23 May 2019, The Tablet

Understanding the Ascension


Understanding the Ascension

Christ’s Ascension, miniature from the Rabbula Gospels, Syria, sixth century.
Photo: Bridgeman

 

The Ascension, which the Church celebrates this Thursday, is often misunderstood as the moment when 40 days after Easter Christ suddenly vanished from the earth. As a Cistercian abbot explains, the true story of the Ascension is very much more attractive and mysterious

This summer, a half-century will have passed since man first landed on the moon. In mid afternoon on 16 July 1969, a spacecraft named Apollo 11 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, entering earth’s orbit after 12 minutes. Three days later Apollo 11 passed behind the moon and entered the lunar orbit.

On 21 July, at around the time when Cistercians rise for Vigils, the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, opened the spacecraft’s door and set foot, the first man in history to do so, on the surface of the moon. In a thoughtful phrase, he remarked that his small step was “a giant leap for humankind’’.

The mission, which has left its mark on our consciousness, was a scientific triumph. But for our theological imagination, it was a disaster. It especially confused our notion of the Lord’s Ascension. The readings set for the liturgical solemnity culminate in these words: “Now, as he blessed them he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven.” For us, who live in the wake of the 1969 lunar mission, it is almost impossible to hear them without seeing before our mind’s eye the Apollo rocket fired off from Camp Kennedy.

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