The commemoration of the Ascension passes us by in this country. In places where the Eastern Church is prevalent it’s an important feast day, up there in importance with Christmas and Pentecost. In many places, it’s a work holiday. Always falling on a Thursday, the word “Ascension” passes through lips casually, but it is doubtful that those who speak it contemplate its meaning. In our church it is celebrated but on a minor key; we have to admit that the Ascension is a difficult image to create in our minds and it’s difficult to make sense of it. Coming 40 days after Easter Day, it is mostly ignored since it falls on a Thursday.
On feast days, it’s interesting to look at some of the remaining customs of ancient people, because even under the veneer of superstition and legend, a core of truth may be found. In many parts of Greece where the Orthodox observe the day with great joy, village people stay up on the night of Ascension staring at the skies. Legend tells us that those “who are pure in heart” see a light ascending to the heavens. For some reason, in Greek villages the day is associated with shepherds, so milk features greatly in the recipes set aside for just this day. And the water of the sea becomes symbolic also: This is the first day of the year when people enter the sea either to swim or to wade, and then to carry some of the water home to ward off evil.
The first custom, that of looking at the skies, reminds us of the unquenchable longing of the early Christians for the Lord’s return. There is a poignant scene in Lloyd Douglass’ book, “The Robe,” where Christians are pictured as always looking to the distance as if waiting for someone, longing for someone, so convinced were they of Jesus’ imminent return.
Luke is the only one of the evangelists who gives a particular image to this event, starting with the end of his gospel and continuing it in the Acts of the Apostles. Fascinated by his words, countless great artists and iconographers have painted their interpretation of Jesus’ Ascension. In these paintings, icons, and frescoes, Jesus is literally ascending, his feet no longer touching the earth, sometimes surrounded by angels, a cloud above ready to hide him from human eyes. And thus it is that many of us probably imagine the Ascension.
There is nothing specifically right or wrong in this image. We are visual thinkers. Words help us create images that we remember even though we have seen them only in art or in our own minds. This is not the place to inquire in what form Jesus returned to the Father. Some hints are given throughout the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: He enters a room suddenly, without using a door; he appears next to couple walking together on the road to Emmaus; he cooks breakfast for Peter and his friends by the shore. But he disappears just as suddenly as he appears. So the hints tell us that though the resurrected body is visible, the qualities it demonstrates are different from the body that was crucified. This is enough for us.
Two details are surprising in this final story in Luke’s gospel. One is found in verse 45: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” There is something liberating in this statement. Our minds must be open to understand, not closed. We see so much evidence today of minds that refuse to understand the truth of the scriptures, preferring to stay closed and limited by what they think they understand. Reading the Bible with open minds, open because Christ has done the opening, reveals something new each time we read a passage.
The other detail is that even though Jesus disappeared from their midst, the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” These are the same people who, with great fear and grief, had hidden during the crucifixion and burial. Why are they joyful now? Their dearest friend has disappeared from their eyes. They will not see him again and this time apparently they know that he will not be making another post-resurrection appearance. Why are they joyful now? Is it that now, finally, they truly understand him and believe him?
The opening of their minds to understand the scriptures has much to do with this joy. “You are witnesses of these things,” he tells them. What a powerful word this is: “witnesses.” They have witnessed a new creation, and they know it. They have witnessed love in action. They are now witnesses to the resurrection.
The fear of death has been replaced by the joy of knowing life. They believe in his promises. The Paraclete, the Advocate shall come. They will stay in Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Above all, they have been given a job to do. Their life has a purpose and this fills them with joy. In our reading from Acts, Jesus tells his disciples: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We are included in that last phrase, “the ends of the earth.” The disciples fulfilled their mission. They did the work. Now it’s up to us to continue it.