Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam D. McCoy, OHC
RCL - Ascension Day - May 13, 2010
Memory is a powerful thing. No matter how many other images of the Ascension I see, the one that keeps coming back to me is a mural on the side wall of the main viewing room in the Palm Mortuary, the more gentile-friendly of the two mortuaries in still culturally Mormon Las Vegas in 1981. My father was laid out there, and for four gruesome hours my mother and my three brothers waited for people to come by and pay their respects. Conversation is stilted at best at such times, and there are long pauses. So I had quite a lot of time to gaze at this mural. The perspective was from below, as one gazed up a tall, green, grassy, verdant hill at a pastoral scene of sheep and shepherds and ordinary people, drawn like figures from a Sunday School book. The sheep were looking at the grass, the shepherds were looking at the sheep, and the rest were looking up, at an immaculately white-robed Jesus who was ascending into the blue, blue sky, about a third of him already gone. It was naive. It was awful. It was – ordinary.
Luke places the Ascension at the central and most crucial point in his two-volume work, his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. It is the hinge-event of his theology. It is so important that he tells it twice. This has always seemed a little strange to me. The Resurrection is supposed to be the central act of the Christian faith. The Incarnation is our foundational doctrine. The life of the Church is empowered by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So why give the Ascension this crucial role, especially since it is not mentioned by Mark and Matthew, and is not recorded as a separate event by John?
I want to suggest that the Ascension is the point at which Luke tips his hand, tells us plainly what he means. He does this in at least three ways.
The first is Jesus’ own teaching that his disciples are witnesses to events whose meaning is found in the Jewish scriptures: “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. Luke’s theology is that the conversion of the world to God the Father will be accomplished by the power of the death and resurrection of the Son through the agency of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and that none of that is unforeseen. It is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the actions of God in history as remembered in the sacred scriptures, the Word making available to the whole world the salvation begun in Israel. This is the most ancient and most important Christian way of reading the Scriptures, one which has endured until our own time: Christ is prefigured in the Old Testament, revealed in the New.
The second way Luke tells us what he means is by showing Christ embodying the Scriptures. Standing with Christ at the Transfiguration were Moses and Elijah, and here they are again, if not named. Elijah’s ascension in the chariot of fire endows Elisha with his cloak: the disciples are to be “clothed with power from on high”, just as was Elisha. And they are to be filled with the Spirit, just as was Joshua when Moses died and disappeared. Both will be ready to lead the people of Israel along new but unknown paths. And standing a little behind Moses and Elijah is a third figure, little mentioned now but intensely interesting to the ancients: Enoch, who also ascended to God. Enoch, the seventh generation after Adam, whose son was the longest-living human being, Methusaleh. Enoch, who lived 365 years, of whom Genesis 5 says, “Enoch walked with God. Then he vanished because God took him.” Enoch, whose perfect numbers encompass the mathematical perfections of revelation and creation: Enoch, the sabbath child, whose life is a year of years, who walked with God. The mysteries of Enoch, Moses and Elijah are the backdrop to the mystery of the ascended Jesus, who also walked with God, who is the perfect man, incarnating the Logos, by whom all things are made; Jesus, who leads us out of our Egypts to new promised lands, but who must, like Moses, disappear so that we may cross the water; Jesus, who challenges the evils of the world and does not win against its powers, but then is taken up, only to leave a double share of his power to his followers.
And Luke’s third, and possibly most important meaning: God incarnate in Man becomes Man incarnate in God. If Acts is the Book of the Holy Spirit, Luke’s Gospel is the Book of the Incarnation, and incarnation among the lowliest. It is Luke who tells us of the Archangel’s visit to that simple teenaged girl, not yet married, simultaneously worried and willing as so many ordinary people are. It is Luke who tells us of Mary’s prophetic war song of the vindication of the poor. It is Luke who places the birth of Jesus in the manger because there is no room in the inn, and it is Luke who introduces shepherds come to honor the child, not kings. It is Luke who tells us, Blessed are you poor, you actual poor. In Luke’s gospel the coming Kingdom will be God’s great act of reversal, and it is no accident that the last question the disciples ask of the risen Jesus, before he is taken from them forever, is, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
Places of divine action were important in the ancient world. One perhaps unexpectedly relevant place as we consider the Ascension was the temple of the divine Julius, erected to Julius Caesar, on the very spot in the Roman Forum, the political center of the world, where his murdered body was cremated in a public funeral. The ascent of the smoke from the body of Julius Caesar was taken to be a confirmation of his divinity. No longer a man, but a god. It could be argued that the divinization of Julius Caesar was the moment when the world’s kingdom was bestowed upon Rome. This ideology was not unknown in Palestine. No wonder the disciples saved this question for last: "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
In contrast to the Forum, Bethany probably means “house of the poor” or “poor-house”, Beth-anya. It was where Simon the Leper lived, and where Lazarus took ill and died. Archaeology suggests it may have been a popular way-station for Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem, tired and weary and sick from their long trip. It may well have been a refuge for those whose conditions of life made them not only unwell but unclean, a place just far enough away from and out of sight of the Temple to fulfill the ritual purity laws. How fitting that Jesus found his closest friends in Bethany, that it was there that he stayed during his last week on earth, that it was there that he raised Lazarus to life.
And fitting that it was from Bethany that he ascended into heaven. Not from the center of the world’s power, or even from the great Temple of Jerusalem, but from an ordinary little village dedicated to the poor, down the hill and out of sight of the better folk. Not a man whose body had to be burned so that he might be thought no longer human but a god, whose power would be manifest in wars and regimes of cruelty, but a man whose body was honored in resurrection and whose humanity sits at the right hand of the Father. This is the second bookend of Luke’s Gospel, the culmination of the Nativity: God who became Man is now Man who is God. The power to transform the world resides in the sympathy of one who lived as one of us, who chose the residents of the poor house as his friends and their little town as his second home, who tasted the worst and suffered the most one of us can suffer. The reversal of the world’s power is complete in the Ascension. Mary’s Magnificat prophecy is fulfilled. Jesus, the friend of the poor, sits at the right hand of the Father, and when the time comes, one of us, one who understands us, will be both judge and advocate.
The longing of the human race for the day when God’s kingdom will replace Caesar’s is so strong, so powerful, so urgent, that it attracts adherents far beyond the circle of the faithful. We should never underestimate the desire all people share for righteousness and justice, but also for mercy and loving-kindness, and for their hope, with us, that the promise of Jesus Christ is true. We hope in faith, they think our hope is impossible, but they hope for it all the same.
A.E. Housman, no Christian or friend of Christian faith, puts this as well as any poet I know in his Easter Hymn:
If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.