Ascension Sunday has become a bit of an oddity to explain to the church. The day celebrates—celebrates—Jesus’ leaving the disciples again. As if the first time wasn’t quite enough: with trials and crosses, Roman overlords and an unbelievable resurrection to boot. In our passage from this first chapter of Acts, our biblical writer gives us a summary of the events that have taken place and then brings us up to speed with Jesus being lifted-up into the heavens while they have their heads craned back to watch whatever it is that is happening. In the copy of the painting that adorns our bulletin today, the disciples are looking up at Jesus’ feet, the only part of him visible to our eye.
Following Jesus’ feet isn’t a bad way to begin discipleship, but it would be a lousy way to end discipleship: watching their teacher’s feet as their final glimpse of him. The End. It reminds me of how we sometimes remember things from the past. We know that our memories can fade over time—we hear a voice, but can’t remember the body language that accompanies that voice, or we remember a laugh, but can’t quite recapture our loved one’s particular way of walking, or we yearn to have all of our memories of our loved one somehow come together in our dreams so that the person will come to us whole, and not piecemeal and in fractions of moments. Recently, I saw a photo posted on the web and it was the spitting image of my husband’s hands. I did a double-take. I kept glancing upwards at the arms and the sleeves, even trying to enlarge the photo to see if the sweater this person was wearing was his, but the photo showed only these male hands. It simply could not have been my husband’s hands, and yet, somehow there they were in that moment. A fractured memory.
Compare that to an embodied memory and you might see the difference. Grasping at my husband’s hands or heart or feet is not the same as embodying or carrying those hands and heart into the world.
Whether we stand gazing at feet or sit gazing at hands, how is this Ascension different from the past liturgical remembrances of the same? Perhaps it is because there are more troubled good-byes, more deaths, and more civil unrest happening around us and no time or space or even the collective means to say a proper, familiar “goodbye” if there ever was such a thing. Our graduates are not walking the stage in the way that their parents and their parents’ parents dreamed. Folks are afraid of the very really prospect of not being able to hold their loved one’s hand in death, much less their feet. We cannot travel easily or congregate together (physically) at memorials to say our personal goodbyes in the same manner that we once took for granted. Casual dating and the all-too- common breakup have become something more digital than personal, more unhinged and complicated because there is less ability, and perhaps desire, to part in person. As if our goodbyes weren’t difficult enough, we wonder when or how or if we will see our loved ones and family in the same way again or again, period.
And yet—I was heartened by a story on the news about an inventor who made it possible for elderly loved ones to see their family through the aid of mobile plexiglass with all the social distancing in place. A restauranteur had rented a small stage to allow graduates to “commence” with their families, while sharing a meal outside. A family was able to say their hard and loving goodbyes with the aid of technology, Zoom, persistence, and some caring medical workers. I am amazed at human ingenuity to figure out how to overcome obstacles in creative and safe ways.
Today we wrestle with the Ascension, even if we don’t claim to know fully what it was about.
What exactly is there to celebrate when Jesus appears to be taking leave from his disciples? What can he mean when he says to “stay here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high”? First, we might understand that there is power in staying put. I don’t mean just staying in the same place; though right now, that is one of the safest things to do – to stay safe at home and keep the virus at bay. What I mean is more along the lines of “staying the course” or staying with something to see it through, with the hopes that you will “ascend” beyond it, however difficult it may seem. Of course, we could “stay put” for the wrong reasons or stay the course on a path that is more evil than good. However, there is something to be said for staying in one place mentally long enough to see what can be seen from the other side, to gain a new perspective, or to gather and tend that which can be found gleaming from the ruins. We tend to be less like bees selective in gathering nectar to make honey, and more like flies flitting across innumerable surfaces unsatisfied with the dinner at hand.
Second, as long as Jesus walked and taught in their midst, the disciples focused on him and not the larger purposes to which they had been called through him and with him. In some ways, as long as they focused on his feet and his hands, they didn’t have to worry about where their own feet were headed and what miracles their own hands were capable of. It may seem sacrilegious to some to say this, but Jesus can become a distraction and an idol when he becomes the end of the story and not the beginning. Ascension reminds us that Jesus is not the closing credits to God’s biography but the foreword to a new story in which we have a special part to play. “Stay in the city,” Jesus says, so that you might be able to figure out next steps together.
Saddened by his departure, the disciples could have dispersed like some families disperse after the death of their loved one, or after a major crisis—each to themselves, instead of figuring out how to be family together in a new way. Jesus encourages the disciples to look forward to a new kind of power which will help their little movement find its way again in a changed reality that is difficult, but not insurmountable, unpleasant, but not without joy. Like them, we are reminded that our lives, which can seem so often filled with frustrating minutiae, are actually “lifted up” like Jesus into something far more special, grand, and purposeful than we can imagine.
The Ascension captures a time in our human story when we were on the hinge of a goodbye. It is a time of transition—marking a moment of loss but also marking a moment when that loss was transformed into something different, and more abiding, than the kind of farewell that was present at the cross, something more abiding than the “normal” way of things under Caesar – oppression, cruelty, and crucifixion. Whatever “new normal” faced them, the disciples would not find it by looking at a disembodied Jesus.
In an article from BBC Future online, Brandon Ambrosino wrote the following:
“…despite the enormous challenges we face on individual, local and global levels, we will remind ourselves and each other that we will get back to normal.
Perhaps if there is something to hold onto in all of this, it is not our definition of normality but our insistence on saying “we will”…That we will continue on, that we will, has always been the norm not only of humanity, but of all life, as French philosopher Henri Bergson pondered in the early 20th Century. Bergson used the term élan vital to describe the mysterious impulse toward an open future that seems to animate all life. In fact, this impulse is what life is…
“Whatever it is, however we name it,” Ambrosino writes, “it seems to always be our normal: we will.” (my stress)
But we do experience a time delay after we say our goodbyes and before the light of a new reality has yet to reach us. It is a gap time…a time of loss and expectation and perhaps even a smattering of hope all wrapped up together. Whether it is saying goodbye to a college student, or a kindergartner, a beloved spouse now deceased, or a non-repeatable time in our life, we may pause and crane our neck as far back as we can to see what we can see. Our tears haven’t fully dried, but our attention is no longer solely focused on we have lost…there is room in our story for what we may yet see or even expect. We begin to contemplate something of our future.
Have you considered what is good about your goodbyes? Have lived roughly half of a century, I’ve seen enough goodbyes to last me the rest of my lifetime, though I know that I will inevitably experience many more. The fact that there are potentially more goodbyes in our future should not cause us to fear or to despair, the greater concern is that we will not be able to find any good, anything of God, within our goodbyes, or any possible hope that might yet reach us when we gaze upon stars and only see our past shining brightly. The concern is that we will contract with every goodbye, instead of expanding like our brilliant and beautiful universe.
When the disciples watched Jesus ascend, they found within their small company something life sustaining that Jesus’ leave-taking gifted them. That is another way to say that they found a new way of being in the world together without the physical Jesus whom they knew, but with the spirit of Jesus which they never lost. When we consider our own personal goodbyes, what good can we leave behind that will leave this world a bit better? I am not only referencing when you physically leave this life, but when you leave a place, a store, a career, a friendship, an institution, or a moment in time. What grows in the wake of your leave-taking and does that even matter to you?
Likewise, goodbyes teach us that there is more to our lives beyond any person, circumstance, or time period. It is a hard truth that God has created us to be more than any single momentous person or event. For the most part and despite unwanted thoughts, we choose the memories we wish to accentuate as we choose each day whether we will continually rehearse them in our minds. The original disciples likely never forgot the crucifixion, but their memories of crucifixion were gradually supplanted by resurrection…and then ascension.
Our goodbyes are a continual “letting go” practice so that we can understand how we grow attached and how we grieve our attachment(s), helping us to be more circumspect about those things and people who are worthy of our time, attention, or resources…and more likely to reflect upon those things, persons, or situations which do not merit our unquestioned devotion. Every goodbye offers us the opportunity to measure our priorities accordingly and another chance to live our lives more authentically.
We learn to receive what is best about the person, situation, or thing and embody that for those whom we encounter on our life’s journey. Furthermore, we become spiritually empowered by those who have “left” us. Whether the situation was positive or negative, we realize both the preciousness of time and its finitude as measured not by years, but by experiences. We learn to live in the present moment, releasing the past to the past, and choosing to keep future worries at bay.
And lastly, all that former energy which was used formerly to resist or suspend the goodbye, or to “get back to” some idea of normalcy that we miss, can be harnessed and transformed to create a new hello.
Sisters and Brothers…consider this: We will. You, like Jesus, will ascend this challenge. You, like the disciples, will find some new good in a recent goodbye. Pick a goodbye that frustrates you or still blasts you in the innermost spaces of your being or leaves you gaping at the heavens. Lean back in your chair, close your eyes, and contemplate how this farewell, however unwanted, unfair, undeserved, unbearable, or filled with painful letting go, may have still bear the tiniest flickers of good shining on the horizon. Continue the story beyond the goodbye, even if you want to kick the ground in disbelief. Think of it this way—you could continue to agonize over the ending, or you could allow yourself this one measure of peace and the hope of ascending it.
For what is Ascension for, if not to ascend?