May 13, 2010
I’ve been thinking about the Ascension these past few weeks in preparation for tonight’s Evensong. I keep reflecting on the oddness of the doctrine of the ascension. It may the aspect of the church’s teaching about Jesus Christ with which we have most difficulty in the twenty-first century. It’s not that the Incarnation or Jesus’ death and resurrection are easy to accept. Rather, I think it’s because both Christmas and Easter have enough cultural significance and liturgical drama that we are able to lay aside most of our doubts and questions, at least most of the time.
Not so with the Ascension. It is a doctrine and a feast that goes unnoticed by the wider culture, and largely unnoticed by Christians as well. So when we come together to celebrate it, we’ve got no crutches of nostalgia or tradition with which to protect ourselves. We are forced to confront it head on.
And that’s the problem. The ascension seems to require a whole lot of cultural baggage that we just don’t carry with us anymore. The very word, ascension, implies the traditional ancient understanding of the universe as a three-tiered structure with hell somewhere beneath our feet and heaven up there beyond the clouds. And that’s something none of us can really take seriously anymore, not since the rise of science, astronomy, and space exploration.
In fact, I hope you chuckled as you glanced at the Durer woodcut that is reproduced on tonight’s service bulletin. It does rather remind one of the blast-off of a rocket. That, combined with the fact that we see Jesus’ toes may lead the less reverent of us to laugh.
The physics of ascension isn’t the only problem. There’s another one, a theological one. For if Jesus Christ has ascended to heaven, how is it that we can still claim to experience his presence among us, his presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist? That may not be a big issue for you or me, but it was at the heart of the Eucharistic conflicts during the Protestant Reformation. In fact, some of the reformers argued that because Jesus Christ had bodily ascended and now sat at the right hand of the Father, the body of Christ could not be present in the Eucharistic bread.
So we moderns, or post-moderns, if you will, have a great deal of trouble with the doctrine of the ascension. To find meaning in it in the twenty-first century seems almost impossible. But before dismissing it altogether, let’s look a little more closely at how the gospels deal with it.
The first observation to make is that only two gospels, Matthew and Luke describe the scene of the ascension with Jesus’ disciples gathered around him, looking upward as he leaves earth. Mark, typically, doesn’t say anything about it, but then Mark doesn’t describe the resurrection either.
As is often the case, John is the most interesting. He uses language of ascent throughout his gospel, but it’s often not clear whether he is referring to the cross (“being lifted up”) the resurrection, or the ascension. And because he refers to the cross repeatedly as Christ’s glorification, there’s a sense in which crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are all the same for him.
In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples again and again, both before and after his crucifixion, that he will be leaving them. That message is hard for them to hear. Their difficulty of imagining life without the presence of Christ comes out in that poignant resurrection scene when Mary Magdalene encounters the Risen Christ in the garden. She falls to his feet and he warns her, “Don’t touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” It’s as if he were telling her, “Don’t hang on to me. Don’t hold me down!”
Something of the same comes out in Luke’s account of the ascension in Acts 1. Luke says that Jesus was lifted up and “a cloud took him out of their sight.” But the disciples continued to gaze up toward heaven, until two angels suddenly appeared and asked them why they were still looking up.
The Ascension is not primarily about the physics or chemistry or astronomy of Jesus Christ’s departure from earth. Rather, it concerns the mystery of Christ’s presence and absence among us. We proclaim Christ’s presence among us. We proclaim his presence in the sacraments. We assert that we are the body of Christ; many of us believe that in the face of the hungry, homeless, and naked, we see the face of Jesus.
But yet, Jesus Christ is not here among us. Each time we recite the creed, we proclaim our faith that Christ has ascended to heaven. We assert that his physical body, though raised, is no longer present with us. If he is present among us, it is in a very different way than he was present among his disciples, whatever we say to the contrary. We cannot touch and feel him; his physical body is not here, no matter what we say.
That is why the gospels, all of them, struggle with the ascension. The gospel writers struggle to convey to their readers what sort of body Christ’s resurrected body was and they also struggle to make us, their readers understand that in spite of the absence of that body, Christ is among us. Thus, Matthew has Jesus say to his disciples, just before he departs from them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
That’s why we struggle, in the twenty-first century, with the doctrine of the ascension. We know we do not have the benefit of Jesus Christ’s physical presence among us—most of us would scoff at any claims to the contrary. Many of us would ridicule any beliefs that traces of that presence are here now, traces like the Shroud of Turin. Instead, our experience teaches us that Christ is present here; present in the hearts of the faithful, in the body gathered, in the bread and wine, and yes, in the faces of the hungry and homeless.
In fact, so obvious is that presence to us, that we cannot imagine what the ascension might mean. We chuckle at images of Jesus’ feet sticking through the clouds, and balk at picturing him actually seated on a throne in majesty, in heaven. Therein lies the meaning of it for us today.
It’s easy for us to claim Jesus is present to us. The words flow easily off of our lips, and onto our mission statements and into our sermons. Because of that, it’s very easy for Christianity, especially mainline liberal or progressive Christianity, to degenerate into social service agencies or political action groups. It’s also easy for us to end up celebrating ourselves and all the good things we do in the name of Christ.
The ascension won’t let us do that. It reminds us that the presence of Christ among us is not all the Christ there is, that whatever our experience of Christ here and now, whatever the church’s experience of Christ and embodiment of Christ over the centuries, that there is something about him that eludes our grasp. The ascension compels us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our neighbor, to seek the transcendent, the traces of the divine, that elude our grasp, elude our sight, and elude our understanding. Amen.