I am struck by the archetypal imagery of the mountain (here the Mount of Olives) and the cloud (..’a cloud hid him from their sight’). Obviously this is a real phenomenon which occurs in nature…the mountain tops shrouded with clouds. But in many religions the mountain top is the abode of the Gods and the place holy women and men go to commune with the divine.
In the Bible there are a number of stories in which the mountain and the cloud appear…two in particular come to mind. And I would guess these were in the mind of the writer of Acts.
The first is perhaps the most significant moment in the Old Testament. When Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Law…
15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
God is within the cloud…hidden, mysterious, transcendent. Like Jesus in the Ascension story Moses ascends and disappears into a cloud. In that place of terrifying unknowing he both communes with the hidden God and he himself is hidden in the process. And in the darkness something of tremendous significance is revealed.
Another story, here from the New Testament which features the same elements is that of the Transfiguration.
28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Eli’jah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.
32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli’jah” –not knowing what he said. 34 As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
(Elijah also ascended…like Jesus directly into Heaven)
As in the story of Moses a cloud settles on the mountain and the disciples enter into it. Yet here the cloud both ‘overshadows’ and brings illumination. It recalls the ‘dazzling darkness’ spoken of by mystics. Beyond the cloud of unknowing God is experienced directly, overwhelmingly, with awe.
I see in the Ascension something of this. Jesus the man (albeit resurrected) enters into the ineffable mystery of God’s presence. And this is not just a historical event or mythic story but an experience open to us now. It was known to Paul who wrote in Colossians 3
1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
We are ‘raised’ in resurrection and ascension…our minds turn to heavenly things and our ‘life is hid with Christ in God’.
To me this speaks of the contemplative side of the the spiritual life. Entering in silence and awe the everyday ‘visible’ me disappears into the mystery of divine presence through the cloud of unknowing.
There seems to me much more to be found in these images and the other similar ones in Scripture. These thoughts are hardly coherent and don’t express the felt sense these stories evoke in me. Here is a prayer, in words more simple and profound than mine to end with…
Serene Light, shining in the
Ground of my Being,
Draw me to yourself,
Draw me past the snares of the senses,.
Out of the mazes of the mind.
Free me from symbols, from words,
That I may discover
The Word Spoken
In the darkness
That veils the ground of my being. Amen.
(William A. Meninger)