The Ascension stories give us pause in a world where the earth is no longer seen as the center of the universe and where we don’t typically see heaven in the sky, geographically located, and hell in the core of the earth.
According to Acts of the Apostles, the Risen Jesus dwells with his followers, both women and men, for forty days teaching them and getting them ready for the next stage of their ministry. In the wake of the crucifixion and resurrection, they have a lot to learn before he turns the future of his message over to them.
Finally, the time has come for Jesus to leave. To be honest, I’m not sure why he’s leaving. I wonder why Jesus didn’t just stay with his followers, or why he isn’t physically present with us today. After all, resurrection bodies don’t wear out like ours do. Wouldn’t we all have been better off if Jesus never left the scene? But, perhaps, like a good teacher or parent, he knows that his followers will never mature if he looks over their shoulders, controlling their every movement. Jesus is no helicopter parent: he leaves the future of his message to us, with the promise that his Spirit will empower and inspire us.
And so, he rises. While we cannot rule out heavenly ascensions, I believe that the story is poetic and ethical and not literal. I doubt that heaven is up there, somewhere in the clouds, with God on a throne. Heaven is unlikely a physical place which we can locate with our GPS.
As Jesus disappears from their sight, his followers are confronted by two spiritual beings, who ask “why are you looking upward?” As amazing as the miracle of ascension is, their work is right here. God will give them power to change the world, this world, the world of crucifixion, sickness, conflict, virus, and pain. This world of wonder, beauty, compassion, and sacrifice.
Most of us would like to escape the world of pandemic. For a few minutes each day, I live in denial. This pandemic can’t possibly be happening. I’m going to wake up, things are going to be back to normal, Pam and I will be planning the Easter services, and eggs will be hidden in the church yard. The boys will be in school and I will see them a couple afternoons each week and not eight hours every day of the week for home schooling and caregiving.
I would love an ascension out of this world of perpetual handwashing, masks, and physical distancing. I want to get coffee with my colleagues and friends from church at Pan D’Avignon or Amie’s. I want to go out to dinner and a movie with Kate. I want to enjoy a good breakfast with the men of the church and meet for classes in the library. I want to be in our sanctuary right now, with the choirs, the squirming kids and handshakes and hugs.
But then I come back to earth. This holy and troubled earth. To the sanctuary of zoom, to phone calls and online classes, to daily meditations, and vespers – and this too is good. It’s the only world we have right now. And we don’t want to lose this time: we want to live fully even while we’re sheltering in place.
During this pandemic, I have returned to some old favorites, books I first read in college – rereading Albert Camus’ “The Plague” and Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In Camus’ classic Dr. Rieux keeps on working despite the plague that isolates his hometown in Algeria. He misses his wife who can’t return because the town is quarantined but each day he chooses life, reaching out to the sick and dying, providing comfort and recovery.
And, from the Nazi prison camp, with death as a daily reality, Viktor Frankl reminds me that they can take everything from us, except the one freedom – to be faithful to our values, to choose honor and love, to live and die with purpose.
We want to wake up from this bad dream. But, even in a pandemic, the spiritual and moral arcs of history don’t go on holiday. In fact, in a time where well-armed protestors congregate on state capitol steps, leaders promote disinformation. and many want to get back to business as usual, seeing face masks as an infringement on their basic rights, we have plenty work to do. We need to side with compassion, love, healing, and service. We need to embrace the lonely and lost, even if we never leave our homes. We need to witness for God, using our freedom responsibly, remembering the wellbeing of others, and focusing on others’ needs rather than our individual convenience.
We are all impatient for things to get back to normal. But, likely they won’t for a long time and in some ways they shouldn’t. The world needs to change – and I hope it does – with greater concern for the spirit, for feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger, for equality for those at the fringes, and living wages for our heroes in the fields and factories….and care for the earth.
We need power from on high to do our part – to listen and follow the best science, to work for reconciliation, to share good news of God’s love. God is giving us the power to live on earth – in this time of pandemic when we want to live by denial, fear, or self-interest.
As the angels said to Jesus’ followers, they also say to us: “Your work is here. This world needs you. You can save a life by your love. This difficult time is also the time of your life. It can be the worst of times, but it also can be the best of times for in this holy moment God is giving you the power to be what only you can be – Jesus’ hands and feet and heart – to embody the power of love.”