Ascension gives us an account of that departure, but no explanation of how his resurrection body was released from its earthly constructs. This is why Carole Foret’s painting is so helpful for me (in contrast to the ‘old masters’, that are too literal in their depictions of the scene with the disciples at Bethany). Foret does not try to rationalise physically what is happening at the Ascension but gives us a glimpse of the mystical event. Perhaps this painting will enable us, during this coming week, to have an easier understanding of this ‘necessary mystery’.