Luke 24:44-53 & Acts 1:1-11 – Ascension Day – for Sunday, May 12, 2013 (or May 9, 2013 for ascension sticklers)
“…he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven…” (Luke 24:51)
I wanted to believe Luke and Acts were correct when they described Jesus rising from earth to the sky and then . . . out of sight. I want to believe Ephesians 4:8-10 (“…when he ascended far above the heavens…”) and I Timothy 3:16 (“taken up in glory…”) were additional factual, Biblical and faithful confirmations of Jesus’ divine flight.
This is what I told myself on the morning I read (again) about Jesus’ ascension and decided this time I’d approach it as true.
But I couldn’t do it. Not for a thoughtful moment. Not for a faithful second.
I think the ascension is holy who-ha. Fanciful faith. It’s splashy and flashy but without a dash of historical veracity.
While I wonder about the contradictory and confounding resurrection stories, there’s an inexplicable core belief that something transcendent happened to, with and for Jesus at Easter. I can read, and agree with, critical scholars like Bert Ehrman or Marcus Borg (who have rigorously questioned the Biblical accounts of the resurrection) and yet their views don’t shake my Easter faith. Indeed, Ehrman, Borg and other progressive scholars have strengthened my faith.
I’m at work on a draft of a novel entitled “Christmas Joe.” It’s a coming-of-age story that takes place on a Christmas Eve. Though it may never get published, here’s one tag line I’d use to woo potential readers: Everything about Christmas is true, including the parts that aren’t. My silly tease honors the novel’s plot, as a young man discovers—on the verge of Christmas—his family’s real and made-up history. But my tag line also underscores the giddy, stressful modern concoction called Christmas. Christmas’ tale is far more myth and metaphor than history. But I understand the truths of the story. Jesus was born. Powerless shepherds did understand him better than power-hungry politicians. Jesus would wrench his parents’ hearts. If a fellow twenty-first century follower of Christ argued that he or she believed every single word of Matthew and Luke’s birth accounts, I think—I think—I could understand why while not agreeing with him or her.
Easter is a transcendent mystery.
Christmas is faulty, but faithful mythology.
The ascension is who-ha.
Since last year I’ve been on staff at a hospice. My responsibilities include leading grief support groups. As I try to help spouses struggling with the death of a beloved, I’ve searched for resources to help their—and my—understanding of what happens to those still alive and mourning. Joan Didion’s 2006 memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” is a book near the top of my must-read list.
A prolific writer, Didion won the National Book Award for “The Year of Magical Thinking.” And rightly so. The book was her attempt to comprehend her husband’s sudden death, a death she witnessed when he died across the dinner table from her in their New York apartment. She literally saw him die. But some part of her—in the throws of magical thinking, a way of viewing the world where a stunning loss overwhelmed her rational side—refused to believe her husband had died. In an interview on Beliefnet.com, Didion shared,
I couldn’t give away my husband’s shoes. I could give away other things, but the shoes—I don’t know what it was about the shoes, but a lot of people have mentioned to me that shoes took on more meaning than we generally think they do… their attachment to the ground, I don’t know—but that did have a real resonance for me.
I approach the ascension as magical thinking. I don’t believe it happened. For me there’s little transcendent or inspirational about Jesus’ flight beyond the clouds. It even seems, pardon my irreverence, a tad clichéd. (But, as I never say enough, I could be wrong. One person’s disbelief regarding a transcendent event is another’s leap into deeper faith.)
And yet, maybe it was an essential part of the story for those first century believers and grievers. Jesus, who was born, was gone. Jesus, in life and death and life again, would no longer physically accompany the disciples he knew and the disciples who would never met him. Jesus was no longer striding on his soles; no longer, as Didion mused, attached to the ground. He had become, rather, the Christ of souls.
Perhaps the ascension myth was necessary to help those grieving the old ways sense a new way of believing. No longer would it be Jesus stretching out a hand to heal, speaking words of compassion, or challenging the powerless to confront the powerful.
Instead it would be the earthbound disciples then and now striving to follow in his steps.
Image of Fox Mulder/David Duchovny from here.