The Last Task of Incarnation

Of all the events related in the New Testament, the Ascension is one of the hardest to imagine—and, at least as commonly imagined, it may be the hardest to believe. It is, in a sense, Jesus' last miracle. It is also the miracle that seems most like myth: a man rising like a rocket and disappearing into the clouds. Paintings about the Ascension can be very beautiful and very moving, but they almost never seem like representations of an event in history. They seem, instead, like the deus ex machina resolution of a story that had to end in a shroud of mystery—either a literal cloud (as in Acts) or a narrative fog (as in the Gospel of Luke).

All of which is to say, it is the kind of incident about which it would be very easy to write a bad poem and very hard to write a good one. Denise Levertov managed to write a good one. Last year I posted her poem for Holy Saturday, "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell." That poem, too, dares to take up an event most of us find very hard to imagine, and it introduces themes that Levertov also explores in "Ascension": the frictions between spirit and matter, the connection between Gospel triumph and surrender.

After the jump, the poem.

 

ASCENSION

Stretching Himself as if again,
through downpress of dust
upward, soul giving way
to thread of white, that reaches
for daylight, to open as green
leaf that it is...
Can Ascension
not have been
arduous, almost,
as the return
from Sheol, and
back through the tomb
into breath?
Matter reanimate
now must reliquish
itself, its
human cells,
molecules, five
senses, linear
vision endured
as Man -
the sole
all-encompassing gaze
resumed now,
Eye of Eternity.
Reliquished, earth's
broken Eden.
Expulsion,
liberation,
last
self-enjoined task
of Incarnation.
He again
Fathering Himself.
Seed-case splitting.
He again
Mothering His birth:
torture and bliss.
 

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.

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