Acts 1.1-11; Daniel 7.9-14; Luke 24.44-53
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away, Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon; Nor doth He by ascending show alone, But first He, and He first enters the way.
John Donne, in his poem ‘Ascension’ focuses in part on the cloud. Clouds are beautiful things, welcome when you’re praying for rain, not so welcome when you’re enjoying the sunshine and all of a sudden they bubble up as if from nowhere and obscure the sun and threaten to rain on your sunny day.
As we woke on Tuesday morning to the terrible news from Manchester, a modern day slaughter of the innocents, it was as if a cloud descended, the gloom of yet another atrocity and this one unbelievable in its cruelty, terrible in its consequences for young lives and loving families. The dark cloud descended, the cloud of unknowing, to misuse the phrase coined by the mediaeval writer, a 14th century English mystic, whose name we don’t know, who wrote
That which is between you and your God is termed, not a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing.
Luke tells us that ‘a cloud took [Jesus] out of their sight’. This was the experience for them of the ascension. They entered that experience of the cloud descending and the not knowing enveloping them. For three of them, Peter, James and John this was not unfamiliar territory. They’d been here before but on another mountain. On that occasion the cloud descended to cover a scene of transfiguration, when brightness had illuminated the nature of God as seen in Jesus and then from the cloud emerged the Jesus they knew. It was a powerful moment of revelation even if at that time they didn’t properly understand what’d happened.
But what they did know was that this was how God often chose to reveal the divine presence, on the holy mountain, in the pillar of cloud that moved with the Israelites in their wandering, in the cloud which filled the tabernacle. And they had a word for it, Shekinah, a word that means the indwelling, divine presence of God which was so often manifested in cloud.
On Tuesday a cloud descended as we realised what’d happened, that cloud of not knowing, not understanding, that dark cloud that Donne describes. But the ascension, this fortieth day feast that we celebrate today, reminds us that Jesus enters, treads upon that cloud, lightening it. The cloud is not about the absence of God but the complete reverse, it denotes the indwelling of God, not absence from our lives but intimate presence, the imminence of God who is never absent, even when a cloud seems to separate us.
In the Gospel for today, Luke tells us that Jesus says
‘See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’
Jesus draws us into the cloud, promises to clothe us with power, with presence from on high. But in order that that may happen he asks us to stay ‘sedete in civitate’ as St Jerome translated it in the Vulgate, to sit, to remain in the city, to indwell it as God does in his ever-brooding presence. We do that facing up to the reality, just as the apostles did. The time would come when they’d be sent but this was the moment when they had to stay, even though they might have wanted to escape the place of such terror where Jesus was killed outside the city, the city in which they now had to stay. But only by being there would they know the will of God, only by being there would they be clothed with power from on high.
This feast is therefore not about the great absence but the great presence, not about loss but promise, not about leaving but staying. The cloud carries God who brings the Spirit into our unknowing. The dark cloud is not to be feared for it’s shot through with the brightness of God, who first ‘enters the way’ and remains the way, the truth, the life for those who will enter the cloud with him, however dark it may at first appear.