Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Letting Go of Jesus
“Christ ascended into heaven,” the creeds tell us, “and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Salvador Dali’s “Ascension of Christ,” (1958) disorients the familiar story from Acts by reorienting the perspective of the disciples from our accustomed view. The spatial metaphors of up and down are replaced by vaguer categories of near and far as Christ is drawn beyond us, beyond our reach, beyond our knowing, beyond our control into some other time and some other space. A brooding, almost ominous figure waits, accompanied by the Holy Spirit. Certainly, it seems, there is no immediate welcome for us across this boundary, at least not yet. And the terrain of this place is surreal, unclear, unlike, wholly other. There is, let’s face it, something rather disturbing, though perhaps quite honest about this image of the Ascension.
This icon of the Ascension suspends Jesus in transit, as it were, in a place beyond us, an elusive Christ no longer able to be grasped or held. This ethereal, floating Christ is no “personal Lord and Savior,” any more than he is a personal trainer. The Catechisms ponder the possibility that the divine Christ continues to be present to us even as the human Christ is not, and parses the old Lutheran and Reformed debates over heavenly and earthly location. Dali simply posits mystery, and suggests that faith in Christ always involves some sort of letting go.
What might it mean to let go of Jesus? “Noli me tangere,” Jesus says to Mary in the Garden on Easter morning. “Do not hold me; do not touch me.” When the disciples want to build booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mountain of transfiguration in order to freeze the moment of transcendent intimacy with him, he dismisses their plan and turns them back instead toward the everyday world where there are demons to cast out. The finite can hold the infinite, but only to a point. We live with both presence and absence, a God who comes to us to share our common lot but who refuses to allow us to abandon our station here with all of its attendant moral responsibilities in order to commune only with the Holy, even in a place being prepared for us. Mary may sing in the Garden of Jesus walking with her, talking with her, telling her that she is his own. But in the end he bids her go.
Yes, the Feast of the Ascension is about Christ’s dominion and ultimately about our own destiny. But for the here and now the story is also about our letting go of Jesus in order to take hold of each other, witnessing to the absent one in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. We are left behind, not as those failing the rapture, but as those given a commission to clutch this world in a prophetic grip and a passionate embrace. If the incarnation confirms the judgment of God over Creation – good, very good! – then the Ascension warns against any gnostic escape, releasing Jesus from our grasp that we might have hands free to hold the world.
It’s been forty four years, but I can still remember watching my parents drive away from my college dorm leaving me behind, an expectant and anxious freshman. Still loved, but no longer held. Still present, but very much absent. A rite of passage that is all about letting go and facing our own worlds of risk and responsibility, joy and possibility. Dali’s Ascension of Christ captures that mood, a grief laden and mysterious letting go that is also a grateful and hope filled embrace of a world no longer defined by the geographic and temporal boundaries of Holy proximity. The whole world is in God’s hands because Christ is no longer in our hands. A world that cannot domesticate the Divine is, by virtue of that truth, freed from its own captivity. Constrained from holding Christ, we are liberated to follow Christ.
O risen Christ, ascended now to your blessed name all knees shall bow;
You are, while endless ages run, in Triune Godhead ever One.
The Venerable Bede, 673-735
John H. Thomas
Ascension Day, 2012