Seen and unseen

To be a Christian is to be an alien in foreign land, or to be, at least, between the times. To never feel at home, to know that there are two time frames, two realities present: the seen and the unseen, that which we know by sight and that which we know by faith; eternity and our swiftly changing world.

Since I spent some formative time studying the spirituality of the Eastern Church, I like to think of these two different realities using the metaphor of icons. Icons often have the heavy golden backdrop, which symbolizes the uncreated Divine light. And the heavy, solemn figures are meant to represent the eternal, immortal figures of saints and angels, as they are upon that other shore, and in that uncreated light.

The effect and the theory is very much that icons are windows, through which the eternal comes close to the temporal, and through which we stare at the mighty figures of the faith and through which they stare back at us.

As we go through the liturgical year, we wander, I think, between those two poles, between the unseen reality of eternity, in which Christ is risen, ascended, and King, and the seen reality of our lives, which often feel very much as if Christ's death was meaningless, faith foolish, and evil very much in the ascendancy.

I think that is why living in liturgical time sometimes feels disjointed to me. There are times when the Church is very much in the stream of earthly time, and there are times when we live in moments of eternity. In Lent and ordinary time we are rooted in the temporal, in the sense of our sinfulness and coming deaths, or in the ordinary life and teachings of Jesus, but there are moments like Eastertide when we live very much upon that other shore, in time that is not our time, when we live in the joy of the risen Christ, that joy that is ours always, whether or not we can see through the veil that shrouds it sometimes. Those moments when we live in the reality of Christ's victory.

As we go through the year with Christ, and celebrate the moments in his life that have import for us, there are some moments when the two different realities, the two different frames get remarkably close to each other, and a window seems to open and we get for an instant, a vision of the mighty and eternal.

The Ascension is just such a feast, I think, and I always feel that way about the Feast of the Transfiguration as well. These moments when we are given a vision of Jesus, not just as the rabbi and Messiah, or even as the Incarnate Word of God walking among us, but as this figure of unbelievable majesty and power eternally glorious.

But it is always slightly confusing to come to terms with those moments when eternity comes near. Often, I feel as if I'm in deep waters, playing a game whose rules have suddenly changed, when Jesus sails up into heaven, or becomes illuminated like some kind of human light bulb. Because the question always becomes, “What does it mean?” I don't have trouble finding meaning in Jesus' healing the sick, or raising the dead, or in teaching the love of God and neighbors. But what does it mean that Jesus ascended. The Church has long held it as momentous, as a great feast of the Church, but what does it mean? What does it mean in the life of Jesus, and what does it mean in the lives of those of us who apprehend him by faith, although he is hid from our sight?

I'm not sure that I can answer either of those questions satisfactorily, but there are several things that occur to me. One of the directions that the Ascension makes my mind wander in is in terms of the resurrected Jesus. I wonder if the Ascension isn't an indicator of how different the resurrected Jesus was, physically.

During Eastertide we've seen the disciples fail to recognize him again and again; we've seen him appear suddenly to the disciples, despite locked door. We've seen him skip around Palestine appearing here, there everywhere. There is clearly something about Jesus risen that is massively different and changed. His body is not like ours, because he has risen glorious from the tomb. He is present to the disciples, but not as he has been.

And yet even resurrected, Jesus is linked to a time and a place. He is changed, but still with his disciples at specific times and places. His wounds are still there, and he eats and walks with them.

I wonder if the collect for today doesn't help to explain to the meaning and importance of the Ascension for us. “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things...”

I like to think then, that the Ascension is the moment and perhaps the symbol of the transformation when Christ, even in his resurrected body, moves from being bounded by time and place, and becomes universal, becomes present to all time and all creation.

And that, I think, is the answer to the question of why it matters. Because in many ways the Ascension might feel otherwise like an leaving, like a loss, like being abandoned. We might be tempted to say “Those lucky few disciples got to know him, but now he's gone to some castle in the sky, and I don't get to experience him or know him.”

Christ is ascended and the glory of his very being has gone out into all the world and into all history, and somehow because he is less present to us, face to face, somehow he is more present, more available, more powerful in his might and majesty.

Somehow, because he is ascended, he is present everywhere, on innumerable altars, in hearts throughout the world and times; in prisons and mines, in boardrooms and courtrooms, in tents and shanty towns, to the super wealthy and the abject poor; everywhere and every when, Christ fills all things, redeems all things, sanctifies and blesses all things, draws all things into his resurrected life, and into the very life of the Triune God.

Which is good to remember here, near the end of Eastertide, when we shift back into the life of ordinary time, and the veil that blocks out eternity comes down again.

Christ is ascended and he fills all things with his glory and majesty. He will come again in glory, and is with us unto the ages of the ages.

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord

St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia


Posted on May 14, 2010 .