Thursday, June 2, 2011


The Prayer Book lists Ascension Day second on the list of Principal Feasts of the Church. It ranks up there high enough to have a psalm reserved for this special occasion (Psalm 47), and to get its own version of “Hail thee, festival day!” And yet it falls on a Thursday, so many churches around the world don’t gather to celebrate this highest-importance feast. But what’s the big deal? What are we celebrating (or forgetting to celebrate) on Ascension Thursday? Why does this day matter?

There’s a fundamental tension in Christianity. We believe in an incarnate God, who was born and dwelt among us. We believe in a bodily resurrection, where Jesus came back from the dead not as a spirit, specter, or ghost, but as an embodied soul, a living human being, with physical scars from his crucifixion and breath in his lungs, who ate and drank and embraced his followers. A living human being who can never die again, who can never become an disembodied spirit. If Christmas is about the incarnation and Easter about the resurrection, they both celebrate a world in which God, in the person of Jesus Christ, walks around us still wholly God yet also a human being with a physical body.

So where is Jesus? If incarnation and resurrection are at the core of our belief system, and they are indeed, then the incarnate, resurrected God should be here. Like Thomas, we should be able to touch his hands and his side, and embrace our Lord and God. We too should be able to walk by sight, and not by faith. Because if we can’t, it rather puts a damper on this bodily-resurrected, incarnate God of ours, no?

Despite our faith in Christmas and Easter, we live in a Pentecost world, a world marked by God as Spirit. We walk by faith, and not by sight, and depend on the gifts of an unseen Holy Spirit to perform our ministry in the world. In this Pentecost world, we are called to see Christ in the least of us, and to be the hands of Christ to one another. This understanding of God is no less real, but more spiritualized — the ordinary people, things, and institutions of the world are imbued with the Spirit of God to take on divine significance. In this Pentecost world, the Body of Christ less resembles a particular literal human body and becomes more elastic, more conceptual. The Body of Christ can be the Church, a consecrated loaf of bread, the poor, a particular person in need, a particular person doing God’s will — all at once, and in many places simultaneously. That’s a different reality than seeing a person called Jesus standing on a particular hillside outside Jerusalem.

Which is why the Feast of the Ascension isn’t optional. This isn’t something we can afford to skip. This is the bridge between the Pentecost reality we live and the Christmas and Easter faith we profess. At its core, Ascension is an acknowledgement of this juxtaposition: Jesus used to be a person who walked around on the earth like other human beings, and continues to really be present with us, but our experience of Jesus’ presence isn’t the same as the disciples’ experience. Encountering Jesus after the Ascension is not the same experience as encountering him before the Ascension. He was with us then, he is with us now, but something is different.

And really, that’s the heart of this feast. Artists have tried to capture the moment over the centuries, but the fact is, it’s a mystery. We don’t understand how Jesus “went away” while simultaneously remaining with us. All we know is that that the Body of Christ, to Mary, was a baby she gave birth to. The Body of Christ, to Joseph of Arimathea, was a dead human body he took down from the Cross and laid in a grave. The Body of Christ, to the women at the tomb on Easter morning, was missing from the grave, until they recognized that the man, alive, speaking to them, was, in fact, the Jesus they were seeking. To all of them, the Body of Christ referred to a particular human body. And the Body of Christ to us today is just as real as it was to them, but it’s not one particular human body. It’s a much more elastic concept. Something is different.

Our lessons for Ascension Thursday give us not one but two accounts of the Ascension event. These two accounts, like many accounts in the Bible, conflict with each other. But these particular accounts’ conflict is especially jarring because they are attributed to the same author. The Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles both come from the same writer or school of writers. The central message of the stories is the same in both accounts: Jesus was “there,” and then, rather abruptly, he wasn’t “there” in the same way anymore. One might even be tempted to say he was gone. On that fundamental, the stories agree. But why would Luke tell two different accounts of the story?

In the gospel account, this is a happy ending. The disciples get it. Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. They walked out of Jerusalem with him, he blessed them, he disappeared, they praised God and worshipped Jesus, then went back into the city with great joy, continually blessing God in the temple. And they lived happily ever after. What a spectacular finish to the Good News according to St. Luke.

And then there’s the Acts account. The author of the Acts account claims ownership of the gospel account, but retells the story with some key differences. Again, the disciples gather with Jesus, but this time, rather than having divinely granted understanding of scripture, they show Jesus they clearly don’t get the meaning of scripture. After everything: all Jesus’ preaching, and healings, and passion, and resurrection, they still don’t get what it’s all about. They ask, “Now is it time to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ exasperation must have known no limits at that point. After all they’d seen and been through, they still expected he was about to build a royal palace. That the Kingdom of God would look like the Kingdom of David. And then, Jesus ascends. In the Acts account, the disciples respond not with joy, but with confusion. It takes some angelic explanation so they can figure out not to just stand there staring at the sky wondering where Jesus went, and the angels assure them that Jesus is coming back.

The thing about these two stories is that despite the fact that they say different things, they could both be true. The Ascension story occupies a liminal place in Luke’s account of Christian ministry. It falls at the end of the Gospel. It is also the first story in Acts. This story is the end of something, and the beginning of something else. It marks a fulfillment of one kind of presence of Jesus, and the beginning of another. And yes, it is the source of both consolation and confusion.

If the two accounts emphasize different reactions by the disciples, it is perhaps because both are true. The disciples simultaneously “got it” and were completely baffled. The disciples rejoiced at the fulfillment of Jesus’ earthly ministry and were utterly in awe and confusion about what they were to do next. It’s not unlike other liminal moments in life: graduation, the birth of a child, getting a job. There’s joy and fulfillment and celebration that at last, things have come together and finally make sense. And then, the bewildered realization that now you have to live in that different new world. Now you have to find what comes next after graduation! Now you have to actually take care of this new baby! Now that you've got a job, you actually have to figure out how to do it! Now that Jesus has ascended, he isn't standing there talking to you any more! What comes next beyond the comfortable world you knew? The disciples praised God at the conclusion of the Gospel, and stared into space, lost, at the beginning of Acts. Because this transition from the Christmas/Easter world to the Pentecost one is both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

And so, with great rejoicing and great bewilderment, we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension. We mark the transition from the obvious certainty of a physical person Jesus in the presence of the disciples to a presence that requires a leap to faith to find. We celebrate the fact that Jesus is no longer confined to a hillside in Palestine, but is with us everywhere, even to the ends of the earth. And we wait, with the assurance that again the day will come when we, with our physical bodies, will see the physical person Jesus at the resurrection of the dead. Even so, come Lord Jesus!