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May 9, 2013 / robinswood

Ascension Day…

For the past several years it has been my practice to listen to Coltrane’s Ascension album on the day the church calls “Ascension Day.” This year  the Western Christian tradition marks the feast of the Ascension of the Lord on Thursday May 9, and so I thought it made sense to share the closing paragraphs from my chapter on Ascension. 

john coltrane - ascension[S]omething in the raw power of Ascension connects it with the story and related theological force of the ascension of Christ. Though the Ascension of the Lord is a major feast day in the liturgical calendar, it certainly doesn’t have near the profile of Christmas or Easter.  At least in North America, the churches that do mark it as a liturgical feast day will likely draw only smallish congregations, and it will be all but invisible in the society outside of those church walls. That is partly because it always falls on a Thursday, which is not typically a day for going to church in our generally pluralistic and secularized society, but I suspect it also has something to do with our modest embarrassment around the story we tell that day. As recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, it is the fortieth day after Easter Day, and having promised his followers that they would soon receive the Holy Spirit, the resurrected Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9b). That works very well within a pre-modern cosmology, but now that we know that the earth is a spinning globe and that “up” is really only relative to the vastness of space, what do we do with such an image? This is precisely the objection of the modern liberal, classically voiced by John A.T. Robinson in his popular book from the mid-1960s, But That I Can’t Believe. While Robinson does get some things very right in his reflections on the deeper meaning of the doctrine of the Ascension, he gets there by way of what seems an attempt to almost embarrass the gathered church out of ever reading the story aloud.

 [T]here would be many an intelligent Christian who would be shocked if you said that “he ascended into heaven” was not a literal statement. This only shows how lazy much of our thinking is. Indeed, I suspect many of us, if we were honest, try to have it both ways, and suppose that Jesus did literally go up in front of his disciples’ eyes but that directly he got out of sight it somehow ceased to be a physical event at all and the thing was called off!

I believe, however, that given his roots in the black church and his almost wildly poetic imagination, John Coltrane would have not had any difficulty reading the story. Not that he would have assumed the world-view of first century Judea. He was interested in the writings of Albert Einstein, as well as in both astronomy and astrology, and so would have harbored no “flat earth” delusions. But he also would not have shied away from what the narrative from the Acts of the Apostles was attempting to articulate, nor from the lessons he had learned in the church of his grandfather. At least at a poetic and intuitive level, he would have known that this belief in Christ’s ascension is not about a set of upward directions for getting to heaven, but rather it is about the presence of Christ with the Father in the Kingdom of Heaven… an entirely different matter. And to be fair, it is one more in keeping with what John Robinson suggests the doctrine of the Ascension is all about, when he refers to it as, “the assertion of the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ over every part of this universe, the crowning of the cross, the manifest triumph of his way of love over every other force in the world.” If in most of the gospel accounts the risen Christ was readily recognizable as the man, Jesus of Nazareth, in his ascension he is proclaimed as Christ the King; the “one seated on the throne” in the Revelation to John, who is worthy “to receive glory and honour and power” (Rev 4:11a). Like the One who speaks to Job from out of the whirlwind (Job 38:1), this ascended Christ is awe-inspiring and more than just a little overwhelming.

And so we hear from Coltrane and his assembled group something furious, powerful, and at times more than a little overwhelming. In my hearing of it, “Ascension” is an acoustical icon of the ascended and enthroned Christ. Even the section some three quarters of the way through where the intensity of the piece finally lessens, and the piano of McCoy Tyner followed by the duet by the two bassists, offer the defining voices fits with this iconic reading. In the story from the Acts of the Apostles, following the ascension the disciples return to Jerusalem to keep a kind of vigil, awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a breathing space in the narrative, much the same way that this section of “Ascension” is a breathing space in the midst of the intensity of the piece. Or maybe it is the “silence in heaven for about half an hour” that follows the opening of the seventh seal in the Revelation to John, which seems a somehow necessary respite before the whole of creation is carried through crisis toward its fulfillment.

Or maybe John Coltrane had neither of these images in view as he constructed his piece, and aside from wanting to say something about the glory of the ascended Christ, he just let it all unfold as it would. But of this I have little doubt: given all that he said about his own search for God through music, and given what he recorded during the months just before and after these sessions, his choice of the title for the piece was no accident. But we don’t stand a chance of hearing what Coltrane manages to say—intentionally or otherwise—unless we are open to a deep engagement with it. As Saliers observes,

The act of listening to music is crucial to the theological significance of music, with or without sacred texts. For ‘hearing’ music as the bearer of theological import requires not only a ‘musical ear,’ as we say, but also a sensibility for hearing music as revelatory. (Don Saliers, Music and Theology, 67)


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