May 7, 2013

Ascending for Us

            The ascension marks the end of Eastertide, 40 days after the resurrection,
and the disciples are poised to wait for the promised power and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.  Luke-Acts offers a rich tableau of Jesus’ departure:
            Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed
            them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried
            up into heaven. (Luke 24:50-51)
Again, Luke portrays the exaltation to heaven.  After promising the coming of the Holy Spirit in power, to be recognized at Pentecost, he ascended:
            . . .  as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their
            sight.  (Acts 1:9)
Another stunning event sets the framework for the expanded vocation of the disciples.  They are to bear witness in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (v. 8).  The Risen Christ will not be absent, but present as empowering Spirit for this mission.

            I remember visiting the Chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem many years ago and marveling at the significance of this meta-historical event for the ongoing life of the church.  Situated on the Mount of Olives since the 4th century, this small stone shrine is venerated as a holy place by both Christians and Muslims.  The early creeds declared as a matter of orthodox faith: “He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God . . .”
            The early church pondered what the ascended Jesus is doing from this position of honor, and we wonder, also.  Contemporary theologians note: “Jesus rose with his wounds,” which tells us that his humanity continues and that nothing that mars our lives is far from God’s safekeeping and the promise of transformation.  By taking the scars of the incarnation into heaven, Jesus reveals that the whole of human identity can be redeemed.
            Ascension concludes the earthly ministry of Jesus, and it reveals that God deemed it to be successful.  Given the place of authority alongside the Sending One, Jesus as the Christ draws our humanity close to God through intercession and advocacy.  As Hebrews puts it,
            . . . He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he
            might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God (Hebrews
Christ serves God by embodying earthly living, acquainting God with all the frailty and exigency of the human condition; he serves humanity by offering a “new and living way” to enter God’s eternity, with joy.  For these reasons, and many more, we celebrate the Ascension.

            Molly T. Marshall

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