I don’t know about you, but certainly in my lockdown I have obtained some glory, don’t worry that’s not such a vain claim as it may seem, let me explain. In Hebrew the original word for glory; “Kabod” has its root meaning in mass or weight, how substantial something was in the ancient world was seen as tangible evidence of its importance.
Therefore, glory, God’s greatness and manifested majesty, are described in heaviness. So as you can see, my recognition that I have put on a few pounds whilst in isolation and perhaps too keenly supporting our bakery stalls on the market over the last couple of months, is a less edifying type of glory than it first appeared.
But in the Hebrew scriptures, this glory does relate to weight and stature and so is often represented with the heavy and radiant element that is gold. Giving up this most precious of substances for the decoration of temples and statues was a powerful expression for the believer of God’s power and splendour, eg. as described in impressive detail of the construction of the Temple of Solomon in the first book of Kings. But clearly it’s not only in ancient Judaism, but faiths across the world and across history that have employed this symbolism.
The Christian church itself has had a complex relationship with gilding of places of worship. On my pilgrimage a couple of years ago, to the tomb of St James the Apostle, Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, I was surprised, even shocked to see that the entire interior of the Cathedral seemed to be dipped in the stuff. Whilst that may be an earthly visual representation of God’s glory and presence, I wonder whether it speaks fully of that glory, as lived out in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ; which has as much to do with service as status.
It seems perhaps not surprising that in today’s reading in Acts we find the disciples are still grappling with what glory means, after witnessing the death and resurrection. In Acts 1 vs6 the apostles still appear to be expecting a revolution that is as much political as spiritual. ‘Lord is this the time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel’.
But Jesus’ power is never purely concerned with earthly empires, rather the transformation of people, purpose and the very cosmos itself.
In John’s Gospel chapter 17 -the other reading for today- Jesus’ prayer says ‘I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do’.
By finishing the work that the Father gave Him to do; the work of living fully as a human and God: the redemptive work of the cross and resurrection. This is not simply a gilded statue to be honoured.
For those who know Great St Mary’s, you will be familiar with the striking Majestas, the wooden sculpture that sits above the high altar, adorned with gold leaf. But amongst all that golden splendour of the risen Christ in Majesty you will find the red wounds of His Passion. The true cost of that majesty and glory.
The Ascension and its associated glory is a difficult concept for us to grapple with. There is a danger of getting fixated on the physical permutations and machinations of the glory of being uplifted. Perhaps it is more helpful to think about it as a culmination of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, which all present a redeemed and transformed body of the risen Christ. And just as the kingdom that the apostles quiz Jesus about, is not primarily the political parameters of Rome, neither is the ascension about going up into the sky, but instead this is the stuff of the new creation; a new heaven and a new earth.
But that is all very well, what about the reality of the here and now of those disciples walking back into the city? It’s hard for us to imagine, the confusion and desolation they must have felt as Jesus was once again removed from their sight.
After the extraordinary roller coaster of emotions that they had been through, to lose Him and then for him to return only to lose Him again?……..
Perhaps our own current pandemic and its associated lockdown and physical isolation gives us a little insight into the disciples emotions. As we have in equal measure been thrown together or forced apart, we can empathise with the disciples returning to their quarters after Jesus’ ascension. ‘ When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.’
Huddled, but hardly socially distanced and yet very removed from what they had come to learn and love in the three years of Jesus’ ministry and friendship.
But after the clouds descended once more,and took Jesus from their sight they are bereft. Yet as is always the gospel message is one of hope. It never ends with loss and death or even obscurity of vision, that is never the final word. The two men in white, would appear to have witnessed Jesus’ ascension, as Luke tells us in vs 10 ‘why do you stare looking up towards heaven?’ ‘You will witness his return’. The implication is that they need not to look to heaven, but to return to earth and await the Holy Spirit. Indeed the last thing that Jesus says to them before removing himself is ‘I am not leaving you alone’.
To put it in simple terms those messengers are saying : you will no longer see him but you will feel Him and know Him.
Acts Vs 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Whilst they may feel abandoned now, he will shortly be filling them fully with His spirit. But ascension is not a pleasant floaty uplifting, nor is this glory for glory’s sake, because this glory is born out of a God of love.
So whilst it is good to keep our eyes on heaven and what is to come, our feet are planted firmly on the earth and we must descend from the mount of olives back into the valley of life with all its current added uncertainty and darkness.
Back to our lives in any way that we currently can. Whether physically or on zoom, to the office, to the marketplace, the school and the hospital and care home. To be church in new ways and old, to serve God’s people and shine with His glory