Ascension Day 2020
The Right Rev. Brian L. Cole
Andrei Rublev is arguably the most famous Russian icon painter ever. An Orthodox monk, he lived during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. His most famous icon, the Hospitality of Abraham, depicts three individuals seated around an altar. We think of it as an image of the Trinity, while also aware it depicts the strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah.
Icons are more common in the Eastern Church than in the West and are visual representations of the Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. These images are intended to be doorways into prayer.
Once the icon image is completed, you have a flat wooden surface with a visual depiction of a saint, the Christ, the Virgin or a biblical scene. But, don’t be fooled. It is not a flat image. There are layers upon layers of story found in the visual and those images “say” more than we can describe with words.
So, it is fitting that Andrei Rublev took a vow of silence upon becoming a monk and remained mostly silent the rest of his life. He did not speak with words. Instead, he confessed his belief in the Word, the Christ, through paint and brush stroke, through holy and eternal scenes captured on the ordinary and temporal surface.
In 1408, Andrei Rublev was sent to a Russian cathedral in order to make new icons for the holy spaces there. One of the icons completed at that time was an icon of the Ascension. The Ascension, a story from the life of the Risen Jesus, mentioned in our creeds and in our Eucharistic prayers—this story of the Risen Jesus ascending into heaven was given to the monk as the latest image to depict.
Now, for a moment, let’s say it is not 1408 in Russia, but rather here and now and you are the monk, the silent one with the brush and the paints and the empty wooden surface before you. At the top of the work order is the task before you—ASCENSION OF JESUS. You can use any colors you wish, but when you are done, the folks are expecting to see the Ascension.
So, what do you create? What scene comes to you, with the paint and the prayerful gaze? How many are present with Jesus? Has he launched yet? Are there clouds encircling him? Is the crowd left behind one given to shouts of alleluia or is it an angry mob feeling abandoned by the Risen Teacher?
Andrei Rublev took a vow of silence. He did not leave his witness to us in words. He left his witness with paint, with a confessing image. And he left no written commentary about his icons. But we remember him still, over 600 years past, because of the prayerful images he left.
Rublev’s icon of the Ascension has a few things you would expect. Jesus is at the top of the icon, lifted above the earth. He is surrounded by a sacred circle, known as a mandorla, and heavenly beings attend to him.
At the bottom of the icon, the apostles are present. That is to be expected. Most of them are looking up, with hands raised, reaching up towards Jesus. It is not possible to determine if their hands are raised upwards in order to grasp the ascending Jesus or simply to give thanks, to cry out, to bid farewell to the One who promises to send the Spirit upon them.
What is remarkable, and possibly unexpected, about Rublev’s Ascension icon is what you find in the middle of the icon. In the center of the icon is a woman. It is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is in the center of the painted image, with apostles standing on either side of her. Most of the apostles are staring up towards Jesus. But a few of those apostles are not looking up but rather are looking at Mary.
Now, to be honest, there is no specific reference to Mary’s presence at the Ascension, neither in the account given in the Acts of the Apostles or from St. Luke’s Gospel. Somewhere, a radio preacher might be thinking, “That ain’t Bible and I ain’t listening…”
Rublev, however, does not simply place Mary in the Ascension icon, sneaking her in on the side, as a face in the crowd, lost in a sea of apostles and the Resurrection community. He places her in the center of the icon. She is not looking up to heaven, acknowledging Jesus’ ascension into the clouds. Rather, she is looking at Rublev, looking at the one who will look upon the icon. If you want to comprehend the Ascension, it might be wise, then, to study Mary’s presence for a time.
It is worth recalling Mary’s presence throughout the story of Jesus given to us in the Gospel accounts. She is the young girl, present for the Announcing Angel. Inside of Mary, God’s love and reconciliation for all will grow.
She will give birth to Jesus, surrounded by the lowly and the forgotten. She will be present at his first miracle, calling out for his first sign and inviting all to listen to her son.
She will be present at the cross, when others have abandoned her son. She will be found in the community that gathers in the Resurrection, desiring to hold her son again, no longer dead, made alive again, fulfilling the promise for which Mary once sang in the company of her cousin, Elizabeth.
So, it makes sense, it makes Gospel sense, that Mary would be present for the Ascension. As her son goes to reign in glory, Mary, who has been faithful throughout the story of Jesus, is faithful now. In her faithfulness, she teaches us how to live now, how to listen and respond to this Ascension image.
She stands in the middle of Rublev’s icon and she is in a prayerful posture, a posture of waiting, a posture of anticipation.
While she waits, do not confuse her waiting with passivity. She waits with anticipation that the Spirit which descended upon her at the Annunciation, will now descend upon all in the days ahead.
The woman who first carried the Incarnation alone in her body now stands in the center of a community called to carry the Incarnation together. The solitary woman stands at the center of an apostolic community that will one day be countless in its number.
The community of the Incarnation, of the teachings of Jesus, of the cross of nonviolent love, of the empty tomb, of the Resurrected Body, of the Ascended One, will soon be transformed into the Spirited Church. Mary, who first held the Incarnation inside of her body, will now invite the Church to hold the Incarnation inside of our bodies.
At the wedding at Cana, Mary tells the gathered crowd to listen to her son. If we listen to Jesus at the time of his ascension, we hear an invitation to return to the city, to the place where we live, to wait for the Spirit that is to come, to be prepared to receive the blessing of the Ascended Christ upon our lives, here and now, now and forever.
Mary’s presence in Rublev’s icon helps integrate what the Church believes about Incarnation and Resurrection and Ascension. They are not offered to us in isolation, with an invitation to choose your favorite portion of the Jesus story.
In the Incarnation, we believe the holy and divine, in humble submission, entered the human story. In the Resurrection, we believe that the divine and the human, together, overcame the disordered and demonic attempts to shout down and to kill God’s love for us. In the Ascension, we believe that the human has been given a place in God’s life in glory.
While the apostles captured in Rublev’s icon look in every direction, up to heaven, at each other in wonderment and doubt, over to Mary, waiting with the one who knows how to wait and to receive—the Ascendant Jesus and Mary , found in the center, both look ahead, at us, at the writer of the icon, sitting in prayer, waiting for illumination and understanding.
It is easy to feel abandoned upon hearing the Ascension story. Who wouldn’t want Jesus to stay, to keep on teaching, healing?
But he has not abandoned us in the Ascension. The minds of the apostolic community have been opened by Jesus. They remember his promise to be present with them, now and always. What they have seen and heard and touched in his life, will now be true in theirs, too.
At the center of that community, Mary remains. The young girl who first carried the Incarnation in her body, will now teach the apostles how to carry Jesus in theirs.
It will not be easy. I have heard it said that the best jazz is always on the verge of falling apart. So much of the early church’s life together will be like the best jazz, with a simple tune that goes on and on, with musicians learning to trust each other and improvise with each other and to flesh out this believing in the One who was and is and is to come, together.
Like the best jazz, there will still be moments when it will feel as if it is falling apart. In this time of COVID 19, it feels as all we have known is falling apart. Yet, even in this time, the Ascending Christ has not abandoned us. The Spirit will descend upon us again.
And the center will hold. Christ is the center. And in this Ascension story, Christ has not left us. His mother stands in the center, too. She will teach us how to wait, how to listen, how to lead.
She remains a door. We are all invited in.