This year we’ve moved the Feast of the Ascension from its assigned day of last Thursday to today. Weekday services no longer draw many. So we transfer the feast to the next Sunday when more people, like you, show up. It is permissible in the church do this. I have checked.
A few attempts have been made to bring new life to Ascension observances. Once, a seminary student added his liturgical touch. On Ascension day faculty, deans and seminarians filled the chapel, bedecked in splendid robes and academic attire. The service ends. With incense, the cross, and singing a glorious Ascension hymn, worshippers leave. Unbeknownst, the aforementioned student is hiding in nearby bushes to launch his plan. He lights a rocket stuffed into a Christmas crèche figure – you know, those plastic, hollow and painted tacky things. Off it shoots upward, leaving a trail of smoke and sparks. People scream and run as it turns and dives back toward the ground. Finally it crashes onto a nearby roof. When confronted by the Dean, the student explains he is merely dramatizing his faith in the ascension of Jesus. This innovation did not catch on, as far as I can tell.
What do you make of the Ascension story? Do you imagine Jesus really lifts off like a rocket, disappearing into the sky? That might “fly” in a prescientific world of a three-tier universe: earth sandwiched between heaven, and the seas and underworld below. Science and space exploration have consigned this view to the archives of ancient cosmology. At least when the Fifth Dimension sang “Up, Up and Away,” they took off in a balloon. And I’m sure they returned to earth – unlike Jesus.
European missionaries arrived in Africa. They find the natives believing God resides in the earth, not the heavens. The missionaries try to reposition God to his rightful place in the sky, adhering to the Apostles’ Creed. The natives politely hold their ground. The ground is sacred for their dead and for God. They are very theistic. It’s the missionaries who crash and burn this time. I like where these Africans locate God, with us and among us on and in earth.
Frankly, I think God will be wherever, whatever, and however God decides to be. If we dismiss this story because of our sophisticated logic and science, we’ll miss a deeper truth. Somehow Jesus leaves planet earth – he must. Luke could have said: “Suddenly the disciples notice Jesus is missing. They never see him again.” That won’t captivate our imaginations. Ascension says Jesus is neither temporal nor local. He is cosmic and eternal. Story, not a factual report conveys truth. Yet Jesus also says he is with us always. He came to be like us, and he’s more than us. He descends. He ascends. He will return. He doesn’t abandon us. It’s in the Creeds. They mark points of faith – lifting us into to a larger world – one of those Ascension things. There’s more here than mere facts and logic.
Jesus says those who’ve been with him are witnesses. Granted, like us, they slow to get it. Jesus keeps opening their minds to what God’s been doing, as he does for us. Luke reports they return to Jerusalem differently. Now get this: Scared, unsure, shaking in their sandals disciples now return joyful, confidently anticipating what comes next. Now, what seems so new and startling is understood to be the old, properly interpreted. Jesus turns it over to them the work he has begun and they witness – divine love, grace and forgiveness; a power to heal, redeem and restore. He entrusts it to us, too. The Holy Spirit seals the deal, like happens when we baptize a squealing infant or a mature adult – sealed and marked. Now we are ready – to be witnesses of these things. We are witnesses that God is constantly making all things new, long before we draw our final breath. Sometimes we need other witnesses to help open our minds to see it. That’s why we need the church.
He took his leave, carried up to heaven – ending a chapter, preparing for the next. In Being Mortal Surgeon Atul Gawande says we live with an illusion that medicine and science can fix everything. We expect it, and medicine tries, and does a darn good job. Yet one day, as much as we fend it off, mortality wins. I am grateful for God’s healing mediated through physicians, surgeons, researchers and nurses. I want their best “doctoring” and research skills. But finally, one day we either accept we are mortal, or get slammed into a wall. We are not in control. It’s good to have Ascension close by.
The Ascension is eternal truth apprehended by faith – and sometimes experienced. Do you ever glimpse or imagine a greater world surrounds this one? I do – quite often. I walked by the lake yesterday. I heard a higher voice in all the beautiful spring flowers in their glory, the mystic fog rolling in off Lake Michigan – the budding trees that days before were empty branches. And joy fills my heart. We are witnesses, my friends, of a greater power, a forgiveness that changes lives, brings well-being; holds us in love and assurance – a world of which we are witnesses. Governments, terrorists, natural disasters do not have the final word. God does.
“God has gone up, ‘Deus Ascendit’” – but not to a place. It’s to say that Jesus is above all and in all – not just for the church, but for the whole world. Ascension is probably closer for us in the dark days, for our last days – when we need to know one greater than we is in charge. Jesus goes up – beyond us, yet always with us. I think the Ascension story, for those who can trust it – is pretty important to our faith. As I see it, here’s the choice: Would you rather hold onto your fears – or hold to what brings you hope? How you choose determines what you find.