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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Ascension 05/25/2017

Every Sunday in the creed, Apostles’ or Nicene, we confess to the truth of Jesus’ ascension: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  Every year then, 40 days after Easter, always on a Thursday, we celebrate this feast of the church, one of the six Principal Festivals on our calendar.  The lessons are the same every year, the central ones being the closing verses of Luke’s gospel and the opening verses of Acts which is Luke’s second volume.  

We’re Lutherans so we’re a sola scriptura people, scripture alone, but you know I like icons and the icons that represent the events of Jesus life are always interesting.  So, on your bulletin cover is the Icon of the Ascension, in color and everything.  I talked about this icon at one other Ascension Day service quite a few years ago but I’ve learned a little more since then so I thought tonight I would talk about it again, another lesson in iconography. 

With most icons they date back to the early years of the church and the basic pattern for most of them hasn’t changed very much.  Iconographers are different from other artists in that they are not trying to be creative or innovative, they’re not trying to come up with a new interpretation.  The patterns for icons more or less became canonized and the task through the centuries has been to be faithful to the image the tradition has handed down. Relative to the Ascension, one of the earliest icons dates back to the sixth century and it looks very much like the one on your bulletin cover.

 One of the things that makes icons interesting is that they don’t just represent a straight retelling of the story, they aren’t based on scripture alone.  The earliest iconographers did use their imagination to not just tell the story but to also convey some of the theological meaning of it.  Sometimes that meant including characters who don’t seem to belong and there are a couple of those in this icon.  Before that though, with the icon of the Ascension, the first thing you might notice is that although it’s a Jesus event, Jesus is not the largest or the most central figure in this icon.  Obviously he’s central to the story, but in the icon there is more going on. 

Jesus is up at the top but he’s portrayed differently than described in the biblical account.  In Luke and Acts it simply says that he was lifted into heaven and disappeared behind a cloud and there are lots of paintings where that’s just what is shown.  In the icon though, Christ is seen in glory, arrayed in golden robes, surrounded by a circle of light with angels on either side seeming to escort him.

It’s actually very similar to the way Christ is depicted in the icon of the second coming which is on the back of your bulletin.  That icon is based on the text from Revelation that says, “At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne with one seated on the throne!  And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.”  The reason that the Ascension image of Christ and the Second Coming image of Christ are so similar is because of what it says in the Acts reading for tonight: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  The two icons then depict Jesus “in the same way,” as the text says.

The largest and most central figure in the icon though, is Mary.  But…there is no mention of Mary witnessing the Ascension in any of the biblical texts.  As I said though, the Orthodox Church is not about scripture alone.  They draw from tradition as well and one of the early texts used in the liturgy says, “Rejoice, Thou Mother of Christ our God, seeing with the apostles Him whom thou didst engender ascending to heaven and glorifying Him.”  So, based on that and based on her importance in the Orthodox Church, Mary is portrayed in the center with angels alongside and surrounded by the apostles gathered on the Mount of Olives, note the olive trees in the background.

Mary’s posture contrasted with that of the surrounding apostles is also significant highlighting as it does a distinction between heavenly peace and worldly confusion.  Mary’s hands are raised gracefully in a position of prayer and, rather than looking up confused by what’s going on, she is peacefully looking forward, looking at us.  Her posture suggests that she understands the mysteries of her son’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension.  She is living in hope and sharing in the divine peace of Jesus and the angels.

The apostles on the other hand, are looking up in fear and wonder and though it’s hard to see, their arms are pointing and waving in different directions somewhat like the olive trees behind them.  They are still stuck in worldly confusion concerning what has happened, what is happening and what comes next.  Also significant is the fact that Jesus, Mary and the angels all have halos that indicate that they already share in God’s divine grace and glory.  The apostles do not.

Just as Mary is not mentioned in the biblical accounts but still appears in the icon, the same is true of Paul.  He is in front of the group on the left as you look at the icon.  Paul, of course, wouldn’t have been there.  He didn’t become a follower until later.  What the icon is also intended to symbolically show though, is the church and with that, Paul is a key figure, perhaps the key figure in the formation of the early church.  Again, the icon is intended to convey theological meaning as well as recalling the story.  At this point though, apart from the peaceful prayer of Mary, there is a degree of confusion and uncertainty depicted in this early gathering of the church due to the departure and absence of Christ along with the fact that the Holy Spirit has not yet arrived to guide them. 

If you look at the icon of Pentecost, also on the back of the bulletin,  you see the same group of characters, again representing the church, but due to the presence of the Holy Spirit, things are more orderly, everyone seated and more at peace, and…the apostles now have halos; the arrival of the Holy Spirit has changed them.  In the world of iconography, these contrasts and changes are intentional.  The gift of the Holy Spirit makes a difference. 

The Ascension and Pentecost which we celebrate in ten days, are in large degree about the church and these icons help us to consider the church today and with that to consider our role.  In that respect, things haven’t changed: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  That was the mission and it continues to be the mission.  Contemplation of the icons can be part of the prayer that grounds us and empowers us but from there we, along with those early apostles, witness to Jesus in words and actions, to the ends of the earth.     

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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