Most of us can relate to many of the aspects of our Lord’s life. For example, most of us can relate to the idea that it’s good news that someone has conceived and is about to bring a child into the world. So we can find a way of understanding the doctrine of the incarnation. Many of us, if we do not have the experience ourselves, have known people that have had the joy in bringing a child home from the hospital. So we can relate to what a tremendous joy birth is. We don’t really have a hard time conceptualizing or struggling with the meaning of Christmas and the touching story of the birth of Jesus. While I’m reasonably sure that none of us have had the direct experience of resurrection, I’m quite sure that all of us here have had the experience of laying a person to rest. Someone whom we have loved and cared for. Someone for whom our heart aches as we come to that moment “where even at the grave we make our song alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” So in a real way we can relate to the disciples and Mary Magdalene and the others. We can imagine the tremendous joy that they must’ve experienced when they encountered the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
But things are different with the Ascension. That’s an experience with which throws most of us. It is hard for us to relate to it.
For starters, no one I have ever met ever had any direct experience of anybody else’s Ascension. We have never had the experience of someone that we know and love being suddenly picked up and drawn up into heaven and disappearing before our very eyes. Oh, we can understand the likes of Ralph Kramden making a fist and hollering “to the moon to the moon, Alice, to the moon. But Ascension? That’s something entirely different. If we were to experience something like that, I’m sure that our reaction would not have been so different from the early disciples. “Men of Galilee why stand you gazing up into heaven?” Why indeed? Wouldn’t we all? For most of us the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ stands fairly abstract and obtuse, something inaccessible and incomprehensible.
Well, we can reflect theologically the Ascension, and in so doing, we could make the statement that the Ascension of our Lord is important because it reminds us that Jesus is not only an itinerant preacher from Galilee but he is also the cosmic Lord and King of all creation. We can reflect, as Saint John did, that there is a certain necessity of the Ascension because our Lord goes to prepare a place for us in his permanent heavenly kingdom. We might notice, as did Saint John that there is a necessity to the Ascension: he goes that we might be filled with power from on high. The Ascension is a precursor signaling that the Messianic era is over as we look forward to something new which is the era of the Holy Spirit shared upon all humankind. We celebrate that in the feast of Pentecost, next Sunday. The fulfillment of the promise of the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
But the second thing about the Ascension is that it is a marvelous moment in which the followers of Jesus are reminded that they are commissioned to go forth into the world to preach, to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and bring all peoples into the fold. In the words of the Great Commission we are sent to baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The angelic beings chastise those men of Galilee for standing around too long saying goodbye. “You have work to do. Get on with it. Get out into the world and start proclaiming the love of Jesus and quit standing around staring up into the sky.”
Graduations are popular at this time of year. So I suppose we could think of this disciple graduation day. Usually the other name for graduation is commencement. It’s not the end of the journey but it’s the new beginning. So Ascension Day is tremendously about this living into the vocation of proclamation. Proclamation is a thing that we are all called to do. To proclaim Christ by word and example to seek and to serve him in others. Unfortunately, it’s a whole lot more comfortable for all of us as it was for Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and the rest to stand in to gaze. Far more comfortable to stand and gaze than to go out into the world and to represent the love of God in Jesus Christ. Yet the mission of the church is the proclamation and representation of Jesus in the community in which we live. Yours is fundamentally the same as the apostolic commission and so is mine.
Last thing that comes to my mind with the assumption of our Lord Jesus Christ is this: it’s a very touching moment and it’s a hard moment because most of us find it incredibly difficult to say goodbye. In representations of art often times the disciples are shown reaching up in the air as if to grasp the feet of Jesus to hold him back stay with us stay with us a little longer. Reassuring as our Lord’s last words to his disciples may be about how he’s going to be present with them always, that does not soften the blow as they reach up while he ascends. Yet ascend he must so that they must be filled finally and wonderfully and completely in the power of the Holy Spirit.