There’s a famous mural by Jose Clemente Orozco in the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara, Mexico. The huge building sits in the middle of downtownm and the central chapel is a huge Cathedral-like space. The walls are filled by Orozco’s painting. The mural reaches its height in apex of the central dome. In the most famous part of the mural “The Man of Fire” ascends into the heavens. Looking up, we see a twisting dancing body, but more than anything, because of the perspective, we see his feet. Orozco painted masterfully, so standing below it seems as if the figure is being taken up into heaven.
A chapel in Walsingham in Norfolk, England took the idea of ascent a little more simplistically. The chapel of the Ascension has a low ceiling with an odd sculpture. You could almost reach up and touch a carved circle of white puffy clouds ringing a bit of blue sky. Sticking out of the sky, out of the ceiling, a pair of life-size scarred feet poke down over the altar. Truth be told, it’s a pretty ugly sculpture.
I’d venture that Orozco more beautifully communicates the theology of the Ascension, even though Orozco wasn’t specifically painting Jesus. The Mexican muralist wanted to show the potential of humanity, to be consumed with the fire of imagination and art, to reach the apotheosis, the heights of the divine.
But for all the glory, Orozco’s Man of Fire also communicates pain. The body, rising in glory, is deeply scarred. That seeming contradiction, to me, is what makes Orozco a great artist.
We may think of the Ascension as a simple directional goodbye. Jesus goes up to be in heaven. He waves as he takes off. But Ascension is not that simple, it’s not just directional. We often speak directionally. We talk about “holding up” what is good. We “lift up” the downtrodden. We “look up” to those we admire. In a common treatment of the tradition, Jesus’ ascent seen as a final raising up, putting Jesus on a pillar for all time and eternity.
Often, this is how the Ascension is taught. Jesus is now directional again. The Son of God dwelt with us, and is now back in heaven, ready to be worshiped, ascended. That’s the way some art of the ascension looks. The disciples are still on the ground. Jesus is above, glowing in heaven. Perfect. But both Orozco, and the ugly feet of Walsingham disclose something else, something less simple.
Jesus’ ascending body still showed signs of abuse. Those feet, they were marked by the crucifixion. For us directional humans, the Ascension holds a contradiction. Perfection comes with scars.
Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, writes in his book “Falling Up” about human perfection. He has this to say:
“If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everyone, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest can find it! A ‘perfect’ person ends up being the one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection.”
Isn’t that true? In my life, the healthiest, happiest people, the people I most look up to, often have overcome the greatest odds. When we think about it, we don’t really admire the image of “success,” not really. What makes someone great is not the right job, the right car, the right house, the right spouse. What makes someone great is how they respond when the chips are down.
Many of us spend a great deal of time trying to be perfect. I admit, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. In some things all of us are, really. The Gospel points us in a different direction. Exaltation comes WITH suffering. No matter how hard we try to seem perfect, we won’t be, unless we accept our scars, embrace our imperfection.
I actually think this is one of the central tenants of Christianity, that greatness is not about ascent. Jesus often talked about this counter-intuitive greatness. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. As you do unto the least of these, you do unto me. For Jesus, there was a clear identification not with the exalted, but with the downtrodden.
This is the contradiction at the heart of our faith. We exalt a poor and broken savior. We lift up someone who consciously identified with women, children, Samaritans, tax-collectors, outsiders. Jesus made all the wrong choices on the ladder of success. Yet he is lifted up.
Thomas Merton, the American monk, had a great saying about the “ladder of success.” He pointed out that we could spend our whole live climbing that ladder. We could spend our whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to realize it was leaning against the wrong wall.
Henri Nouwen, the Jesuit spiritual director, said it another way. He talked about the way of Jesus, even the ascended Jesus, as a path of “downward mobility.” To follow Christ is to consciously humble yourself, to identify with the least, lost, and left out.
In reality, it took Nouwen a couple of tries to work out his own downward mobility. He was at the top of his field when he had the realization that he needed to go down. Nouwen had taught at both Harvard and Yale. He was a tenured professor. His books were read all around the world. He was the image of success, but he wasn’t happy. He didn’t feel any of his work had reached perfection. He was depressed. Nouwen realized that he couldn’t keep talking about “downward mobility” with any integrity without practicing it himself.
Nouwen decided to leave Yale, and to join the liberation theology movement in Latin America. The liberation theologians were teaching that God was with the poor. Nouwen determined he would give up his prestige, and his position, and he would move into a slum in Lima Peru. He writes about the decision and the journey in his book “Gracias!”
There was a problem for Nouwen. Things didn’t work out in Lima. His intentional path downward didn’t work for him. He suffered physically and emotionally. He didn’t feel his longed-for sense of call to be with the people of Altiplano long-term. Living with the poor of Peru wasn’t going to work in the long run. Nouwen was frustrated.
Nouwen writes about going back to North America:
I look forward to going home tomorrow, to sitting in a comfortable airplane. I like to be welcomed home by friends. I look forward to being back again in my cozy apartment, with my books, my paintings, and my plants. I like showers with hot water, faucets with water you can drink, washing machines that work, and lamps that keep burning. I like cleanliness. but is it there that I will find God…Or is he in this dusty, dry, cloud-covered city of Lima, in this confusing, unplanned, and often chaotic conglomeration of people, dogs, and houses? Is he perhaps where the hungry kids play, the old ladies beg, and the shoeshine boys pick your pocket?
I surely have to be where he is. I have to become obedient to him, listen to his voice, and follow him wherever he calls me. Even when I do not like it, even when it is not a way of cleanliness of comfort. Jesus said to Peter: ‘When you were young, you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.’ (John 21:18). Am I old enough now to be led by the poor, disorganized, unclean, hungry, and uneducated?
As I said, it didn’t work out for Nouwen in Peru. Sometimes even our attempts at downward mobility are frustrated. He didn’t find a long-term call in Peru. But eventually Nouwen found where Christ’s downward road was leading him. He didn’t finish his career in the Ivy League, but as a resident of L’Arche.
The L’Arche communities are an international collection of houses. We have one right here in St. Louis. In L’Arche communities able-bodied people live alongside the severely disabled. Able-bodied people live with “core members” who are physically and intellectually unable to care for themselves. They gather for meals. The able-bodied assist the disabled with daily tasks. The community prays together. Everyone contributes.
Henri Nouwen couldn’t stay in Peru, but when he reached L’Arche, he couldn’t leave. As an academic and pastor, Nouwen was still famous, still invited to speak at church conferences all around the world. After a couple of years in L’Arche, he made it a requirement that the conference planners send him two tickets to their church event. Nouwen said, he could not tell his whole story, unless he had a disabled member of L’Arche there with him. Without both the able-bodied, and the disabled there, the Gospel couldn’t be communicated.
I would argue that Nouwen’s eventually successful downward mobility led him to the truth of the Ascension. That same truth was communicated by Orozco’s bleeding man of fire, and even the sculptor of those weird scarred feet in Walsingham’s chapel ceiling. Any “perfection” can only be reached by responding to, and including imperfection. We can only be whole when we embrace those our world treats as broken. We only experience God’s exaltation when we learn to incorporate all that the world has taught us to treat as broken about ourselves. God lifts up whole human beings.
The Christ who ascended into heaven carried on his body the marks of human imperfection. Perfection comes with scars. And that truth is worth lifting up.
2 thoughts on “Ascension and Downward Mobility: A Sermon for Ascension Sunday”
Thank you for your inspiring piece on the Ascension. It is remarkable and is helping to shape my own preparation for the feast.
Thank you! You have made me stop and think, and I need that. Sr Mary Elizabeth CHS