Sunday after Ascension
Blessings be upon you this Ascension Sunday. (You thought I was going to say Mother’s Day, didn’t you? Well, many blessings for Mother’s Day as well) You thought I was going to say Mother’s Day because you’ve actually heard of that, but maybe not so much of Ascension Sunday. And, of course, it isn’t Ascension Sunday at all. It’s Ascension Thursday. The Day of Ascension is always on a Thursday. We celebrate it on Sunday because if we celebrated it on Thursday we would never really celebrate it all, because who is going to come celebrate a holy day they may or may not have heard of; may or may not be able to explain; most likely have no memories of, fond or otherwise; and for which they most certainly cannot find an appropriate Hallmark card.
There are those who think, some of them right here among us, living, working, and praying right alongside everybody else, those who think that accidentally overlooking the Day of Ascension might not be an entirely bad thing.
It seems a bit…anachronistic in this day and age of space exploration and jet travel, a bit ridiculous really, this picture of Jesus hoisted up by the seat of his robes, sandals dangling, floating off into a cloud like a first century Lorax, disappearing into the stratosphere. We say it every week “On the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven” We say it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are comfortable faced with actually thinking about it.
Our discomfort notwithstanding, the author of Luke felt the Ascension was important enough not only to serve as the final note for his entire Gospel account, but also sufficiently crucial to reprise the event as he began his next book – the book of Acts. The Book of Acts, as we have read today, begins with a sort of “Previously on Sacred Writings according to Luke” reprise of the Ascension. Out of Luke’s entire Gospel – Jesus’s birth, life, teachings, suffering, dying, rising – this one event was the only one the author of Luke felt it was necessary to repeat to introduce a second book – this was the one piece we really had to have firmly in our hearts in order to hear what else he had to say.
I think the key to why, why he had to repeat this, why he needed to make very sure we truly heard this story lies in that last little bit, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
I think if I were a man of Galilee, I might be a bit nonplussed with that question – even a bit miffed. Why? Well – Jesus died once, breaking my heart, dashing my hopes. He stayed dead just a few days, then came back eating bread and fish, offering blessings and prayers and wisdom for the next 40 days. Why am I standing there looking at the heavens? How exactly should one behave when a no-longer-dead-maybe-Messiah-oh-I-so-hope-he-is-Messiah visibly disappears into the cloud cover? I would think one could be forgiven a moment or two of gawking.
Just a moment or two suggest the men in white – there is work to be done.
It was important that when post-Easter Jesus left that people knew that he was really gone this time. Gone and not going to show up on the beach for breakfast again next week. “If [Jesus] had just disappeared again [just faded away rather than making this big dramatic presentation], …there would have been more Jesuses seen in Jerusalem than Elvises in Las Vegas. It’s difficult to get busy with the important business of loving the Christ in your neighbor if you are constantly on the lookout for [Christ in the flesh]” Paraphrased from Delmer Chilton
So what is the point of Ascension Day for us, now, 2000 years later? For the most part we have pretty much gotten the idea. Jesus is not terribly likely to show up in the flesh for a cup of coffee and treats of a morning, or out fishing, or behind locked doors – and we know it. Maybe the disciples needed to see Him go. We have lived our lives not seeing Him in the flesh at all.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Backus this weekend. Whether you’ve seen Darcy’s Dance show or not, I’m sure you’ve seen this technique: between acts in plays, or before a concert starts. The entire house is darkened in preparation. The closed curtains are raised. The dancers, or actors, or musicians are all in darkness. They look shadowy, just shapes and suggestions of color. Then the spotlights flash on, blindingly bright – so for a moment – you see nothing, except blinding light. Then everything becomes clear and bright and alive – somehow different than the suggestions of the shadows. You cease to be conscious of the light at all you see only what is illumined by it.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams likens Ascension to this experience: “at first Jesus’s resurrected self was so blinding that the disciples could be conscious only of Him. The ascension, however, is that moment when the light itself recedes into the background, so that Jesus becomes the one through whom we see the rest of the world. “He is the light we see by; we see the world in a new way because we see it through him, see it with his eyes. Moreover, this new perspective works in two ways; not only do we see the world as the place where Jesus has promised to be, but we also see it as the place where we are committed to be. (Feasting on the Word)
Jesus came to illuminate the world. To light the way to justice, to peace, to love and to life abundant. He left us to walk in that way, to follow His illumined path. Why do you stand looking towards heaven, towards the cross, towards the shared bread and wine? We turn to the light. And then we will turn back to the world, where our service begins. And the light will be with us today and tomorrow and through all the tomorrows. Amen.