Anglo-Saxon ascension scene from illuminated manuscript (Red ribbon graphic with Illuminated letter S) A scholar explores an underappreciated legacy of Anglo-Saxon Christianity
Ascent to Heaven by Charles E. Reineke and Melody Kroll

Stacked up against the Rift Valley’s more conspicuous topographical landmarks, the ridge of soft limestone shadowing the eastern flank of Jerusalem seems at best underwhelming. Its three, stone-strewn summits share nothing of the grandeur of Wadi Rum’s towering escarpments or the tragic majesty of Masada. The most famous of its peaks tops out at just 2,700 feet and is fully accessible to anyone with a car or sturdy pair of walking shoes. Still, for millions of believers, few places on Earth loom larger than the Mount of Olives.

 
Jerusalem's Chapel of the Ascension

For Christians, this is especially true. The Mount is deeply entwined with the life and passion of Christ. On its east side, facing the Old City, lies a site venerated since at least the fourth century as the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus prayed and was betrayed. The Church of the Pater Noster, located nearby, stands above a cave where Jesus is said to have instructed his disciples before his final entry into Jerusalem. A few yards down is a shrine venerated as the tomb of his mother, the Virgin Mary.

Great numbers of the devout and the curious have long flocked to these sacred sites. They still do, as witnessed by today’s deafening drone of tour buses and the unrelenting din of megaphone-wielding guides. This clamor notwithstanding, the Mount does retain a few spots where a determined visitor can steal a quiet moment or two, singular spaces that create, if only fleetingly, a powerful sense of the awe and wonder that compelled our ancestors to so deeply venerate these rocky heights.

The tiny Chapel of the Ascension is such a place. Set in a stone courtyard surrounded by what architectural historians call a “much rebuilt octagonal wall of varied masonry,” the little domed structure marks the exact spot where, by tradition, the risen Jesus ascended to heaven on the 40th day after Easter. With persistence, one can track down the chapel’s Muslim caretaker and gain admission. Once inside, there is little to see except a curiously indented rock. This is no ordinary chunk of limestone. Since the days of the Eastern Roman Empire it has been revered as miraculously imprinted by the right foot of a heaven-bound Jesus.

That the chapel is not a prominent stop on the typical Holy Land tour is hardly surprising. Modern Christians tend to focus more on the sacrifice embodied in the crucifixion and the triumph of resurrection. That the risen Christ would ascend to heaven is taken as something of a given, almost an afterthought.

Earlier Christians took a more holistic view, argues Johanna Kramer, a medieval scholar and assistant professor of English at MU. Her latest project is a book-length study exploring how Anglo-Saxon clergy and others, beginning in the 8th century, relied on an array of Ascension-related expressions to illuminate what they regarded as a crucial aspect of the path to salvation. Along the way, Kramer also uses her work to broaden her colleagues’appreciation for the Anglo-Saxon sources she regards as underutilized.

“I take the Ascension and use it as a case study to show that we can pull together a great diversity of materials that fall across many categories — a Latin hymn, a Latin homily, an Old English homily, Old English poetry, liturgical rituals, popular religious practices,” Kramer says. “All of these sources provide us with information on how a single feast day of the year, the Ascension, spreads and filters into diverse sources and texts.”

It’s an approach that offers surprising insights into the early medieval mind-set, as well as a window into why places such as the Chapel of the Ascension exerted such power over the pre-industrial imagination.

the authors of the gospels devote remarkably little ink to the Ascension. In the book of Luke, Jesus is said to have led the disciples “out as far as to Bethany,” where, while giving blessings, “he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.” In Mark, the author recounts how Jesus gave his assembled disciples a stern dressing-down for at first doubting his resurrection. He next “commissions” them to go into the world to preach and heal in his name. After that, the author says, Jesus was “received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.” In Matthew and John, the event is not mentioned at all.

The most complete account appears in the book of Acts. Just prior to his rise to heaven, Jesus is said to have cautioned his followers that the time of his promised return “is not for them to know.” In the meantime, however, he says they must use the power of the Holy Ghost to serve as “witnesses unto me” both at home and abroad. The disciples then watch in awe and wonder as, “[Jesus] was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.”

Perhaps because of this paucity of detail, the Ascension tends to receive less scholarly and ecclesiastical attention than other aspects of the Christian narrative. Kramer believes her work might serve as a corrective, especially among scholars interested in what she calls “salvation history, and what it means to be a Christian.”

To make her case Kramer relies on a concept most often associated with cultural anthropological studies: liminality.

Back in 1903, when the Oxford English Dictionary first defined liminal — “of, or pertaining to, the threshold or initial stage of a process” — usage of the term was described as “rare.” Today, thanks to the pioneering work of ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep and, later, cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, it is considerably less so. Scholars working literary studies, psychology, even media theory are using the concept to shed light on how people (and, sometimes, things) undergo transformations in body or spirit; how, through a process often shrouded in ritual and enigma, someone or something navigates the mysterious space between what is now and what is destined to be.

Van Gennep, writing in the early part of the previous century, understood the liminal as a crucial stage in rite-of-passage experiences. Turner, beginning in the 1960s, was among the first to recognize that it also provided a key insight into ritualistic tribal practices.

“Van Gennep divided a rite of passage into three phases: a segregation, a liminal state, and then a reaggregation,” explains Kramer. “Most cultures have, for example, manhood rituals. Before a young man enters a full state of manhood, he has to go out and prove himself in some way. So he separates himself from the community. That’s the segregation. While separated, he may be in a hostile environment, possibly where he has to hunt or support himself on his own; that’s the liminal state.”

Removed from his normal surroundings during this liminal period, Kramer continues, the young person experiences a “state of exception,” a transitional place in which he is set adrift from all that is familiar, neither boy nor man but an amorphous being sharing elements of both (or neither). Successfully emerging from the ritual brings a return to clarity, as the initiate into manhood is “reaggregated” back into the community.

Liminal ascension image

According to scholars, including Kramer, those who inhabit these liminal spaces sometimes find the experience of far greater moment than simply a means toward a social or cultural end. “Liminality,” she writes in the introduction to her new book, Between Earth and Heaven, “opens up possibilities for an alternative, radically new life, one that could not have been imagined before entering the liminal phase.”

Charles D. Wright is a noted medievalist and professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He told Illumination that while employing liminality as a tool for textual analysis is nothing new, Kramer’s sophisticated approach, and the exhaustive range of her research, has left little doubt that the Anglo-Saxons themselves saw the Ascension as liminal.

“I think that’s the key take away from the book: That the Ascension is understood as a liminal event that has profound theological meaning, and that the theological meaning is related to the liminality. In other words, the liminality is not simply a feature that [the Ascension] happens to display, but it is constitutive of its meaning,” Wright says.

He adds that, for him, Kramer’s “impressive book” deserves praise especially for its deft embrace of the diversity of Anglo-Saxon expression. “I admire her work because I think she does a really valuable kind of source analysis where, in addition to bringing to bear some new comparanda and sources that might not have been known before, she describes them very thickly. She gets at what the Anglo-Saxon authors were trying to do by looking at the way they adapted and manipulated their sources. That’s the kind of scholarship I find very productive and valuable.”

the gulf of centuries is wide, and the triumph of rationalism has made recovering the viewpoints and convictions of our medieval ancestors a daunting task. Kramer comes to it naturally.

She was born in Bavaria to a pair of high school teachers who shared their love of history, literature, and languages with Kramer and her brother. “When people ask me why I’m interested in the Middle Ages or how I came to it, I tell them I just sort of grew into it,” she says. “There was never a moment when I discovered it. It was never something that was unusual or that I had never heard of. It was something that I grew up with.”

As a schoolgirl, she remembers her mother reciting poems in Old High German, Althochdeutsch, a form of the language that faded away in the 11th century. Their home was filled with books, volumes both old and new, so many that they spilled over onto shelves in bathrooms. Art adorned the walls; cabinets were packed with collected objects. Kramer recalls spending hours at friends’homes watching slide shows, projections not of beach vacations or birthday celebrations but of historic artifacts the children were challenged to identify.

She might have been forgiven for rebelling against this unusually erudite upbringing. In fact, Kramer embraced it. At school, she gobbled up languages, Latin and English especially. During discussions of subjects that had been covered at home, she reveled in the moment.

“I said to myself, ‘Oh yeah, I already heard about that from my parents!’” Kramer recalls. “To me, that was always exciting. I was just nerdy enough that it felt extremely rewarding when I [knew] something in school even though we hadn’t already studied it yet.”

It was as an undergraduate at the University of Munich that she encountered Old English, the amalgam of Germanic dialects that arose in Britain after the withdrawal of the Roman legions. It didn’t take long before she was hooked. “I just adored it. I thought it was so fun to translate it. I loved the texts we were translating. I am a bit of a sucker for the methodical process of translation. I still enjoy it even now — sitting down, taking a text, looking up forms, looking up words — that process is very rewarding to me. So that was it. From that time on I realized, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

A study-abroad year at Britain’s University of East Anglia yielded an immersive experience in contemporary English — and a meeting with the young American who would later become her husband. When that program ended, Kramer, at least in part because her new partner didn’t speak German, decided to continue her studies in the United States. At Oregon State, she completed her baccalaureate program and earned a master’s degree.

While in Corvallis, she took something of an intellectual detour, studying modernist Irish literature. Kramer returned to Old English at Cornell, where she received another master’s and became a doctoral candidate. Her dissertation was an exploration of spatial metaphors in Old English religious prose and poetry. Kramer completed her studies in 2005 and joined the MU faculty soon thereafter.

French historian Georges Duby wrote that “medieval man could not imagine a barrier between the visible universe and the next world.” Yet Kramer has found that Anglo-Saxon church fathers seemed very much preoccupied with explaining how one might navigate just such a barrier or, as she might put it, boundary. An example, she says, can be found in Rogationtide, a three-day event held just before Ascension is celebrated.

Christ within mandala floating to heaven, illuminated manuscript

“One of the distinguishing features of the liturgical practices during the Rogationtide are the processions: you go outside of the church, walk the fields, and bless the fields. This is very similar, if not to say identical, to other practices that we know happened in Anglo-Saxon England. People went out into their fields and spoke blessings over them. They invoked the power of the Earth, or the Earth as a mother, or even invoked the ‘Mother of the Earth.’All of which are concepts that are not terribly Christian.”

Nevertheless, she adds, those participating never imagined themselves as anything but Christians. They were simply performing an ancient rite in a new context, a practice the church was happy to embrace. Kramer found evidence of this in surviving Rogationtide homilies, the commentaries that followed a reading from scripture.

“The important thing people want to do during these days is pray for their fields, for good crops, for a fruitful harvest,” she says. “These are prominent themes that come up in those homilies.”

These homilies tied back to Ascension teaching, she continues, in ways that highlight the liminal nature of their appeal. “When you go out on processions and walk the fields, you mark the territory that belongs to the church, you mark boundaries. You walk the boundaries of the community and of the land that belongs to God. You bless the fields, but what you’re also really saying is, ‘This area that we’re walking belongs to us, belongs to our community.’

As they walked these boundaries and prayed at different stations, she continues, parishioners were drawn deeper into their own spiritual transformation. The procession became a de facto ascension, one imbued with transcendental potential. It culminated in what Kramer describes as an “unfolding” — a liminal experience in which the literal and metaphorical become conflated, and participants feel themselves taken up into the event they are commemorating. “They are themselves,” she says, “becoming the body of Christ [at] the moment he enters heaven.”

The church reinforced this process by looking to the Holy Land and to the physical evidence of Jesus’s ascent found on the Mount of Olives. Christ’s footprints — there were two until Salah al-Din ordered the removal of the left one to the al Aqsa Mosque in 1200 — became potent symbols for its teachings on the nature of salvation.

Pilgrims who had seen the prints wrote about their miraculous properties: how generations of the devout had taken away sand from the impressions but the prints were never diminished. Though these stories tended more toward travelogue and folktale than sacred text, clergy in Anglo-Saxon England seized upon them. The footprints became, Kramer says, the “perfect liminal symbol.”

“The Ascension is an event that is in between two different things,” she says. “You see the footprints and you know that Jesus had to have been a human being — you can’t leave footprints unless you have a human shape. But he’s also ascended, and you can only do that as a divine being. So in the footprints themselves you have the important teaching of Christ being both God and man. You see how special that place is — the Mount of Olives — with the miracles that have taken place there. And you are reminded of the past as well as the present: You can go see those footprints today, but you are also commemorating an event in the past. They straddle the fence, and that’s exactly the idea of liminality.”

This idea played well in a culture that had long embraced folk traditions of “footprints on the land,” particularly those involving the devil. “We have a lot of narratives about the devil’s footprints, and people are going to know about where the Devil’s footprints are in the landscape. So a story about Christ’s footprints is not foreign. It’s something you can really well imagine.”

as time went on, the Ascension story also became an important motif in Anglo-Saxon art. Kramer finds in one development, depictions of what came to be called the “Disappearing Christ,” a strong sense of liminality.

Starting about the year 1000, she says, Anglo-Saxon artists began drawing and painting Jesus as a half figure who is striding or floating out of the image. The “disappearing Christ” helped believers visualize “the very moment when Christ crosses the threshold into Heaven. He’s not still fully there, but he’s not completely disappeared. He’s in that process.”

Kramer acknowledges that all this might seem rather abstruse, and that her new book isn’t likely to shoot to the top of the bestseller lists. She handles the rude but inevitable, “And how exactly does this stuff matter?” question with good humor.

“You mean, aside from it being a really interesting and great topic?” she says with a smile. The obvious answer is that the study of literature and history combine to help us more fully understand and embrace our own narrow slice of the span of human experience, she says.

Kramer also points to a benefit, one that’s surprisingly of the moment. Her method of exploring the medieval mindset via diverse forms of expression, she says, might help readers make sense of today’s highly fragmented information landscape.

“The way we access texts now has radically diversified,” Kramer says. “The media through which we access texts, the forms in which we access them, how they influence each other, how they are constantly travelling from one format to another — it’s the ecology of texts and how they interact with each other. A study of early medieval texts is, in a way, very similar. We can learn something about how those mechanisms might work.”

University of Missouri

Published by the Office of Research

© 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri