Today is set aside in the liturgical calendar as the Feast of the Ascension. According to the beginning of the book of Acts, the risen Christ made appearances to his followes and interacted with them over a 40-day period, between his resurrection and ascension. For that reason, historically, the Feast of the Ascension traditionally falls on a Thursday—exactly 40 days after Easter Sunday. Many churches, however, have shifted the Feast of the Ascension to Sunday, and St. Aidan’s follows that approach.
The ascension is a strange and mystifying occurrence in the story of Jesus. It only appears in the Gospel of Luke, and also at the beginning of the book of Acts (Luke’s Gospel and Acts share the same author and constitute a two-volume work). Matthew and John don’t bother to mention the ascension at all. The Gospel of Mark, which is the shortest of the four Gospels, mentions the ascension in passing at the very end of the last chapter—but that section is widely believed to be a later addition and not part of the original form of Mark’s Gospel. But even though the ascension is peculiar to Luke, it has come to occupy an important place in the development of Christian doctrine. In fact, it appears in both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. So, we’re compelled, at least once a year at this time, to grapple with this strange episode.
What exactly is the ascension? Today we’ve heard two readings that describe it. In today’s Gospel, Jesus leads his disciples outside Jerusalem a few short kilometers away to Bethany, which is where the Mount of Olives is. Then we’re told that, after blessing his disciples, he “was carried up into heaven.” In the first reading from Acts, we’re given another account in more detail. Presumably, Jesus has led his disciples to the Mount of Olives, and they ask him, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, are you finally going to establish the messianic vision and liberate Israel from Roman control? Jesus essentially tells them, “It’s not for you to know when. But the Holy Spirit will come upon you to empower you to be my witesses throughout this land and throughout the whole earth.” And then we’re told that “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
From these cryptic accounts, I don’t know if we will ever be able to say decisively what exactly happened. Some Christians take these accounts quite literally. It’s as if the risen Christ began to levitate and then floated off, up into the clouds and beyond. Last summer Ava and some friends were flying a kite, and one of her friends lost her grip on the string. The kite took off in the wind, and we watched it rise higher and higher until it became a tiny speck up in the sky, and then ultimately disappeared from sight. That’s the literal image of Jesus’ ascension. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen anyone levitate and float off into the clouds. So I have a more straightforward take on the ascension. Many years ago I was hiking in the mountains of northern California. As we got to a higher elevation, we entered a fog patch. It got so dense that those ahead of me disappeared as they climbed higher. But they didn’t disappear permanently! I caught up with them and eventually we left the fog behind. I think something like that happened in the story of the ascension. When the risen Christ appeared to the disciples on the Mount of Olives, they all climbed to a higher elevation with Jesus leading the way. As he went ahead and climbed even higher, into the fog and clouds, the discipes lost sight of him; the appearance of the resurrected Christ ceased.
Now, I don’t think we should get bogged down with debating the specific circumstances of the ascension. We don’t need to be looking up wondering what happened. That’s what the disciples were doing until two angelic figures appeared and asked, “Why are you looking up toward heaven?” Jesus will come again, the angels said, in the same mysterious way that he asecended. The bigger questions we need to face in our day are: Why is the ascension important? And what are we to learn from it? I think the ascension teaches us at least two important things.
First, the ascension challenges us to think more deeply about what Jesus’ resurrection means in our time. The resurrection might assure us that Jesus has conquered death and is with us. But, let’s be honest, Jesus is also absent. He doesn’t walk with us and talk with us, in person, like he did with his first disciples. Or maybe he does! If we assume that Christ resurrected is identical with the man Jesus who wandered about Galilee—same curly hair and facial structure, same freckles, same height, same blood coursing through his veins—then I think we’re off on the wrong footing. What we learn from the Gospels is that the resurrected Christ made appearances. His presence was not constant. And when he did make appearances, he wasn’t immediately recognized. He appeared as a stranger—for instance, in the garden with Mary, or with the two on foot to Emmaus. What about those moments in between appearances? They mark the absence of the risen Christ. The ascension reminds us that when we don’t see Christ, Christ will appear again—even in the faces and lives of those we least expect or don’t even know.
Second, the mystery of the ascension is a clear indicator that we cannot rely exclusively on our senses to explain reality. There is more to the substance of the universe than what we see or touch or hear or taste or smell. If the ascension points to the absence of Christ among us, then reality must be more than the sum totality of what our senses reveal. There is a mystery to faith and life that provokes wonder. When we wonder, we are awakened to the paradox that even in absence God is still there, that even when things appear meaningless, reality remains charged with the grandeur of God.
In the final analysis the Feast of the Ascension marks a day of ultimate mystery. Many of us are uncomfortable with mystery because we’ve been raised to seek answers and resolution. But today we are invited to let mystery wash over us, to be patient with paradox, but also to be open to the unexpected. If the story of the ascension, as told by Luke, had an alternative chapter, perhaps the disciples would climb the Mount of Olives higher into the cloud, only to find a total stranger on the other side offering them bread and telling them that the power of God would soon come upon them. It’s not far-fetched, because that power is what we will celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost.