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Here we are gathered together this evening to keep and celebrate this great of feast of our Lord’s Ascension, when on the fortieth day after his mighty resurrection, the forty-third day after his blessed passion and precious death, Jesus, blessing his disciples, was lifted up, and a cloud took them from their sight.
Took him from their sight. And yet this is a feast, a festival, a celebration, which perhaps immediately strikes us as a bit counterintuitive: his departing results in their rejoicing. Now, let’s not kid ourselves, we have all found ourselves rejoicing at someone’s, maybe some three-day’s guest’s, departing. But that shouldn’t apply here. These were Jesus’ disciples and friends; they loved him, and they wanted his company and companionship. They mourned his death, and they rejoiced at his resurrection, and so we might expect a return to some level mourning at this departure, however attenuated.
But St. Luke tells us that just the opposite happened: While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
So St. Luke is telling us that if we understand our Lord’s Ascension aright, if we can learn to see something of what those disciples saw, the result will be a deep and sustaining joy and an authentic, from-the-heart worship of and genuine gratitude toward God.
The first thing to say is that whatever they saw in Jesus’ Ascension, the disciples did not experience this parting, this leave taking, as an abandonment. They were not losing Jesus.
He was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight, we are told. Immediately, we think of fluffy white cumulus drifting across a blue sky, but that is to fail to think and read in the language of Bible – the holy scriptures, the record of God’s redeeming work, in which the cloud of God’s presence led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage, and the cloud of God’s presence which filled the Tent of Meeting and settled upon Sinai, and the cloud of the Holy Spirit that overshadowed the Blessed Virgin Mary as she gave her full and free “Yes” to God’s Word, and the cloud that descended upon Jesus on Mt. Tabor and in which he was seen gloriously transfigured and shining by the disciples. This is the cloud, the cloud of God’s presence, into which Jesus ascends and is taken from their sight.
Jesus is not departing “up to” some higher but other floor in the universe, but to his God and Father upon whom the very existence of the universe depends, and in whom we all “live and move and have our being.” The Ascension is not an abandonment but the beginning of a new and more intimate nearness – his continuing, ubiquitous, always-available presence with us and for us, not to a different and distant point within the universe, but transcending and filling all things. He is Ascended from one particular place to the heavenly, the divine places, far above all rule and dominion and power, as St. Paul says in our epistle, so that he now fills all in all – not an abandonment, but a new and available nearness.
Well, that might certainly result in the disciples’ great joy. But wait, as they say on television, there’s more! It’s not just that they see their friend and Lord somehow spiritually returned to and mystically united with the Father, but that they see their friend and Lord in his incarnate, fully human, flesh-and-blood, body and soul humanity taken in to the life of God.
The Incarnation did not end at the Ascension but continues forever. In the Ascension, the disciples, and we, see the very image, “the perfect icon,” of their own full redemption. In the Ascension, they and we see what humanity is capable of. Indeed, we see what God has created humanity for: an eternal share in his own divine life. And so in the Ascension we see revealed the full dignity of every human being. Every last and least one of us – intended, created, and at the cost of Christ’s own blood, redeemed for this, our true home and our true selves.
In the summer of 1990, having just graduated from college, I spent a couple months travelling in Europe, making stops at all the standard spots, including of course, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. As it happens, it was a curious time to see the Sistine Chapel. A restoration of the marvelous ceiling, covered by Michelangelo’s frescoes, had just been completed and the chapel re-opened the previous December after four years of careful, minute, painstaking cleaning and rehabilitation. The ceiling had been restored, but work had not yet begun on the great “Last Judgment” scene behind the altar and the other wall frescoes.
The contrast was startling: the ceiling above having emerged from beneath four and a half centuries of soot, grime, and water damage, an intensely bright jumble of vivid color and beauty and life. But the walls, the walls were dead by comparison, covered in grime, reduced almost to a dingy monochrome. Looking up, we could see the beauty of Michelangelo’s restored creation; we could see the artist’s achieved intention. But looking around us, though something of the original majesty could still be discerned, it was as if we were merely seeing through a glass, darkly. The truth of the creation was obscured.
Forty-three days ago, Pilate dragged Jesus onto the pavement before the madding crowd. There he was on display, a spectacle: scourged, beaten, bloodied, spat upon. Ecce homo, Pilate said; “Behold the man!” And in that man, that mistreated and abused man, we see our own disfigured and wounded humanity, “fast-bound by sin and nature’s night.” Ecce homo; Behold, the man. For every diseased, abused, aborted, betrayed one of us, with all the self-inflicted wounds of our own sin, there he is: for us he has become one of us, a participant in this fallen world with us – Behold, the man.
But that is not humanity’s whole truth. In the Ascension, God’s grace triumphs over Pilate’s cynicism just as, and because, he has triumphed over our sin. So, Pilate. So, everyone of us: Ecce homo! Behold the Man! – the risen and glorified Christ ascending to the Father … and you and me, united to Christ by faith and baptism, one with him in his Body the Church, ascending with him, into the eternal life and fellowship of the Most Holy Trinity, together with the saints in light.
In the Ascension the disciples saw the ultimate truth of our humanity, “wonderfully created yet more wonderfully restored”: the grime of the fallen ages washed away, the great Artist’s perfect intention gloriously achieved and revealed … not as a work of art, a fresco perhaps, a spectacle to be observed, but an event, as Pope Benedict has said, “in which they themselves [and we ourselves] are included,” in which we, in Christ, are participants.
No wonder they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. May this grace of the Ascension also fill our hearts, lift up our heads, and redeem our days, so that we may share in their joy.
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