There is – or was – a curious small painting on display at Wimpole Hall, a slightly Soanic house run by the National Trust in Cambridgeshire. The canvas depicts a group of people in classical dress and pose, more or less in a chariot, ascending through the clouds into the heavens. Slightly to my surprise this is entitled ‘The Apotheosis of the Family of George III’; I suspect painted to commemorate the king’s jubilee in 1810. Sure enough there is the principal character, King George at the height of his powers, presiding over a family more familiar to us for their failings. Contrary to general reputation, not least among Americans, George III was widely loved and when he died, deaf, blind and mad, he was profoundly mourned. King George was religious – he would not, for example receive Communion shortly before seeing his ministers because he would be in too bad, too impious a mood. But the same cannot be said for his children; the dissolute and feckless Regent and his variously compromised brothers and frustrated, dessicated sisters. Perhaps the painting is not hinting at conspicuous virtue but at the dynastic triumph of the Hanoverians. An anti-Jacobite icon which the owners of Wimpole would have been proud to display.Yet the idea of immediate access to the heavenly places is not so unlike the contemporary conviction, noted by me at countless funerals over the years, that departed loved ones can be assured of a place in heaven, because their virtues and sufferings will be remembered and their sins quite forgotten – by whom I am not sure. I hazard that the desire for secular funerals may prove less than strong (they are invariably more expensive), because it denies belief in heaven, even if that belief is seemingly aside from any confidence in God. I have seldom encountered a bereaved person who doubted that virtue, however modest, would be rewarded.It is of course rather difficult for us to divorce the feast of the Ascension of Christ, the return of Jesus to his heavenly home, from its rather colourful spatial imagery, even if it is somewhat unsatisfactory both scientifically and theologically. Theologically, because it can look like a curious species of victory, a reward for virtue if you like; a rather tidy wrapping up in an albeit amazing homecoming. The Ascension of Jesus, which we celebrate today, may seem unusually like the confirmation of courage and virtue; the final scene in the drama of his birth, self-giving life, brave death and victorious resurrection – a signal statement that for all his rejection and isolation upon the Cross, he was, if we had but realized it, the Lord of our worlds. In this view the celebration of Ascension is a tribute to the return of Jesus to his rightful place in the heavenly realms, after his painful sojourn upon the earth; a restoration of the rightful order – God in his heaven and all well. And this rather spatial view of the Ascension lies behind some quasi-liturgical traditions. Did we sing an Ascension carol from the top of a College Chapel tower because now Jesus would hear better? Do the Spaniards throw a donkey off a tower to prove that if God has gone up, the rest of creation certainly hasn’t? – a practice I believe now outlawed! Are fireworks let off so that Jesus can now spot them? Curious and harmless.At its worst the Ascension, in its spatial suggestion, plays to some of our less happy notions of power and patronage; of a God who invariably looks down, condescends and probably judges – as if those dangerous and dramatic days of passion had taught the Godhead nothing. Of course we should not ignore some of the rich ambivalence of the imagery of power in Christian iconography. In Spain there is a particular devotion, popular in the south, but elsewhere as well, of Jesus, bound and trussed like a lamb and vested in a gorgeous purple coat, head held down and awaiting the weight of the cross. In many places this statue is known as Jesus del Gran Poder – Jesus of Great Power; a sort of irony, because at one level it is the moment of Jesus’ least power – gone the supporters and the crowds and the palm branches; alone, silent and judged within the limitations of a humanity he shares. There is another image which you may perhaps know – that of Our Lady of Pew in the Henry V11 (or Lady) chapel in Westminster Abbey; of a medieval origin when ‘pew’ was, I have learned, perhaps an abbreviation for ‘puissance’ (although on this the OED is silent). A pew I take it is not really a seat for the likes of me, but was originally for a person of some quality or unique dignity (hence the historic readiness to pay pew rents in our parish churches!) –derived from puissance, powerful. Our Lady of Power then, as Jesus of Great Power. But this, I venture is not the naked power of arms and authority, but the power of influence – the power which belongs to some one of particular standing with others. The power of those who have perhaps recommended themselves by their actions or their heredity; a power which, quite simply is credible to others; power which as our political lords have discovered lately is not easily recovered once lost. Jesus is puissant, not because of his political strength or supernatural energy (which largely he rejected), but because in his life, suffering and death he has recommended himself to us. His influence with us is not that of a master who cajoles or a prince who commands or a ruler who coerces, but of a brother who understands the test and humiliation of living. The Ascension should not be seen to subvert this.But for all our nervousness about spatial imagery, we should not deny that Christian believing has its own cosmology, in the sense that some thinkers write of all cultures as having a cosmology. I am indebted to Hans Engdahl, of the University of Cape Town, who has made some intriguing parallels between Christian liturgy and the fashioning of the worlds in which we live by imagination and fact. He suggests that those who worship are cosmologically transformed; we see our cities differently and we have an altered relationship with the natural world. In particular – from his own context – he argues that in the face of apartheid Churches in South Africa remained miserably passive and in practice adopted segregation legislation – mirroring a cosmology not the Church’s own; only now are they discovering once again that the Church is a place where the world must be viewed differently. There are of course similar risks in those parts of Britain and other European nations where the Churches are heavily wedded to the State. Engdahl warns especially against the false cosmologies represented by first, hierarchical leadership and secondly the liturgical assembly as a closed circle. More usually we would talk about this as ‘ecclesiology’, but I value the term ‘cosmology’ as suggestive of the fact that how we view our life together as disciples in community is really about more than just practical and historical features of order and discipline, but rather how we view the orientation of life and our world (and not just the Church) now that we know Jesus.The Ascension plays to these themes. For we could imagine that if Christ has ascended into the heavens then a top-down order of governance and power is both ordained and endorsed, as if the Christ in heaven is not that same Jesus who washed feet on the night before he died. This is a typically Catholic dilemma. There is a kindred dilemma by which we imagine that Christ is uniquely available to those who believe, and have received the sacramental marks of faith and justification, as if in his Ascension, Jesus has not shown that he is present equally in each place, in every age and to all communities. That is the Protestant dilemma. There is a distressing tendency for Anglican churches to display photographs or snap shots of the parish clergy and the entire congregation as a means of welcome – thus turning the church into an enclosure, into which people wander with difficulty – what is intended as affirming to those inside, will be interpreted quite other by those not yet in.By contrast American priest friends of mine have come to a position whereby they will not deny the sacrament of the Eucharist to anyone who presents themselves at the rail, whether regularly initiated or not, thus asserting that the community is open and that the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood may itself be a sacrament of entry. All of this I might add is yet done on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis.The promise of heaven which the Ascension denotes is in fact, as Augustine noted, nothing more or less than the confirmation that Jesus ministry was effective; his living, dying and rising worked; it was puissant. I believe that John Updike, in a poem I have yet to read – and written just before his recent death – posited that we would be better off to have heaven at the beginning rather than at the end of our lives; thereby perhaps drawn into virtue by what has been known, rather than what is promised. I get the point, yet for Christians the Ascension asserts that we must order our lives and imagine a cosmos only by the drama of the passion and resurrection of Jesus – thus and no other.
Rev’d George Bush, St. Mary-le-Bow, London,
24th May 2009