Happy Feast of the Ascension! I hope you enjoy this spiritual reflection on the Ascension by Sister Wendy Beckett in this month’s Magnificat.
May you know the peace of the risen Christ,
The accounts of the Ascension, in three of the Gospels (not John’s) and the Acts of the Apostles, differ slightly, but the gist is very clear: Jesus gave them a final blessing and a commission, and then rose into the air, “until a cloud hid him from their sight”. It is not an easy scene to make visible. The medieval painters managed by showing the Apostles looking upward and two feet at the very top edge of the picture representing Jesus passing from earth to heaven. Unfortunately, the feet are not impressive, aesthetically, and one can see that this image did not appeal to the painter Duccio. What he gives us in his painting of the Ascension is rather indeterminate. It shows Jesus before he makes any movement upward. He is speaking with that unearthly authority that so riveted all who heard him. It is their word that will convert the waiting nations. It is they, up to now only followers, listeners to Jesus, who are now to take the pulpit and teach others, baptize others, do for them what Jesus has done in their own lives.
Duccio has Peter and another Apostle (Matthew the Evangelist?) holding a book. This small and reluctant group, bunched together for support, is already accepting the need to write down what they have witnessed and to accept this terrifying vocation with the utmost devotion to duty. They are standing very straight, their eyes fixed firmly on Jesus for the last time in this life, and he seems half of tiptoe, ready for that dissolving of material ties in the glory of his Father.
Jesus had longed for this day. When he spoke to the Apostles at the Last Supper, he spoke of them being in the world, and how he would send them his Spirit, the Paraclete, to do within them what they could not do alone. To believe in the coming of the Spirit is one of the most emphatic messages. Yet, an undercurrent to the recognition that they are “in the world” is the quiet statement, made in prayer to the Father, “I am coming to you”. Coming to the Father has been the great driving force of Jesus’ life. That is where he is at home, that is where he belongs. He left the Father and all that heaven means so as to draw us out of our darkness and into his light, but how hard it must have been….
They were a feeble little band, but there was no more Jesus could do. He leaves them because they have all they need, and the Spirit will bring it to mind. But they themselves must do it. How God must long to do it for us, and make sure it is done! But that is never his way. We are independent moral beings, and if we use the abundance of grace that flows down upon us, we can become what Jesus is – a true child of God, someone who can echo these words: I am coming to you.
-Sister Wendy Beckett is a South African-born British art expert, consecrated virgin, and contemplative hermit who lives under the protection of a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, England