Today’s readings are:
Psalm 47 or 93
Click here to access these readings.
Today is the Feast of Ascension Day. It’s one of the big days of the Church. Another way to say this is that it’s one of the Principle Feasts, alongside Easter, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day, Christmas, and Epiphany. Principal Feasts are the holiest of holy days, and we celebrate them with special acts of devotion, prayer, and joy. There’s a world-wide effort, actually, to encourage pray all across the Church on these ten days between Ascension and Pentecost. I’ve posted a few of these on our Facebook page, but you can also find the main page here.
Ascension Day looks to the passages in Luke and Acts listed above, where, following his Resurrection and teaching the disciples, Jesus ascends bodily to be with God in Heaven. There’s a lot of great art throughout the history of the Church that depicts this event. There is also a chapel dedicated to the ascension in the church of Our Lady of Walsingham in England. Inside the chapel, if you look up, you’ll see a set of feet (Jesus’) ascending through the ceiling. You can see this picture above.
Now, Ascension Day (and images like feet sticking through the ceiling) might seem like a strange or really very particular sort of thing to celebrate. Jesus’ ascension may appear to be another bit of theological nit-picking much like the old medieval discussion of how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Whether Jesus died again after the Resurrection, or wandered away to some other country, or rose bodily to Heaven, may not seem to matter all that much. Jesus is with us, and isn’t that alone important? But I think that the ascension is one of the really important parts of the story of Jesus, and it’s a part of the story that touches us closely.
Let me take a step back for a moment and tell a story. After my wife and I had our first child, a friend of ours in seminary gave us a little book called “Holding your Newborn Child.” It was a set of meditations on bits of Scripture and prayers that the Church holds dear. Nor was it all a bunch of vague philosophizing, but were centered on the new life that we held in our arms.
And I remember, very well, how real that life was. As an infant, my daughter wouldn’t sleep unless she was held, and so my wife and I traded off holding her all through the night. We were exhausted, but it also bound us with our daughter in a really special and amazing way. During those long nights, I remember praying in a way that I had never prayed before. I had always had worries, sure, and been anxious or joyful or hopeful about the future, but in holding that young baby, just a few days old, I was centered in my prayers so much on the present moments of grace. The reality of this child, this small weight of life in my arms, and my love for her, was my prayer. I found that I had no words to pray other than, very simply, to hold my daughter.
And just like a newborn, Jesus is not just some vague “figure” or spiritual force that exists in our lives. Jesus is not just a hope, not just a dream, nor just some “energy” that we direct with our prayers. Jesus is real, and Jesus is alive. And Jesus is alive not as a spirit, but in his body as well. And that brings us, who are both bodies and souls, so much closer to him. It reminds us that our bodies matter, that our care for Creation matters, and that our lives matter. Christians can’t just look to the future when all will be made right; we must also look to what is present, to the life that is in our hands and indeed all around us. And we are also reminded that God holds us, for we are to him his beloved children. God’s real arms, as Jesus Christ, are holding us, even now, in our grief, raising us up in our sorrow, and celebrating with us in our joy. God is truly, truly present.
There are a lot of parts of our Church and our Christian lives together that is about stuff. On Sunday we gather together in a single place, kneel or stand with one another, and join together in the Eucharist, which is the eating of real bread and the drinking of real wine. And when we go out from our worship into the world, we work with our hands and our feet, our voices and our bodies, to do the work of God. And God is present in each of them, both bodily and spiritually, especially in the Eucharist but also in our good work as Christians.
In the end, Ascension Day reminds us that God is real, and not in some “purer” way that hates the world and is ashamed of bodies. No, on Ascension Day we remember that Jesus Christ is, even now, in bodily form, but in the most perfect bodily form. And it is this form to which we will one day go ourselves, and which all the world, in the New Heaven and the New Earth, will one day be. And it is a further emphasis of the promise that God is with us, always and forever.