What is the Ascension? Why is it so important? I think that a lot of even regular church-goers might well struggle to answer those questions.
Emmanuel church’s West window depicts the Ascension and it was the 75th anniversary of the window’s dedication. That therefore seemed like a good time to get us to think about the window and the values that it helps us as a church to recognise.
I got the details of the history from the church history booklets written by a former member of the congregation, Clifford Jackson. for the details of the symbolism I looked at a number of different books and websites.
Ascension; Readings: Hebrews 4:14-5:9; Luke 24:44-53
75 years ago, the West window was dedicated, in memory of John and Maria Wragg. The Wragg family were major patrons of Emmanuel. The land and old Vicarage were given by them, fittings and furniture were paid for by them, and so on. There is even a record that when a previous vicar was ill they paid for him to convalesce in Switzerland! The Wraggs also paid for 3 of the windows. Two in memory of two of their sons who died in 1916 during the First World War. And the third, the West window in memory of John, and Maria, who also died in 1916. Clearly a deeply traumatic year for the family. John died 3 years later in 1919, while, sadly, his eldest son died only a few weeks after him.
There might not have been fervent cries and tears, what with the British stiff upper lip and everything, but I’m sure that feelings of grief and loss were very present. But, inamongst those feelings there seems to have been a real sense of the God who feels sympathy for us, of the God who we can come to in our time of need and receive mercy and find grace from. Why do I think this? Because of what the West window shows. The West window was dedicated on Ascension Day 1938 and pictures the ascension, the event that we heard in our reading from Luke.
The window depicts Jesus being taken up into heaven, Jesus ascending to return to his Father. It reminds us that “We have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven”, who sympathises with us, who gives us mercy and grace, who clothes us from power from on high. It’s a powerful statement of the hope and faith of the Wraggs, looking back on a time of turmoil and trouble for their family.
It’s also a much appreciated part of our church building. Many people comment on it to me, both visitors and regular attenders. It’s a striking and powerful image, but there’s even more in the window than we perhaps often realise. It’s worth looking at it properly. At the very top of the window, is a crown above Jesus’ head, as he rises up from the earth. Jesus is flanked by two angels and is watched from below by a number of the apostles who are all staring up at him, while two kneel in worship. So, Jesus is very deliberately the centre of the window.
In itself that’s a reminder of the central nature of Jesus in our worship and in our lives. That’s an important part of the symbolism of the window, but there’s a lot more there. The crown is a symbol of the power and authority of God, which Jesus is now being given. Paul wrote in Philippians:
Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus is given all power and authority and this is symbolised by the crown. That his death on the cross and resurrection are the source of his authority is shown by the angel holding the crown of thorns, and his halo with the cross in it. The Ascension is God’s exaltation of Jesus, showing that he is truly God, as well as truly human. But, Jesus’ humanity remains. Just before our reading from Luke, Jesus eats food and gets his disciples to touch him, to show that he is not a ghost, that he is really, fully human. In the window, you can just about see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands.
This church is dedicated to ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us’. The Ascension window reminds us of the other half of that – that our humanity is with God. The Ascension doesn’t mean that God is no longer with us, it means that our humanity, all that is good, all that has suffered and endured, all that has overcome our struggles, is with God. Jesus is God and remains fully and truly human as he rules the world, as he intercedes for us in the throne room of God. That is our hope and promise for the future. We have eternal salvation. And this is what it looks like.
In the window Jesus is also flanked by an angel holding a spear, which is how the Archangel Michael is often shown. In the book of Revelation the archangel Michael leads the fight against Satan, against all that is evil, and triumphs. “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb” we’re told. So, again, this is a reminder of the victory that Jesus has won for us over sin and death, of the good news that eternal salvation is given to us.
And below Jesus, looking up in awe and wonder and worship of him are some of his disciples. Women and men united in worship of him. Young and old together. Again, what they are holding and what they are wearing are symbols of who they are. So, from left to right: Mary, Jesus’ mother dressed in her traditional blue. Then, Mary Magdalene in red holding a jar of perfume, the first person to encounter Jesus after his resurrection. Next, a man in green robes, symbolising freedom, often used to mean Lazarus, who was raised from the dead. Then, a man in red robes, symbolising the presence of God and the blood of the martyrs. A powerful reminder that of Jesus’ 12 disciples, 10 were martyred. Also at the back is a beardless youth, which is how the apostle John is shown. Young and old are included together in God’s kingdom. At the front in orange and holding a key is Peter, a reminder of the authority that we the church, have been given by God. On the right hand side are Matthew, holding the scroll of his gospel, and, probably, Jude, Jesus’ brother holding a book with an eight-pointed star, a symbol of baptism and the new life that we are given.
Then, kneeling at the bottom, are a woman and a man. I don’t know, but I rather wonder whether they are meant to be Maria and John Wragg, kneeling in worship of Christ. I think that’s a powerful reminder that, like the disciples, we are invited to be present and worship God, that like the disciples, we too are saints, that, like the disciples, Jesus’ words of command and love and instruction are for us.
Jesus told his disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.” Repentance and forgiveness of sins. One of the misunderstandings we can fall into is that this is simply about individuals, that an initial conversion is all that really counts. But, this is much wider than that. This is about the whole world being brought into the embrace of God’s saving and healing love. It is very definitely about the individual, about us turning to God, and re-turning to God. But, it’s also about nothing less than changing the world, bringing God’s creation into his kingdom.
And we know that we need that. Syria, climate change, Afghanistan, the economic crisis, problems in our own town. All need repentance and forgiveness. And all need the other thing that we heard Jesus promise in the passage.
Jesus also told his disciples that they would be “clothed with power from on high”. That is what we will celebrate Sunday next, Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. And that promise of being clothed with power from on high is also as true for us as is was for Jesus’ first disciples. We too are given the power of the Holy Spirit to help us. Repentance and forgiveness. Creation being brought back to the worship of God. We can’t do this on our own. God knows that. “For we do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses”. God gives us the Holy Spirit. God calls us to pray that we are clothed and reclothed with power from on high, so that we can repent and receive forgiveness and work towards bringing repentance and forgiveness to all the nations.
Over the next few months we as a church are going to develop a Mission Action Plan, a MAP, a set of goals of how we can seek to have God’s kingdom grow here in Swadlincote. This will be about things like developing our work in the community, growing our reach to younger people, strengthening our links with Oakland Village. But, with any MAP you need to know where you are starting from. I think that this Ascension window gives us a good understanding of where we are starting and as a PCC we will work to think about making a statement of our values, our mission, our purpose.
Why? Because we as individuals and we as a church are called to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations. We are called to live that out in our lives and we are promised that we will be clothed with power from on high as we do so. Let us turn to our great high priest, to worship him along with the whole of creation, for the glory of God the Father. Amen.
2 thoughts on “Ascension 13”
Rather late I know but still relevant. Thanks for posting this. I thoought at the time what a good sermon this was and wished that I could remember everything that was said.
Never too late! Thank you very much! I’m glad that it was helpful.