May 12, 2013
+ So, does anyone know what happened last Thursday? But it was kind of a big day for us as Christians. The problem is, this big day for us happened on Thursday. So, of course, it probably passed most of us by without much notice. Anyone want to guess what happened on Thursday? The Feast of the Ascension is happened this past Thursday.
So, why is the Ascension so important to us? I guess, we should first of all ask: what is the Ascension? The Ascension of course is that day in which Jesus was taken up into heaven. Yes, he was resurrected. He spent time, after the resurrection, walking about. And then, he was taken up. That is the Ascension.
Some of us might look at the Ascension as a kind of anticlimactic event. The Resurrection has already occurred on Easter morning. That of course is the big event. The Ascension comes as it does after Jesus has appeared to his disciples and has proved to them that he wasn’t simply a ghost, but was actually resurrected in his body (remember a couple of weeks ago in our Gospel reading how Thomas put his fingers into Jesus’ wounds).
In comparison to Easter, the Ascension is a quiet event. The resurrected Jesus simply leads his followers out to Bethany and, then, quietly, he is taken up into heaven. There are no angelic trumpets. There are no choirs of angels welcoming him into heaven. There is no thunder or lightning. He simply goes.
So, why is the Ascension important to us? It’s important because this is where our work begins. This is when our work as followers of Jesus begins. We, at this point, become the Presence of Jesus now in the world. This is where we are now compelled to go out now and actually do the work Jesus has left for us to do.
But what I like about the feast is more than just going out to do Jesus’ work. I like this feast but it’s so fantastic. I mean, Jesus actually goes up—he goes away from us. He goes off into some other place. Now for those of us who have some sort of scientific knowledge, those of us who are rational, thinking people, this image is a hard one to wrap our minds around. Jesus is taken up. He was “borne up.”
It is at this point that I find myself approaching this word—up—from two different perspectives. As a priest—I see this word as important. God has raised Jesus up from the dead, and God has brought Jesus back up to heaven. God is seen here on a higher level. In bringing Christ up, we recognize God and Jesus as one—on the same level.
But I also approach this word Up from the perspective of a poet. For a poet, words are everything. Every little word is important and must be carefully chosen and carefully examined.
So, as poet and writer, I see this word “up” as important in a whole other way. Remember what we were taught as kids; heaven is up and hell is down. So, of course, Jesus went up, right? For those early believers, who believed in the three-tiered world—heaven above, the earth in the middle and hell below—Jesus must in fact go up.
By the Middle Ages the Church truly took this literally to heart. It was a custom in some churches at that time actually cut holes in the roof of the church. As the Gospel was read a figure of the resurrected Christ was raised on a pulley through the opening. Now remember, the Gospel would’ve been read in Latin. Most of the people probably wouldn’t have understood it. So, here was a visual representation of Jesus going up. As time went on, they got even more sophisticated. They also cut a hole in the floor so that as the figure of Christ went up through the roof the figure of the devil went down through the floor.
But that was then. In their world up meant up and down meant down.
We certainly know better now, don’t we? Up doesn’t mean the same for us as it did for them. We know that the world isn’t flat but round and so up and down are different for us.
I once heard a pastor speaking critically about the ascension, if you can believe it. He said, that if Jesus actually went up in the air and flew off toward some actual physical heaven, then now, some 2,000 years later, he would still be out there somewhere, in outer space, still flying along. The problem with that thinking is that this liberal minister was being just as literal minded as those people in the middle ages who truly believed that Jesus went up.
To some extent, what that minister was talking about was that Jesus didn’t so much as go up—άΰέ --but rather that Jesus went out. The Greek word Luke would’ve used for this, if that’s what he meant, would have been έκ or “out of”. Jesus then isn’t off in space somewhere flying toward some far-off galaxy called heaven, nor do I think that the Ascension cancels out or defies all the laws of natural science.
What both the fundamentalist Christians and the literal-minded minister missed is the ability to look at what Luke was writing about with a poet’s eye. For those who witnessed it, it must’ve been an amazing and overwhelming experience. Already they saw this person they knew and loved and followed brutally murdered. Then, suddenly, there he was, raised from the dead, and was in fact standing before them, wounds and all. Finally, he was gone. He went up out of their sight.
But let’s look at it from Jesus’ perspective.
Last Wednesday, at our Wednesday night Mass on the eve of the Feast of the Ascension, I shared a poem, “Ascension”, by Denise Levertov, one of my all time favorite poets. In this poem, she looks at the Ascension from his very perspective. In the poem, she imagines Christ relinquishing the earth and stretching himself toward heaven (in her words) “through downpress of dust.” She compares it to
“a shoot that pushes its way, delicate and tough,through soil to sunlight, as if it’s a kind of work,
and not some weightless body floating like a balloon.”
Jesus then, rooted as he is to the earth, to creation, moves upward then not through outer space like some astronaut but rather up through creation—through the fertile soil of created time and space—into the light and life of God. Now it really means something, doesn’t it? Here’s something we can grasp and make sense of and still not sacrifice what we know rationally.
But there’s also one other part of this way of thinking that we sometimes neglect. If we are truly looking at this from the perspective of Jesus, what do you think he was feeling as he moved toward God?
When we are happy—when we are joyful—we use the word soar often. Our hearts soar with happiness. When we are full of joy and happiness we imagine ourselves floating upward. We talk about being on Cloud Nine. We talk about our feet barely touching the floor. In a sense, when we are happy or in love or any of those other wonderful things, we, in a sense, ascend.
Conversely, when we are depressed we plunge. We fall. We go down. So this word “up” is important. Jesus, in his joy, went up toward God. His followers, in their joy, felt him go up.
For those followers, their hearts truly did ascend with Christ. So, it is accurate language. The ascension is important too in dealing with one other reality. Like those first followers, we must face the fact that Jesus is no longer physically with us.
The story of the ascension is that, somehow we must carry on without Jesus physically in our midst. He took his leave. He left us physically. Now I don’t mean that he doesn’t come to us physically. Certainly Christ is present in the physical elements of the bread and wine that we are about to celebrate at this altar. Certainly Jesus is present with us, as well. We—Jesus’ followers—are, as I said earlier, the physical Body of Christ in the world.
What I am talking about is that the Jesus those first disciples knew—the one who walked with them and talked with them and fed with them and laughed with them, was not with them anymore. He had gone up.
But next week, an event will happen that will show us that Jesus remains with us in an even more extraordinary way. On that day—Pentecost Sunday—his Spirit will descend upon us and remain with us always.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, we must simply face the fact that it all does fall into place. Jesus will not leave us barren and afraid. He loves us too much for that. God will never leave us alone. Although no longer with us physically—we cannot put our fingers in his actual wounds—Jesus is still present among us in his Spirit, in the bread and wine, in each other.
So, today, and this week, as we remember and rejoice in the Ascension, let our hearts ascend with Jesus. Let them soar upward in joy at the fact that Jesus is still with us. Let us be filled with joy that his spirit dwells within us and can never be taken from us. And this joy in us ride up. It rise up in us and sing through us to those around us we are called to serve. Amen.