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Reform Magazine | July 23, 2019

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Chapter & verse: Acts 1:1-11

Chapter & verse: Acts 1:1-11

Nigel Uden on the ascension

Artists and musicians are interpreters. They take an idea and depict it in images or sounds, offering drama, excitement and intensity. They can heighten emotion, exaggerate spectacle and develop simplicity, which so often is instructive and inspiring. It’s the artist’s or musician’s interpretation, to which beholders or hearers then brings theirs.

Biblical stories in the hands of artists and musicians are just as susceptible to all this. Indeed, biblical narratives can be significantly understated compared with the works of art that depict them. Christ’s ascension is one example. ‘The story is unsentimental, almost uncannily austere’, says the German theologian Ernst Haenchen. I agree. Luke – in both his gospel and in Acts – is indeed sparing. He writes: ‘[Jesus] withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven,’ (Luke 24:51). Then, in Acts 1:9, he says that Jesus ‘was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight’. Maybe on the basis that less is more, Luke writes so modestly that one is left looking for something else. In that vacuum, painters and composers explore meaning; they’re theologians with palettes and staves, each presenting their singular, often expansive, impressions of what Christ’s ascension might be about.

In 1636, Rembrandt created a shadowy image of earth, sky and heaven, with mortals watching Christ clad in full and flowing white robes and on a (rather small) cloud as he is lifted toward the Godhead by angels. Three centuries later, Dali painted what he had dreamed: that Christ’s unifying spirit is like the nucleus of an atom. In Dali’s painting (pictured) it’s as if the all-but-naked Christ ascends to be received back into the very centre of all that is. …

Nigel Uden is Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly

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This is an extract from an article that was published in the May 2019 edition of Reform

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