At the front of the sanctuary of our church is a large wooden statue of the Ascension. Because it is so contemporary, it is jarring at first. Well, I found it jarring. Others, including Philip, have found it downright ugly. But before long, for better or for worse, it becomes familiar and even comforting—perhaps not unlike Jesus himself. I have grown to love it
, although I don’t know much about art, least of all contemporary art.
When I look at it, I am not quite sure what I am seeing. But I take as my guiding principle something from a lecture by Annemarie Weyl Carr about Byzantine icons, a lecture I recently heard at a conference where I was posing as a medievalist. She told us that the impulse when meeting icons is to run to the nearest book so that we might understand what is before us by circumscribing each figure with a dull halo of expertise. “You know more than you think you do,” she said. “Just look.”
This is also what Rowan Williams says about the gospel of Mark: “Comparisons, parables, are Jesus’ way of saying to the people listening: you know more than you realize about God; but the trouble is that you look and look, and you don’t see, you listen and listen and you don’t understand. But there it is, could you but grasp it.”* How to look and see, listen and understand, encounter and grasp—this, it would seem, is a central problem of the Christian life. It is certainly a central problem of my Christian life.
The statue had been covered—first with purple for Lent, then with red for Holy Week—since Ash Wednesday. Saturday evening, at the Great Vigil of Easter, our priest drew attention in his homily to the statue, now unveiled—unveiled, like the Holy of Holies, like the presence of God, like the very heartbeat of creation. Our priest said that the statue’s overlarge hands and feet often elicit comment—especially from grumbling wedding photographers, who call the church the “Bigfoot Jesus church”—but that the hands represent the work to which we have been called and the feet the places to which we must bring the gospel.
But I see something else in the statue. I didn’t realize that it was the ascension at first (because I looking and not seeing). I thought it was a cross-less crucifix. Perhaps this is because there is an enormous crown of thorns hanging from the ceiling in front of the statue (as I said, it is a jarring sight). Jesus’ posture is very much like the crucifixion, or at least the crucifixions like Valazquez’s, where Jesus is not tortured, slouched, and wrangled, but almost standing, almost holding up his arms in victory. In these depictions of the passion, there is quiet strength in his passivity, there is meekness. In the statue at our church, Jesus’ feet could very well be nailed to an invisible cross, and if his hands were just inches higher, they could be too. In recent months, I’ve thought that the statue is saying to us, “In the ascension is the crucifixion. This is the cost of being brought from death into life.“
His outstretched hands convey the double meaning of the Eucharist perfectly. “Come to me; I will feed you. Go out from here; feed others.”
Saturday evening, at the Great Vigil of Easter, Philip and I took our places quietly. We were earlier than usual, and I was getting a bit restless, waiting for the service to start. I noticed that the Jesus statue was uncovered, and I was glad to see him again.
Then a family entered, a family I always look forward to seeing. They have two daughters with special needs, and one of them gets excited every time she sees Philip from across the sanctuary, often mouthing “I love you!” to him. We don’t know why she has chosen Philip; it is mysterious, and, like all mysteries, beautiful. She entered the sanctuary and stopped before the unveiled Jesus. She stood there for a full five minutes, staring at it. Her mother was quietly pleading with her to sit down, but she would not move. In fact, our kind and gracious priest had to walk around her to get to the altar. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, take her eyes away.
She looked and saw. It was there and she grasped it. It was all that mattered.
*Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent, 41.