Up, up and away. In my beautiful balloon. The Fifth Dimension, as prolific as they were, have nothing on St. Luke.
There are many ways that we can suffer the pain of separation. We can watch a member of our family step on the train or walk down the ramp at the airline gate to move clear to the other coast or even halfway around the world. We can watch a son, or a daughter walk down the aisle to get married, or we can be separated by death. The first time I remember feeling significant separation anxiety in my life was when my big brother, whom I shared a bedroom with shortly after I became too big for the bassinette, left for Fort Ord for basic training. That small room felt so big and lonely those first few nights. From the kindergartner who lost a beloved pet hamster to one who has lost their spouse, we all know the heartache and disappointment of separation. All you need to do is to think back to one of those occasions in your life, and it might be apparent why the Ascension is not the mother of all feasts in the church.
I’m sure many of you went looking for Mother’s Day cards this year, and perhaps you are searching for Father’s Day cards as of this writing. Did you look for any Ascension Day cards while you were there in the Hallmark section of the store? I doubt it because the Ascension isn’t a Hallmark kind of feast, is it?
Why did Jesus have to go so soon? Why would God go to all that trouble to find a mother for God’s Son in a remote village in the Middle East, give him a calling, let him die on a cross and rise from the grave only to have him ghost us a short time later? Why? Up until just a few years ago, in the Anglican Tradition, we had a little extra ceremony at an Ascension service. We would have extinguished the Paschal Candle right after the reading of the Gospel. [For dramatic effect, preachers could put out the Paschal Candle here.] This would symbolize in a powerful if not haunting way that Jesus has gone out of sight; that he has left this puny little planet for the heavenly throne; that Jesus is now part of the “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise.”
And to think only a couple of weeks ago we heard Our Lord say, with all compassion and love in his voice, “I will not leave you desolate.”
Let’s face it, there is a reason that some churches transfer the Feast of the Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, even though the Book of Common Prayer doesn’t make provision for it. When I was a pastor, I know that I did it every year because I thought the Ascension to be too important to have only a handful of people in church to celebrate on a Thursday.
We like Jesus to be here with us, and our traditional celebrations of the Ascension put an end to that, or so some of us might think. But I would like for us to see this glorious feast in a new and refreshed light. I submit to you that Jesus could never have been as close to us as he is today if not for the Ascension. I submit to you that God could never have come to know us as well as God does if not for the Ascension of the Risen Christ!
Elsewhere in the Gospels we heard Jesus say, “I no longer call you servants, but I call you friends because I have told you all that the Father has told me. Well guess what, because of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into heaven, Jesus can now tell the Father all that we have spoken to him.
The Risen Christ ascends into heaven carrying the wounds of life and the wounds of death, the joys of love, the hope of mission and even the disappointments and failures of life. If you will permit me to use the describers of first century cosmology, on Christmas Heaven came down to Earth and, on the Ascension, earth rose to heaven, and we are joined with the Divine Trinity for all of Eternity! Jesus Christ is no longer confined spatially or temporally.
I’ve come to look upon this feast as the celebration of Jesus ascending to greater heights rather than ascending UP in location. The Risen Christ is now able to be with all of us all the time anywhere; Christ didn’t ascend out of sight he ascended into plain view! I love what a one-time Archbishop of Canterbury said about the Ascension: “In the days of his earthly ministry, only those could speak to him who came where he was. If he was in Galilee, no one could find him in Jerusalem; if he was in Jerusalem, no one could find him in Galilee. But the Ascension means that he is perfectly united with God. Christ can now be found everywhere. We are with him wherever we are present to God, and this is everywhere and always.” As Jesus said in the Gospel appointed for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, “I am in you, and you are in me.”
Now there’s a couple of ways we can react to this GOOD NEWS.
We can bask in the warmth of Jesus’ assurance while looking up into the sky, squinting our eyes in the brightness of the sun, standing immobilized by the whole thing as were the disciples. We would probably get away with this too as there probably won’t be an angel that will come to us and say, “Hey you guys! Why are you standing there gawking up at the sky?” Or we can stop asking that Sunday School question, “Where is the body of Jesus?” Instead we need to realize the true import of our Lord’s Ascension, namely that we are now so joined to the divinity that we become the very body of Jesus; Christ has ascended into us!
The popular author Robert Fulghum tells the story about a seminar he once attended, and on the last day of the conference, the discussion leader walked over to the bright light of an open window and looked out. Then he asked if there were any closing questions. Fulghum laughingly asked him, “Yeah, what is the meaning of life?”
Everyone attending the class laughed and then began to gather their belongings to leave. The leader, however, held up his hand and asked for silence and then said, “I will tell you what the meaning of life is for me. I will answer your question.” He then reached into his pocket and removed his wallet, and from inside the wallet he removed a small round mirror about the size of a quarter. He then explained, “When I was a small child during World War II, we were very poor and lived in a remote village. One day on the road, I found broken pieces of a mirror probably caused by the bombings and the ravages of the war. There was always glass in the streets, but this wasn’t ordinary glass it was the glass of a mirror. I tried,” he said, “to find all the pieces, but I could not, so I kept the largest piece, this piece” (as he held up the mirror). “By scratching it on a stone, I made it round, and I could play with it as a toy. I soon became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect the light into the most inaccessible places. I kept the little mirror, and as I was growing up, I would take it out at idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game, but a metaphor of what I could do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. Light, be it truth, understanding or love is always there, and it will only shine in many of the dark places if I bother to reflect it, especially into the dark places of human hearts. Perhaps others seeing it happen will do likewise. This is what I’m about. This is the meaning of my life.”
We need not worry how rough we are around the edges. We need not worry if our edges are yet jagged and broken from the ravages of this life. Christ is Risen and the Ascension is an extension of that resurrection! Christ has ascended into each of us! There is no use looking up because it’s always high noon. Because of Christ’s Ascension into heaven, it’s always the brightest part of the day [If desired, the Paschal Candle could be relit here]. Our favorite T.V. shows will one day come to an end, and books will finally go out of print. The Beatles will never be able to duplicate 1968. But because of the Ascension, Christ can forever remain the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, especially with a little help from his friends.
We need to look into that mirror we call the self and see there that Christ’s body has taken on new flesh in us, and then we must turn the mirror outward and reflect Christ’s light into those darker corners of life.
Have you seen Jesus? That’s not really the question, is it? The real question is, “Have others seen Jesus in you?”
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Kenneth Hollingsworth says
Dear Fr William,
My wife and I arrived to church this morning to find that our priest had gotten sick during the night and no supply priest was available, so our junior warden, Bill, was asked to step in last minute to do Morning Prayer. While he is a good Bible scholar, I asked him if he wanted me to pull a sermon for him. He said yes. All this was very last minute as he had taught Sunday School and we had just a little time before the service start and I, being organist, had to rush off to attend to my duties. I looked up your site and handed my iPhone to our web master and asked him use the url and pull up your sermon for today and print it for Bill. Our webmaster, Matt, was not familiar with our new copier/printer and somehow the last paragraph on each page got left off. But Bill read your sermon, with a few of his asides along the way, and I think our congregation was blessed. So you blessed a small Episcopal congregation in Cedar Hill, TX today. Thanks for your thoughts and good illustrations.
Rev. William Adams says
I can’t tell you how good your comments are to my heart. They have affirmed what I had been hoping, namely that what I do at Sunday GospelTalk is a MINISTRY. I’m so pleased that my words filled a need for a congregation so many miles away from me. I appreciate it so much that you would take the time to share this with me and with my readers. May God richly bless your ministry and the ministry of your church in Cedar Hill, Texas.