Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
And this week, we mean REALLY risen!
Yes, we’re celebrating the Ascension today, the day when Jesus rose up before his disciples to go to his Father in heaven. Ascension is a funny festival. We refer to it in both the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in the Eucharistic Prayer, but if we hadn’t transferred it to be celebrated this Sunday, most of us would not have noticed anything different about last Thursday, which was the actual Day of Christ’s Ascension. In light of the fact that we frequently refer to the “Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord,” I wondered why we generally pay such scant attention to the latter.
Last year I acknowledged the difficulty of this passage for those who take things literally, or scientifically, for that matter. After all, Jesus jetting off into outer space is not something that we can match to any of our own experiences, even if it’s been the inspiration for countless paintings and icons down through the ages. It truly might have been smarter to just preach on the Propers for the Seventh Week in Easter, but there’s something that feels really important about the Ascension, even when we don’t completely understand it.
So, why do we celebrate the Ascension, and what does it mean, and why does it matter? These were the questions going through my head this week. I’m not going to even pretend to have definitive answers to the above, but I did come up with some observations.
The first is that here we are again with Jesus saying goodbye to the disciples. The last two weeks we’ve read from the Farewell Discourse in John, where Jesus was trying to prepare the disciples for his departure from them before the Crucifixion. They were understandably grieved, confused, and distressed. In the Discourse, Jesus tried to tell them what was coming, and sought to console and comfort them, which truthfully had a limited effect. They still ended up in a locked room paralyzed with fear after he’d been crucified.
Now Jesus is going away again and he is clear that they will not see him on earth ever again, but they respond by worshipping him, returning to Jerusalem with great joy, and being found continually in the temple praising God. So why the big contrast?
Jesus told them before the crucifixion that he was coming back, that he would be raised from the dead, that they were never going to be alone because he was going to send to them the Holy Spirit, but none of that really computed at the time.
How typically human—someone tells us how it’s going to be and that we’ll be all right, but we still fret, and worry, and fear. The difference for the disciples this time was that when Jesus went to prepare them for the Ascension, his Crucifixion and Resurrection had already happened, and today’s passage says that he opened their minds so that they could understand what had been written about him, and how what had happened had fulfilled God’s purpose and intent.
In their 3 years with Jesus they’d heard so many times that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead but until it happened they couldn’t latch on to it to steady themselves. Even when they saw the empty tomb they still didn’t understand much beyond the fact that his body was missing.
Whether it was the time the disciples spent with the resurrected Jesus, or a foreshadowing of the power that was coming with the Holy Spirit, they now understood what it all meant. And not insignificantly, they also knew that when Jesus said something was going to happen, it did!
So this time when Jesus left them they knew that what had been promised them, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, was definitely going to be with them, and not only that. The Spirit would be with them in power and they would be the witnesses to the world of what God had done in Jesus.
I like the account in Acts of the apostles standing there gazing up to heaven as Jesus ascended. I can just picture them standing there with mouths agape and suddenly whirling around when they realize that there are 2 men in white robes standing beside them. You can almost hear the men say with a twinkle in their eyes: “So watcha doin’? Yep he’s really gone. Now that’s enough, let’s move along because you’ve got things to do!”
These things are important because we live on the other side of the Resurrection too. Just as the minds of the disciples were opened to understand the Scriptures, so do we have the potential to do the same, if we would be but open to things not being as they seem and not insisting on our own limited interpretation of what God might be doing.
Sure, there are lots of things that I’d like to have answers for, things I’d like to have explained, but maybe sometimes the answer is already mine by faith—maybe it’s God’s voice telling me, “You are mine. I love you more than you can imagine. Trust me, it will be all right.”
We also know that our God, as displayed in Jesus, is true. In a world where words get twisted, and misconstrued, and can be used to maim, wound, and destroy, we can rest in the truth that we will never hear such words from our God. We can rely body and soul on the truth that God is love and is in us and for us.
And lastly, the Ascension is important because Jesus had to go. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see Jesus in the flesh, but embodied, Jesus is, well… embodied. His Spirit on the other hand has no such restrictions. The Holy Spirit is not restricted to one family, one people, one land, or one institution for that matter. The Paraclete can be with all of us all the time, and for that I am overwhelmingly grateful.
It’s like there was an exchange of sorts. Jesus took our humanity into the presence of God, a.k.a. heaven, and gave us his Spirit to be with us on earth. If Jesus hadn’t ascended, that wouldn’t have happened, and because it did happen, we can live lives of powerful witness to the world.
The Ascension is obviously so much more than what we’ve talked about but I love it because it always feels like a beginning to me—
a time to reaffirm the immense love of God it took to become enfleshed,
the lengths that that love will go to to show us how deeply we are loved,
and finally, to remind us of the solemn, joyful and holy call God has placed on our lives,
to be Christ’s hands, and feet, and heart in the world.
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.