Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Ascension - A Strange But Important Event

Forty days after Easter, Jesus appeared to the disciples for a final meeting.  Luke mentions it at the end of his gospel, and reports on it in more detail at the start of the Acts of the Apostles:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”   7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.   8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”   9 And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.   10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”   12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away; 13 and when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.   14 All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
Acts of the Apostles 1:6-14

This conclusion to the experiences of Easter sets the stage for all that is to follow.  The Risen Christ takes leave of the people he chose to be his ambassadors to the world.  The reasons are not spelled out in any detail, but we can make some good guesses.  As noted earlier, Christ’s resurrection appearances defy the way our world normally runs.  Jesus’ immediate mission on earth is complete.  He resumes his place, which the Bible describes as being “at the right hand of God.”  As judge of the living and the dead, King of kings, and Lord of Lords, he is honored and obeyed by us who follow him on earth.  We direct our prayers to God through him, he is our Great High Priest, our Advocate and Intercessor, and he possesses all power in heaven and on earth.  The end of his earthly ministry also permits him to send the Holy Spirit to confirm us in faith, guide our understanding, and empower us to serve God.

This language seems strange to our modern ears, accustomed as we are to finding a natural cause to every event.  However, from a strictly modern perspective, everything about the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus seems odd. 

What we have to understand is that all these events seemed just as odd to the First Christians.  How do you express the realization that the Power that caused the universe to come into being pays attention to one of the smaller creatures on one of the smaller planets, and genuinely cares about what happens to them?  What you do is report as honestly as you can on what seems to have been direct contact with that Power.  And you accept that the whole thing is going to seem rather strange.

But is it really any stranger than other facts we take for granted?  Is it stranger than the idea that our bodies are composed of trillions of molecules, which are composed of atoms, and they in turn are composed of untold subatomic particles?  Or that the earth, surrounded with a semi permeable membrane, which we call the atmosphere, includes a center nucleus on which tiny beings go about their business, and that this happens to be a perfect model for every living cell there is?  Or that without love infants wither and can literally die?  Or that love can transform the lives of persons who have been hurt in their minds and spirits?  The story of Jesus is a very strange story, as is the belief that in him God visited a planet in rebellion, not to punish it, but to call it back to the right way of living.  Yet in this strange story women and men have found the key to understanding life, and the key to a relationship with God.

In this way Easter draws to a close and we, like the disciples, withdraw and wait for what Jesus called “the power from on high,” which will inaugurate an altogether new season of faith and life.

Howard MacMullen
© May 2013

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