By the Rev. Darren Miner
Ascension Day, one of the seven principal feasts of the Episcopal Church, is next Thursday. But we’re allowed by the rubrics in the prayer book to transfer it to another weekday, and so we are gathered here today to keep that great feast.
Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page, let me define what is meant by “the Ascension.” In the end of Luke’s Gospel, and again in the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that, for 40 days after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles and spoke to them about the kingdom of God. On the 40th day, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus was taken up bodily into the sky and disappeared into a cloud before the very eyes of his apostles. That assumption of Christ’s resurrection body into the heavens is the Ascension.
Now, this story clearly has great visual appeal. And artists throughout the ages have depicted it a number of ways. One early medieval artist showed people devoutly kneeling on a hill with their hands joined together in prayer looking up toward a cloud. And from out of the cloud all you see are two feet sticking out! A later artist portrayed the full image of Jesus majestically floating up into the sky with his arms in the orans position, the position of the priest during the eucharistic prayer. More recently, Salvador Dalí depicted the Ascension from still a different perspective; in his painting, the viewer is looking up directly into the noonday sun and sees the soles of Jesus’ feet directly above him or her, surrounded by the sun’s rays.
But despite the visual appeal of the story, modern-day Christians, if they give any thought to the story at all, usually have some difficulty with the idea of Jesus Christ flying up and disappearing into a cloud. The ancients believed that God lived in a realm above the sky. We know that beyond the stratosphere is outer space. And we don’t expect to find the realm of Heaven there! In this age of science, we are understandably skeptical of a story of Jesus flying into the sky and from there into Heaven—even though we regularly affirm that very fact in the Nicene Creed when we say: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
Our problem with this story comes from ignoring the fact that we are dealing with the realm of mystical experience. Let me propose a thought experiment. Suppose that God wanted to show the apostles that Jesus was leaving this realm of existence to rejoin the Father in another mode of being. Now he might have conveyed this idea in words alone. But further suppose that God wanted to express this truth visually. How might he go about it? In a pre-scientific age, where people commonly believed that God lived above the sky, might he not show the apostles exactly what Luke says they witnessed—Jesus flying up into the clouds? Now, granted, if God were to offer us this mystical experience today, he might show us something completely different, say, Jesus’ body gradually dematerializing as it’s beamed into another dimension. The point is that God reveals his truth in words and images that are appropriate to the recipients. So, we shouldn’t get so hung up on the imagery of the story that we miss its meaning.
And the meaning of the story just happens to be the next item in this homily! First and foremost, the Ascension signifies the departure of Jesus from the realm of earthly existence. The apostles were given a short period of 40 days to rejoice in the Resurrection, only to witness Jesus’ sudden departure. Their expectations must have been dashed. We get a hint of this in today’s reading from Acts. The apostles ask the risen Christ, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, they are expecting the “end of the world.” Instead, Jesus commissions them to be his witnesses to the “ends of the earth.” Then he departs and leaves them standing there staring into the sky! Two men in white, probably angels, appear before them and mildly rebuke them. In effect, they tell the apostles, “Don’t just stand there. Get to work!”
But what a daunting task! How could the apostles be expected to succeed on their own? Well, they couldn’t. So Jesus promised that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit that would strengthen them for their mission. That event took place ten days later at Pentecost. (You’ll hear all about that on June 8.)
But why did Jesus have to leave us at all? Why couldn’t he have just stayed? The short answer is that it was God’s will. The long answer is that it was necessary in order to complete what was started at the Incarnation. With the Incarnation, the second person of the Holy Trinity emptied himself of his divine glory and sojourned among us as a fellow human being. He experienced all that it is to be human—with one exception—he knew no sin. But Jesus did know temptation, hunger, thirst, pain, loss, grief, but most of all he knew love. With the Ascension, the Incarnation comes full circle. All that Jesus experienced as a man—all that humankind has and ever will experience—was taken up into the very Godhead. Only through the Ascension could the human experience become part of the Divine. St. Gregory of Nazianzus is quoted as saying, “That which he has not assumed, he has not saved; only that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.” Yes, in a sense, Christ did leave us, but he left us only to bring all that we are as human beings into the realm of the Deity so that we might be saved through that union of the human with the Divine. And Christ’s work for us did not end there, for we are told that Christ is eternally in the presence of the God the Father, “seated at his right hand,” ever interceding on our behalf.
Finally, what, if anything, does this story of Christ’s Ascension call us to do here, in this day and age? The answer, I think, is that we are meant to follow the example of the original apostles. We are to receive the Holy Spirit to empower us for ministry. This empowerment is gifted to us at baptism, is strengthened at confirmation, and is renewed at Eucharist. Then, in the power of that same Spirit, we are to witness by word and by deed to what we know of God, and of his Son, to the very ends of the earth—to friends, family members, and complete strangers alike. For we, too, are meant to be apostles of the Risen and Ascended Lord. Amen.
© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Lectionary Readings: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Easter/AAscension_RCL.html