It is difficult to write an icon of the story of the Ascension. There are so many side tracks. Did Jesus depart for the last time from Bethany or the Mount of Olives, from a mountain in Galilee or from the lake shore? Did he really, in the presence of eleven witnesses, ascend into the sky until he was hidden by a cloud? Or did he just fail to continue to appear to his followers after serving them breakfast next to a campfire? Was the Great Commission really his last command? Or were there secret communications for the ears of certain of the apostles only? We do not know. We really do not know, and there is no way of finding out. We have four accounts, each written from a particular perspective to a certain audience, none of which actually include us, disciples so distant from the event in time and culture as to be essentially from another world.
But I call these questions side tracks. They are diversions from the main point of the Ascension story, a point that can be made no matter what the story’s particulars. The Ascension is a leave-taking. This is the moment when the tale of God’s incarnation in the world is over. What makes it difficult to capture in paint is really this: it is an absence. It is the moment when the sky is suddenly simply a blue expanse, when the mountain top opens only to wind and silence, when the lake shore no longer rings with the voice of the rabbi or his odd counter-intuitive commands. It is a presence gone, removed never to return. It is emptiness.
We observers of this moment don’t initially feel its impact. We continue to look up – or out – or maybe even down – letting the emptiness fill our vision for quite awhile. Nothing stirs while we wait for the next thing to happen. Surely, we think, the silent voice will begin to speak again. Surely the Master will appear once more. Surely we’ll see him squatting at the campfire or strolling back from the desert or walking beside us on the road. So we wait and watch. And nothing continues to happen.
The visual image of the Ascension is a landscape in which nothing is happening. Whatever landscape you pick, it is still the same. Nothing is happening. There is only emptiness. The story is over.
It is difficult for us to acknowledge this moment, challenging to live in this place of emptiness. We want to rush right along to the next tale. Like avid children listening to a storyteller we clutch our knees and beg, “And then what happens? Tell us what happens next!”
But it is important to remain in the emptiness for awhile. We have to turn away from the empty sky and go home. We have to sit at a table that has one huge empty chair, walk around in echoing chambers, listen for a voice that never comes. Only then can we really perceive the ending of the tale of Jesus Christ. It is important that we witness all of it – life, death, resurrection and ascension – as a whole and completed story. We have to lay the matter down with no ifs, ands or buts. It is over. There is no more to be said.
Only when we have done that – and I would suggest a period of ten days or so – only then can we go on. The next tale will be about us. Individually and collectively we will try to respond to the story of Jesus, God-in-the-world. We will find our fresh relationships with the Holy. Calling ourselves followers of the Way we’ll start out in a commune in Jerusalem but birth other communities with amazing rapidity until our churches are everywhere. We will become Christians. Great, blessed people will speak to and for us. We will do incredible good and spectacular harm.
For now, though, let’s just hang out at the end of the story of Jesus. Let’s eat together. Let’s pray. The whole of what we have heard and come to know needs once again, in emptiness and silence, to take root in us. Let us be still and let it all settle in.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.
Image: photo by Ann Fontaine