Today is the feast of the Ascension; it comes 40 days after Easter and 10 before Pentecost. This is the feast in the Church’s calendar when we recall Jesus being taken bodily into Heaven just as he was taken bodily from the grave. Like most things written about Jesus in the New Testament, there are different accounts of this story. Matthew and John do not write about it at all, Matthew ends his Gospel with a commission from Jesus to baptize and teach, and John closes with Jesus walking down the beach with his friends. Luke’s story doesn’t end with his Gospel, but continues into the book of Acts, where the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and broaden the audience of the Gospel message towards Gentiles and eventually the center of the imperial world in Rome. For Luke, the Ascension is an important step in this narrative: Jesus is “carried up into heaven,” the same place from which the disciples will be “clothed with power from on high,” clothed, that is, with the Holy Spirit. Jesus goes up and the Spirit comes down. Perhaps this is another way of communicating what John tells of Jesus’ departure: “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself, that where I am, you may be also.” (Jn 14:3)
These are all different ways of grappling with a question at the center of Resurrection faith: where is our risen Lord, now? The great mystery of our faith was sparked by the fact that after the death of Jesus, his followers still experienced his presence. The New Testament documents these experiences in all their myriad forms: visions, appearances, a body not yet as solid as flesh, a ghost who passes through walls, a stranger on the way who suddenly becomes remarkably familiar. At some point in the early Church, the norm for experiencing the presence of Jesus beyond death came to be in community: wherever two or three are gathered; often, in the sharing of stories, intercessions, and in the breaking of bread. It was known that the power that brought human bodies together in this kind of communion with Jesus beyond the grave was the Holy Spirit he had promised in his earthly life. The risen Lord is here, among us, yet also beyond us, with God, a mystery that escapes the grasp of words and logic. Ascension stories are one way of trying to communicate this mystery in written form. Jesus lives bodily with the transcendent God of all creation, and dwells spiritually in the bodies we lend to his service here on the earth. Jesus brings something of our humanity with him to God, and through his Holy Spirit with us we bring something of God to those we encounter every day. Part of our faith believes that the distance between our God and our humanity has been forever wed in the death and new life of Jesus, and grows closer and closer still every day.
I am perpetually fascinated by artistic depictions of the Ascension. In many paintings such as the one above by Hans Seuss von Kulmbach, the only thing we see of Jesus are his feet, just before they are taken into a mysterious cloud which the disciples gaze heavenward towards. For me, they are a symbol of the last thing the disciples might have been able to grab hold of before having to part with the tangible, bodily reminder of their friend and teacher. If you have ever experienced the loss of a loved one, you may be familiar with the surprises that come with what we are able to hold on to. It may be a photograph, a book, a place, something or somewhere that we can hold onto and ground ourselves in with our memories. As we begin to release our hold on these objects, we may make our peace with the fact that our beloved dead have gone to a place where we, for a time, at least, cannot follow. What new life comes in that release? What relationships grow in the letting go? The body of Jesus was familiar to his followers, without it, what new expressions of his life were born! A few summers ago, while I was interning as a hospital chaplain in San Francisco, I wrote a poem about this letting go, you can read it here if you’re interested. For this entry, I’ll leave you with a prayer for Ascension Day by Janet Morley, and the hope that we may all find rest between the letting go of our familiar loves and the spirit of new life waiting for us on the other side of our release.
you withdraw from our sight
that you may be known by our love
help us to enter the cloud
where you are hidden,
and surrender all our certainty
to the darkness of faith
in Jesus Christ, Amen.