May 30, 2019 - Ascension Day
I often wish that Jesus had ascended into heaven thirty-nine days after he was raised from the dead so that we could gather for worship on a Wednesday night instead of on a Thursday. (Who goes to church on a Thursday?) Ascension Day is one of seven principal feasts in the Episcopal Church (bonus points for those who remember the other six--answer below). It's a principal feast because it's important. It's essential to what we know about God and Jesus and to who we are as Jesus' followers. But we gather to celebrate it on a Thursday night because the Acts of the Apostles tells us that Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after the Sunday of the Resurrection. Apparently, forty is a number that has more spiritual significance than thirty-nine (a Wednesday) or forty-three (a Sunday).
But why is the Ascension so important? Why is it more important than the Annunciation or the Visitation or the Presentation or the Transfiguration? Because, at least as Luke tells the good news of Jesus, we cannot know the victory of the resurrection until we see Jesus taken up into heaven.
Luke's version of the Easter narrative is my favorite (or perhaps my second favorite behind Mark). In his telling of the story, the women who went to the tomb to finish preparing Jesus' body for burial found that the body was missing and that two men in dazzling white robes were there to tell them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But, when the women went and shared the good news with the disciples, the men dismissed their words as nonsense. Later that same day, two disciples were on the road to Emmaus, when the risen Jesus came and walked with them. Although their eyes were kept from recognizing him, Jesus opened the scriptures to them, explaining why the Messiah needed to suffer and die and be raised from the dead. Finally, while sitting at the table with them, Jesus broke the bread, and they recognized him, and he vanished. The disciples ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what they had seen, and there they learned that Jesus had also appeared to Simon.
Then, with all of this good Easter news filling their hearts and minds, Jesus himself came and stood among them, and what was the disciples' reaction? They were terrified. They thought they had seen a ghost. The women found the empty tomb. The Emmaus disciples had seen the risen Lord. Jesus had appeared to Simon. But when Jesus came and stood among them, revealing the truth of the resurrection to them, they were afraid. Sometimes, no matter how much we want to believe good news, it's too much for us to comprehend.
When Jesus led them out to Bethany, however, something changed. Jesus lifted up his hands and blessed them, and, while he was blessing them, he was carried up into heaven while they watched. And Luke tells us that, as soon as he was gone, "they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God." After the Ascension, something was different. In fact, everything was different. Instead of hiding behind locked doors, the disciples went out in public, into the temple, praising God openly. Instead of questioning in their hearts whether the news of Jesus' resurrection was real, they lived the lives of those who believed the good news. For them, the reality of Easter wasn't complete until the ascension. And now that they had seen the fullness of Jesus' victory over death, they were ready to receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
I wonder whether the same might be true of us and our faith and understanding. The resurrection of Jesus doesn't make sense. It is an unfathomable mystery that the crucified one would be raised from the dead--not as a ghost or zombie (as my children are wont to think) but as the first born of the new creation, the pattern of our own future resurrection into new life. When we are left only with stories of the risen Christ's encounters with the disciples, we have a hard time distinguishing between ghostly metaphor and true hope. But the resurrection isn't the end of the story. In order for the story to be rounded out, in order for us to receive it, the resurrection must be followed by the ascension. Otherwise, short of Jesus riding off into the sunset on a donkey (an admittedly unsatisfactory conclusion), where is he going to go? What will happen to the resurrected one? A mere disappearance would only reinforce our lack of understanding--a ghostly disappearance for a ghostly figure. The ascension, however, shows us that Jesus' victory over the dead is not a mere metaphor for hope or a bizarre zombie encounter but a real and tangible hope because he has to go somewhere and, as the risen Lord, that somewhere can only be at the right hand of God.
As followers of Jesus, what is our hope? We believe in the resurrection of the dead. We believe that God's love carries us through death into new life. That may be hard to believe, but it isn't an empty promise. It's not a metaphor for peace attained through a noble death. It's real. Despite all of our doubts, it's really real. And Jesus' ascent into heaven helped the disciples know that it is real because it carried the reality of Jesus' resurrection to its only possible end. It filled them with joy. And it has the power to fill us with joy, too, as we see in the crucified, resurrected, and ascended one our own hope for new and unending life at the right hand of God.
Seven Principal Feasts: Christmas Day, The Epiphany, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and All Saints' Day