Ivan Khovacs asks what Jesus wears from his earthly life into his heavenly home?
They say the past is a foreign country. How often does it happen that you swipe or flip through old photographs, ten, twenty, thirty years old, and the people you see, you barely recognise for their younger selves? And you think, where has the time gone? But immediately the next question is, did we really go around looking like that? It’s useless to distance ourselves from the fashions, to disown the colours, the hairstyles, to foreswear the stances and the mannered poses of earlier years. We do it anyway, hardly thinking that ten, fifteen years from now, we will, yet again, look drab, the opposite of colour-coordinated, and unfashionable to ourselves.
There must be practical wisdom in the plain frocks, the black shirts, the saffron robes that people in religious life will favour: the brown habit Franciscan monks wear, cinched by a simple rope knotted in three places, hasn’t much changed since the 13th century. Inner dispositions of poverty, chastity and obedience remain unchanged throughout a monk’s life (hence the three knots), and so does their outer attire. We are in the Feast of Ascension: what does Jesus wear from his earthly life into his heavenly home?
How about dirt, soil, dust on his feet.
The Ascension of Christ (1958), Salvador Dali.
Every so often, you find a painting of Christ’s ascension, sometimes on a high point on a church ceiling, it might be a cloud and Jesus’s still-visible feet. It is an attempt to depict something of the dynamic uplift in the passage in Luke’s Gospel:
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy…”
There is a painting I always think about around Ascension Day. It is in a church in Kent, a fresco contoured around the peak of a pointed arch showing Jesus in foreshortened perspective—it is as if his body is caught mid-flight by a snapshot taken from below. We see Jesus’ head just about to break through thick clouds set against a bright blue sky above Jerusalem. We are meant to see, not his head, set furthest away from our view, but his feet, bronzed by the sun and smudged by soil. What is this trying to say to us?
Art depicting Jesus in Ascension, here, showing Jesus’ feet, and his footprints left below.
In his poem, God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins writes
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Hopkins is speaking of nature, of a long-suffering earth, bearing the weight of the human race, the decay of our sin against one another and the planet. In the painting of the ascension in that great church in Kent, it is Christ who wears our smudge and shares our smell, whose feet are bare and smeared by soil.
* * *
I was speaking recently to a gardener in our congregation, who explained to me soil freshly nourished, turned, and made ready to bed-in and germinate seeds: “You take the soil in your hands, it smells so clean, and healing, and living,” I was told.
Frida Kahlo (1953), Naturaleza Viva
The description reminded me of depictions of heaven in C.S. Lewis’ visionary novel The Great Divorce (1945). Lewis envisions human bodies getting the hang of their treading on heavenly soil. In fact, part of this getting used to is realising that heaven is no aeriform, ethereal, unearthly place. People in heaven find themselves taking baby steps on fresh, unblemished, living soil: the familiar has been made strange. It’s just as John the Evangelist wrote, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”
C.S. Lewis, “Strong feet sank into the wet turf.”
In Lewis’s novel, people feel their way around this new heaven and new earth, they experience their new bodies, new flesh specially fitted to tread soil which is both like and unlike soil as we know it. The narrator notes that “fellow-passengers” (they reach heaven, you see, aboard an omnibus) have to “walk forward into the landscape with hesitating steps” because not only bodies but also soil and grasses, bogs and watery estuaries, in their turn, have themselves been specially prepared to bed-in and germinate eternal purpose:
“I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet: even the dew drops were undisturbed. … It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country. … Mile after mile they drew nearer. The earth shook under their tread as their strong feet sank into the wet turf. A tiny haze and sweet smell went up where they had crushed the grass and scattered the dew.”
Easter, the season of Christ’s resurrection, is a celebration of God’s unstoppable love piercing the hardness of an earthly tomb, it is the inbreaking of God’s grace on this earth.
But Christ’s ascension completes the movement, loops back again, bends earth’s horizon towards its maker, rims the heavens with shades of earthly soil. Isn’t Ascension, then, yet another way, yes, another way of saying that Jesus, God among us, remains as one with us, is always for us, and in heaven goes before us, in joy as in toil?