Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ascension/7th Sunday of Easter: Christmas Reversed

Readings for this Sunday are:  Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

The Ascension of Christ is mostly overlooked as far as church holy days go.  The calendar doesn’t help – Ascension is 40 days after Easter, and Easter is always on a Sunday, which solidly places Ascension on a Thursday.  Every single year.  And, along with most of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, we don’t worship on Thursday.  So mostly we overlook the Ascension.

Of course, we do mention it every week.  Jesus’ ascension is considered important enough to have it in our creeds:  “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right and of the Father.”  It’s in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and even in the Athanasian Creed – in exactly those words, in all three of the major creeds of the Church Universal.

As important as that makes the ascension, we just really don’t know what to do with it.  It doesn’t seem to really have any relevance for us right here and now.  Sure, Jesus ascended to heaven and lives now with the Father, and someday we too will be in heaven with him.  How does that promise for the far-off (we hope) future help us today?

God the Son goes back up to heaven where he belongs and leaves us to carry on.

But there's more to it than that.  At Christmas, we celebrate the awesome mystery of God becoming one of us.  Jesus came to earth, took on humans flesh, lived among us, died among us, was one of us.  Even after the resurrection, Jesus was still had a human body – a resurrected body, but still human, the kind of body we can look forward to having when we too are resurrected at the end of the age. 

And it’s that resurrected-human-flesh-Jesus that goes back to heaven. 

Jesus goes back to the Father and takes our human flesh, takes the earthiness of creation with him.

If we say that God comes down to us at Christmas, then at Ascension, God draws us to God’s self.

There’s an old story told by one of the desert fathers, Abba Sayah.  No one really knows where the story comes from, but the way I heard it, St. Anthony told it to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory told it to St. Basil and Gregory Nazienzus as they sat around the campfire. It’s a story that can’t be verified, but it’s most certainly true.[i]  It’s an Ascension parable. 

It was time for Jesus to leave.  He had been back from the grave, walking around in his resurrected-human-body, popping in on a couple of disciples here and a few there, and then popping back out again.  He had watched them shake off the fear of those horrible days between the cross and Easter morning.  He saw how his encouragement in the last forty days had given them hope.  They were ready to take over his mission.  It was time for him to go back to his Father.

So Jesus called them all together on the mountain top, and made his farewells. It was a tearful moment. Mary was crying. John was crying. Jesus was crying. Even Peter, the immovable rock, was reaching for his handkerchief. 

Jesus was sad too, but he was glad to be returning to his Father, and he knew it was all part of the plan. And so he began to ascend. 
As Abba Sayah told the story, as Jesus began to rise, slowly and gracefully into the air, John just couldn't bear it. He grabbed hold of Jesus' right leg, and refused to let go.

"John?" said Jesus “What are you doing?”

And John shouted back, 
 "If you won't stay with us, then I'm coming too." 
Jesus calmly continued to rise, hoping that John would let go. But he didn’t. And then, to make matters worse, Mary suddenly jumped up and grabbed hold of Jesus' other leg. 
"I'm coming too," she shouted.
By now, Jesus’ big exit had obviously been ruined, but he looked up into heaven, and called out:
"Okay, Father... what do I do now?" And a voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance.

"Ascend!" the voice said.

"Ascend?" Jesus asked

"Ascend!" the voice replied.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, with John and Mary holding on until they too were lifted off the ground. But the other disciples couldn't bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board…and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in the middle of the sky. Jesus at the top. John and Mary next. The other apostles hanging on below. Quite a sight, if anyone had been watching...

And then - what was this? Suddenly all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere…friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people who just knew that he was something special…Young and old, - men, women, children, Jews and Gentiles…a huge crowd – and they too refused to be left behind…So, they made a grab for the last pair of ankles and hung on for dear life. One way and another there was quite a commotion -people squealing “Wait for me” -then startled yelps as they felt themselves seized by the ankle -and above it all the voice of God calling out, “Ascend!" 

But all of a sudden, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the voice of a small child. 

"Wait!” he shrilled, “I've lost my dog! Wait for me” 

"I can't wait," Jesus called back, "I don't know how this thing works."

But the little boy wasn't going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might. 

For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air - Jesus pulling upwards, and the little boy holding on to the tree, scanning the horizon for his lost dog. But Jesus couldn't stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven. 

At first it looked as if the tree would uproot itself. But then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. Sort of like when you pull a rug up in the middle, the soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow.

Jesus DID ascend to heaven, He went back to his natural habitat, living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter. But, as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation – the whole kit and caboodle – everything that ever was or is or ever will be – he pulled it all up into heaven with him. 

Each of us is clinging to the ankles of the ones who have gone before us – those witnesses to the resurrection.  We are being pulled into heaven – redeemed by Jesus, renewed by the Holy Spirit, re-created by the Father. 

That is the story we witness to the ends of the earth.  And the story we tell to our children and share over coffee and remember at a hospital bedside.

And that is why Ascension made it into all three creeds – it’s not that Jesus went back to where he came from, but that he takes us all with him.

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