This Sunday is comes right after two other feast days on the church calendar. I know I talk about the church calendar a lot, always pointing out what feast days are coming and which have just passed. For me, the church calendar is a way of walking through the whole of the life of Jesus every year. The feasts and seasons come and go and they give me an opportunity to pay attention to all the different parts of the life of the savior.
This is helpful, I think. Shallow Christianity is a faith that cherry-picks one part of Christ’s life and ignores the rest. Christian faith is deepest where it strives to hold the whole story in our hearts at the same time. It’s a challenge, of course. Jesus is complicated. Not because he is God. God is simple, simple yet mysterious. Jesus is complicated not because he is God but because he is human, and humans are complicated.
Anyway, enough about the grand theory of the church calendar; I started out saying this Sunday comes right after two feast days. One holiday was last Friday, May 31st. It’s the feast of the Visitation. This celebrates an episode found in the beginning of St. Luke’s gospel where the Virgin Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary has just met the Archangel Gabriel, who asked if Mary would like to become the birth-giver of God incarnate. She said “Let it be with me according to your word.” Which is a pretty bold thing to say at any point. It’s the heart of Christian discipleship, that sentence.
The next thing Mary does is to visit Elizabeth, and you can read the whole episode in Luke chapter 1. But this is an episode from the very beginning of the earthly life of Jesus. It’s at the beginning, before Jesus is even born yet, when Jesus is in the womb, and already Mary and Elizabeth are contemplating what this all means for themselves, for the liberation of Israel, and for the salvation of the world.
In Jesus, their hopes came to life.
The second feast day that bookends this Sunday is the feast we celebrated last Thursday, the feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. This feast day always happens 40 days after Easter Sunday, which means it’s on a Thursday.
In a nutshell: 40 days after the Resurrection, the risen Lord and the disciples wind up on the top of the Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley. The disciples ask if this is going to be the moment when Jesus restores the kingdom to Israel — you see the disciples are still limited in their thinking. They are right that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed leader sent by God, but they are wrong in that they still think of the Messiah in the old way, that the Messiah will be a military or maybe a prophetic leader who will set Israel free from Rome and all the other empires who have tried to subjugate it. But Jesus has come to be the Messiah for the world: to take the covenant between God and Israel and widen it, to carry up all nations into God, and to restore a fallen and shattered creation.
Jesus says “I’m not telling you the time. That’s a secret.” What will happen, though, is that the Holy Spirit will come soon and empower the disciples to be witnesses of the reality, the truth, the power, the mercy, and the glory of Jesus Christ. That’s what we celebrate next Sunday, at the feast of Pentecost. But that’s coming soon; it is not today. It is enough for now to see that Christ ascends. He is raised up, and vanishes into a cloud.
Now of course the Ascension is depicted in art through the ages, just like every other part of Christ’s life. If you search online for images, you’ll see some adorable and charming pictures of the disciples staring up, and then a little cloud with just two feet sticking out of the bottom. It makes me smile.
But this is tricky for us today, because we’ve sent out satellites and looked through telescopes. It’s hard for us to cling to the idea that heaven is “up”. Is God way out there in deep space? Well, yeah, God is out there. God is here too. This ascension is the language of poetry. We look to the heavens because that is the direction of limitless potential. Look up at night and you can look forever. And have a very hard time reaching it. The sky is a perfect metaphor for wherever the Trinity dwells.
The important thing is not that Jesus travels upwards, but that he vanishes from their sight. How else could it end, his time on earth? We are all conceived, we all develop as fetuses within the womb. Jesus was no different there, as the feast of the Visitation reminds us. We are all born, we grow, we walk and talk and do our work; Jesus did these things. Jesus died, just like we do. God forbid we should be crucified, but it is enough that he shared our eventual end with us. Our suffering, our loneliness, our despair, and our fear all wound up on the cross with him.
But Jesus rose again, and showed himself to the disciples and to others. Now here, Jesus has gone where humanity as not gone yet. Jesus has risen, and proves that Death is dead and Sin is shattered.
Having risen, he could not die again. But he had to leave this earth, and to ascend, or to transcend, this material world with his risen and material body. He could not die but he had to leave.
Did he have to leave, though? Why couldn’t Christ in his risen body just stay here for good, wandering around Jerusalem and walking through locked doors and showing us his nail-wounded hands and feet?
Ah, perhaps because so long as Jesus is in one place, he cannot be where he needs to be, which is in all places.
The ascension means that there is no spot on earth that is closer to or farther from Jesus. No city or nation can claim him. No petty disciple can say ‘I was only 20 feet from the Lord yesterday, and where were you?’ No evangelist can wander to the corners of the earth and find a place that Christ has not already been. No time or place can be holier than any other — no church, no shrine, no pilgrimage spot, no so-called ‘thin place’ — except for this: if the Word of God is heard there and then, if the love of God is revealed there and then, then the place is sanctified.
The ascension is the completion of the Paschal mystery, and the incarnation itself coming full-circle: the God who was born into a human life remade what it means to be human by confronting and shattering all the things that lock us up: Sin, and Death, and the Powers of which we are terrified. He redefined humanity on the cross and in the rising, and now he goes to his glory in his resurrection-body, taking our blessed future to the heart of the Trinity. God became man, and suffered for it. After the suffering, humanity rose with God, and is glorified in it.
The redeemed creation itself is woven into the divine. The chasm is bridged. The barrier is pierced. Our world and heaven’s pour into one another little by little. And Christ reigns risen and embodied and glorified but not from a single spot on the planet (as in the flesh) but from all times and places at once, wherever the Word is preached, wherever the sacraments are celebrated, wherever a Christian is Christ’s witness in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.