When (Jesus) had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven’ – Luke 24.50-51From Martin Hayward:
It is just over 20 years since the National Gallery celebrated the millennium with an exhibition called “Seeing Salvation”. The exhibition catalogue was titled “The Image of Christ” and in it the Director, Neil MacGregor, wrote: “The most difficult task for the artist seeking to represent Christ is how to depict his dual nature: fully human and fully divine… Victor and Victim; Saviour and Sacrifice; King of kings and ‘despised and rejected of men’ (Isaiah 53: 3). Christmas is celebrated with joy, yet the Christ Child was born to suffer and die. The shepherds adored a Christ for the poor, and the Three Kings, a Christ for the rich. In order to engage fully with images of Christ, we need to understand which aspect they depict.”
But there is one event in the gospels where I find art mostly unhelpful: Christ’s ascension. Over the centuries Jesus has been portrayed variously as some sort of Superman about to whizz off on another adventure or else standing on a pad of cotton wool looking as though he is about to be carried in a lift to the top floor of a department store. Least helpful and most risible of all – to me at any rate – are the paintings or sculptures in churches where the soles of a pair of feet are stuck in a sort of eternal holy accident between the loft above and a bedroom below.
But then there are helpful, simple pictures of clouds. They always remind me of holidays in the Lake District where the weather changes so quickly. One moment you can be admiring the beauty of the tops of the fells and then clouds drop suddenly and they are hidden from sight. You can no longer see them, but rational experience tells you that they are still there ready to appear in all their beauty when the sun comes out once more.
And so it is with Jesus; a cloud took him from human sight but there will be a new dawn and he will again be visible to us. The ascension is the crossroads of all Scripture: the central figure is Jesus, Messiah prophesied. The victor, who was so recently a victim, is the omnipotent, the king who stooped to serve; visible and now invisible, on earth and yet now in heaven at his Father’s side, he has gone to prepare a place for us and move history towards its goal.
“This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1; 11) But now, for a little while, he waits patiently for his children to come home to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9)