A Bright Torch Shines to Show the Way

Raphael, "The Transfiguration"

Raphael, “The Transfiguration”

Spiritual Sunday 

Today’s lectionary reading describes Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Symbolically, the ascension symbolizes the belief that humans can fully embrace, can fully step into, the divinity that is within them. Here is Luke’s version (Acts 1:6-11):

When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.”

And here is John Donne’s response:

The Ascension

By John Donne

Salute the last, and everlasting day,
Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.
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.
O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me!
Mild lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark’d the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise

Note the use of the word “batter’d,” which Donne also uses in his famous “Holy Sonnet 14″  (“Batter my heart, three person’d God”). Donne is capturing the paradoxes of the resurrection and the ascension, noting that while it has taken the violence of Christ’s sacrifice to batter through Donne’s hard heart, Jesus is a mild lamb as well as a strong ram. Also paradoxical is Jesus/God quenching His own wrath with His own blood. In doing so, Jesus is showing “the way” to the rest of us.

The “crown of prayer and praise” mentioned at the end is the poem itself. The Holy Spirit that will be sent—“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”—manifests itself within the poet as his muse. Thus divinity reaches through the “drossy clay” of language and human intelligence to speak to us.

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