The readings for this day offer us some interesting images….
In the Acts of the Apostles we read:
“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).
From the Gospel of Luke we read:
“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).
Hmmmm…. Rising up into heaven on a cloud or slowly fading into the mist… Do either of those images work for you? How about Albrecht Durer’s wood cut showing the disciples gathered around looking upward, with Jesus’ feet just visible inside the frame at the top of the image? Does that work any better for you?
There is a real risk that the difficulty that we experience with these images will keep us from exploring the meaning behind them. That would be very sad because the truth that lies behind the details of today’s readings is incredibly powerful and exciting.
To get to that truth I am going to have to ask your indulgence, maybe even your forgiveness. It is now the 6th week after Easter, we have had some seventy and even eighty degree days. We have finally shaken off the snow and things the buds on the trees are beginning to grow. But to understand the value, the meaning of the Ascension I am going to have to take you back into the dark of winter…. Because we can’t really understand what is happening in the Ascension without also thinking about what happens in the incarnation. So let’s go back to December and think for a minute about Christmas.
Christmas is filled with images of its won. Joseph and an expectant Mary traveling to Jerusalem, a young couple bedding down in the straw among the animals, angels singing in the night, and a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. There are so many truths behind, below, surrounding, buttressing the details of this story that it would take page upon page just to list them and volume upon volume to unpack and explain them. But there is piece of this complicated event that stands out to us as we look back from our vantage point here at the Ascension.
Jesus, Emmanuel, God Among Us… God comes into the world in the person of Jesus Christ and our understanding of creation is changed. God, by definition is holy, set apart, other… God is light, life, pure. God is “clean.” All of those terms serve to set God apart from us. The world, the place that we inhabit is profane. It is transient, dark, filled with death, and “unclean.” There is a chasm that is fixed between us and God that cannot be traversed.
There are religious and philosophical traditions that hold that the world is an illusion; that in order to see the Truth, or to experience enlightenment we have to escape or transcend the veil that is this life and move beyond the profane to the eternal, timeless, the holy.
We have an incarnational faith. We believe that God is present, manifest in the world. One of the important truths that swirl around the details of the Christmas story is a clear declaration of the validity, the intrinsic worth, the beauty of this world. This is the place where God comes to live in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And whether you believe that the Feast of the Incarnation is a celebration of the moment when the world was redeemed by God’s presence, or that it celebrates the moment when that eternal truth was made evident, manifest through the birth of a child in a manger, the bottom line is the same. God abides here, with us, in us, in all of creation and somehow, that indwelling, that presence has not sullied God’s nature, has not darkened the light that is God, has not made God unclean. Instead the world this place, we are sanctified by God’s presence. Our understanding of creation is shaped and formed by the Incarnation.
So why have I taken us back into the cold months of winter just when we are finally breaking free and spring is filling the air with activity, life and growth? Because the Ascension is the reciprocal movement that mirrors the Incarnation. In the Incarnation we express the truth that God dwells in and among us. In the Ascension we are expressing the truth that we dwell within God.
Jesus, in bodily form, ascends into heaven, into the very heart of God. Our nature, our flesh, becomes a part of God. And it isn’t some purified, cleaned up, sanitized version of our nature that crosses that great chasm. Jesus rose from the dead with the wounds, the signs of his crucifixion, still there in his hands and side for Thomas to see and touch. The truth that this story is trying to help us to grasp? Our nature and our life, our experiences, our pain and suffering, our brokenness, even our sense of alienation and abandonment are a part of God’s experience! How do we understand or wrap our minds around that possibility? God doesn’t just observe our suffering from the sky box, doesn’t just read about it in the book of life, doesn’t listen to dispassionate reports from a host of heavenly angels. God experiences our lives, our joy and our pain, our successes and our failures, our sense of connection and our loneliness. That is an astounding proposition. It would seem to run contrary to those classical definitions of God that I referenced earlier. So how do we wrap our minds around this? Perhaps the only way is to explore images like Jesus being lifted up in a cloud, or fading into the mist, or his feet withdrawing from the frame above our heads… Maybe given our limited language and imagination that is the best that we can do…