“After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God…” “And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?”
For forty days he appeared to them, alive, speaking about the kingdom of God. After 40 days–as long as it took–he knew they were ready, and so he was lifted up out of their sight, and they stood gazing up into heaven. “Come back!” they cried to him, quietly, under their breath. They didn’t feel ready. “Don’t leave us!” It was a Thursday morning, 40 days after Easter, Ascension Day the church would call it.
For me, it was a rainy Sunday morning, and I stood looking down at the filled-in grave where we had lovingly placed my parents’ ashes the day before. It had been more than 40 days, but it still didn’t seem long enough. The day before I had spoken words of comfort and hope to my family as we gathered around the hole, just big enough to place the box my brother had made for the occasion, just a couple years before he died. It was good and right for us to do that, to return them to the earth, in confident and sure hope of the resurrection into new life, I had said. But the next morning, as a soft rain fell, I returned to the cemetery so I could cry. “Come back!” I cried. “Don’t leave us.”
But of course they had–and they hadn’t. Their bodies were now returned to the elements, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but something lingered in those ashes. It is not possible to completely separate the spirit from the body, despite countless philosophies and theologies that try to sever them from one another, making the body somehow less than, inferior to the spirit, disposable, really. Jesus was “lifted up from them, and a cloud hid him out of their sight.” It was Luke’s way of solving the problem known to many a mystery writer–What to do with the body?
The body of Jesus that was “lifted up” had holes in its hands and its side and who knows what scars remained from the whipping and beating he had undergone? That’s how they knew that it was really his body; that’s how Thomas needed to know– “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my fingers in the holes, I won’t believe.” The Ascension takes the body seriously, takes flesh seriously, knows that the needs of the body–for food, for shelter, for healthcare, for love and tenderness–are to be regarded with sacred responsibility. The very image of God is conveyed through a wounded body. And that is the body that was “lifted up,” taken into the very heart of God, which is what the Ascension is really all about.
In the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, humanity–and each one of us–is folded into God’s own being; but Jesus doesn’t just “ascend into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” as the creed says. It’s not about creating a bigger gap between God and us, with Jesus somehow the bridge. It’s about re-writing that whole triple-decker-universe script, with God “way up there” and we and our ordinary lives “way down here.” Debra Dean Murphy takes it further, saying that a “whole new social order is opened up to us–God’s new creation , in which enemies are loved and we are free to relinquish the cherished fiction of our innocence.” [ekklesia, “Ascension and Embrace,” 5/19/13]
“Why do you stand here gazing up into heaven?” The two men in white ask the apostles. This is not where the story ends. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus had told them, “and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” You’ve got the next line, this next scene in the drama is yours. You shall receive power, and you will be my witnesses, Jesus told them.
It’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said about the church and Fr. Gregory Boyle told the class of 2017 at Notre Dame University, “This [–the church or the university–or heaven–] is not the place you go to. It’s the place you go from. And you go to create a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. You imagine with God a circle of compassion and then you imagine with God no one standing outside that circle. Go from here to dismantle barriers that exclude…and stand beside those at the margins, the powerless, those who have been deemed disposable, the “not worth our time.” There you will find joy, and awe.
“God is a direction,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, but too often we have thought that direction was up, up and away. When really, it’s been here, in the midst of us. When Jesus “ascends” he does not just go up, up and away into heaven, but into the heart of God, and as we know from the Joyful Path, “God is everywhere, within me and around me.” “We who are his body,” Debra Dean Murphy writes, “are caught up in the divine life and its communitas of mutual gift. God’s life and love spills its bounds, so to speak, drawing us in, embracing us. In the ceaseless flow of such gifts, we in turn embrace others.”
That’s where the surprise comes, where the “other-worldliness” comes in, because in this world, we can imagine retaliation and revenge, we can imagine exclusion, separation, building barriers and walls, isolating ourselves from others, withdrawing in fear. Instead, Jesus shows us the way to inclusion, connection, interdependence, mutuality, forgiveness.
Four years ago, after the Boston Marathon bombing, you may recall that no cemetery wanted to receive the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the brothers responsible for the bombing. A Vermonter, who was also a Yale Divinity School graduate, offered a burial plot in his family’s lot, only on the condition that it be done in memory of “my mother who taught Sunday School at the Mt. Carmel Congregational Church for 20 years and taught me to ‘love thine enemy.’” [cited by Murphy, op cit.] What a strange new social order is opened up by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus! Love thine enemy. Allow them to be buried next to you.
The cemetery in which my parents’ ashes are buried has been under the care and ownership of the Society of Friends–the Quakers–since the time of the Revolutionary War. The battle of Guilford County Courthouse took place not far from there, and in the center of the cemetery is a mass grave where both British and American soldiers are buried together, for Quakers do not take sides in war.
They know that we are part of one another…that a whole new social order is opened up to us–God’s new creation –in which enemies are loved and we are free to relinquish the cherished fiction of our innocence, through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. We long for our loved ones to come back, and indeed they do, though in transformed ways–in our lives infused with their spirit, in our participation in the life and love of God, of which they are now fully a part.
We go to create a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. We imagine with God a circle of compassion and then we imagine with God no one standing outside that circle. We are promised the power to do this, so that we can be witnesses to the amazing love of God, which seeks for us and the whole world peace, community, mutual gift-giving, and abundance of life. “Father, it’s time,” Jesus prays in John’s gospel. “Display the bright splendor of your Son, So the Son in turn may show your bright splendor.” In that bright splendor–in that glory– may we experience glory. On this Memorial Day weekend, as we re-member, on this Ascension Day Sunday, on any Thursday morning or rainy Tuesday night, may we know that we are held in the heart of God, re-membered with one another, never to be lost again.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark