Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Wounded God 6: The Cloud of Glory and Jesus' Ascension

That cloud—the one that “hid Jesus from their sight”—I’ve never thought that was really one of the white fleecy ones we see in the sky. Rather it was the Cloud, a cloud of Glory, like the dazzling radiance that shone from Christ when he was transfigured, becoming a cloud which enveloped the trembling eyewitnesses who were “afraid when they entered the cloud.” Such a marvelous cloud symbolizes and embodies the nearer presence of the Divine glory itself.

The Bible isn’t quite so literalistic as many folks think. Luke knows the symbol-code when he tells his tale the climactic end of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. He knows that in the saga of Israel in the wilderness a cloud of glory settled, again and again, over and around the Tent of Meeting when Moses entered to converse with God “face to face.” As it did again when Solomon dedicated the Temple. Not that this Cloud is mere metaphor. Rather, “cloud” is an ecstatic utterance Biblical writers use for the actual feel of the divine Presence, at least in one of its aspects. Ancient Jewish storytelling even traces that Cloud back to the beginning of creation, interpreting the “mist” in Eden as Holy Wisdom, the immanent presence of God.

Entering into the Cloud

I sometimes wonder if I was touched by the outer edge of that Glory one night decades ago at a huge Pentecostal gathering in New York. The worship leaders were good at using devotional hymns and choruses to woo the huge crowd into a state of deeply felt devotion—a skilled liturgy of soul-opening, not the frenetic hype of some pentecostal worship. As we sang on, waves of ecstasy moved through the crowd like Wind was blowing through a field of wheat. Bathed in a cloud of radiant energy, there was a sense of a great Vastness opening above us and around us.

Since then that Cloud has crossed my path on more than one special occasion—at a (quite literal) mountaintop Eucharist with three hundred Episcopal college students doing Taize-like chanting, at a conference of Lutheran clergy on a week-long retreat reciting the many different names of God, in a quiet meditative prayer group which suddenly found itself plunged into the “silence of Eternity” — even at a rather secular 60s “encounter group.” The trust in that group had reached such a deep level that, with just one specially penetrating comment, a great, timeless Silence descended upon us all like a mantle, a vast cloud full of peace, joy and love.

So, when the Bible talks about that Cloud, my inner ears perk up, and I feel once more the writers were not just making things up, but trying their best to convey the feel of an encounter.

He “withdrew from them into heaven”

In those “clouds” that surrounded the groups I was in, there was not only “aroundness” but “aboveness.” The atmosphere “descended:” as if from above. That was the sensation: as if the ceiling disappeared—just as, in Scripture, God descends "from above.” And, in the story of Jesus’ exaltation to the “right hand of God,” the narrative says he went “into heaven,” and pictures the disciples “looking up.”

I know that, for the Biblical writers, this was not just a symbolic code, but science, too. The ancient world believed that the realm of God or the gods was “up,” on mountain tops, or in the highest heavens. This was not only the religious, but scientific model of the universe: seven or more rotating, crystalline spheres containing ascending realms of spiritual purity.

But I’m reluctant simply to relegate the Biblical narrative of Jesus' ascension to the realm of “ancient ideas” just because we now know that the architecture of the universe is different from the ancient science. I resist because of my experience of The Cloud, with its felt sense of vastness. And I wonder if, science to the contrary notwithstanding, there isn’t something true in the world-wide human experience of God being “above” (as well as “within” and “around”) — something that arises out of this felt sense of the world.

The "gravitational pull from above"

Since there is something so “uplifting” about that Presence, as if some magnetic energy is stretching us to our full height of soul and spirit, it’s not surprising that they think of the Source as being “up” and “above.” They symbolize It as the all-embracing sky, that cosmic Vastness which comes all the way down to the horizon and touches earth in an all-embracing circle. In her book on Christian mystical wisdom, Cynthia Bourgeault calls this felt sense of encompassing, stretching grace “a gravitational pull from above.” (The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart)

In the light of all this, here’s my version of the Ascension: Each time the risen Christ appeared to his disciples, he was more and more surrounded by that atmosphere of enlivening calm, joy, and love until one day he “withdrew from them” as Luke puts it, entirely into the Cloud, into God, “ascending” finally into the heart of God, becoming a universal presence, a major bass theme in the music of God’s presence in the world. "He ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things," as Paul puts it (Ephesians 4:10).

But, of course, human beings cannot remain forever wrapped in such clouds, “looking up” into such foretastes of the nearer presence of God. There’s work to be done, from taking out of the garbage, to raising children, to the healing, repair and building of a world continually damaged and deformed by what human beings do when they are devoid of the love that fills that Cloud.

Watercolor above: "Glad Day" by William Blake

Next week: Who gets to share in holy Spirit?

No comments:

Post a Comment