6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” - Acts 1:6-12 ESV
Forty days after Christ’s resurrection, He was taken up into the Heavens before the disciples, and so forty days after Easter, is the Feast of the Ascension. This is the third event in the cycle of crucifixion-resurrection-ascension in which our Lord’s life on earth culminates with his being raised to live and reign gloriously with God forever.
One of the first things I notice about this ancient icon is the mandorla, a symbol used to express Christ’s majesty, glory, and divinity in holy icons. It is found surrounding Jesus Christ in icons of his Resurrection, Transfiguration, Ascension, and Enthronement in Glory.
Mandorla is the Italian word for “almond”, and describes the most common shape of this symbol, though circular (as above) or star shaped mandorlas are also seen. This shape is also known by the name “vesica piscis” which is latin for ‘fish bladder’ based on the oval shape made when two circles approach and overlap one another. The shape may change, but the message proclaimed is related across all of them.
We associate this shape with Jesus Christ who unites the Heavenly and earthly spheres.
The almond tree is the first plant to flower in Greece and is a symbol of new life. It is also associated with Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his rod for leadership. His staff not only blossomed forth with flowers, but almonds (Numbers 17:8). His line was selected for the priestly leadership of worship for the whole people of God, and his staff was one of three items placed within the ark of the covenant. Our Lord ascended in a cloud on high, symbolizing the rising smoke of an acceptable sacrifice. Fruitful and effective ministry, as the culmination of the promise of God.
This mandorla shape suggests to us that Christ is the one who unites heaven and earth, spheres separated by sin & death, now reconciled in the: incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. His Ascension means Christ is heading back to the throne room of his kingdom. The worshippers of Revelation see him seated there, on his throne, still bearing the marks of his suffering passion on behalf of the creation he loves, but no longer bleeding. He will forever be known by these wounds. His wounded flesh is forever associated with the story of God reconciling the world to himself through Jesus…and Jesus became incarnate. God assumes bodily form in the person and work of Jesus.
The ascension proclaims another beautiful truth. This God, who took on flesh in the incarnation, ascended in bodily form and takes humanity forever into the person and work of God into his throne room. Christians can’t tell the story of God’s saving work without the incarnation and bodily ascension. I mean we could, it just wouldn’t be faithful to the story of Jesus.
What does this mean for us, here, now?
The Kingdom that is promised in Christ has begun. The future has arrived! Pastor Brian Zahnd said on twitter yesterday, that “The baptistery is a time machine, we are from the future”. Friend and colleague Rev. Jason Micheli said it this way, “Ascension Day is a good time for Christians to remember that Christ is already Lord of a Kingdom where guns have been turned into gardening tools [Isaiah 2:4]. After all, we’ve been baptized to live that tomorrow today.”
As we gaze toward the Christ amidst the mandorla, we notice rays of intensity moving from light to dark. This is because the further we peer into the mystery, the greater we come to know God in Jesus, an intimacy that trusts and feels familiar, and yet, never arrives at the place of explanation or full comprehension. God and God’s grace can be known and still remain a mystery because God is not another object in the universe to study and probe under a microscope, God is the author, redeemer and sustainer of this very creation.
Ascension proclaims at least two great truths: God has raised humanity into the Kingdom where heaven and earth are reconciled and made new; without sin. Our mortal bodies, as human creatures enjoy the forgiveness of sin and the promise of resurrection from the dead, because Jesus Christ is the first fruits of the end God has in mind. The other truth, at the very least, is this Kingdom has already begun and Christ is making all things new. We don’t have to be anxious about the future, Christ has won the victory. We are called to believe it and respond in light of this reality in joyful obedience today.