Fr. Clarke is Rector of St. Paul’s Church, Malden, Massachusetts.
God has gone up with a shout! — Psalm 47:5a
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What do crafters of foreign policy rate as their toughest question? Ask Catherine Ashton, former high representative for security policy of the European Union. She suggests that, when it comes to waging war and peace, the toughest question ─ and the question too often ignored ─ is “And then what?”
Take Europe after the First World War: Germany’s disarmament, reparations, territorial concessions. The failure of the victors to ask “And then what” made conditions ripe for the rise of Hitler and, ultimately, Word War II.
A more recent and devastating example? One word: Iraq.
“And then what?” It’s the toughest question ─ the only question worth asking ─ as we revisit, this evening, Jesus’ Ascension.
Now, there’s a slew of other questions Jesus’ Ascension triggers, especially if we go all “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and think astrophysics might crack the Ascension conundrum: Where is Jesus?
Meaning, Jesus ─ a very physical Jesus ─ one so physical that he asks the disciples on the heels of his resurrection, “You don’t happen to have any food lying around here, do you?” … but also a physical Jesus who nevertheless “apparates” (in Harry Potteresque fashion) on the same occasion, confounding the disciples’ high-security measures. This physical Jesus we have been following these past 40 days since his resurrection orchestrates one last send-off with his disciples before going “boldly where no one has gone before.”
And then what?
That is, go where? If ascended ─ if not here ─ where? “Up there” … to be encountered somewhere in the neighborhood of Alpha Centauri once we crack ─ in the near future, according to Stephen Hawking ─ near light-speed space travel?
That stellar gloss requires looking at Jesus’ first-century Ascension with first-century eyes. Meaning, it requires a tripartite cosmology: This world, sandwiched in-between an underworld and possibly hell (the one into which we profess Jesus “descended”) … and the star-studded dome of heaven (as in “he ascended into heaven”). And that would be a heaven that is somehow related spatially? … conceptually? … mystically? … to “up there,” where Jesus is sitting in some way at the right hand of God the Father?
Complication: We don’t sport first-century eyes. We don’t exercise ─ on a good day, at least ─ first-century minds. And neither do our neighbors, whom we hope somehow to attract to the Good News of God in Christ. Because, let’s face it, the Ascension: it’s a bit embarrassing if you take the astrophysical-Jesus route, because it ends up sounding like a riff on ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ (thinking here the 1934 blockbuster starring Lesley Howard, Merle Oberon, and Raymond Massey):
We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
That damned, elusive Pimpernel.
Factoid: Jesus is not the Scarlet Pimpernel. Bonus factoid: God has blessed us with 21st-century eyes and minds to discern ─ and celebrate ─ the first-century phenomenon of Jesus’ Ascension.
Of course, you could do an end run around all Ascension cosmological speculation and focus on the coda of the two white-robed messengers. “Friends,” they say, more or less, “consider the symmetry: Jesus ─ lift-off. Jesus ─ soft-landing (certain restrictions apply).”
Read: “If you like the Ascension, you’ll go gaga over the Apocalypse!”
My two cents: I don’t think that’s the way to go. But if it feels right to you, knock yourselves out.
So, we’re left wondering: How is Jesus where he is? And it’s not exactly certain that we can use ─ and perhaps it’s counterproductive in terms of evangelism to even use – the language of place and space in wringing the most we can out of Jesus’ Ascension.
Bottomline: The most we can do is play the Mystery Card. That is, the most we can say ─ and it’s not a bad option ─ is that Jesus’ humanity has been planted ─ or better ─ Jesus has planted our humanity ─ in the very heart of God (which was the point of the Incarnation in the first place).
That means, Jesus ─ through the mystery of his Ascension ─ has graced each of us with the potential to participate in the very life of God. Or, as theologian John MacQuarrie put it, “[In Jesus’ Ascension,] we get, so to speak, a breathtaking view of creation in all its unimaginable possibilities. … [Through it, we are] given a share with God in shaping that still unfinished creation in which life is set.”
Nice idea. Thrilling, in fact.
And then what? What does it look like 8 o’clock Monday morning?
In other words ─ from here on out ─ what quintessentially expresses our humanity as persons “marked as Christ’s own forever”? What expresses our humanity as a people destined to sing in chorus with Maya Angelou:
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Now, I don’t know if Richard J. Light is interested in answering that question. (Light is on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.) But he offers to his students ─ poised to make substantive life choices ─ an exercise in the form of a parable, which I’m adapting here:
A happy fisherman lives a simple life on a small island. Each day is like any other. He goes fishing in the mornings, catches a few fish, sells them to his friends, and then spends the rest of his day with his wife and children. His daily regimen includes a nap.
The fisherman is so happy, he can’t imagine changing a thing … until he meets a vacationing MBA, who suggests the happy fisherman can become rich.
“Catch more fish, start up a business, market the fish, open a cannery, maybe even issue an IPO (an Initial Public Offering). You might become so successful,” the MBA suggests, “you could donate some of your fish to hungry children worldwide. You might even save lives.”
The happy fisherman’s response? “And then what?”
“Then,” the MBA counters, “you could still manage to spend some time with your family. But you would have made a difference instead of lying around for most of the day.”
End of parable.
Richard Light then asks his students to explore ─ even debate ─ the lessons of the parable. “Is it more important ─ to you ─ to have little,” he asks, “accomplish little, yet be relaxed and happy and spend time with family?
“Or is it more important to you to work hard, use your talents, maybe even make the world a better place along the way?”
Meaning, here you are. And then what?
Pushing the point: What matters to you? What ─ insofar as each of us is responsible and capable ─ are our neighbors owed as persons made in the image and likeness of God ─ that’s God, who now shares in our humanity through the action of Jesus’ Ascension?
With each of us as agents empowered by Jesus’ Ascension, what will help us and the neighbors God has sent our way “still rise”?
… because Jesus has brought into the heart of God our dreams ─ our neighbors’ dreams ─ our aspirations, the passions of our hearts.
“God ─ Jesus ─ has gone up with a shout!”
And then what?