“To embrace the Ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless.”
-NT Wright, Surprised by Hope
“Jesus comes back, but he doesn’t really come back. He comes back in a puzzling way, and then, shortly afterward, goes away again. The disciples don’t get what they were hoping for. The happy ending, in fact, lies outside this narrative: like the risen Lord himself, it isn’t where we are looking for it…
It takes us, in the church, fifty days to scratch the surface of this mystery. In the Great Fifty Days, we cross the bridge from gospel to church, from knowing Jesus as friend, teacher, and wonder worker to knowing him as indwelling Spirit and Lord of all. The apostles themselves had to cross this bridge: the story of ascension is simply the final stage of a movement in which Jesus is always slipping through their fingers as they try to hold him to the familiar patterns they knew before. We are being quite false if we give children, or ourselves, the idea that knowing the risen Lord consists of holding steadily before our imaginations the happiness of his friends when he (so tantalizingly, so temporarily) came back to them.”
-Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, Offering the Gospel to Children
As I write this, it’s Sunday, Ascension Day. It’s a day I’ve never thought much of throughout my life as a follower of Jesus. It’s a day that, even in the liturgical church, doesn’t get a lot of hype. And, honestly, it’s a day that’s difficult for me to celebrate. See, I’ve always had some trouble with Jesus’ choice to hang around in his risen body for 50 days and then just up and space shuttle out of here. Whoosh. There he goes.
Sometimes I wonder: What Jesus was thinking, leaving it all in the hands of his disciples who were clueless about what to do? Didn’t he know that despite all the followers who said they encountered his resurrected body in those 50 days, his leaving the earth would make it a lot harder for those of us living 2,000 years later to actually believe that he rose?
And, even though we can experience the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, why does our experience of Christ have to be so disembodied, so impalpable?
On my best days, I can sing like I sang this morning: “All hail, Redeemer hail,/ For Thou hast died for me” and believe it deep enough that its reality moves me to tears. But even in the midst of that belief, I still wish that Christ had chosen to keep walking among us like a never aging Wonder-Man, same throughout the centuries, proving his God-ness in the world and bringing justice and peace and hope. An eternally earth-bound Super Savior would be a lot easier to believe in.
However, as my pastor reminded me this morning: In the book of John, when Mary Magdalene discovers Christ’s empty tomb and encounters the risen Jesus in the garden, she physically holds on to him. And his response is to say, essentially, Mary you have to let me go. To quote my pastor: “The reality is, if you let go of me, you will never lose me.”
When Jesus ascended he set a new movement in motion. He sent his followers into the world to heal it. His continued presence (that I wish so much would be a physical superhero) actually becomes his Spirit working through us to the world. We become his physical body, we become, (let’s quote Pastor Fred Harrell again): “the fullness of Christ’s love to the world.”
It’s an idea that allows for a lot of screwed up people to do despicable things in the name of Christ. But it’s also a picture of possibility: human flourishing, how we can thrive in this world, bringing physical, emotion, spiritual restoration to a world that is broken.
So, yes, Ascension Day is hard for me. Like Gretchen Wolf Pritchard writes, it feels like the “final stage of a movement in which Jesus is always slipping through [my] fingers…” His bodily resurrection feels “tantalizing” and “temporary.” But, I’m easing into the beauty of a God who believes in us enough to trust we don’t need to hold him physically. He gives us power, challenges us to “Go into all the world…”, and actually shows up when we pursue justice and peace and physical, spiritual, and emotional hope in the lives of the people around us.
Happy Ascension Day, friends. Here’s to the possibility of a world flourishing…