A few weeks ago, Mother Anne asked me if I would like to give the homily tonight. I had mentioned to her in passing that the Ascension was one of my favorite holidays, and she said she'd love to learn why. However, one often has a favorite this or that without the slightest considered reason! So this has been an occasion to look more deeply into a story and celebration that, until now, I have simply “liked.”
Christians have always believed the scriptures do not have a single interpretation, a single truth, but a multitude of depths, all containing truth, and appropriate for different facets of our lives. It has seemed to me that whenever scriptures raise questions (or problems!) for us, that is a call to look more deeply at what is being said – or not said! The story of the Ascension is a fantastic story, and it was fantastic to those who experienced it, and to those who first heard it, as well as to us. I'd like to explore some of what it might have meant to them, and what it might mean for us.
This text has many peculiar details, that, for me, raise questions. For 40 days, Jesus appeared to the disciples, teaching them. It is understandable that he had more to teach them now that they had seen him rise from the dead, than beforehand. But why for only so long? And why only to the disciples? During this time, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem. He had already appeared to certain of them separately, so why did he require that they stay together in that city? Finally, he took them to Bethany, according to the Gospel, and there he was lifted up from them as high as the clouds, before a cloud took him from their sight. How must they have experienced that? I have no idea how the risen Christ must have appeared! In the various accounts, he seems always to have been seen as a person, but never recognized as Jesus until he revealed himself. How does one see someone one knows, and think them a stranger? They saw him, but no one else did; if anyone else had been in the vicinity when the disciples were watching Jesus ascend, what would those others have perceived? Would they have seen anything at all? And finally, as he ascended, and the disciples watch, two angels appear and ask them, “why stand ye gazing up into heaven?” What an odd question considering what just happened!
Some details, be they factual or literary devices, would have served to situate the story in a greater context for the first listeners. For Luke, Jerusalem is a symbol of Judaism and Rome is a symbol of the known world. Perhaps in Jesus requiring the disciples to remain in Jerusalem at first, we see echoed that what Jesus has to teach is first for the Jews, then for the Gentiles. When Jesus took them to Bethany before departing, perhaps he was identifying with the prophecy first given by Zechariah, and later addressed by Amos and Joel concerning the Day of the Lord, when the Lord would stand on the Mount of Olives (where Bethany is located) to Judge the Nations.
Moving into the more troubling question of a levitating body: I think sometimes people in the past are given too little credit in terms of what they believed or wondered or accepted. They perceived a world that operated on the same rules ours does, even if they came with different presuppositions. I think it's a safe course of action to assume that if something seems incredible or doesn't make sense to us, it's possible that the original recipients responded the same way. Luke seems to have been writing to a Gentile audience, and Paul tells us that Greeks seek wisdom – and what he preaches is foolishness to them! I think there is a clue in both the cloud taking Jesus from the disciples’ sight, and in the Angels' question as to how this is meant to be worked with. I'd like to take a side trip through some resent research to explain this.
As Modern Americans, we tend to place a lot of trust in our senses. We tend to think that if we can't see something, it isn't real. And if someone else sees something that we don't, we assume they have a problem. The Ghost of Jacob Marley asked Ebenezer Scrooge why he doubted his senses. Scrooge replied “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.” Some of us may wonder, secretly or aloud, whether the disciples had properly cooked their dinner that day. However, we routinely fail to sense many things that are there . In a video of an experiment performed for their book, “The Invisible Gorilla,” Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons ask the viewer to watch a group of people passing a basketball and count the number of passes. Afterward, the viewer is asked if they saw the Gorilla walk through the middle of the group partway through. Most people never see it. I don't know what the resurrection body of our Lord was like, but the frequency with which normal people overlook things that are “right in plain sight” makes it quite plausible to me that the disciples could see something, upon having it pointed out, that others could not.
Part of the reason people don't see the gorilla is that it doesn't belong, and their attention is elsewhere. The Ascension that the disciples witnessed was something new, and totally out of the ordinary. In our own times, when we push beyond the boundaries of what most ordinary people can intuit in their everyday life, we have to resort to analogy and symbol – and we understand that those analogies and symbols are true as far as they go, but limited.
Any specialized field will make use of unknown terms, or – more likely – known terms used in an unknown way to the rest of us. Sometimes we accept this, such as in physics, where many of us are content to let the Physicists know things we don't, and trust that they know what they're talking about. Sometimes it causes us problems, such as the introduction of computers into everyday life: we're confronted with windows, desktops, mice, and menus that are only tangentially related to the windows, desktops, mice and menus that we know outside of computers. And so we get confused, and even indignant, at the impenetrable domain of Computers. The only way through the frustration is through experience. When we come to experience what the terms mean, rather than just trying to understand them. And if someone leads us through that experience, so much the better.
And so, Christ ascended in front of the disciples – but only as high as the clouds. Their perception stopped there, as though to say to the listener, “This is as far as your understanding needs to go.” And as they gazed the angels asked why, As though to say to the listener, “Be amazed, yes, but do not let your focus get lost trying to reason out this event. Simply look, and then turn back to Jerusalem, and wait for the comforter. John Calvin agrees. “And this seemeth to be the reason why the cloud did overshadow him, before such time as he did enter into his celestial glory; that his disciples being content with their measure might cease to inquire any further. And we are taught by them that our mind is not able to ascend so high as to take a full view of the glory of Christ; therefore, let this cloud be a mean to restrain our boldness, as was the smoke which was continually before the door of the tabernacle in the time of the law.” Further understanding comes not from the encounter of reason and words, but from the experience of Christ.
Having looked some at how we might understand the reading, how then might it affect us? Ascension sits in the Liturgical Year toward the end of the Easter season, near to Pentecost. As we go through the year each year, the celebrations are not simply a remembrance of words and deeds that Christ taught and did. Rather, they are our own present as we are ever made more fully one with Christ.
In the Athanasian Creed, we read that Christ, “Who, although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by taking of the Manhood into God.” His path is not only on behalf of us, but also simply ahead of us.
The gift of the church is one aspect of the Grace through which God effects our salvation, not only once-and-for all, for we are already his and assured of eternal life with him, but also in that our time spent preparing for that eternal life is in fact time spent slowly living into it even now. And so, during the time of Lent, we purge and fast, and train our souls in virtue that at Easter, in the waters of Baptism, in the crossing of the Red Sea away from Egypt into the Promised Land: At Easter, when Christ “hath broken the gates of brass, and smitten the bars of iron in sunder,” we, with Christ, might die to the “old man” - the slavery to our passions, and emotions, and even our reason, that tyrant Pharoah: and break the gates with which they constrain us; and rise, not bound by the body, but governing it in unity with God. We take on ourselves the suffering of Christ in unity with him, and through that suffering we learn something more of the depths of the Compassion and Love of God for all creation.
Anthony Sparrow, a 17th c. English theologian says, “This day He opened the kingdom of Heaven to all believers, as we say daily in the Te Deum. Thus holy Church … In the Epistle … teaches us our duty not to stand gazing up to Heaven, wondring at the strangeness of the sight, but to take heed to demean our selves so, as that we may with comfort behold him at his second coming, his coming to judgment.” Our time now through Pentecost is not to stand gazing up to heaven – to a Rapture at the end of the world, or simply our own inevitable earthly deaths, waiting for our salvation to come to fruition. Rather it is to return to return to Jerusalem, and allow God's grace to change us into that which we behold. This is the season of Unity with God, of attaining (ever so slightly more!) the perfection, peace, tranquility, and trust, that God's grace is bringing us to.
Now, while we remain in these bodies on earth, that Unity will never be quite fully achieved, but every year as we relive these mysteries, and meditate on them, and bring them into ourselves, more and more of ourselves may be brought into the Kingdom of God. And because we cannot do this without God's Grace, we pray in the collect today, “Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell.”
What holy day could be more wonderful! But this has only probed some small portion of the depths of this day. As I was looking at paintings of the Ascension, I noticed two major approaches. The more common, shows Christ, full body and radient, risen just above the disciples heads. But a slightly less frequent portrayal, from mediaeval icons up to the present, highlights Jesus' feet. In the oldest versions that I've seen, the disciples gaze up at a lone cloud from which a pair of feet emerge. Salvador Dali painted Christ suspended with arms outstretched – but with the viewer looking straight up at his feet from below, obscuring most other details about him. This imagine intrigues me, and has a “ring of truth” to it – but I haven't been able to discern yet what that special truth is. The angels announced that Jesus would “come in the same way” they saw him leave – which I haven't examined it all. But what I am extremely comforted by is the knowledge that Jesus ascended into heaven with a human body that we might not doubt that we also may, while in our bodies, be united with God in Heaven.
Ascension Day Sermon by The Rev. Mr. Michael Shirk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.