On this Ascension Day I want to write about the huge sculpture of the Christ in Glory which is suspended high over the nave of Chelmsford Cathedral, above the chancel arch. Created by the English sculptor, Peter Eugene Ball, whenever I worship in the Cathedral my eyes are drawn by this figure. I find wonderfully inspiring, not least because it represents in the embodied form of Jesus good news for our post-pandemic world.
First, in the hands and feet of this Christ in Glory are to be seen the holes where the nails once were. Here is a vivid reminder that even in heaven Jesus bears the scars of the Cross. To quote the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews: Jesus “suffered” (2.18) and is therefore able to “sympathize” (4.15). Jesus was truly like us “in every respect” (2.17). Jesus shared our “flesh and blood” (2.14). In the Garden of Gethsemane, he knew what it was like to cry out to God in pain (5.10). Finally, he experienced the agony of the Cross. Crucifixion was the most dreadful of deaths, yet the ultimate agony for Jesus was not the physical pain, but the awful sense of God’s absence. Hence that terrible cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27.46; Mark 15.34). Jesus went through hell for us.
This past pandemic has been a time of immense suffering. It has been a time marked by the loss of loved ones; a time of intense isolation; a time of mental trauma. Although the pandemic may be over, the suffering still continues for many. But the good news is that the ascended Christ know what it is to suffer. He still bears the marks of the nails. He cannot and will not forget. Here is a visual reminder that the ascended Christ is not impervious to our sufferings. At first hand he knows, and he cares. He more than any other can sympathize – indeed, he can empathize.
Secondly, the arms of the Christ in Glory are stretched out to welcome all. Here we see his all-enveloping love. Nobody is excluded: young and old; single, married, and divorced; gay people, trans people, straight people; saints and sinners; people of faith and those without. God loves us all. Hence Paul’s wonderful prayer: “I pray that…. you may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ’s love. Yes, may you come to know his love – although it can never be fully known – and so be completely filled with the very nature of God” (Eph 3.18,19 GNB).
This past pandemic has caused many to wonder whether God truly love us – for we have been through the mill. But as the large colourful letters on the huge glass frontage of my first church in Altrincham declare, ‘YOU ARE LOVED’. Here is the amazing good news of the Gospel. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done, God loves us – and he will love us forever. To quote the Apostle Paul again: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life… nor things present, nor things to come… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8.38,39). Amidst all the uncertainties of life, here is one great truth to hold onto: in Christ we see that God loves us, he loves you, he loves me.
The Christ in glory is, of course, the risen Christ who defeated the powers of death and hell. He is the triumphant Christ, for he conquered death and is Lord of Life. He is, declared Tomaso Campanella, “the irresistible Victor, who, tested to the uttermost, has proved himself in very deed might to save”. Jesus, not death, had the last word. God and not death will have the last word. What’s more, the Bible declares that in rising from the dead Jesus blazed a trail through the valley of the shadow down which those who have put their trust in him may follow too. In the words of Jesus, with which I begin every funeral: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25).
To a post-pandemic world still grieving its dead, the good news is that there is hope – for God raised Jesus from the dead! “God”, wrote the Apostle Peter, “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1.3). It was “concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead” that the Apostle Paul was on trial (Acts 23.6: see also 26,6). The ascended Christ has triumphed and will continue to triumph. Here is Good News indeed.
When the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh came on one of their visits to Chelmsford Cathedral, Stephen Cottrell, the former Bishop of Chelmsford, now Archbishop of York, was the preacher. Standing in pulpit with the figure of Christ in Glory above, he declared:
We bring good news. We sing the song of him before whom every knee must bow, and yet whose ‘coming alongside us and moving ahead of us’ gospel means, paradoxically, that he is the one who kneels before us, who comes, if you like, as a servant, a slave, washes our feet, offers broken bread, wipes every tear from every eye, longs for us to know that we matter, that we are loved, that we are precious to God. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and yet, at the same time, he is servant and shepherd. He is light in the darkest hour. Hope in the bleakest despair. A reason for going forwards, when everyone else turns back. He is joy. He is peace. He is love itself.
So on this Ascension Day let us look up and see the Christ in Glory, still bearing the marks of the nails, his arms stretched wide open in love, and let the wonder of his triumph fill our hearts with “indescribable and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1.8).