Rev. Matthew Wright
Ascension Day - May 21, 2020
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Up, up, and away! Today, 40 days after Easter, we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, when, as our reading from the Acts of the Apostles put it, he “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Some of you here, I'm sure, have seen the von Kulmbach painting at the Met in which the awestruck disciples stand looking up and all we and they can see are Jesus' feet sticking down, dangling through the clouds, as he is taken up, up, and away.
|von Kulmbach, "The Ascension of Christ"|
Admittedly, the Ascension is one of those scriptural stories that many of us don’t know much what to make of anymore. Did Jesus really fly up into the clouds? Is this something we're supposed to or should believe? It seems, of course, like this story was written with a pretty simplistic, three-tiered understanding universe in mind—earth in the middle, hell down below us, and heaven somewhere up above the clouds. And for Jesus to get back home to God the Father, well... he had to go up, up, and away. But this past Sunday St. Paul reminded us that God is the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” not so much “up” as “everywhere.”
And today, knowing as we do that the world is round, we also know the relativity of that word “up.” Living on a round planet, the direction all of us point for “up” is the exact opposite of someone living on the other side of the world. And we also know that if you travel up through the clouds and enter into space that you can keep on going for light-years upon light-years. As the Anglican theologian Keith Ward puts it, “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed).”
And so, what does the Ascension of Jesus mean for us today, knowing all that we know? How are we to understand this story? Well, interestingly, Luke is the only author to give us an actual account of the Ascension, and most scholars think he was writing around A.D. 80 or 90, 50 or 60 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, and he tells the story twice, in slightly different versions—once in his Gospel and once again in The Acts of the Apostles. In the Gospel, he places the Ascension fairly quickly after the resurrection appearances; it seems like maybe just a day or two after Easter.
In his second work though, The Acts of the Apostles, he places the Ascension exactly “forty days” after Easter—and as you know, “forty” is a biblically symbolic number used to indicate a period of fullness or completion—in the days of Noah, it rained for “40 days and 40 nights”; Moses was atop Mount Sinai for “40 days and forty nights”; and Jesus fasted for “40 days” in the wilderness.
And so the 40 days here is a clear tip-off that this narrative is symbolic; it gave Luke a dramatic way of closing his account of the Resurrection appearances. But other authors in the New Testament—in fact, all of the other authors in the New Testament—don’t seem to have understood the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension as two separate events. Paul tells us simply that Jesus was “raised to the right hand of God”—as if resurrection and ascension are one and the same divine act, facets of a single mystery. Jesus was raised into the power of God, and it is from there that he then appears to his disciples.
Theologian Samuel Zinner even talks about what he calls the "Good Friday Singularity" in which Jesus' death on the Cross, his resurrection and ascension, and even the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are understood as a single multifaceted mystery that is then segmented and unfolded narratively and liturgically. He notes the way some of our early texts seem to still hold some of these facets together; in the Letter to the Hebrews (10:12), for example, we're told that "when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God," implying a simultaneity—when he offers himself in death, he sits down at God's right hand—these the two side of a single movement.
Similarly in the First Letter of Peter (3:18) we're told that Jesus was "put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit"—again as a simultaneous movement. And this is very much the case in the Gospel of John in which Jesus' raising up on the cross is his glorification by God, his enthronement at God's right hand. And it's also here in John's Gospel that Zinner says we can see the mystery of Pentecost present at the Cross; John says that on the Cross Jesus "released" or "handed over" the Spirit; not "his spirit" as we sometimes translate the text, but literally in Greek "the Spirit."
And so from the standpoint of eternity, we can see Jesus' death and descent, resurrection and ascent, and the Spirit's outpouring as one unitive mystery that is then unfolded in time—and for Luke, living in a three-tiered universe, also unfolded spatially by sending Jesus up, up, and away. But today we might better understand Jesus' Ascension as his movement not to a higher but to a deeper dimension of reality. St. Paul had a very subtle understanding of the Ascension: he says in the Letter to the Ephesians that Jesus “was raised far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). He is raised above everything in order to fill everything.
And so, in his Ascension, Jesus doesn’t go further away from us, but instead becomes infinitely and intimately closer to everything. The entire mystery of Jesus present in every point of reality, and that entire mystery present in a single point. In being raised on the Cross, he also descends into hell; in being raised on the Cross, he ascends and is enthroned at the right hand of God; in being raised on the Cross, he pours out the Spirit. In being raised on the Cross, far above all the heavens, he now fills all things. And yet this singular, simultaneous, unified mystery is too much to be born by a single moment in time or comprehended in a single day, and so mercifully it is unfolded for us in time and in space.
And today, we gaze on just one facet of that mystery: the one we call Ascension. But as we gaze with the disciples, up, up, and away, our gaze is redirected. We're told that as they stood looking up, two men in white robes appeared and said to them, "Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Why do you stand looking up? He will come again in the same way as you saw him go. How did he go? From below—from here, from the world. And he will come again in the same way, they say—not from heaven down, but once again, from the earth up. If you stand looking up, up, and away, you'll miss him.
He came the first time through the womb of Mary, the womb of life, the womb of the Earth. He will come again in the same way. So often we think of the "Second Coming" of Jesus as Jesus crashing down out of the clouds. But the angels here tell us we've got it all wrong. Don't look up. Don't you know he will come again as he did before?—from the womb of your life? Don't you know that, ascended, he now fills all things?
And we don't, and so mercifully the singular mystery is unfolded for us in time; we're given time to adjust to what has all happened in a moment. Ten days, in fact, before the next facet of this singular mystery is revealed at Pentecost. Ten days to learn to redirect our gaze from up, to down, to within and all around us.
There's a story told about a failing monastery that once had been grand, with regularly dozens of vocations coming in, but it had dwindled down to five remaining brothers, who expected they would be the ones to close the doors. But one day as the Abbot was visiting with his old friend, the town rabbi, the rabbi confided in him that it had been revealed to him that the Messiah had come as one of the brothers in his very monastery, but he could not reveal who it was.
Well the abbot was astounded, and he thought well certainly it isn't me. But he went back and told his brothers what the rabbi has said. And they all began to wonder—could it be Br. Aelred? He is pretty crotchety, but he's also very wise. Or maybe Br. Thomas—he's not very smart, but he is one of the kindest people we know. And so on. And as they began to treat each other with a newfound love and reverence —because, any one of them might be the Messiah—the townspeople found themselves drawn once again to the monastery. There was lightness in the air there. And vocations began to grow, and the community once again flourished. And truly, the Messiah had come again among them.
As we enter these ten days of Ascensiontide, and begin to redirect our gaze—remember, one of you, one of you, is the Messiah! All of you, for he now fills all things. Why do you look up to heaven? Don't you know that he will come again in the same way as before? And so may we find him here and now, risen and ascended, in this gathered community, and in the whole of creation.