The Feast of the Ascension – May 17, 2015
My former rector, the Rev. Jay Sidebotham, also happens to be an artist…a cartoonist, actually. He was one of the creators of the Schoolhouse Rock series, those short animated shows that used to play during Saturday morning cartoons, teaching children of Generation X (and others) about things like “Conjunction Junction,” or “Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here.” Jay is also the creator of those cartoons on church calendars you might have seen about malfunctioning clergy microphones or Palm Sunday processions gone wildly off course.
Jay’s brain is always in artist’s mode. I remember him talking once about how he would draw the ascension (maybe he’s already done it at this point). He described a band of confused disciples looking at each other, looking up. And just above eye level hover Jesus’ feet, the rest of him disappeared into a cloud.
John and I spent a lot of time looking up while we were in Italy. I have a whole series of pictures of ceilings in the churches we visited. From frescoes by Giotto in St. Francis Church in Assisi, to a dark blue dome at the cathedral in Siena filled with gold stars and borne up by little cherubs, to Bernini’s paintings of the life of Jesus on the ceiling of the Medici chapels, to Christ enthroned in gold on the ceiling above the baptistery where Michelangelo and so many others through the millennia were sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own for ever. Having looked up over and over again in awe, to the point of getting a pinch in the back of my neck, I have some sympathy for those gobsmacked disciples. We didn’t see Jesus’ feet, but we saw plenty that caused us to wonder at how such things were possible.
And I have some sympathy for the disciples’ confusion as well. When they talk with Jesus before all the drama of this moment unfolds, they ask: “Lord, is this when you will restore the kingdom?” Is this when you will fix it? Is this, finally, when you’re going to make the world as it is into the world as it should be? (Can you hear the hope, the edge of a note of insistence in their tone?)
But, no. He won’t give them the clear answer they seek. “It is not for you to know. You will receive power from the Holy Spirit. And you will be my witnesses, here and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus tells them.
They want something solid, something dependable. Something they can comprehend. He gives them mystery and promise, asks again for their trust. And then – a cloud? Cartoon feet hovering just above eye level? Or frescoes and gold and chubby angels and stars?
This last image of Jesus can underscore for us his divine nature. We don’t have much in the way of examples of walking and talking people being lifted into heaven before someone’s very eyes – yes, in the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah goes up before the prophet Elishah…but he had to have a chariot of fire do the heavy lifting. Jesus just – ascends. And maybe it’s a part of our human nature to keep looking the way that he has gone, just like those disciples.
Our hymns today pay tribute to the grandeur of this moment: “Lord beyond our mortal sight, raise our hearts to reach thy height,” we sang at the beginning of the liturgy. As we look up and catch glimpses of artists’ imagination of the mystery and majesty, as we lift our voices to sing of what we may not comprehend (at least I’ll claim that for myself), the ethereal nature of who Jesus is shines through until his feet are absorbed by the cloud. This is the Jesus who knows things about the Father and the Spirit that can’t be revealed to the disciples just yet. This is the Jesus whom the demons recognize, and try to escape, and ultimately obey. This is the Jesus who can pass through walls and locked doors into upper rooms, the one who heals people who have been sick for a long, long time, the one who blesses five loaves and two fish and turns it into a feast for the multitude…with leftovers.
“You are witnesses,” he says. And they are. And they will be – witnesses to his miracles, to things they saw and do not understand. But they tell the stories. And so do we. And so will we. As witnesses.
Artists telling this story don’t only portray Jesus feet (cartoon or otherwise) heading up through a cloud to the highest heaven of heavens, though. Many will show you something more than those feet, more than the gaping disciples and guys in white robes. Sometimes, if you look at the ground of those paintings or mosaics or woodcuts of the Ascension, you will see his footprints there, or an indentation on the rock where Jesus last stood.
There’s a message for us in that as well. It serves as a reminder that Jesus was fully divine, and he was not only divine. He was also fully human. His feet were real. They bore real weight. They made indentations. And as real as that incomprehensible mystery of his majesty is the reality that he was born into this world like we were, from a human mother. This is the Jesus who maybe gets a little disagreeable with his mother on occasion, but who makes sure she is cared for in the end. This is the Jesus who is hungry after 40 days wandering in the wild away from home. This is the Jesus who sits at table with prostitutes and tax collectors, who weeps when his friend dies, who becomes so furious that he turns over tables in the Temple. This Jesus’ impression is all over us – calling us to good news for the poor, to bring freedom to the oppressed. His human life bears weight in this world, leaves a mark, an indentation, on us.
This story is about goodbye, for a time. Jesus is leaving them, and the disciples don’t quite know what comes next. It is a moment of departure and promise and trust, some of which we may not fully understand, other aspects as matter of fact as an extra place at the table to share a meal, a simple, practical kindness done without sentimentality. And it may not be for us to know what comes next, or when things will be as they should. Still: we are inheritors of mystery and promise, called to bear the mark of his impression on our lives.
We are witnesses, finally. We are witnesses to the intersections of human and divine, even when they’re fleeting, even when they seem to be passing away into a cloud.
We are witnesses. We are. We are witnesses…here, and to the ends of the earth.