Father Murphy walks into a pub in Donegal, and says to the first man he meets,
"Do you want to go to heaven?"
The man said, "I do, Father."
The priest said, "Then leave this pub right now!" and approached a second man.
"Do you want to go to heaven?"
"Certainly, Father," was the man's reply.
"Then leave this den of Satan," said the priest, as he walked up to O'Toole.
"Do you want to go to heaven?"
"No, I don't, Father," O'Toole replied.
The priest looked him right in the eye, and said, "You mean to tell me that when
you die you don't want to go to heaven?"
O'Toole smiled, "Oh, when I die, yes, Father. I thought you were getting a group
together to go right now."
Last Thursday was the official celebration of the Ascension of the Lord. According to the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus appeared to many of his disciples during the 40 days following his resurrection. On the 40th day, he appeared again to the apostles and led them out to the Mount of Olives where he instructed them to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Holy Spirit. Then, as they were watching, he ascended into clouds. As they continued to watch, two angels appeared and declared to them that, just as he ascended, Jesus would return in glory.
For the ordinary Christian, the day passed without much fanfare. We plan the celebration of Christmas and Easter. But the Ascension of Jesus, the doctrine that Jesus ascended into heaven his last day on earth, barely gets a rise from us. The Ascension is the forgotten step child of the Christian celebrations. Of course we know Jesus is going to heaven. The Ascension undergirds the belief that we too, will go to heaven, because as Jesus promised, he goes to prepare a place for us. Just not now, right?
There are many Ascension Day traditions, such as "the blessing of the first fruits," in which grapes and beans are blessed. Some churches depict the Ascension of Christ by raising a statue of Jesus above the altar and lifting it through a special door in the roof. Other churches have outdoor processions with torches and banners. In an old Ascension Day tradition from England, parishioners carried a banner bearing the symbol of a lion at the head of the procession, and a second banner bearing the symbol of a dragon at the rear. This represented the victory of Christ over the devil.
In modern days the closest we come to discussions on ascension would come from royal enthusiasts or new agers, who describe the ascension of the earth or the individual soul as going from a lower to a higher spiritual plane. Ascension Day didn’t give Jesus anything he didn’t already have: he didn’t need to be crowned and he didn’t need to spiritually evolve any higher on his Ascension Day. However the Ascension does mark a profound change – for us. Just as Jesus spent 40 days of preparation, tempted by the devil, before embarking on his public ministry; Jesus, during the last 40 days on earth, after his resurrection until the day of Ascension, are spent in preparing his disciples for carrying on the ministry of good news and reconciliation that Jesus had started. The time span of forty days indicate that an appropriate amount of time has passed for "completeness".
So the disciples spent those final forty days with the risen Lord, learning, preparing, being tempted and tried, but even at the end, the very end, they still ask, “will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?" That was, after all, what every Jew expected the Messiah to do--restore the political fortunes of the nation of Israel. After all this time with Jesus, they were still focused on earthly solutions to spiritual problems. Jesus tells them that something more grand, more important, something more earth-shaking and astounding is about to happen: God's Spirit is about to fall on them to empower them to become his witnesses. The power of the reign of God is about to unfold in and around them to equip them for their work. The Ascension was key as a stepping stone for them to understand that Jesus was not an earthly king – but King of the Cosmos – and their marching orders was not a conquest of land, or conquering their foreign rulers, but of the triumph of the human heart for the love and reconciliation offered by God.
So, Jesus tells them, rather than worry about the times or seasons the Father has set for the fulfillment of all things, they are to take up their divinely assigned tasks in this new age. They are more than disciples now; they are to become his witnesses to the ends of the earth. For in the Ascension Jesus rules over the past, present and the future--he is Lord. Having returned to the One from whom he came, he is no longer simply Jesus of Nazareth. Ascended to his divine glory, which always was his, Jesus is enthroned as Lord of life. The Jewish Messiah has become the Cosmic Christ. This is the first thing the Ascension proclaims and holds before us. But there is more.
The theologian Karl Barth observed that the only thing that changed about Jesus at the mystery of the Ascension was his vantage point, the place, the realm from which he now operates. Jesus moved from our day-to-day world back into heaven- the realm of eternity: but did so without ceasing to be human. Jesus took his scarred physical body with him into heaven. So the Ascension is another step in the work of reconciliation and atonement -- that God set forth when Jesus took on human flesh at the incarnation. God became one with us in Jesus of Nazareth, so that you and I could become one with God in Jesus. In Jesus human life has been assumed into the essence of God. Just as Jesus became Emmanuel – that Hebrew word meaning God with us -- Jesus did this for the healing and reconciliation of humanity -- so the Ascension of Jesus is the elevation of humanity for the sake of all humankind. The Ascension is not only to glorify Jesus, nor only the enthronement of Jesus as the Cosmic Christ-- it points to the ultimate goodness of all human nature—created and redeemed by God. One of the mysteries of the Ascension is that it not only reveals what it means to be truly human, it assures us, as John Calvin wrote, that our flesh, yours and mine is acceptable to God, and destined to dwell in and with God's divine presence. Flesh and blood are welcome in God's presence because of our ascended Lord. Therefore there is no hierarchy between body, mind and spirit – God has created us whole – and the Ascension affirms that wholeness within us.
For those of us who suffer – for those of us who have been tempted – for those of us who are anxious – the Ascension reminds us what Peter encourages us: that the God of all grace, who has called us to his eternal glory in Christ, will restore, support, strengthen, and establish us. God lifts us up and gives us a glimpse of glory. Heaven is open wide – but not for us to stand gazing as the disciples were tempted to do – but for us to bring heaven on earth, to spread the kingdom of God here, in our midst. Even good word and deed we do in the name of Jesus, on behalf of the least of his children, brings the reality of Ascension here on earth.
The award winning poet and humanitarian, Maya Angelou spoke of this ability to bring that vision here on earth. A survivor of racism, rape, psychological trauma, struggling to find her way, a way that led her through low-level jobs, madam of a brothel, drugs, ultimately to theater and writing. It is not surprising in her official death announcement -- her passage home was described as an ascension. Our task is to lift up the human condition through the good news– so that ascension doesn’t have to wait until we die – And this is done, as Dr. Angelou captured in her poem, Touched by an Angel:
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
We do not have to wait to until we die to go to heaven. Heaven is gained, not by staring blankly at the sky, but by creating it, word and deed. With courage and boldness, as we are lifted up and love – there we get a glimpse of heaven – through the eyes of our ascended Lord. amen