Ascension Day, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

This detail, from the Acts’ account of Jesus’ ascension, is easy to overlook; or at least, to overlook its significance. On the fortieth day of Eastertide, Jesus parts from the disciples and is received into heaven; the disciples are ordered to remain in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit. Visual detail is provided in the Acts’ account, including the cloud that receives him.

It’s easy to understand the cloud as just that: background to the event. When you “fly the friendly skies” you are quite likely to fly through some cloud cover. Ascension into heaven presumably requires a similar type of flying, and so we might expect to see some clouds as Jesus is lifted up. It’s easy to see the cloud as part and parcel of what the disciples might have seen, as a completely mundane part of the record, a naturalistic detail that’s offered as a part of the story.

Nevertheless, this is not the way we should see the cloud that receives him. This cloud has theological significance and is not purely a visual detail. It’s the cloud of theophany, the cloud that both conceals and reveals God. If we pause and consider the history of Israel, we may discover (with apologies to Joni Mitchell) that we really don’t know clouds at all.

When YHWH led the People of Israel out of Egypt, he revealed himself as “a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night” (Ex. 13:21), going before them as they journeyed in the desert, guiding them on the path and setting the pace. When they come to Mount Sinai, God appears again in a “thick cloud” that covers the mountain (Ex. 19:16). As Moses draws near, God gives him the ten commandments, God’s will for the People. The cloud signifies presence, the revelation of God, sure enough; but of course, the cloud by its very nature conceals as much as it reveals.

At the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem many years later, God was once again revealed in the cloud. “And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kgs 8:10-11). They know the Lord is there because the cloud reveals his glory, yet in the presence of that glory the priests could not stand. Solomon the king then says, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever” (1 Kgs 8:12-13).

The house prepared for us to dwell in is fulfilled in our festival today. Jesus Christ ascends into heaven, to “prepare a place” for us (Jo. 14:2), as it says in the Gospel of John. The Revelation of John actually gives us the Ascension Day story again, transposed into a vision of the end of all things. “Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (Rev. 14:14). The vision is one of harvest: “So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped” (Rev. 14:16). The consummation of all things is near.

St. John seems to have captured here the substance of the promise given by the angel in our first reading today, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This vision of the revelation of the messiah at the end of time is one of the oldest strands of the Gospel tradition, lifted right out of the prophet Daniel: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk. 21:27, Dan. 7:13).

The Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven is a theophany: the revelation of God in Christ. The cloud that receives him both reveals and conceals, like the manifestation of God under the old covenant. God is with us; Christ continues to abide with his church; the Holy Spirit dwells within us. The harvest, however, is not yet. We still await the coming of the Lord in glory; we still await the fullness of vision; we still await the place that’s prepared for us at the right hand of the Son of Man. God is both revealed and concealed, on this Feast of the Ascension; and we live in the tension, awaiting our hope.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee