To my surprise, a couple of events in the past week had me thinking freshly about the Ascension. And to write about them coherently I need to make a couple of confessions.
First - I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve read far enough to know I care about a novel to finish it, will read the end (same for a mystery). Then knowing where it’s going, I go back to my bookmark and watch the storyteller at work. It turns all narrative into a kind of remembering that in life only comes with retrospection. More on that one after…
My Second Confession - when I was a college student seeking ordination and planning to go to seminary, I got invited to preach the Sunday after the Ascension and I preached a “challenge” to the congregation based on the premise that a progressive, open-hearted reading of the New Testament still had to acknowledge as FACTS, fragments of narrative like Luke/Acts account of the Ascension. I said something like, “We may not like it, but if we claim we’re Christian, we need to believe that God actually could and did lift Jesus heavenward from a hilltop in Israel and that he disappeared into the clouds like a rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral.”
So, Ascension - why does this particular account from Luke trump the other three Gospels? Same for Annunciation and Pentecost? Why does Luke define our liturgical year so decisively? Luke’s birth story defines Christmas on the calendar. Matthew’s version gets squeezed in to Epiphany. Two Gospels choose to have no birth story. And why do we celebrate Pentecost fifty days after Easter (following Luke) instead of on Easter Day (following John)? Forty-five years of listening to colleagues preach Gospel narrative with grace have made me grateful that the one story of Jesus is emphatically NOT a coherent narrative, and I’m intrigued and moved to consider how oral tradition, preaching, teaching, and evangelism shaped the narratives we receive from the communities whose versions we’ve made canonical. But it’s a different story with the liturgical year. Ascension is a Lukan celebration, a story missing completely from the other Gospels and a prelude to Luke/Acts unique telling of the Pentecost.
Why is Luke given prominence in shaping our liturgical year?
I suspect the author’s declared purpose of creating a synthesis appeals to liberal literalists. Our church is full of liberal literalists, people (including clergy) whose hearts are in an open place pastorally, people who long for justice, people who listen to NPR, and people who read the Gospels as if they were an eyewitness accounts. I know we’re in trouble when I hear a preacher wonder what Jesus or Peter or someone in the narrative “must have felt when…”
Trial lawyers tell me that they know eyewitness testimony wins a case because juries believe eyewitness is as close to hearing the ‘the truth’ or ‘what really happened’ as you can get. And friends who are trial attorneys acknowledge research demonstrating that eyewitness is the least reliable form of evidence because it’s all based on memories patched together and reinterpreted to make sense of things. Luke admits he’s doing just that, collecting and synthesizing stories to make a whole. Luke declares to Theophilus (his real reader of an imagined “lover of God”) that he has deliberately gathered and compared the stories to create a coherent narrative. We have to surmise what case he’s arguing, but he means to offer us evidence and closing argument for a verdict. And his coherent narrative gives us our now assumed governing structure to think about all the stories and experience of the four Gospels and beyond, stories that entirely burst the boundaries of narrative. Luke’s imposed order encourages us (and the church year) to imagine we’re thinking or hearing ‘what really happened.’
To his credit, Luke also is very interested in the wild, unpredictable workings of the Holy Spirit, and the coherent narrative that he crafts repeatedly tells the story where the Spirit showing up changes everything. Luke’s distinctive ordering is genuinely graceful, and this reminder of the Spirit a note in scripture that I wish we valued more. But neither Luke nor the liturgical year offer us coherent historical narrative. And the other Gospels insistently remind us that there are other tellings of this mysterious story making the rounds of early communities.
So then, the next question – why does Luke come up with Jesus’ rocket-like ascent into the clouds?
Two of Luke’s problems crafting his coherent narrative push for the Ascension. First there’s the question of just where Jesus might be NOW. We’ve got the disciples (and Paul’s) experience of the Risen Jesus, and then this logical question – is he still around that way, how ever or whatever ‘that way’ or a visible, touchable risen Christ might have meant to any of these communities (or St. Paul)? And if we don’t see Jesus now, where is he? The other Gospels leave the question wholly unanswered. One mystery opens to another. But Luke comes up with an answer, pointing toward the clouds, Luke says – “He’s not here that way anymore. He’s up there. At the Right Hand of the Father.”
Conveniently “up there” helps with the second narrative problem. As the other Gospel-making communities seem to have done, at least sometimes, Luke partially reframes Jesus’ message of the radical presence of God’s reign NOW. The early communities, facing hardship and persecution, lay a future promise on top of Jesus’ urgent proclamation of the divine now. Whatever was less than God wanted and hoped for would be resolved when Jesus “came back from heaven.” The early communities supplied a Deus Ex Machina to make Jesus’ proclamation of radical blessing now work out. When I’m reading a mystery and skip ahead to find out “who done it,” I’m reading a finished book. Skipping to read life from “the end” doesn’t work because “the end” is hidden in darkness and the mystery of God’s unfolding creation.
We can actually only read our lives and the life of our community of faith as they unfold. But we seem to imagine that if we can promise ourselves an ending that will tie up all the loose ends, we can make more sense of the narrative we’re living. The earliest Christians took that apocalyptic impulse they’d inherited from one strand of first century Judaism, a bit like my reading the end of a mystery before finishing the book, and grafted it back into Jesus’ teaching. And Luke’s Ascension gives us a map of heaven and earth and imagines a second to the last chapter that together make Jesus’ return from heaven work.
Bishop Pike fretted that the 1967 Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, the earliest liturgy in Trial Use that led to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer introduced ‘strange and erroneous doctrine’ with its non-Episcopalian emphasis on the second coming, what we have now in “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” At the time I felt scornful of Pike for dismissing what was so evident in the Bible’s story, or thinking of Ascension in Acts and the angels’ reproach and promise in Acts 1, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” There it is, what goes up must come down, Luke’s schema for the Second Coming.
Over the years since reading Gospel scholars convinced me that Jesus was preaching a non-futurist re-visioning of the present action of God – a ‘kingdom of God’ that wasn’t just at hand (John the Baptist’s message) but here, now, among us.
Preaching that God’s power is fully present and realized among us now has all kinds of problems, and not just the problem of evil and suffering (consider how Luke fixes the problem of Jesus’ outrageous declaration of God’s blessing on the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and those who mourn. But it’s not just evil, there’s also the problem of any future at all. If God’s new life, the infinite holy possibility of the present is already here, what’s tomorrow? Memory and anticipation look like a workable answer. But consider what do we do with memory.
Daniel Simons at St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Wall Street preached a sermon that touched on memory. Preaching the ultimate fallibility of memory at the church that has been the pilgrim destination for 9/11 requires a certain courage, or at least ruthless clarity. Daniel was talking about what lasts, about the transformative and enduring power of love, the very thing that seems most fragile and ephemeral. And he quoted a saying (probably from the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition) about our final death, which is not the moment our hearts stop or the moment we’re consigned to a crematorium or buried in the earth, but the last time our name is spoken on earth.
If love is truly stronger than death and sin, it’s also got to be stronger than memory, because, as the Whiffenpoof song brutally reminds us, eventually, “we’ll pass and be forgotten like the rest.”
At St. Paul’s, backing up to Ground Zero and the World Trade Center site, you see constant crowds lined up to visit our most recent ‘eternal memory’ destination. Walking along the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan, I paused to read another, lesser memorial. It’s not even a plaque, but a laminated photograph and text marking the dock where the Carpathia docked delivering 700 survivors from the Titanic disaster to safety.
What makes us say we’ll ‘never forget’ those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or ‘never forget’ those who went down with the Titanic? What is our cultural investment in this lie of eternal remembering? I’m named for an uncle who died in World War II. I had a cousin who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I can tell you their names and some story, and my children can offer a smaller bit toward names and story, and what will their children know to tell?
Memory and forgetting, the power of love, and the power of death were all on my mind when I went through security at JFK’s terminal 2. I read the caption beneath a large American flag on the wall:
This Flag contains the names of those killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 Now and forever it will represent their immortality We shall never forget them.
Then I looked again and saw that the stars and stripes of the flag were all made of tiny print. The names of those killed, undoubtedly including my cousin’s name. It was a poignant reminder of a solidarity in death of a large, diverse group of people. The flag itself was moving. But the pious caption was simply and patently false.
Immortality? I recalled going to a reading and talk by Wallace Stegner with my daughter Maria. Stegner read and told stories and Maria leaned over to me and said, “Dad, it’s like listening to Mark Twain live.” I nodded. When Stegner invited questions from the audience, someone asked, “Mister Stegner, how does it feel to have earned a permanent place in the pantheon of American letters?” Wallace Stegner laughed. “I don’t think there is such a permanent pantheon. I love going to used bookstores and finding several copies of now forgotten treasures from ‘immortal’ writers fifty years back. We forget more than we remember. Finally we’ll all be forgotten. I hope I’ve contributed something to readers today. It would be wonderful if my books still speak in a generation, but who knows?”
The flag, like Luke’s Ascension story, hopes to shape our experience of the present, to project a memory (or a not forgetting) to a remote future and then read the narrative of our lives from knowing this is how the story will end. Gospel doesn’t offer that, it delivers us from it.
But the church calendar gives us the Ascension. Luke’s solution to where Jesus went and how he’ll come back gets celebrated every year, so what does commemorating the Ascension invite us to as preachers and lovers of Scripture?
In sacramental theology class, we learned that a distinction between Luther and Calvin’s understandings of Christ Presence in the Eucharist paralleled their two interpretations of the Ascension. Calvin didn’t, in fact, teach the Eucharistic was a ‘mere memorial.’ He insisted that Christ was SPIRITUALLY present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Present, because that was Christ’s promise and spiritual because Christ’s physical body and blood had ascended to the right hand of the father where he’d remain physically until the second coming. Luther, on the other hand, said that the Ascension taught us that the Risen Christ filled all creation, where else would you find the ‘the right hand of God.’ Not somewhere distant and above us, but inhering in all things, the presence and power that blessed all with life and possibility of holiness. So, we learned, Luther said taught knowing Christ present in the Eucharistic bread and wine we glimpsed the hidden fullness of Christ in everything. Here, now, and in all. For me that’s the Ascension worth celebrating.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.