The legend began on a Good Friday in Bermuda, sometime before the turn of the century. A Sunday school teacher was having a difficult time explaining Christ's ascension to his students, but he finally had an idea. He took his class to the beach, where he launched a large kite on which he had painted a likeness of Christ. When the kite reached its maximum height, he snipped the string, allowing the kite to ascend even further and become lost in the clouds. Ever since that day the people of Bermuda have flown kites on Good Friday as a way of looking ahead to the power and joy of Jesus' resurrection and ascension.
That story was the inspiration behind the dramatic liturgical art Marc Likkel created for Ascension Sunday at Hessel Park Church in Champagne, Illinois. Likkel had previously produced several banners for Advent and Lent. And when the worship committee met to discuss what might be done visually for Ascension Sunday, Likkel immediately said, "Well, I'd like to build a kite, a b-i-i-g kite, and stick it right up in the peak of the ceiling. Christ ascending."
While Likkel alone designed and constructed the kites for the main worship space, the children of the congregation spent several successive Sunday school hours building and decorating kites to hang in the outer hallways and foyer. So on the Sunday morning commemorating Christ's ascension, the congregation was greeted with a spectacular suspension of kites.
Likkel's design for the worship space includes one very large kite (5' x 9') and nine small kites hung in a kind of "V" configuration below it. From the large kite streamed tails of red and yellow, symbolizing the tongues of fire at Pentecost. Likkel says he never had any doubt about what he would draw on the big kite. It had to be the image of Jesus Christ. "This is what our celebration is all about: The cross is empty. There's nobody on it. He has ascended." Likkel becomes genuinely excited when talking about the Ascension. "This is my favorite part of the church year because it helps us understand how we should live the whole year—with the ascended Christ and the descended Spirit." The Christ figure on the big kite is a round line drawing, faceless and peaceful, yet it is definitely Jesus, with subtle nail marks on the hands and feet.
The nine small kites each bear a simple, black-on-white drawing, like the large kite. The descending dove of the Holy Spirit is drawn on the kite hung at the apex of the nine small kites. The remaining eight kites depict scenes and postures of prayer, praise, worship, humility, comfort, and confession—all aspects of living with the Holy Spirit.
About his choice of symbols Likkel says, "I think for me the kites would have worked even with more obscure, abstract drawings, but they would have communicated less. Using symbols that have some meaning behind them gives more and the people looking at them gain more." One member of the congregation said that the symbols were a reminder of the Holy Spirit's ministry. They helped him by giving him something visual on which to focus during worship.
One of the artist's favorite drawings on the small kites is that of a Christ figure gathering a child under each arm, like a hen with her chicks. Likkel believes that children are an important part of a congregation. Another kite displays what Likkel describes as "youthful profiles" singing together. He says, "I wanted to portray the joy of worship and have the whole feeling be upbeat. Rather than show our need for salvation, show our joy and hope in salvation."
However, a couple of the smaller kites show postures of despair. Likkel says, "We often confess our sins in tears, and that had to be expressed someplace. It's an essential part of worship." One small kite shows a figure kneeling, with eyes searching, struggling to see God. Likkel claims that even in this rather distressing drawing, the viewer can get in touch with the hope found in the Christian's walk with God.
When asked what was most satisfying about this Ascension Sunday project for him, Likkel described the moment when the kites were assembled on the floor of the church and ready to be "flown" up into the peak of the building. It took a complicated, calculated arrangement of strings and tension, but it worked, and it was thrilling to see his creation hung as a reality. "I looked at it and thought, you know, this is really something. And the only thing I could do was to thank God. The drawings had new meaning for me, and I was blessed by the doing of it.'"
Later Likkel's eyes teared as he spoke about the future of the kites. Storing them for next year's Ascension Sunday celebration would be nearly impossible.
The kites are fragile and may not survive the temperature and humidity changes. So Likkel admits that the kites are a temporary art installation which may never hang again. He says, "They should be flown. After all, what's the point in making a kite that will never fly? We should get the kids out on the lawn, get the Christ kite way up, and cut the string."
If that happens to this Christ kite, the tradition that began on that Good Friday in Bermuda will continue in Illinois as Likkel's depiction of Christ is taken up into the clouds.