Clouds – a mysterious symbol of God’s nearness

Peter Seal, 2 June 2019

Acts 1: 1–11; Luke 24: 44–53

It’s really good to be able to celebrate the Ascension of our Lord today, on the Sunday nearest to Ascension Day, which was last Thursday. The feast of the Ascension comes 40 days after Easter Sunday. During these Easter weeks we have been celebrating the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

We heard from our first reading, ‘After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing truths, appearing to them over the course of 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God’.

Jesus continued, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you’. In today’s gospel St Luke writes, ‘Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’. We wait for that power, which is given to us afresh at Pentecost, next Sunday.

Jesus’ earthly ministry is complete. Today we celebrate his return to God, where he takes his honoured place at God’s right hand. Everything has been done that could be done. Jesus’ victory over sin and death is utterly convincing and decisive. Nothing can take away the experience of the living Lord Jesus, either for those first disciples, or for us.

Today we celebrate Jesus’ return to God. Nothing can take away the experience of the living Lord Jesus, either for those first disciples, or for us.

When we are hurting, for whatever reason, it can help to remember that Jesus, through his humanity, has identified with every possible experience – that is, with absolutely everything that you, or I, or anyone, ever has to face.

The 16th-century mystic Teresa of Avila had the words of this prayer on her bookmark:

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.

Today we celebrate God’s changelessness – his eternal presence, in what we call heaven, where he lives and reigns with our Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.

I’m reminded of the wonderful prayer (from ‘A Hymn of the Nativity’ by Richard Crashaw, c. 1613–1649) that is used at the Christmas Midnight Eucharist: ‘Great little one, whose all-embracing birth lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth’. With the majestic, victorious, all-embracing majesty of the Ascension, shimmering in light and beauty all around us, Jesus returns to his Father.

Let’s come back to earth for a moment and take a close look at our readings. From St Luke’s gospel we heard, ‘While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven’. This feels like a clear day, with a bright sky. But rather unfortunately it tends to make us picture Jesus suddenly rising up from the earth, as some have described, a bit like an early space rocket – with all the problems of understanding where he went to which that picture gives us.

I want to focus on some words in today’s first reading in the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke. We heard that, with his disciples looking on, Jesus ‘was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight’. So no longer is it suggested that the Lord shot up into the firmament. No; ‘a cloud took him’.

In the Bible, a cloud is not just something to do with the weather. In the Book of Exodus (13: 21) we hear how, when the Israelites walked out of Egypt, ‘The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day’. The cloud was a sign that God was in their midst.

When Moses scaled Sinai to stand before God, the Lord descended in a cloud. Similarly, it was in a cloud that, later, he filled the tent of meeting with his presence. The cloud becomes an established symbol of God’s nearness.

And then we see what happens when the temple in Jerusalem is finished, the building work all done. We see how a building becomes a holy space, a sanctuary. At the moment of dedication, ‘The house of the Lord was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God’ (2 Chronicles 5: 13–14). So, the cloud is glory; the glory is presence. It tells us that the Lord, the Father of all, is there.

Seen in this way, the Ascension story is not only less perplexing; it is much more attractive and mysterious. The conclusion of Christ’s ministry turns out to be continuous with a long history of divine self-revelation. It is, if you like, a moment of Epiphany.

In terms of Christ’s life (you could say, his career), the Ascension cloud recalls the cloud that covered the Mount of Transfiguration, from which the Father’s voice announced, “This is my beloved Son’ (Luke 9: 35). The message of the Ascension is not that Christ vanishes beyond earth’s orbit, but that he enters the Father’s glory, which is set to fill the earth (Numbers 14.21). The Ascension is a preparation for the glory of eternity.

The message of the Ascension is not that Christ vanishes beyond earth’s orbit, but that he enters the Father’s glory, which is set to fill the earth.

‘So what?!’ you may well be thinking. Well, quite simply: when low cloud, as it were, means we can’t see very well; when we can’t make sense of life, simply don’t understand what’s happening to us, our loved ones or our world … well, we can remember and take comfort from the fact that, in our Bible, cloud signifies God’s presence, rather than his absence.

We tend to prefer the long view of a sunset, beautiful as they can be; but clouds speak to us of mystery, of not knowing, of not understanding, of the need to have faith and trust. And then we discover God is very close indeed.