Caught Up in the Cloud: Rescuing the Ascension story from familiarity

I remember well my boyhood ideas about the ascension of Jesus. Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, and, after lifting up his hands in benediction, he just "took off"—not like an airplane, but as if he were in an invisible elevator. He just started to go up, up, up, up—straight up, until he disappeared. If the disciples had owned telescopes and other twentieth-century technology, I assumed, they could have watched just a bit longer.

It wasn't until long after seminary that 1 noticed the word "cloud" in Luke's narrative. As if to crush that familiar image from my youth, it said in the old King James Version, "A cloud received him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). How could I have missed that? Why hadn't someone pointed that out to me? A telescope would have been no help at all!

And then I started to think about the significance of "cloud" in the Bible. I was reminded that sometimes we know a Bible story so well that we must go back to the Scriptures to rescue it from familiarity.

The Cloud, the Shekinah Glory, and God's Presence

The cloud of God's presence (the Shekinah) occurs for the first time in the Exodus account (13:21), though some would trace it back to the rainbow "in the cloud" in Genesis 9:13-16. God was present to the children of Israel during the exodus as a pillar of cloud by day and a fiery, cloudy pillar by night. Moses went up on the mountain where "the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days" (Ex. 24:16). Interpret that in poetic Hebrew parallelism and one realizes that "the glory of the Lord" and "the cloud" are synonymous. Each is simply a reiteration, an amplification of the other. The cloud represents the presence of God. Note that God called to Moses out of the cloud (24:16), descended as a cloud (in a cloud?) on the tent where Moses was (33:9), and descended in a cloud and spoke to Moses when he went up a second time for the stone tablets (34:5). Scripture says that Moses' face glowed and that people could see that glow after he had been in the cloud, in the presence Of God.

Other places in Scripture also refer to the presence of God as a cloud. When Isaiah had his vision in the temple, suddenly the room was full of "fiery cloud" or smoke (Isa. 6:4), a reference to the perceived glory of God. Ezekiel, speaking of the ineffable and ultimately indescribable glory of God, refers to a cloud (Ezek. 1:4) and ends by saying that his description of God's glory is thrice removed. What he has described is not God, or even the glory of God, but only "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord" (1:28), God's glory is beyond words.

Paul speaks of the people of Israel being under the cloud, all of them being baptized in the cloud and in the sea (1 Cor. 10:1-2). At the end of time, Paul says, we will be caught up in the cloud and will be forever in the presence of God (1 Thess. 4:17). Again the cloud and the presence of God are together.

Luke seems particularly interested in helping readers focus on the ascension throughout the accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In his account of the transfiguration, he says that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah "appeared in glory" and that they were talking about the "exodus" (some translations have "his departure") which he would accomplish in Jerusalem. This profound theology carries in itself the image of redemption while at the same time suggesting departure. It vividly conveys the link between redemption and ascension, The account includes the overshadowing cloud and the voice of God affirming, "This is my Son, my Chosen" (Luke 9:29-35). Immediately after that, Luke says, "When the days drew near for him to be taken up (KJV, "to be received up"), he set his face to go to Jerusalem" (v. 51). Again we note the priority given to the ascension.

In the Emmaus account, after the teaching, after the bread was broken, and after the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas were opened and they recognized Jesus, Jesus vanished (was taken up; Luke 24:31-32). In Luke 24:45-51 and in Acts 1:1-9 we again have the unity of the teaching, the death, the resurrection, and the departure.

The gospel writer John, who places special emphasis on the glory that Christ has with the Father, has Jesus say, "So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had in your presence before the world existed" (17:5). Although John does not mention the cloud, it is almost as if he were saying, "1 want to be back in the cloud." Indeed, John is so interested in this unity that he emphasizes it in Jesus' words, "And I, when 1 am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (12:32), an obvious double (or triple) reference to the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. It is clear that for John, the crucifixion, the glorification (ascension), and the giving of the Holy Spirit are so closely intermeshed as to be inseparable. Indeed, they are almost indistinguishable. In John the ascension began with the crucifixion, continued in the resurrection, and is finalized as the Lord appears to each of us, breathing on us the Holy Spirit. The great and constant emphasis on Jesus' glorification in John's gospel carries the clear meaning of Jesus' returning to share integrally and fully in God's glory, bringing us with him.

How the F.arly Church Celebrated the Ascension

The early church celebrated "a unitive festival," which included the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, God's work of redemption is unified. It includes what we think of as Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion of Good Friday, the resurrection of Easter Sunday, the ascension, and the gift of the Spirit. The earliest evidence we have found for a separate celebration on what came to be known as Ascension Thursday, on the fortieth day after the Paschal celebration, is a sermon by Gregory of Nyssa in A.D. 388. In Jerusalem and in Alexandria such a celebration did not begin for at least another fifty years. Scholars have wondered how this could be when Luke is so specific about the forty days (Acts 1:3) and the fifty days (Acts 2:1, which literally says "when the days were filled up to the fiftieth").

Professor Thomas Talley provides convincing research, indicating that the early church followed the unitive emphasis of John and Luke [The Origins of the Liturgical Year, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1986, pp. 56-70). Talley says that fourth-century sermons give clear evidence that the preachers were well aware of the chronology of the ascension and the fiftieth-day timing of the gift of the Spirit in Acts. Nonetheless, they celebrated the entire "death, resurrection, ascension, and enSpirit-ing" most prominently at the Paschal (Easter) services and at the Pentecost services (p. 57), but also on every Sunday during the entire Great Fifty Days. This unity pervaded all the sermons, and thus we can presume, all the Sunday worship services. As late as the fifth century, Christians continued to read John 16:5-14, "Now I am going to him who sent me ..." during one of the Pentecost services.

The ascension of Jesus is linked with the death and resurrection and with the glorification of Jesus throughout the tradition. Jesus' death without a resurrection would have accomplished nothing. The resurrection without the ascension would have accomplished nothing. Rut, the death, resurrection, ascension and the gift of the Spirit, make it possible for us, like Moses, to enter (the cloud of) the glory of God. When Christ enters the cloud, he brings us with him. As he took on our humanity and took it with him to the cross, so he brings us into the very presence of God, bestowing grace upon us, making us sharers in the Shekinah, a grace that will only be complete when we cross the final river, when we are caught up in the cloud of God's glory at Christ's second coming.

In our baptism we share in Christ's death. In our baptism we share in Christ's resurrection. In our baptism we also share in Christ's ascension and are given the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

Consequent Themes for Worship

We learn from the Scriptures as well as from the historical usage of the church that there is benefit in seeing God's redemptive action as a whole. However, it is also valuable to note that we can hold up certain themes of that redemption from time to time, noting their importance in a more intense and focused way. This is certainly true of the ascension of our Lord. Remembering how integral the ascension was to Luke and John, we should be certain to include some facets or themes of ascension in our preaching and worship during the Great Fifty Days. There are many possibilities (see box).

 

Excerpt

SUGGESTED SCRIPTURE READINGS FOR ASCENSION

The Scripture readings and Psalms listed below are my own selections, but I have included Icctionary readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for ascension. These readings pick up the themes mentioned in the accompanying article.

Excerpt
SUGGESTED SCRIPTURE READINGS FOR ASCENSION

The Scripture readings and Psalms listed below are my own selections, but I have included lectionary readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for ascension. These readings pick up the themes mentioned in the accompanying article.

First Testament
Exodus 42:12-28
Exodus 33:7-11
Exodus 34:1-8
Exodus 40:32-38
(Numbers 9:15-23)
Isaiah 4:4-6, 6:1-8
Isaiah 60:1-3. 19-22
Ezekiel 1:4-28, selected verses

Psalms
Psalm 8
Psalm 27
Psalm 47
Psalm 68:1-10
Psalm 68:28-35
Psalm 97
Psalm 98
Psalm 99

Epistles-Acts
Acts 1:1-11
Romans 6:1-4
Romans 8:18-27
2 Corinthians 3:7-11, 17-18
Ephesians 1:15-23
Ephesians 4:7-13
Philippians 2:1-11
2 Peter 1:16-21
Revelation 1:7

Gospels
Matthew 28:16-20
Mark 1:9-11
Mark 16:9-16, 19-20
Luke 9:29-35, 51
Luke 24:45-51
John 16:4b-6
John 17:1-5

 

THEMES FOR ASCENSION PREACHING

The unity of the drama of redemption. We must see Christ's death, resurrection, ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit together. This is our trinitarian faith. We cannot confine God's redemption of humanity only to Good Friday or even Easter Sunday. What happened at Easter without the return to the Godhead or the gift of the Spirit would leave us bereft. Think of the family reunion of the Trinity. Focus on Christ bringing us home with him and, in the meantime, giving us the Spirit.

Glory to God! The primary purpose of worship is to give glory to God, to glorify God, to give praise and thanks for what God lias done, it is to recite the story of the great glory that belongs only to God, a glory that is beyond our speech or imagination. It is to lift our hearts on high, where Christ is, to enter the cloud with wonder and astonishment. We must always be alert to where the glory of God seeks to shine in our lives; we must be prepared to be surprised by joy.

Christ didn't go away. He just changed. Just as perfume is more fully present when its fragrance fills the room than when it is in its bottle, so by his ascension Christ is now accessible to each and all of us. He is no longer confined to the dusty roads of Galilee.

Clouds and dread. Clouds are mysterious. Moses entered the cloud at risk. The disciples "were terrified" when the cloud overshadowed them at the transfiguration. There was awe and mystery at each "disappearance" of the risen Christ. But there is hope, too, and great joy in knowing that by grace Christ takes us with him into the presence of God. We all have clouds, but the good news of the gospel is that "the clouds we so much dread, are big with mercy and will break with blessings on our head."

Christ will return as you saw him go. Yes, Christ is coming again. But could it be that in some sense Christ comes (returns) to us each time we encounter the cloud of glory—whether in sermon, in music, in nature? (The heavens declare the glory of God.) We must be on the watch for God's glory every moment, or we may miss Christ when he comes again— to us—this week.

The great reversal. The victim is the victor. The least has become the greatest (Phil. 2). The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now. God and faith seem to be in jeopardy, but they will ultimately triumph. And we? We must follow bravely, humbly, willing to accept Christ's grace and the gift of his glory.

Ascension glory. The ascension gives opportunity to stress the second coming of Christ and the glory of the kingdom of heaven. It also stresses that we must at the same time joyfully accept the responsibility of kingdom living here, today. When we catch the vision of the glory of God and the immensity of the gift of God's redemption, we can no longer go on with "life as usual," but we press on in joy.

 

HYMNS CONTAINING ASCENSION THEMES

"Alleluia, Sing to Jesus" PsH 406, PH 144, RL 346, TWC 263
The cloud received Jesus when the forty days were over, and he entered within the veil.
"As with Gladness Men of Old" PsH 358, PH 63, RL 228, TH 226, TWC 181
Though part of a Christmas hymn, stanzas 4 and 5 may be isolated and used at Ascension.
"Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies" PsH 481, PH 402, RL 463, TWC 398, TWC 562
"Come, 0 Spirit, Dwell Among Us" PH 129
"In the church's pilgrim journey you have led us
all the way. Still in presence move before us,
fire by night and cloud by day."
"Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" PsH 506, PH 446, RL 393, TH 345, TWC 694
"See the cloud and fire appear for a glory and a covering."<> "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" PsH 434, PH 270, RL 36, TH 128, TWC 73<> "The clouds you so much dread, / are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head."
"Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" PsH 543, PH 281, RL 50, TH 598, TWC 634
"Let the cloud and fiery pillar lead me all my journey through."
"The Head That Once Was Crowned with Thorns" PsH 411, PH 149, RL 335, TH 298, TWC 268
"... is crowned with glory now."
"Holy God, We Praise Your Name" PsH 504, PH 460, RL 619, TH 103, TWC 3
A general hymn on the glory of God.
"Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise" PsH 460, PH 263, RL 7, TH 38, TWC 62
A hymn stressing the glory and splendor of the light of God.
"Jerusalem the Golden" PsH 618, RL 579, TH 539, TWC 754
"... what radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare..."
"Jesus Comes, with Clouds Descending" TWC 283
An emphasis on Acts 1:11 and Revelation 1:7 and Jesus' return in the cloud of glory, in the same way that he ascended.
"Jesus on the Mountain Peak" PH 74
A transfiguration hymn, "Jesus... stands in glory blazing ..."
"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" PsH 341, PH 5, RL 188, TH 193, TWC 167
Cherubim "... veil their faces to the presence."
"Praise the Lord, Sing Hallelujah"PsH 188
"His glory is exalted far above the earth and sky."
"See, the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph" PsH 414, RL 334, TH 291
"... in the cloud the Lord ascends."
"Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory" PH 73
A transfiguration hymn that asks us not to seek any "other glory than what lies past Calvary's hill."

Arlo D. Duba is professor of worship (emeritus) and former dean of the theological faculty, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.