Images: Velvet Painting: Ascension, by Lynn Aldrich, 2015, courtesy of the artist, © Lynn Aldrich; Velvet, velveteen, plastic, wood, 49 x 37 x 3 inches, Ahmanson Family Collection
7 Jesus said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Longing, Leaving and Ascending: What's the difference?
Ascension Day marks the 40th day of Easter and celebrates the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ into Heaven. Historical representational images such as The Reidersche Tafel c 400 AD combines the Gospel accounts of the women meeting the risen Christ at His tomb and the disciples watching Jesus rising into Heaven 40 days later.
In this way, Jesus’s words to the women, “Don’t keep holding onto me,” also extends to His disciples in this scene. They did not want him to go. Jesus was with them 40 days after His resurrection, why not stay another 40? Better yet, why not 40 years? Or 400?
When you love someone, how much time is enough?
Even angels had to break up their searching for one last glimpse of Him with the question and reminder: “Why are you standing here looking at the sky? Believe Him. He will return.”
Although Christmas and Easter Sunday are popular celebrations, it is less clear to many the importance of the resurrected Christ’s bodily ascension into Heaven.
After spending 40 days after His resurrection authenticating His authority and testimony, Jesus does not remain with His disciples, but He does not simply leave or vanish either. The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that Jesus’s ascension is the final act of the salvific event. (See Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:1-11)
The book of Hebrews goes into detail how Jesus’s ascension is the crowning achievement of His ministry. It confirmed His task to establish a better revelation, promise, sacrifice, covenant, and priesthood and hope than the world had ever known.
Further, the Son of God had to enter Heaven both for us and receive His reward from God the Father. Jesus enters as our High Priest into God’s HOLY Presence. This place is known as the Holy of Holies, which was foreshadowed in the Old Testament’s tabernacle and temple. It was veiled, hidden from everyone except during Passover, when the high priest came into God's Presence offering a sacrifice as atonement for the sins of the people. Now in Heaven, Jesus is exalted above all and sits at God's right hand. The Gospel is plain that our hope is in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ through His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.
Today, like Jesus's disciples on that glorious day when tears were mixed with grief and joy, Christians do not celebrate Jesus’s leaving but His ascension even as we hope for His return.
The Light of the Gospel
Scripture and classic images tell the ascension story plain, yet God provides endless conversations in art. As I reflect on death and the grief many of us have experienced this year, I see another way to look for Jesus with the work Velvet Painting: Ascension, an abstraction on light by Lynn Aldrich.
Lynn Aldrich is a contemporary American artist who chooses simple, everyday objects and transforms their purpose to explore ideas about life, humanity and God. Her sculptures, installations and wall art range between playful or serious conversations, always through the lens of her Christian faith.
Aldrich's Velvet Painting: Ascension was originally part of her solo exhibition in 2015 titled "More Light Than Heat" at Edward Cella Art+Architecture, Los Angeles, and "refers to light as knowledge, insight, and revelation."
In her artist statement, Aldrich writes, "This work is from a series of “paintings” constructed by adhering velvet strips to a wood panel. After shopping in the Los Angeles Fabric District, I edit and arrange the colors on the studio floor to form a “palette”. Pieces are then cut to fit on tiny “shelves”, with shades and hues slowly moving upward from darkest to palest."
When I look at Velvet Painting: Ascension, several images in Scripture flood my mind. There are literally layers of meaning in this "painting of light" built with velvet and wood, which are materials common to clothing, tapestries, curtains, and buildings.
In 1 Corinthians 15:51-58, and 2 Corinthians 5: 1-9, the apostle Paul compares our earthly bodies as tents just like the tabernacle in the Old Testament foreshadowed Heaven. Yet now that death is not something to fear, believers long to be clothed with our heavenly clothes, an eternal, glorious dwelling that is filled with LIGHT and LIFE.
Other images include darkness, the Light of the Gospel, and the veil of unbelief found in 2 Corinthians 4:1-18:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
In another image found in Hebrews 1:10-12, the writer compares the universe like a robe that will be changed:
“In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”
As I gaze at this crescendo of light, I recall other works of art that address loss or death yet offer little or at most, an ambiguous hope. Yet Ascension complicates our darkest sorrow. The soul who belongs to Jesus labors under suffering with the weight of glory. (2 Cor. 4:7)
The Great Questioner & Hope: Ravi Zacharias (March 26, 1946 – May 19, 2020)
Since I learned of his cancer a couple weeks ago, I dreaded Ravi’s death. My grief is shared by many likewise shaped by his messages, life, and apologetics ministry. I am so grateful that I spoke with him on two occasions and I shared his influence on my life and thinking since I was a teenager driving to high school in the mornings listening to his radio program, Let My People Think in my little silver ford tempo. His work to help the believer think and the skeptic believe were foundational to my walk. I learned to think with faith, not just about faith.
Ravi was one of the key reasons I went to seminary for an MDiv in Apologetics. While he was an exceptional thinker and dismantled arguments against Christianity, Ravi's greatest influence on me was his authentic loving kindness for each soul who stood before him, whether an angry or mocking skeptic or a seminary student needing a word of encouragement.
Ravi preached the Gospel all over the world and became one the greatest evangelists of the 21st century. He effectively defended the exclusive truth claims of Christianity in conversations with popular atheists and other religious leaders.
Yet Ravi never desired to win an argument but only to show the power and beauty of the Gospel to the questioner. In this, he faithfully exemplified what he taught: that apologetics is about ministering to the questioner or skeptic, listening, and responding compassionately to the individual’s heart.
Despite his fatigue with travel, debilitating pain and suffering, Ravi lived with integrity and love. In Jesus's footsteps, he was a light and loved well. Although I grieve, I know he received his joyful reward from the Lord who he loved most of all: "Well done thy good and faithful servant, come and receive your reward."
In John 14:19, Jesus promises, “Because I live, you also will live.” These words had the power to save a suicidal 17-year-old in a hospital in India 2,000 years after His Ascension. And today, Ravi is more gloriously alive than ever before. Finally, he is clothed with Heaven.
Hymn reflection: Chris Tomlin, “Take My Life”
Take my intellect and use Every power as You choose. Here am I, all of me. Take my life, it's all for Thee. Take my will and make it Thine It shall be no longer mine. Take my heart it is Thine own It shall be Thy royal throne. Take my love, my Lord I pour At Your feet its treasure store Take myself and I will be Ever, only, all for Thee. Take myself and I will be Ever, only, all for Thee.