© 2000 - 2003 by Ann K Elliott
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
At the Ascension as at
the Nativity, angels were present to accompany the Christ on his journey
between the visible and invisible worlds. My first glimpse into the
symbolic inversion of these two events was through the eyes of our daughter
Louisa the Christmas she was four years old. Playing alone, (or perhaps
with her invisible playmate,) I overheard her explain that “when Jesus was
born the angels came down to say good-bye.” When in the course of the
liturgical year the celebration of the Ascension came around, I recalled her
words and thought how now the reverse was true as the angels came again,
this time to welcome the son of heaven back home.
An Eye-Witness Account
The Acts of the Apostles provides an eye-witness account of the Ascension, with Jesus leading the disciples into the countryside where,
as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.(2)
Without too much difficulty most of us can recall times when some aspect of our lives were undergoing what felt like crucifixion. The Ascension, however, is more difficult to relate to personally, except as experienced in levitation or flying dreams.
My most vivid dream of this nature began with me fleeing from “the flatlands.” Far in the distance and to my right a fire was raging in which “the dinosaurs” were being consumed. It was from this fiery scene I was fleeing. As I walked hurriedly, an “old model” car came along and passed me by. I ran and caught hold of the back bumper. Holding on for dear life, I was transported to a structure that reminded me of a multi-leveled parking lot. The car, with me dragging behind, wound its way spirally to the top. At that point the car disappeared and I was left standing at the top and before an elevator. Soon the elevator door opened and out of it came my mother in a wheel chair. She said to me, “My dear, you may have anything you want for your last meal.” Ignoring her offer, I went straight to the low wall surrounding the upper level. Climbing onto it, I raised my arms and felt myself lifted up and into the sky. With this the dream ended.
It was for me “a big dream” in that it covered some major territory of my inner, psychological life. At the time I was dealing with issues of who I was as a woman and a mother. I already had four children and would be having two more; whereas my mom had only had me and a busy career in the early days of radio and television. In the dream, as the “old model” car had disappeared, in its place my mother had appeared, and in a wheel chair. This suggested there was something handicapped about her as a model for my life, something that didn’t fit my life circumstances. In any event, her offer to arrange for me to have anything I wanted for my “last meal” had “death row” implications. Someone--me--was scheduled to die for some crime committed.
Now in a dream, a “capital offence” is something one is doing that is destructive to the life of the true, higher Self. As Jesus pointed out, to do so is at the expense of the eternal soul. As long as I was trying to be an imitation of my mother, I was failing to discover and live out of my own center, failing to discover my own distinct, individual destiny.
To ascend bodily, even in a dream body, is to break free from the limitations of gravity. A mother (mater, matter) can exert something like a gravitational pull on a child, something that holds the child back, that prevents the child from attaining his or her own creative potential. Limiting self-images can do the same thing. To ascend is to rise above whatever limitations are holding one back from the adventure of self-discovery and fulfillment.
Taken as a whole, the theme of the dream was ascendancy. This was apparent in the spiral drive to the top of the structure. The elevator was another ascendancy symbol, as was the dream’s final levitation scene. As gravity is symbolic of matter so levity (lightness) is symbolic of spirit. Perhaps the dream was telling me to “lighten up,” to find more joy in my role as a stay-at-home mother of a large brood. Perhaps. But there also were deeper issues with which the dream was confronting me.
The dream pointed to a death. And whenever death appears as a symbol in a dream, a rebirth is also implied. Then there were all those levels to be transcended: from the lowest “hell” of the “burning dinosaurs,” up the spiraling structure, and finally the ascent into the sky. With the symbolism of levels so explicit, the dream itself would seem to be an overview of the many deaths and rebirths experienced in transcending from one level or degree of conscious to another. This, of course, is the very point of an ascent--to gain an ever higher and broader perspective of one’s life, as well as Life itself in its greater, ultimate sense.
Before having this dream, I had made a commitment to the inner journey, and in doing so had committed to the process of becoming my own person separate and apart from the values and views of the “old model.” The dream showed the journey as reaching back to primordial, instinctual beginnings, and reaching down as well into the deeper, archetypal, and therefore unconscious levels of the collective psyche. This was indicated by the burning dinosaurs, a symbolism related to the “fiery serpents” encountered by the Israelites in the wilderness. Here their dejection over their circumstances and their downcast attitudes had dissipated the very inner resources they needed to reach the Promised Land. Moses’ remedy had been to raise up the serpent staff for those who had been bitten to look upon and be healed. Besides being a foreshadowing of the remedy of the Cross, it was also symbolic of the process by which the toxicity of unconscious contents is antidoted when lifted up into the light of consciousness.
Very much like a serpent ascending a pole, the spiral way of the dream was around an elevator shaft, an apt symbol for the central axis by which the ego and Self--the lower and higher centers of consciousness--are connected. The dream further suggested the necessity of “hanging on” to the “old model,” even being dragged along by it, until one reaches a jumping off place to Selfhood. Also suggested is the subjective, psychological meaning of ascension as coming to the place where it is possible to break free from whatever is keeping one “earth-bound,” and therefore preventing the attainment of a higher vantage point.
The theme of ascension is easily recognized in a dream as an upward movement such as a spiraling or whirlwind ascent. The symbolism includes climbing a ladder or stairway, going up in an elevator, climbing a mountain, observing the flight of birds, having a sense of weightlessness, being in a tower or on the top of a mountain that affords an expansive overview of the landscape below. Edinger compares such ascending movements to the sublimatio symbolism of alchemy, and through which one gains the insight of broader, wider viewpoint:
Psychologically, this corresponds to a way of dealing with a concrete
problem. One gets “above” it by seeing it objectively. We abstract a
general meaning from it and see it as a particular example of a larger
issue. Just to find suitable words or concepts for a psychic state may be
sufficient for a person to get out of it enough to look down on it from
It was shortly before
the Crucifixion, and perhaps in order to prepare the disciples for his
departure, that Jesus led the three closest to him up the high mountain
where they witnessed his Transfiguration. According to the account, "his
face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light." To the
disciples’ surprise Moses and Elijah also appeared and spoke to Jesus,
perhaps to counsel him concerning the ordeal he faced. The account goes on
to say that the mountain was overshadowed by a "bright cloud" from which a
voice spoke saying "this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased;
listen to him."(4)
Evidently the disciples had fallen into a trance, for the account goes on to say that "Jesus came and touched them," and that when he did they looked up and "saw no one but Jesus." On the way down the mountain, as they were discussing what had happen, Jesus cautioned them to tell no one about what they had witnessed until after he had been raised from the dead.(5)
Why these three are given a preview of his
“glorified” body isn’t clear, but what the account does suggest is that the
closer Jesus comes to the Crucifixion and Resurrection the more apparent his
twofold nature as son of man and Son of God becomes. Another question the
account raises is why Moses and Elijah are present. The consensus here is
that these two are present because they are purported to have been
“translated” directly from this life to a higher dimension or state of being. Moreover,
both Moses and Elijah are associated with mountain tops: Moses with Mount
Sinai; and Elijah with Mount Carmel--mountains again belonging to ascension symbolism.
Ezekiel is another Old Testament prophet with relevance both to the Ascension and to individuation symbolism. The sixth century iconography of Plate VII-3 shows Jesus’ Ascension as taking place in Ezekiel’s chariot. In the image, Mary is in center front, flanked by two angels. On either side the disciples are looking heavenward.
Edinger maintains that Ezekiel’s vision is “fundamental to the Western psyche.” In the vision, Ezekiel observes a wind blowing from the north. He sees a great cloud with light around it and from which lightning darts. In the center he sees four animals, each of whom has four faces--that of a human, a lion, a bull and an eagle--and each also has four wings. As fire is flashing between the animals, on the ground beside each are glittering wheels with the rims of “eyes” all the way around. When the animals go forward, the wheels go forward. Overhead is a gleaming vault under which the creatures wings are outstretched and from which a great noise is heard. Above the entire scene is a sapphire throne upon which is seated a being encompassed in a light Ezekiel describes as “the glory of Yahweh."(6)
An entire body of Jewish mysticism evolved out of this vision. Called the “Merkabah,” meaning “chariot throne,” the symbolism was carried over into Christian iconography as well, with Ezekiel’s four “living creatures” represented by the four Evangelists or Gospels. Plate VII-4 is an example.
Here the majestic Christ, as the Alpha and Omega, is contained within the geometrically-derived vesica pisces. The symbolic representations of the four gospel/evangelists are in each corner. The illumination of this twelfth century manuscript is also a prime example of the astrological influences found in the Christian art of earlier centuries. Aside from the vesica--the fish-shaped intersection of two circles, and its relevance to Pisces—the traditional symbols for the four gospels, (directly derived from Ezekiel’s vision,) coincide with the motifs for the cardinal signs of the Old Testament Age of Aries: with the ox of Taurus assigned to Luke; the lion of Leo to Mark; the eagle, as Scorpio’s alternate motif, assigned to John; and Aquarius—the man, or son of man—to Matthew. To continue the correspondences, each of the four cardinal signs falls in a different season, and each sign is also assigned one of the four elements. Moreover, each of the elements relates to one of Jung’s four functions, and each function to a direction of the compass, and with the four functions forming a “compass of wholeness.”
Edinger points to Jung’s use of the image of Ezekiel’s chariot “as the basis for his most complex and differentiated formulation of the Self”: “the unfolding of totality into four parts four times.” Thus seen, the “chariot theme” corresponds to the “four-square” New Jerusalem of Revelations and which the heavenly city is symbolic of the eternal Self. For Jung, the symbolism is descriptive of the psychological transformation that comes about as each of the four functions finds expression and integration in a person’s life. In this way the “compass of wholeness” is activated, but also integrated so as to function in conjunction with each other function and as a whole.
As previously detailed, the Eastern concept of the creation of the diamond body, sometimes called the "rainbow body," is said to involve a reversal of the circulation of psychic energy. Moses did something like this when he diverted the Israelites attention from the biting serpents to the bronzed one on the staff, thus lifting their vision and therefore their consciousness from the downward spiral of suffering and death to an upward one of healing and life. In Merkabah symbolism, the two directions in which energy flows--clockwise and counterclockwise--are imagined as two intersecting tetrahedrons which form a star tetrahedron. This polyhedron is also a three-dimension model of the Star of David. This conjunction of opposite and intersecting tetrahedrons--one spinning one way and one the other--is understood to create the force by which the “chariot” lifts off. Similarly, the integration of the masculine and feminine poles of the psyche, which also can be imagined as spinning in opposite directions, simulate a similar circulation of psychic energy, and analogously, provide the thrust for ascending to a higher level or dimension of consciousness.
Obviously, Merkabah symbolism holds some of the same fascination as UFO phenomena, an area Jung ventured into in his studies of the structure and dynamics of the psyche. From his clinical observations, he speculated that the archetypal images of the psyche’s deep inner space can, under certain conditions, be projected into a field of vision that is perceptible in some waking or quasi-consciousness states of mind. On the subject, he was cautious but open-minded.
He was less
cautious is discussing the “work” of the Alchemists in their attempt to
transmute lead into gold, seeing their efforts as either unconsciously
guided or as “a cover” for carrying on their real concern with the
transmutation or creation of consciousness. Similarly, the Kabbalists described their “work” in terms of descending and ascending the
Tree of Life in a similar effort to attain a transcendence of consciousness
that freed them from the gravitational pull of the physical body.
A Sky-Chariot Dream
I learned from a dream I had several years ago that I for one am not ready to be whisked away in a sky chariot. In the dream I was on the roof of a four-story building. Looking towards the sky I saw a luminous object moving toward me. At first I was excited, but as it came closer I experienced a moment of fear during which I said to myself, “I don’t think I’m ready for this.” As soon as the thought formed, the object made a split-second shift from coming towards me to speeding back away. Not, however, before I got a close look at how it was constructed. It had four sides, and each side had two wheels, one rotating clockwise and the other counterclockwise. The dream left me hoping that another time my fears would not again deprive me of so promising an adventure.
Jung’s Formulation of the Self
Jung’s model of the Self (found in Aion) is considerably more complex than the star tetrahedron model of Ezekiel’s chariot or the one in my dream. In Edinger’s Mysterium Lectures, he discusses the Merkabah and also Jung’s diagram of the Self. He places a star in the center, and in which place I have added the Star of the Transcendent Self from Chapter Three.
In Jung’s formulation, the four components of the large square (the primary quaternity), are, according to their A, B, C and D lettering, moving clockwise. In the corners, the four smaller diagonal squares are, according to their lettering, moving counterclockwise. Each of the smaller diagonals corresponds to a progression of a four-fold process. Jung used his diagram in clinical practice to discern what aspect of totality was being constellated in a patient’s life. And although his method for doing so is beyond the scope of this study, the diagram is included for the purpose of comparing it with the ordered way by which consciousness is developing in our own lives. It is also interesting to note how Jung’s clockwise and counterclockwise movements correspondence to the Westminster Psalter illustration of Plate VII-4. The primary focus of the illumination is the enthroned figure of the Christ. Behind his head is the nimbus with cross, itself a quaternity or wholeness symbol. The movement within the central image is clockwise: from Christ’s raised hand downward to the letters resting on his opposite knee reading “Jesus, the Alpha and Omega.” The symbols for the four evangelists are intended to be read counterclockwise according to their gospel order: with Matthew in the upper left; Mark in the lower left; Luke in the lower right; and John in the upper right. Their placements correspond to the four corner diagonal squares of Jung’s diagram.
In The Mysterium Coniunctionis Jung lays out the alchemical progression as a three-phase process by which the four aspects of wholeness--“soul, spirit, body and ‘world’”--are united: In stage one the union is” between soul and spirit over against body; in stage two, soul and spirit unite with the body; and in stage three, soul, spirit and body unite with “the world,” with the latter understood as the all-pervasive, unified Whole. Thus the three merge with the One.
Atom and Archetype
Jung presents his diagram as a chemical (alchemical) formula. This allows him to go on to compare the process by which wholeness is attained to “the carbon-nitrogen cycle in the sun,” wherein “a carbon nucleus captures four protons.” Two of these four immediately become neutrons and will be released “at the end of the cycle in the form of an alpha particle.” Since I lack a background in chemistry I can only grasp Jung’s diagram as metaphor, and relate it back to the transformation by which carbon--a piece of coal--becomes a diamond.
In the same way that a “terrestrial” body can become a “celestial” body, the carbon nucleus itself--the eternal God Self--comes out of the process unchanged This suggests to Jung that the secret of existence--the existence of the atom and its components--“may well consist in a continually repeated process of rejuvenation.” This in turn led him to a similar conclusion concerning “the numinosity of the archetypes.” Apologizing for his “hypothetical” comparison, he added:
Sooner or later nuclear physics and the psychology of the unconscious will draw closer together as both of them, independently of one another and from opposite directions, push forward into transcendental territory, the one with the concept of the atom, the other with that of the archetype.(7)
Such is the mystery of the atom and the archetype of the whole Self. From the “terrestrial” body the “celestial” is born; through the portal of crucifixion the resurrected and ascended body--like the alpha particle of the otherwise spent carbon atom--returns to the Whole.
how different twenty-first century cosmology is from that of the first
century, and how slowly theological beliefs change, it is no wonder a
terminology barrier exists when it comes to understanding events such as the
Ascension. Without the language of symbolism it would be impossible for the
wisdom of past ages to speak to the present. And without the continuity of
wisdom gained human civilization would disintegrate and cease. For this
reason an imperative for each generation is to go beyond preserving the
wisdom of the past to finding new metaphors, analogies, and terminology for
understanding and extending the sum total of that entrusted humanity in its
The Return of the Prodigal
There is, in essence, only one story. It is the story of the essential indestructibility of the eternal soul who, having left its home and journeyed to a far country now seeks to return. The one story is about the soul’s awakening to its true identity and its determination to find its way back home.
In parable Jesus advances the Old Testament theme of the Israelites’ return to the Promised Land. In the New Testament it is the story of Abba: the One who becomes the two, and who, as the two, returns to the One. But what makes the difference is that the soul is now conscious of knowing and of being known by the One. Spiritually understood, Israel is the soul in search of and longing to return to its Source. In the story of the prodigal, the forgiving father is the Source to whom the soul seeks to return.
The story begins with two brothers: the one, the elder, is content with life as it is; but the other, the younger, is driven by a divine discontent into “a far country.” The “far country” is where the physical aspect of being expends its apportioned quota of the human desire to live life to its fullest. The Bible calls this sin. But is it? Perhaps the question should be, is not the greater sin to do otherwise than live life to its fullest?
In the story, when the fires of youthful desirousness have been spent, the prodigal finds himself beset with an equally-divine disillusionment. The soul, having been lulled to sleep by a sensate overload, awakens to find itself now cast into the throes of sensory depravation. But this now becomes the very condition that allows him to see his situation with clarity. Doing so, he determines to return home and say to his father, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He intends to add, “treat me as one of your hired servants.” But before he can get the words out, the father embraces him, kisses him, and gives orders for a welcome-home party.
This is, of course, terribly hard on the elder son, and with whom it is so easy to identify. But the point is that the father has compassion for his son who had been spiritually dead, but now is alive; who had been lost, but now is found.(8)
As it turns out, it is the prodigal’s extreme hardship--his near starvation, and his painful loneliness--that allows him to see that he has only to get up out of the misery of his condition and, putting one foot in front of the other, make his way back home. Thus it was then and is now that life itself--the very trials and temptations we would avoid if we could--turn out to be the means by which we grow into awareness of our eternal identity as spiritual beings, and for whom the welcoming arms and loving heart of God awaits our return.
Chapter Seven Credits
VII-1 - Jung’s Formulation of Self, adapted from Jung, Aion, Bollingen Series XX, Pantheon Books, NY, 1959, page 259.
VII-2 - Compass of Wholeness Correspondences, (by author)
VII-1 - The Ascension, by Giotto, Assisi (Scala)
VII-2 - The Transfiguration, by Fra Angelica, Florence (Alinari/Art Resource, NY)
VII-3 - Christ Ascending in Ezekiel’s Chariot, AD 586, Miniature from the Rabula Gospels, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence. (pictured in The Early Christian & Byzantine World, by Jean Lassus, (Sorbonne, Institute of Art & Archaeology), 1967, McGraw-Hill, NY, (try Alinari)
VII-4 - Christ and Symbols of Four Evangelists, from Westminster Psalter, England 12th century Manuscript, The British Library, London. From book by Nancy Grubb, Revelations: Art of the Apocalypse, Abbeville Publishing, 1997, NY
VII-5 - The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Murillo, Spanish, 1617-1682, National Gallery of Art