Today, we join with Christian Traditions across the world in marking the feast of the Ascension.
In our Liturgical Journey, the Ascension moves us from the time of Easter —a time of affirming resurrection and new life, to the time of Pentecost —a time of commissioning and service.
In the Biblical Narrative, the Ascension brings the Christ-event of Incarnation/Nativity, Ministry and Teaching, Death and Resurrection, what we might call, full circle.
Jesus, having died at the hands of the Roman Empire by means of crucifixion, having appeared to his followers as living once more, now as we heard read this morning, leads his followers out to the village of Bethany (which earlier in the narrative is the setting for the raising of Lazarus and the anointing of Jesus in the days before his death) —here he lifts his hands, and blesses them —and as we heard in the text:
While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.
In the first centuries of Christianity, this moment was of great fascination to theologians, which can be seen in the amount of writings from that time grappling with this episode —while as a liturgical celebration, it also appears to be have been prominent very early on in the development of the practice and ritual of the early church, by the 4th century, as the Christian Church is still trying to sort out what will be its sacred texts, what will it say about the person of Jesus, celebrating the Ascension seems to already be a well established practice.
In the narrative, this moment is said to occur 40 days after the Resurrection on Easter morning, which places it on a Thursday, and in some traditions it is still marked there —although many traditions do like we have this morning in marking it on the closest Sunday following. 10 days later (after the Thursday that is) we come to Pentecost —a word which in greek means simply the fiftieth day.
So what was it about this moment in the story that so captured the minds of Christians in the first centuries of the tradition.
It is worth remembering that in the 4th century, by which time this celebration was already prominent, the Christian church, still a new movement, was something in formation. What we call the New Testament, did not yet exists as a collection of writings, the specific pieces were there and considered sacred and the church was just in the process of deciding what would and what would not be collected together into the Bible.
The other question that was very much in the process of being answered, was about Jesus’ relationship to God.
Was Jesus a human inspired by God? Was Jesus fully God in human form?
Was the relationships something in between?
I think it is this question that made this such an intriguing moment in the story.
In the Ascension, the Ancients are seeing humanity, flesh-blood, suffering, oppressed humanity, brought up, but more importantly brought into, and embraced by Divinity.
And to me, this is where it remains a compelling idea – particularly when we embrace and explore its mythic potential.
When we talk about something as myth or mythic, I think it’s key to remember that this is not the same as saying false —or fairy tale. A fairy tale is a story that is known to be untrue that while perhaps having moral elements, is ultimately making different claims.
Myth or mythic is claiming truth —but more in the sense of revealing a depth of underlying truth —explaining how things truly are —rather than what literally happened. It’s not that myth is suggesting though that something didn’t happen (as in a fairy tale) —but that the most important thing to be gleaned from the story is the idea behind the narrative, rather than the elements of the narrative itself.
So while modern readers might have an inclination, to ask one thing of this story, ancient readers would have been less concerned about asking if this happened, than what does it mean, what imaging of God does it open up for us.
I think this is where Ascension gets interesting —not on the narrative surface as one who is sent from God now returning, but as an expanding of how we might understand the very nature of what we mean when we speak of God.
Jesus’ life and ministry are marked in the Gospel narratives by poverty, by political marginalization (living in the midst of empire —moved by forces of political and military might), solidarity with others in places of powerlessness, but a solidarity that creates confrontation with power, and confrontation that results in suffering —and even death.
But resurrection vindicates the confrontation with power, exposing the impotence of systems of power built on violence and domination, and reveals the strength of love, hope, forgiveness.
In Ascension, all of this embodied in Jesus, is embraced into God —and a mythic reading of the moment in the narrative invites us to reframe our understanding of what we mean by God, to have all of this at the centre.
That God, is not to be known in the unchangeable, immutable, stoic, far removed in a heaven that is always elsewhere —but instead that God is to be found at the centring of earthly affairs, where power meets powerlessness, where violence meets flesh, where suffering and tears abound —it is here we will find God.
Not as observer from far off, not as judge who might eventually make it right, but as participant, as the suffering one, as the oppressed one —inviting a response of likewise, calling out as false, narratives of violence and domination, and calling for bonds of solidarity.
Ascension invites us to ponder the awful attacks on Coptic Christians in the past few days in Egypt, asking not how an out-there God would allow such a thing, but to affirm that in the very bodies of the slain is divinity —and to imagine that violence or indifference can not have the last word.
Ascension reminds us that our own concerns, which may well pale in the light of global concerns, are themselves brought into God.
And not just our concerns or sorrows, but our celebrations, joys and hope, and that our loving acts of service, offered to the world, to ease suffering, heal brokenness, this humble work of hand and heart indeed could be understood as bringing increase to the joyful yet broken divinity around.
Ascension indeed offers an invitation to empathy to curiosity to deep listening that we might discern the God hidden within the stories and needs of others.
Ascension forces us to re-examine suffering, not as a required condition for divinity, a claim that many religious sects have used to justify the subjugation and even abuse of the least powerful in their communities —too often children or women.
Ascension asks of us to understand suffering as a result of the logic of empire and dominion, and to embrace the suffering of others through solidarity, recognizing that solidarity might lead to suffering of our own —but to find courage to do it anyways —knowing that therein we might find God.
And so as we say in the creed, we proclaim Jesus crucified and risen —a truth beyond the facts of the narrative, a truth that tells us something real about the world —and inspires and empowers us to life within it differently.
Embracing the God who is pointed to in majestic structures and stained glass windows, but who is touched in broken bodies, in tear-stained cheeks, and in hands that extend to take our own.
For in life, in death,
in life beyond death,
God is with. And we are not alone.