Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
— Collect for Ascension Day, Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 226
For those who’ve followed my posts, you’ll know that I like to use images. They sometimes illustrate my points in a way that complements my words. Continuing from my last post, I want to use some art to help me with the theology of the Ascension. [Forgive me if this post is a little longer than others.]
As I wrote in my previous post, Jesus Christ rose to Heaven taking his full self with him, body and soul, bringing his humanity (and ours) to the Father. Ironically, it is by his earthly absence that He can be even more present with us. The painting to the left here, Salvador Dalí’s Ascension, illustrates this to an extent, particularly on the cosmic scale.
At the bottom we see a sliver of the earth’s surface, and as the eye moves upward, we see the clouds of the sky give way to the vast blackness of space. However, in front of that darkness is a large yellow disk, the center of which looks like logarithmic spiral in the head of a sunflower but can also be seen as the nucleus of an atom. Above/behind that is what looks like the sphere of the heavens. At the top of that sphere is the dove of the Holy Spirit with rays shining from it and even the heavens looking like an extension from its wings. At the same time, one can see it in its inverse, leading not up and out but further inward. (I’m reminded slightly of Gustave Doré’s illustration of the Highest Heaven in Dante’s Paradiso.)
Above all that we see a female figure modeled on Dalí’s wife, Gala. In a number of his works, she represents the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven. Some see her in this role here as well, a mother shedding tears for her son. However, if one goes beyond artist’s intent, the figure could also be compared to the divine person of the “Father” but in this case showing a more feminine/maternal side. The tears could be seen as evidence of sorrow at the suffering of Her Son or perhaps as tears of joy at His return.
In the midst of this is the figure of Christ. His positioning adds another dimension to the painting with his feet pointed toward the viewer and his head extending away. He seems to be moving into the painting toward the solar/nuclear disk and ultimately toward the Mother figure above. The soles of His feet are dirty, bearing the soil on which He walked. As our eyes move along His body, we see His arms outstretched as on the Cross. Although Dalí does not include Jesus’ wounds, the hands seem to curl in pain and agony. This too He carries with him into Heaven. At the same time, clouds of smoke and flames of fire (?) surround his hands and perhaps even emanate from them. Agony, yet also great power. On the other hand, could they not also be like arms of the Divine Mother/Father reaching outward to receive the Son, their hands clasped together, with the Spirit in the middle proceeding from Her as the Love uniting them.
However, is Jesus moving inward away from us or toward us? It’s actually a little ambiguous. Ascension? Or the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ? Perhaps it’s the whole Mystery: the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, Christ’s return to rule over all. (We even see here the whole Trinity itself.) I mean, what is the mystery of our faith? “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (From Eucharistic Prayer A in The Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 363)
Not just will Christ be present at his return. He is present with us now. As the collect (opening prayer) above says, “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” We actually see this in Dalí’s painting. As Jesus ascends, we have everything from the earth itself to the vastness of space down to the very atoms themselves and even out to encompass the Heaven of Heavens. Through the Spirit he can indeed “fill all things.” It is also by His Ascension that He can send the Spirit (John 16:7) and thereby be even more present with His Church. “Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” United with Christ, who brings His whole humanity to the Father, we are also united to the Father in the Spirit. (“On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” John 14:20
Dalí might not have intended all of this, but any sort of “text” exists not just in the mind of the author (or in this case artist). It also exists with the audience and their response. I certainly don’t claim to be the definitive authority, but I hope some of my theological musings have provided at least some understanding of the Ascension through a meditation on this painting. May the Risen and Ascended Lord be with us all as we await the Feast of Pentecost and celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the gathered believers.
Almighty God, make our hearts dance with joy and thanksgiving; for in the ascension of Christ, your Son, our human nature is raised above the heavens, and where Christ, the head, has gone before in glory we, his body, are called in hope. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen
— Roman Catholic Opening Prayer for the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord [according to the (rejected) 1998 English translation of the Roman Missal]