Some parts of the world are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord today whilst others, including England and Wales, have to wait until Sunday. However, depending on the outcome of consultation and reflection by the Bishops of England and Wales, the celebration of the Feast of the Ascension as a Holy Day of Obligation in England and Wales might revert to its proper place within the Easter season. Which ever day you are celebrating it, Sister Wendy Beckett offers the following reflection.
The forty days after the Resurrection of Jesus must have been the most extraordinary period in Christian history. Once the Apostles had finally come to terms with the overwhelming miracle of His Presence, every day must have held out the ecstatic possibility of His appearance. We are told that, "He appeared to many". Mary Magdalene knew well that this state was only temporary, but perhaps there were those among the Apostles who persuaded themselves that He would be among them always, visible and beautiful. It was not to be. He remained on earth long enough to make it inescapably clear that He was alive – more than alive – transcendently alive. But while He was physically visible, His power was limited. He could not send the Spirit, He could not be alive in their hearts, until their knowledge of Him sprang from faith and not from sight.
This is a very early icon showing that climactic moment when Jesus said farewell in the flesh, and ascended into heaven. Western art has always been challenged by the sublimity of this image, and usually shows Mary and the Apostles, looking upwards, while there are only two feet appearing below the upper edge of the painting. For the Orthodox, this is lacking in respect. This is a damaged icon, but the image will be repeated over the centuries. Jesus is central, held in an oval mandorla of glory, the most eye catching element in the icon. This is what we notice above all, Jesus, ascending heavenwards. Translucent angels bear him up. Soon He will disappear from sight, and only the eyes of faith will see Him, interiorly, within the heart.
Meanwhile, on earth, Mary stands astounded, lifting up her hands in praise and wonder. On either side the Apostles look upwards, bewildered, bereaved but believing. Mary does not need to look upwards. Naturally, she will miss her Son, but supernaturally she understands that this is how it must be. It is how He will draw all to Himself. He is set free from the limitations of time and place. "He has ascended to His Father". Most later icons add further elements to the story. When the Apostles got over their shock, they found "two men in white robes" rebuking them for their folly in gazing up into the heavens. Jesus will come again, they told them, but only on the last day. Meanwhile, Christians were meant to get on with life, and to live in the Spirit of Jesus, rather than hankering after His material presence. Perhaps the iconographer imagined that two of the angels, so blissfully bearing Jesus upwards, would then come down to the earth, to give sound advice to His rather hapless followers.
There are very few early icons of Jesus that survive. We are privileged to possess this image of our Blessed Lord held between heaven and earth. His garments are gilded as opposed to the earthy clothing of His mother and His Apostles. He stretches out a hand in final blessing, while His other hand holds the rolled parchment of His teaching. That teaching has yet to be written down, to comprise the Gospels and, through His union with Jesus, the letters of St Paul. There might seem to be two worlds here, the eternal world of Jesus, and the temporal world of Mary and of her anxious supporters. But the whole icon is lit with an inner glory, showing us that in Jesus heaven and earth are one.
Picture: copyright St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai.
Text: copyright ST PAULS Publishing Sister Wendy Contemplates the Iconic Jesus.
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