Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ascension Day--More Important than Easter?

I wonder whether we as Christians get too caught up in Jesus’ resurrection. In one sense, that’s a ridiculous thing to say. The miracle of Easter is the central moment of our faith. But today, Ascension Day, makes me wonder whether we’ve been approaching the empty tomb from the wrong vantage point.

Today we celebrate the glorious ascension of Jesus into heaven. As Luke tells us in the lesson from Acts (1:1-11), Jesus rose from the dead, appeared on earth for forty days, and then ascended into heaven, sending the Holy Spirit down in his place. But, as today’s readings remind us, the purposed end (or telos) of the Passion Cycle is the Son/Spirit exchange accomplished through the Ascension: “While staying with them, [Jesus] ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father,” and “…suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”

As I revisit the lessons for this feast, I am reminded that the forty days that Jesus spent on the earth after his resurrection were just a pit stop—a momentary though important pause on his resurrected way to heaven. Think about it this way: none of us gets resurrected to hang out on the earth for a short while. The purpose of the new life is to live it with God in heaven not to linger in our past. Jesus’ resurrection is the pattern of our own promised resurrection. And that means going from grave to new Jerusalem—do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Jesus, though, needed to stop along the way. As Luke writes, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” If he hadn’t spent those forty days with his disciples, they would have missed the true victory of Easter. The resurrection was so miraculous that they weren’t ready for it when it happened. It took Jesus five and a half weeks to explain it to them. Then, after setting everything straight, he continued on the journey—empty tomb to right hand of the father. And in so doing he sent the Holy Spirit to come and give us power—power to do God’s will and to follow him, eventually, into heaven.

So what does that mean for us? Well, I think it means that Ascension Day should be more than just a passing moment in our church year. I think it deserves a lot more than a casual Thursday glance. It’s huge—or at least it should be. The Ascension is the natural product of the empty tomb. The forty days of Eastertide before the Ascension are accident. The Ascension is the full glorification of God’s son. Today we acknowledge that the promise of new life isn’t just more of the same. Being raised from the dead doesn’t involve coming back to earthly things like hunger, strife, confusion, and discord. Instead, we are called with Jesus all the way up—no reason to stop along the way. For us to truly understand the miracle of Easter, we must embrace today as the day when the empty tomb rings out most clearly and triumphantly.

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