As I have been reflecting on the readings for this Sunday, something suddenly burst forth in my mind when I read the following passage from the Acts of the Apostles:
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
I don’t know about you, but I know that when I have read this in the past, I have always thought of some white fluffy cloud either taking Jesus out of sight, or Jesus being lifted up on some fluffy cloud. Don’t ask me why, but I think part of it is because we only tend to think of clouds that way. So, when we see the word, we immediately associate that concept of the cloud to the passage.
Yet, what hit me was that, perhaps my concept of cloud is not what is meant in this passage. You see, the image of the cloud has a rich history both in the Old Testament and in the Gospels. This site has a good overview of the various passages in Scripture that use the image of the cloud.
The images that use a cloud, however, that were most prominent in my mind were the image of the cloud that descended on Mt Sinai and the Mount of the Transfiguration. In Exodus 19:19, the Lord God says to Moses that he will descend upon him in a thick cloud. In Luke’s Gospel, we find that a cloud overshadowed Jesus and the disciples, with a voice speaking from the midst of the cloud “this is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”
Thus, when I heard the reading from Acts, it dawned upon me that the cloud by which Jesus disappears is not a cloud as we understand it. It is the cloud of the presence of God: the Father has come to bring the Son back to His rightful place in Heaven.
The descent of the cloud is a sign of the presence of God. It is a mysterious cloud. Many Church Fathers see the cloud, for example, as the mysterious presence of God, a presence that creates a darkness in the minds, for we are unable to comprehend God. It is a sign of God, too, enacting a new promise with His chosen people.
The cloud “took Jesus from their sight”. It does say that Jesus was taken up, and we do call it the Ascension. Yet we cannot look at it in spatial terms. We must look, rather, at the Ascension as Jesus’ ascent to His throne in Heaven, which is not a spatial event, but rather relational and greater than the three dimensional world we live in. Jesus was taken from the sight of the disciples in the clouds. What was clear has now passed over into the liturgical, scriptural, and sacramental life of the Church (what St Leo the Great calls the Mysteries). Jesus is removed from our sight, but not from our hearts. What was seen, is now seen by faith. What was known through the senses is now known by the soul. What was heard from the lips of Jesus now comes to us through the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. The cloud darkens the heart because it is lifting the heart of the disciples into a more intense, more intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that is realized at Pentacost. The darkness of the cloud is really the light of faith acting in our lives.
When you then begin to think about it, you begin to realize that the darkness that is experienced in faith (not the darkness of suffering, but the darkness of insight, the darkness of not being able to grasp God and His inner life) is really only the start of the spiritual life. Just as the disciples receive this darkness just prior to their mission of preaching, so we as disciples of Jesus, through the darkness of not seeing Jesus in our prayer, in our inability to grasp God despite our intense desire to do so is not an abomination of faith, but rather the fulfillment of faith. We see that we are not on the wrong path, but on the right path, because we become purified, like the disciples. Just as they mistakingly looked up and were corrected by the angels, so too does God correct us in our darkness about our desire to grasp Him. Our darkness reminds us that we are unable to grasp God, and once we accept that in our lives we are able to receive the Holy Spirit fully in our hearts, thus being able to be moved to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world.
As we can see, the event of the Ascension is very important to us as Christians.