Fr. Eames is Rector of the Church of the Advent, Medfield, MA.
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” May the words of my mouth and the mediation of our hearts be wholly acceptable to thee, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
It is such a joy to be back with you all at the Church of the Advent in Boston. This place will always be very special to me. I first attended a mass here this time of year. I believe it was on Rogation Sunday. As a relatively new Christian and a very new Episcopalian, I did not know why you all were still celebrating Easter more than a month later. Never mind “rogation”, a word of which I had never heard. It was all so marvelously bewildering, and the fun part is, sometimes it still is.
Perhaps the modern Christian is bewildered by this feast. The Feast of the Ascension does not have the same weight on the imagination that other Christian feasts have. You might expect it to be overshadowed by Easter, Christmas, All Saints Day, and Pentecost, but even some lesser feasts seem to outrank it in inspiration, or at least bemusement. As part of our celebration of St. Michael’s day at my church of the Advent, we follow the medieval tradition of the youngest cleric in the church dressing up as a dragon with the children chasing him away from the parish. I happen to be the youngest, and the oldest, cleric in the parish, so I take on this task. The historian in me offers dispensation for I do not arm them with sticks as would be more historically accurate. The children love the game, and they have proposed that we celebrate St. Michael and All Angels more often. What pious young Christians we are forming!
You get my point. I think there are many reasons why this feast has lost the imagination – it’s a midweek service, the cosmology is not appealing to the modern ear, and the stories from scripture are less captivating than the Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost events. I think the main reason, though, is that we degrade this story into a move the plot along kind of episode. Jesus must get back to the right hand of the father for the gift of the Holy Spirit to happen. If we view this feast, and this story, purely as setting up something else, and do not value it as in important moment as is, then we do this event in the life of Jesus, and this feast, an injustice.
Luke offers us two stories of the Ascension. Luke wrote both the gospel and the Book of Acts, so he is responsible for keeping both traditions alive. Offered story A or story B, Luke chooses both. Scripture is filled with this method of preserving our sacred stories. Sometimes there is merely a variation on a theme or a difference in chronology. Other times startling contrasts are apparent. For example, immediately after hearing of the glorious victories and the faithfulness of the people of God told in the book of Joshua, the biblical author described the chaos and faithlessness, with the enemies at the gate from the book of Judges. Did Joshua defeat the Canaanites, or are they everywhere? The Bible says, “Yes.” To put it in a modern idiom, Joshua is our facebook life filled with parties, vacations, cute pictures of children, and cats; while Judges, is our facebook life filled with fake news, political toxicity, and a loss of privacy. Both have a claim to the truth, and we should not assume that the more negative portrayal is always more accurate. It is just a different perspective.
The Gospel version of the Ascension is a happy story. In the tradition that the Gospel shares, the Ascension seemed to have taken place on Easter Sunday. Luke began chapter 24, “On the first day of the week”. He introduces the next section detailing the resurrection appearances, “Later that same day.” Luke never reports any passing of the day. I believe he intends this to be Easter Sunday.
Jesus led the disciples to Bethany. This fact is significant. Bethany is a little over a mile from Jerusalem. This is where the triumphal entry began the previous Sunday. Luke is closing the circle; he is symbolically finishing his narrative. These 8 days of Christ’s work – teaching, being crucified, being resurrected, and then ascending to the Father – ushered in the beginning of the kingdom of the 8th day, unbound by time and not limited by space or dimension – the kingdom of God.
The story of the Ascension also plays a confirming role of Jesus’ ministry. It was always God’s plan that Jesus would leave, as Luke mentioned in the story of the Transfiguration. Luke began this story by mentioning that the Transfiguration took place 8 days after Peter declared Jesus to be the Christ, and Jesus taught the disciples what being the Christ meant. During this episode, Luke described that Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and were speaking of Jesus’ “departure”. The word “departure” here in Greek is “Exodus”. Luke only used “Exodus” once in all of Luke/Acts. The use was clearly intentional. Jesus’ ministry is the perfection of the Exodus. Jesus would go through the waters of death and resurrection. And he, unlike Moses in his life time, would be allowed to reach the metaphorical promised land through the Ascension.
Another sign of the completeness of this moment is the blessing that Jesus offers to his followers. He lifted up his hands as a priest would at the end of a completed sacrifice. From Leviticus 9, “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down after sacrificing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. Moses and Aaron entered the tent of meeting, and then came out and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” When all the worship of God had been completed as was pleasing to God, Aaron, and later Christ, offered a blessing. Christ’s earthly ministry is complete.
This completion of Jesus’ mission is met with great Joy. The disciples finally seem to recognize the purpose of Jesus’ life and work. This recognition leads to worship. For the first time in Luke, the disciples fall down and worship him. They recognize him as not only an earthly messiah but their Lord. They then depart to worship in the Temple just as Jesus had commanded them to do. The disciples recognize Jesus, worship Jesus, and listen to Jesus. The followers of Christ get it. What a happy story – one of completion of Jesus’ life and work, and one of recognition and obedience by the followers of Jesus.
The second story is not a negative story, but it did retell how even in Jesus’ last speech before ascending to the Father, he had to correct his disciples. The disciples were then left flabbergasted and confused staring into the sky – not seeming to know what to do. In the Acts story, the followers of Jesus don’t seem to quite get it. They still need correction, and they don’t worship Jesus.
Do these tales not reveal the response of the followers of Jesus to this day? We are given glimpses of a true vision which propels us to worship and do what Jesus commands. We are also a people who too often need correction from Jesus, are confused, and our instinct is not to worship, but to go make a bishop. All right, the last part is editorializing, but the ordination, or choosing, of Matthias is the next story after today’s reading.
The Ascension may not be as popular a feast as it once was, but there is something to it. In this story, we celebrate Jesus’ exodus, we receive Jesus’ blessing, and we respond with worship. Given his blessing and inspired by all the beauty experienced tonight, our response is to fall to our knees in thanksgiving.
In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.