ASCENSION DAY — 13 May 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 12:15 p.m.
Acts 1:1-11 | Psalm 93 | Eph 1:15-23 | Luke 24:44-53
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
When I first volunteered (or was volunteered; I don’t remember for sure!) to preach at our celebration of Ascension Day, I told Raisin that I promised not to drag out the “Toes” picture yet again. But she said, “Oh, drag it out! I’ve never seen it!” Those of you who have been around here for a while may recall seeing this before; if you’ve been around for a long time you may even recall having seen it a couple of times! (Is this only the third time I’ve dragged this silly thing out? If God is merciful and just, there won’t be a fourth.) Anyway, here it is. “L’Ascenzione di Christo,” attributed to Fra Gulielmo il Insensato.
What I didn’t realize — and I really didn’t realize! — and what I just discovered a couple of weeks ago — is that on the ceiling in the Ascension Chapel at the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk in England there is this:
I’ve been to Walsingham, and I don’t remember this at all. But that was almost fifty years ago, and so maybe it wasn’t there yet when I was there back in the day. But hey, I was only nineteen years old — I can’t imagine that if I had seen it I would ever have forgotten it! Nineteen-year-old boys love stuff like this!
(I think these are supposed to be beams of light, not super-long toenails. I think.)
Well, more than enough silliness for this important celebration. This is not what the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is about.
Okay, then, what is it about?
The Ascension into Heaven is a standard part of our faith about Jesus, and has been right from the beginning. Paul (or an immediate successor, as the case may be) says in the Epistle today, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” [Eph 1:20]. And the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” [Hebr 4:14].
The Gospels themselves say less about the Ascension of Jesus as an event (as opposed to a theological reality as a dimension and consequence of the Resurrection) than we might think. Mark doesn’t mention it at all as an event; the authentic text, at least as we have it, ends with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. (Subsequently, probably in the second century, there was added a “longer ending” which is clearly dependent upon knowledge, though apparently not actual copies of the texts, of Matthew, Luke, and probably John.)
In John’s Gospel, the risen Jesus in his appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them… [John 20:17]. However, nothing further is said explicitly about any subsequent event.
In Matthew’s Gospel, quite to the contrary, Jesus at his appearance to his disciples in Galilee, gives them the Great Commission to go and “make disciples of all nations,” and then simply concludes, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” [Matt 28:19-20]. (I am inclined to think that the final verses of Matthew’s Gospel would be a better reading for Ascension Day than the conclusion of Luke’s. But, oh well.) It is only in Luke that we actually get the narrative picture of what I so reverently refer to as “Toes.” But possibly you have noticed, in the readings today first from the Book of Acts and then from Luke’s Gospel, that although Luke tells this story twice, the actual event of the Ascension takes place on different days. In Acts it is forty days after the resurrection (hence our festival today), but in the Gospel it is on the Sunday afternoon of Easter Day itself.
(Excursus 1: Two or three hundred years down the line this inconsistency between Luke and Acts upset some people, and so they tinkered with the conclusion of the Gospel text so that it read just “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them.…And they returned to Jerusalem…” [Luke 24:51-52] So Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Bezae, if you’re taking notes; but most of the early manuscripts include the full text of these verses.)
(Excursus 2: All of this suggests to me that St. Luke himself was not deeply concerned about the issue of exact chronology. He was typical of ancient historiographers, in that he was much more concerned about what events meant than with precise accuracy about all the details of timing and sequence. We know, for example, that that’s how Luke handles his account of the evangelization of the Gentiles by the infant Church.)
“Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That’s the real heart of what we celebrate on Ascension Day. If the Risen Christ had just continued to hang around in Jerusalem, none of his followers would ever have been willing to leave and get on with making disciples of all nations. Jesus’ Ascension is not about his going away from us, least of all his going “up there” (whatever that might mean for our generation in which we have actually been “up there” and can telescopically see thirteen billion light years into “up there”). “Heaven” — that is, the presence of God and the reign of Christ — is not “up there,” it is right here if we will accept it and live into it. Because Jesus is ascended into Heaven, he is no longer stuck back in Galilee and Judea in the first century but can be and is present to all people in all times in all places. Jesus is Lord, not just long ago and far away but here, now, forever. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”