While they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. Acts 1:7.
Charles Wesley wrote many hymns, and this one fits the end of Eastertide, the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus. I like the image of us soaring where Christ has led: on high and beyond. Let us soar now by enjoying as much as we can of what life offers, as Jackdaws, Starlings, Swifts and Seagulls so often seem to celebrate the gift of flight together. Together may we soar when we are called to go above the cloud and the sunset.
Christ has burst the gates of hell!
Love's redeeming work is done; fought the fight, the battle won: lo, our Sun's eclipse is o'er, lo, he sets in blood no more.
Vain the stone, the watch, the seal; Christ has burst the gates of hell; death in vain forbids his rise; Christ has opened paradise.
Lives again our glorious King; where, O death, is now thy sting? dying once, he all doth save; where thy victory, O grave?
Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted Head; made like him, like him we rise; ours the cross, the grave, the skies.
Hail the Lord of earth and heaven!
Praise to thee by both be given:
thee we greet triumphant now;
hail, the Resurrection Thou!
John of Fiesole joined the Order of Friars Preacher, or Dominicans, but his vocation lay with the walls of churches rather than their pulpits; he is better known to us as Fra Angelico. Here are the thoughts of E.V. Lucas in the early years of last century, who visited, studied and enjoyed Angelico’s work in Florence and elsewhere.
As to Fra Angelico’s character, let Vasari+ tell us. “He would often say that whosoever practised art needed a quiet life and freedom from care, and he who occupies himself with the things of Christ ought always to be with Christ. . . . Some say that Fra Giovanni never took up his brush without first making a prayer. . . . He never made a crucifix when the tears did not course down his cheeks.”
The one curious thing—to me—about Fra Angelico is that he has not been canonised.* If ever a son of the Church toiled for her honour and for the happiness of mankind it was he… His pictures will be found not only in Florence and Italy but in the chief galleries of the world; for he was very assiduous. We have an excellent example at the National Gallery.
In looking at his pictures, three things in particular strike the mind: the skill with which he composed them; his mastery of light; and—and here he is unique—the pleasure he must have had in painting them. All seem to have been play; he enjoyed the toil exactly as a child enjoys the labour of building a house with toy bricks. Nor, one feels, could he be depressed. Even in his Crucifixions there is a certain underlying happiness, due to his knowledge that the Crucified was to rise again and ascend to Heaven and enjoy eternal felicity. Knowing this (as he did know it) how could he be wholly cast down?
From “A Wanderer in Florence” by E. V. Lucas, 1912.
. I shall know why, when time is over, And I have ceased to wonder why; Christ will explain each separate anguish In the fair schoolroom of the sky.
He will tell me what Peter promised, And I, for wonder at his woe, I shall forget the drop of anguish That scalds me now, that scalds me now.
XXXIX from Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete, via KIndle
Peter, whose feast we celebrate today, famously went out and wept bitterly. His woe was put behind him by Christ’s forgiveness (John 21) which gave him the grace to preach the good news far from the Sea of Galilee, the grace to be Saint Peter. But that was after the Ascension, when the Good News was totally entrusted to Jesus’ followers.
Tomorrow and the next day we welcome back Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey, who opens up the disciples’ first taste of ministry and what they learned from Jesus’ reaction to their experience. Let us remember all those who will be ordained priest or deacon this Petertide.
Half-way through May and this blog has no mention of Mary … not very Catholic! But here she is, in the midst of the Church, such as it was in those days after the Ascension. One of the team.
This picture, shot through clear stained-glass windows, shows us a glimpse, not only of the first Church receiving definitively the Holy Spirit, but also of the noisy, diverse corner of London that St Aloysius’ serves. The church itself stands above street level, an Upper Room, slightly removed from the noise of traffic.
Visitors from many parts call in, perhaps between trains at Euston or Saint Pancras terminals. Find out more about the church and parish here.
I am always happy when I find it open; some people feel uncomfortable in modern churches, but this was designed to celebrate the Vatican II liturgy and brings everyone close to the altar. If you have a few minutes between trains, you too may just find it open! And Mary, filled with the Spirit, ponders all these things in her heart, and unites her Son’s disciples in the Upper Room, be it in Jerusalem or Somers Town.
Historically it was an event within the life of Jesus and the early church and is now a feast-day for Christians, one that links Easter to Pentecost. But it is more than an historical event, it is at the same time an insight into life that we need to understand to better sort out the paradoxical interplay between life and death, presence and absence, love and loss.
The Ascension names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the centre of life, namely, that we all reach a point in life where we can only give our presence more deeply by going away so that others can receive the full blessing of our spirits.
When Jesus was preparing to leave this earth he kept repeating the words: “It is better for you that I go away! You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go away you will be unable to receive my spirit. Don’t cling to me, I must ascend.”
Why is it better?
Any parent has heard similar words from their children, unspoken perhaps but there nonetheless. When young people leave home to go to college or to begin life on their own, what they are really saying to their parents is: “Mom and dad, it is better that I go away. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go, I will always be your little boy or little girl but I will be unable to give you my life as an adult. So please don’t cling to the child you once had or you will never be able to receive my adulthood. I need to go away now so that our love can come to full bloom.”
To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. The pain in this kind of letting go is often excruciating, as parents know, but to refuse to do that is to truncate life.
The same is true for the mystery of death. For example: I was 22 years old when my mother, died. The pain was searing. Initially we were nearly overwhelmed with a sense of being of losing a vital life-connection (that, ironically, we had mostly taken for granted until then). And our feelings were mainly cold, there’s little that’s warm in death.
But time is a great healer. After a while, and for me this took several years, the coldness disappeared and her death was no longer externally painful. I felt again her presence, and now as a warm, nurturing spirit that was with me all time. The coldness of death turned into a warmth. She had gone away but now could give me love and blessing in new way.
The mystery of love and intimacy contains that paradox: To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. In the paradox of love, we can only fully bless each other when we go away. That is why most of us only “get” the blessing our loved ones were for us after they die.
And this is even true, perhaps particularly so, in cases where our loved ones were difficult characters who struggled for peace or to bless anyone in this life. Death washes clean and releases the spirit and, even in the case of people who struggled to love, we can after their deaths receive their blessing in ways we never could while they were alive. Like Jesus, they could only give us their real presence by going away.
“It is better for you that I go away!” These are painful words most of the time, from a young child leaving her mother for a day to go to school, to the man leaving his family for a week to go on a business trip, to the young man moving out of his family’s house to begin life on his own, to a loved one saying goodbye in death. Separation hurts, goodbyes bring painful tears, and death of every kind wrenches the heart.
But that is part of the mystery of love. Eventually we all reach a point where what is best for everyone is that we go away so that we can give our spirit. The gift that our lives are can only be fully received after we ascend.
I wonder what does the Ascension of Christ mean to you? For some we have that picture, often depicted in art, with Jesus’ feet disappearing up into the clouds; of the post-resurrection Jesus no longer being physically present with the disciples, as he returns to his Father in heaven. But the disciples were not left alone, they were told to wait in the city, to then be “clothed from with power from in high”; I am sure they must have wondered what Jesus meant, but as ever they were obedient to his words. That must have been such a rollercoaster 40 days for them, since Easter Day; as it is for many of us today, but as we journey together through this we too anticipate Pentecost … in the meantime we have the novena, 9 days of prayer to look forward to.
God Bless and keep safe, keep connected and keep praying.
Rev Jo Richards, rector, Saint Mildred’s, Canterbury.
Upper Photo by CD, from the Chapel of the Franciscan Minoresses, Derbyshire; Lower Photo, MMB, priest’s vesting table, Church of Jesus in the Attic, Amsterdam. A reminder to pray for the Spirit before preaching.
This window explicitly links the Ascension to Pentecost, ten days later. And there seems to be a female presence in the shape of Mary and another woman in each scene, which is as it should be, despite the Lectionary airbrushing the women out of the Pentecost day reading from Acts.
But today is Ascension Day – Why are you looking up into the sky? What do you expect to see?
Or we could put the Angel’s question another way: if you are looking for Jesus where do you expect to find him? Among the clouds; really? Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it for me. It began with mutual support as the disciples continued to come to grips with all that had happened.
Here and now we can pray for the Spirit to fill our hearts with love, and give us eyes to see Jesus in our neighbours, family, friends.
It was Saint Bartholomew’s church, so I had half expected to see him represented there. But the church at Richard’s Castle in Shropshire is redundant, a sad old place. There are traces on the walls of pre=Reformation murals, and fragments of ancient glass, the images no doubt destroyed by zealous iconoclasts. Yet it was here in the Marches that our Saint of two days ago, John Kemble, worked as a Catholic priest until he was denounced in the wake of the Titus Oates debacle.
Well, of the five earthbound men in this image of the Ascension of Jesus from a Shropshire hill, the front right is Peter, with his keys; opposite him, next to Mary, is the beardless John. We can take Peter’s neighbour to be Bartholomew, why not? He was close to Jesus. He was soon huddled away in the Upper Room, until, filled by the Spirit, he made his way to India and Armenia with the Good News, and was eventually put to death.
John Kemble, after training on the Continent, served the people of his own district as pastor; Bartholomew served far from home. Who will hear the Good news from me today? Who will I hurt through mistaken zeal? Who will feel my faith is redundant because of my poor example?
This post is by a great friend of Will Turnstone’s blog. Writing at Divine. Incarnate, Christina has a unique vision of Christian Faith and Catholic tradition.Find her here: Christina ChaseThank you Christina for sharing this!
We join Christina in the Canadian Shrine of Sainte Anne de Beaupré.
In a shadowy recess of the Basilica of Sainte Anne de Beaupré, I caught sight of a dimly lit bas-relief and felt myself drawn to it… and even changed by it.
Before I get to that, shortly – below the carving is a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi taking the body of Jesus off of the Cross. Of course, it is historically inaccurate. But, great art depicts the truth within and beyond facts. The artwork is meant to convey the love and life of Francis, who was so utterly devoted to God-Incarnate suffering in this world that he even developed the Stigmata, signs of Christ’s wounds on his own body. Francis’s arms are therefore shown to be encircling the body of Christ as he is ready to lift up his beloved Savior and catch him in embrace.
Francis is on tippytoe in his innocent eagerness, gazing upward in adoration, his hand curved and held in gentle wonder.
And I ask myself: do I want to embrace Christ this much?
Am I eager to carry the weight of his beaten and bloody body? Do I hold him in wonder and affection close to my heart? I wasn’t there when they crucified my Lord, but I am here, now, when the dying are crying out in pain and loneliness, and the abused are losing hope that anyone will carry them to safety. Is my heart suffering with theirs in true compassion, ready to do whatever I can to help – not to hesitate, but to give generously in love? Whatever I do for the least, I do for Christ.
As I wrote in the beginning of this post, it was the bas-relief above the statue that most deeply moved me. I had to look up at it a long while before I could discern the figures and details. While realizing what I was seeing, I felt the cords of my heart being so sweetly touched that the exquisite song of joy spread all through me. Below is the image, the image which I am taking as my Faith Facilitator for this First Friday:
At first, I saw Jesus with his arms open wide, crucified. And Francis, in front of Jesus like a child, held his arms open wide in imitation, looking back and up at his Savior as though asking, “Like this?” Christ, the patient teacher, and Francis, the willing student. But, then… I saw that there were wings depicted behind Jesus, signifying Christ Resurrected, Christ Glorified and Ascended in Paradise. And I knew that Christ Jesus was teaching his beloved child… with open arms, a living Cross… how to fly….
We are exploring the notion of personhood and its relationship to love. Yesterday, we asked how we can be united to others without losing our identity? Today we will explore this by looking at our union with Christ.
We are united to Christ though love – his love for us first, and our response. By love, we choose independently to unite ourselves to the loved one. We do not lose our independence; rather we express it through our free choice to give ourself to the other and receive the other into ourself. This is what Christ did in becoming man. It is an unfathomable mystery, but nonetheless true: he became man and in so doing, he chose freely to share his very being with us. Since his resurrection and ascension, this takes place sacramentally, through Baptism and the Eucharist; but we are not meant to be passive recipients of this great gift. Love engenders a response and we respond to the love of Christ for us by our life of prayer and faith – and simply by giving our whole selves to him. In this way we grow in our relationship with him and realise ever more fully that in his birth we are born; with his life we live; and in his death we die. We exist authentically as persons with a vital interior life because and by means of his love for us. The French Jesuit Henri de Lubac (1896 – 1991), one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, says simply: ‘We are fully persons only within the Person of the Son. He will never cease to make us complete, to make us persons in himself.’