Today we celebrate one of the great festivals of the church. Because it falls on a Thursday it largely goes unnoticed by most Christians. The Ascension of Jesus is one of several Biblical scenes that challenge our modern sensibilities. It is a story told twice by the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The Ascension narrative works as a hinge holding these two books together. However, the cosmology the story reveals is far too simple. Heaven is up there somewhere above the clouds, hell is somewhere beneath our feet, with the earth suspended between the two. We know this is not the case. Pictures from the Hubble telescope show us many different “galaxies, suns, and planets in their courses” – the vastness of the cosmos. So, what do we make of this story of Jesus’ rising into heaven, his feet dangling over the edge of a cloud?
The story reminds us that Jesus ascends to the Father with his risen body, the same humanity he took on as a babe in the manger…connecting heaven to earth. Now, Jesus ascends uniting earth to heaven. He experiences all our humanity – birth and death, joy and sorrow, pain and deprivation, fellowship and love, faithfulness, and betrayal. Throughout his life he shows us the way of forgiveness. Every human experience Jesus had on the earth he takes into heaven in his “fleshy” body, hallowing all creation.
Before Jesus ascends, he charges his disciples to continue his mission of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit the disciples are empowered to emulate Jesus; reaching out to the poor and oppressed, the sick and suffering, to captives, who need to be set free by love. As the disciples embrace Jesus’ call to practice forgiveness, then heaven comes down to earth once again. Jesus’ Ascension is necessary for his mission to spread to the ends of the earth. His Ascension allows God’s love to be multiplied in the lives of his followers; person-to-person, community to community, generation to generation, filling the world with the knowledge of his love and forgiveness.
On Tuesday, we learned the heartbreaking news that an 18-year-old kid killed 19 children and two teachers. He wounded his grandmother and seventeen other people before being killed by a border patrol agent. This horrendous tragedy is senseless. As I watched the All-Star Class at Saint Anne’s Day School graduate the next morning, I could not stop thinking about the 19 breakfast and dinner tables that will forever have empty places. Of the families in Uvalde, Texas who are left with death, loss, and grief. We will never know why Salvador Ramos perpetrated this heinous act. Was it hate, despair, mental illness, or some other reason that drove him to kill? Did his family and friends, school and community, or his church fail to recognize his desperation? Does any of this searching for answers even matter? Do we forgive him? Can we forgive him? I am at a loss as one tragic mass shooting bleeds into the next.
Has Jesus delayed his return to us because the church fails to remember his charge at Bethany…our call to live as apostles, sent ones, to proclaim the forgiveness and love of God? The community that God wants to build is not only in the future; it is being built in the present, in and through our lives. Receiving forgiveness and giving forgiveness transforms us into God’s temple on earth. But if we stand gazing into the heavens wondering when Jesus will return, we may forget our mission to be lovers and forgivers of a world in desperate need of both. Would someone reaching out to Salvador with love have changed the course of his life, of the lives of the dead and the wounded? Maybe…
Each week we celebrate the Eucharist and retell the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as we await his coming. In the intimacy of a common meal, God comes to us in bits of bread and wine. Jesus’ gift of himself in the Incarnation and returning to the Father with our humanity…calls us to remember his words and deeds, to proclaim his forgiveness to others, changing the world one person at a time.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.