Mid-May - Sunday after Ascension Day
“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.”
It’s the Sunday after the Ascension, a moment in the biblical narrative usually celebrated on a Thursday. My church doesn’t have a special Ascension service. Today my pastor is marking the almost-beginning of the season of Pentecost by speaking about how Jesus left this world, that moment in the story of Christ that doesn’t always get a lot of hype.
I understand why the Church is slow to celebrate the Ascension. It’s not exactly a moment of hope for Christ’s followers. It’s a moment of collapse. Just as they’d gotten their heads around his resurrection and the glory that had arrived with his victory over Death, here goes Jesus vaporizing into a puff of smoke. I’ve never really understood the Ascension. 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.
Sometimes I wonder what Jesus was thinking, leaving it all in the hands of his disciples who were clueless about what to do. Surely he considered 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 two-thousand years later to actually believe he came back to life.
I believe in the Holy Spirit. I say so every week when I speak the Apostles Creed aloud. I have experienced the Spirit’s movement in my life countless times. I’ve felt its wings hummingbird in my chest. I’ve known the its whisper of good words in my ears. I’ve felt it hook me by the shirt and pull my legs toward my husband to ask his forgiveness.
When I was four-years-old, being babysat by Ms. Pat, who watched a collection of five or so children in her house, I found myself alone in her backyard, while the other children ate or napped. The one tree swing was empty and as I pumped my legs to start into the air, I realized Jesus was there beside me. I said hello. Jesus never talked out loud that day and I was hardly fazed. I told him how I loved the whole world, how I hated the devil. This was nothing miraculous or spectacular. I talked and Jesus sat beside me until Ms. Pat called my name. I ran from the swing to the backdoor, never looking back. I didn’t need to. There was no man to wave to, only the presence of God, floating near the swingset, letting me know I wasn’t alone.
I am a lucky one, a girl who has shared space with Christ, experienced ineffable encounters with that “Sweet, sweet Spirit in this place” as we used to sing every Sunday night in my childhood church, holding hands across the aisles. God is a real character walking through my life. How is it I can make such a claim and still beg for more clarity? How can I sit among this mass of worshippers on Ascension Sunday, wishing God would reconsider Jesus’ two-thousand-year-old decision?
The Church teaches that because Jesus went into the spiritual stratosphere and sent the Holy Spirit, God is able to be in all places at the same time, bringing power and healing through believers. Only Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit could have brought Christianity out from Jerusalem and into the world.
I should love the reality of the Ascension, the power of a God not bound to the rules of humanity or science, able to show up any moment for any human on earth. There is beauty in this story.
But here I am on a Sunday morning, wondering why our experience of Christ has to be so disembodied, so impalpable. I long for a world in which Christ just kept walking among us like a never-aging, eternally earthbound Super Savior. Gretchen Wolf Pritchard writes that Christ’s ascension feels like the “final stage of a movement in which Jesus is always slipping through [our] fingers…” His bodily resurrection feels “tantalizing” and “temporary.”
Tantalizing. For every beautiful moment of belief, there’s another where I sigh and squirm and second-guess. Jesus can feel so slippery.
My pastor preaches from a passage in the gospel of John, the story of Mary Magdalene discovering Christ’s empty tomb. I’ve never noticed until Pastor Fred says it this morning: When she encounters the risen Jesus in the garden, Mary Magdalene grabs onto him. She holds tight to his physical body. Then he responds to her. Mary you have to let me go. Fred gives Jesus these words, “The reality is, if you let go of me, you will never lose me.”
Faith is both a letting go and a longing. We ache for the world to be as it was always meant to be. We long for a world where the sad things are already untrue, where the hope that Jesus pointed to when he resurrected from the dead is physical and not merely spiritual.
I want to be Mary Magdalene on my knees in the garden. I want to hold Jesus and never let go until he makes this world right, until the orphans have mamas and the sick have healing balm and the exhausted have beds. I want peace to flow brave into every place where humans live. I want to believe that I am fully loved and capable of loving fully. I want flourishing.
I want resurrection without ascension. I want Jesus to show up every day and fight the bad guys, rescue the oppressed. I want belief to be easy. But it’s right there in the gospels: The Ascension. Jesus evaporates straight into Deep Magic and sets a new movement in motion. He sends his followers into the world to heal it. He offers a continued presence that is both powerful and completely mysterious, a Holy Spirit working through imperfect humans. We become Christ’s physical body. We become, in my pastor’s words, “the fullness of Christ’s love to the world.”
The problem is, of course, that we are not quite full.
When the sermon is over, we sing a hymn. My life is hid with Christ on high. With Christ my Savior and my God. I stand beside my husband and remember the tree swing and the warm hope of God beside my four-year-old self. I whisper the words, Thank you. Maybe I can sink into the mystery of a God who believes in us enough to trust that we don’t need to hold Christ’s physical body, a God who hides us inside the beautiful, mysterious Jesus--that Spirit bigger than time and space and substance. Maybe I can believe that God gives us power, challenges us to “Go into all the world,” and actually shows up when we do.
The Holy Spirit takes the form of sheer cloth and settles on my head, right here in the far back corner of City Church. Only Spirit can be so secret. Cover me, I pray. Stay here with me till I believe.
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