Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11 – Ascension Day – for June 1, 2014
“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9)
Let’s get one thing out of the way from the get-go, like eating all of your boiled spinach before you can even contemplate one bite of the apple pie a la mode dessert.
I don’t think Jesus ascended “to heaven.” I don’t think there was a moment on a hillside with a gaggle of disciples, Jesus bestowing some final marching instructions, and then—a cloud as heavenly elevator—rising into the Wedgwood blue sky over Jerusalem.
Sorry, rap my knuckles with a ruler or threaten me with getting none of that apple pie and its melting ice cream with real flecks of vanilla beans, but I’ll not change my rational, scholarly, faithful mind about the ascension. Maybe when—with apologies to St. Paul—I “spoke like a child” and “thought like a child” I might have believed Jesus’ departure a la cloud from terra firma into and beyond the troposphere. But I’m an adult now and have put an “end to childish ways.”
He ascended into heaven, the Apostle’s Creed declared. I bite my tongue, I resist a smirk. I think about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay nearing Everest’s summit, oxygen masks on. I’ve listened to serious airline attendants warn about the masks that will drop in case of an emergency. The air’s thin “up there.” And it’s nippy.
And yet. And yet.
Doesn’t Luke, also the writer of Acts, and the only Gospel scribe that mentioned the ascension*, gift believers with something true and truth-demanding in the disciple’s final glimpse of the Nazarene? Any great scene, whether it’s a fictional Atticus Finch standing tall in a Maycomb County, Alabama courtroom or the factual account of Teddy Roosevelt’s near death in the Amazon jungles described by Candice Millard’s harrowing THE RIVER OF DOUBT (2005), invites the reader into the story. You feel there. The scene helps you understand. You witness Finch’s integrity. You sense Roosevelt’s despair. One fiction, one fact, but all truth.
Because of Luke’s ascendant gift, I can imagine myself a disciple. I can join the rag-tag gathering on that hillside. As Jesus ascends . . .
I continue watching, not ready to believe he’s about to be gone, convinced if I can keep him in my eyesight there will be something I can do to will him back to earth. I strain my eyes until I see no more, not even a shadow of a speck in the sky. I watch until all the other disciples leave. I watch until my eyes burn and my neck aches.
Yes, the story invites me to be there, an imagined neck aching. But I think of when my neck has truly ached, of the times of truthful watching and watchfulness.
On how many backpacks, days away from the trailhead, have I gathered with fellow hikers to view shooting stars? The campfire’s burned down. The sleeping bags are ready. Tomorrow, we’ll hike miles to the next lake. But tonight, will we see shooting stars? Will we wish upon them? One companions shouts, “There!” Some see it. Some don’t. I look upward, on a dark sky dazzled with the Milky Way. How different it is at 10,000 feet! My rational side knows no star falls. It’s only debris from a meteor, flaming into oblivion because of earth’s protective atmosphere. But my neck aches as I watch. To marvel. To be humbled. And so, for moments or a lifetime, my companions and I gasp and “ahhh” with delight and exclaim, like the kids we always are, “Did you see that!”
In how many hospital rooms, with the clickety-clack of machines, have I leaned over a patient’s bed and asked, “How are you doing?” Or I have kept my pie-hole shut and just listened. I lean over far enough, close enough, and after awhile my neck aches. But I so want to be present for this person cocooned in a narrow, metal-lined bed. As my neck aches, I have celebrated good news: one of the first to see the newborn child or hear the oncologist report the tumor was benign and all is fine. However . . . I’ve also grasped hands with someone learning the word was malignant rather than benign. My neck aches while we share a prayer. My neck aches when I say nothing, and yet how important it is be there, to remind another they are not alone. To try to be, however any follower or believer can be, the word made flesh.
Where has your neck ached? Where have you watched and waited?
Is Jesus’ ascension only Gospel fiction? I think so. My rational and reverent mind believes so. But the ascension that ends Luke and begins the Acts of the Apostles is true enough for me. It demands that I be watchful. In Luke it is the end. In Acts it is the beginning. But watching is nothing without acting, without being vulnerable to the best and worst of each day.
A night sky is aflame. I stand in the midst of a vast universe and creation flings itself all around me with abandon. My neck aches. I grasp a hand and one person becomes my universe. I whisper an honest prayer. My neck aches.
*Sure, sure, the ascension’s mentioned in Mark’s bonus ending. But the asterisk or footnote almost always used for Mark 16:9-29 reminds me those verses were add-ons, spackling used to made a hard ending look too easy.