When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Acts 1:9
Clouds. There are more of them here in north-central Mexico now, more of them then there were before. Vienen las lluvias – the rains are coming, announce the hardware stores. Showers of actual rain are still rare, but the cielos nublados, cloudy skies, with their nubes gordos, fat clouds, are harbingers of the falling water to come.
Here in the neighborhood of La Luz, people are so desperate for clouds that they make their own. In an annual celebration of their patron virgen, Santa Maria de La Luz, laypeople at the domed, medieval-looking church at the bottom of the hill are sending off powerful explosive CRACKs that bounce off the mountains and hillsides of town, setting off car alarms and leaving behind, high in the air, a puff of cloudy smoke that quickly dissipates in the wind.
Clouds have long been a source of human fascination. We stare up at them, imagining what familiar objects they might look like. Sometimes we even look up to the clouds and find God. My new Green Letter Bible lists more references to Clouds than to such stereotypically Biblical nature objects as Deserts, Seeds, and Vineyards. Even Rain has fewer references than its mother, the Cloud. First God creates clouds, covering the planet with them in Genesis, and then by Exodus the Lord is using clouds to speak to Moses, to fill the temple, to lead the people by day. God uses clouds so much that when Job asks, “Can anyone understand the clouds?” it’s clear the poor man is just asking, in another way, Can anyone understand God?
Of course, the clouds are not God; rather, they simply become one of God’s primary traveling cloaks, a traveling tool God uses whenever God decides it’s time for a formal visit. The writer of Psalm 104 sees this pattern and calls the clouds God’s Winnebago: “You make the clouds your chariot.” “The Lord is riding on a swift cloud,” Isaiah says, continuing the transportation theme. For all the fun with winged wheels, though, the point, for both Isaiah and the Psalmist, is that the clouds are a sign that God is coming – or that God is already here.
Which is why it comes as a bit of a shock when the clouds come, in our Ascension Day readings, to take Jesus away. The disciples stand openmouthed, dumbfounded. It wasn’t that they didn’t expect clouds to be involved. Clouds always seemed to be showing up at important moments. Matthew records a voice coming out of a cloud at Jesus’ baptism, Mark writes of a cloud overshadowing the Transfiguration, and Luke tells us of Jesus’ proclamation that in the last days people will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and glory.” But that a cloud would come to take Jesus away? Away? Whatever can this mean?
When the clouds come, they bring a change. Here in Jalisco, the weather is cooler now with the clouds hovering over us; there is relief from the unrelenting heat of the sun but new cause to throw on a jacket. Soon there will be more cracks in the sky, accompanied by their fiery bolts of light, and the waters will come. Farmers will rejoice. And the season will change.
I walk up to the roof to see about the need for that jacket. The clouds are increasing, rolling heavily through an overcast sky. Vienen las llluvias, the hardware store announces. It won’t be long now.