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    May 28, 2017

    The Celebration of Ascension

    The Celebration of Ascension

    Speaker: The Rev. Becky Crites

    Category: Followers

    Keywords: followers, movement, ascension

    "This is the grace of Ascension Day: to be taken up into the heaven of our own souls, the point of immediate contact with God. To rest on this quiet peak, in the darkness that surrounds God. To live there through all trials and all business with the tranquil God who makes all things tranquil.” - Thomas Merton

    Today, the Great 50 Days of Easter come to an end. This morning at Epiphany, we mark – are marking, the end of Easter through the readings assigned to the Feast of the Ascension. You might be surprised to know that in the Episcopal Church we have 7 Principle Feasts to observe, not just Christmas and Easter. These days are set aside to help us celebrate and ponder whose we are. 7 Principle Feasts.  I wonder how many of us can name them. You are probably wondering why name them at all.

    Is a calendar based on Jesus important anymore? Calendars help us mark time. Annual holidays and Holy Days help us change the focus of our daily living from ourselves to something or someone else. That is always a good thing because our lives are too easily focused inward – to our own personal obligations, our own personal goals, and our own personal gratifications. We need to have our vision refocused to see beyond ourselves. We need to have times of celebrations, to be gathered together to remember common purposes and common sacrifices.

    Common sacrifices. Memorial Day is a day to remember that we do indeed have sacrifices in common. Every family in the United States is touched by the death of someone, known or unknown, but someone who answered a call to fight for our ideals, our sense of freedom, for the safety of those they loved. 

    Beyond teaching, marking time in such a way helps us develop a sense of otherness, a sense of our life being enmeshed with others. Through such communal celebrations we discover what we have in common where far too often our lives are centered on differences.  And these ways of marking events in common also remind us that we have much work still to do.

    Principal Feast Days of the Church, like civic holy days, broaden our lens. Christians hold Jesus in common but Jesus’ work was bigger, for the world, not for those who followed.  These days teach us about God and the life and love of God that is itself something more – more than just one, but a communal dancing together of three persons.  A mighty mysterious Holy One whose life itself is defined by a great all-encompassing love.  And these days remind us of God’s vision for the world – giving us a renewed sense of purpose.

    Ascension Day was actually last Thursday. It went unmarked here on that day. But you know, that’s okay. It is set 40 days after Easter because of Luke’s writings, Mark, Matthew, John, Paul even, don’t assign this number to Jesus’ final leaving. And a literal 40 days is not Luke’s intent. All those “40 days” of biblical story convey a long time. Jewish calendars were set according to a lunar month. So anything longer than 30 days, was a long time. This is shorthand, as it were, for a really long time. So some time after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus left the building.

    For John and Matthew, how Jesus left the earth doesn’t matter. It was his final teaching that mattered. For John: Follow me. For Matthew: I will be with you always. Mark marks it simply in saying he went to sit at the right hand of God. But Luke, well Luke seems to contradict himself. He ends his gospel with an ascension that seems to happen on the same day as Jesus’ resurrection. But in his follow-up book, he explains to his dear friend Theophilus that there is more to the story. Luke’s first writing was about Jesus’ coming and his life and movement. His next writing is set in light of Jesus’ leaving.

    In his Acts of the Apostles, the Ascension is all about those who had known Jesus and followed him for three years, being empowered to get on with God’s movement. Jesus may have brought it near, but for us, his followers, it’s about accepting the power of God to do the work of God’s kingdom with our life and labor.

    For years I frankly didn’t know what to do with this strange going of Jesus. I liked Matthew and John’s approach. Jesus hung around after his resurrection, forging a new relationship with his friends and this made the way for what was to come. Of course, behind all of this was that idea of ascension. But my mind was really muddled about it. And frankly it didn’t seem too important. His birth, death and resurrection, they were the biggies. But then I was introduced to Thomas Merton. And in his writings, I found this:

    [The Ascension] is the feast of silence and interior solitude when we go up to live in heaven with Jesus: for he takes us there, after he has lived a little while on earth among us. This is the grace of Ascension Day: to be taken up into the heaven of our own souls, the point of immediate contact with God. To rest on this quiet peak, in the darkness that surrounds God. To live there through all trials and all business with the tranquil God who makes all things tranquil. (The Sign of Jonas)

    There was a time in my life where my interior solitude was indeed a feast – a 20 minute feast of silence that changed my days. In imaging Jesus’ ascension in light of my own time of sitting with God, I came to understand the importance of marking this feast day. But then I came to understand its other importance, the one from Luke’s perspective. We shouldn’t sit around and ponder the things heavenly, we’ve got to get moving. Church consultant Alice Mann taught me to hear Luke’s orderly account of the ascension in this way: 

    We have been commissioned to go out into the world, to be witnesses of God’s love to those in Jerusalem – that would be the people with whom we worship.  How do we speak God’s love to each other?

    We have been commissioned to go out into the world, to be witnesses of God’s love to those in Judea – that would be the people like us but who worship elsewhere or don’t know God’s love at all. How do we speak God’s love to those who are like us but that aren’t part of our faith family?

    We have been commissioned to go out into the world, to be witnesses of God’s love to those in Samaria – that would be the people who have some heritage, some things in common, but live their life very different from us, who may even hold ideas of Christianity that are very strange to us or what we consider absolutely wrong. How do we listen about how such others speak of God’s love and how do we find ways to express our understanding of that love to them?

    And finally to the ends of the earth. For a time Christianity understood such in great power over others – teaching them Jesus through might or cultural conquest. But today, we are learning that “ends of the earth” doesn’t mean our way is what God intends, but walking with others, helping them in their time of need, witnessing to God’s love by teaching that all belong to God; all are God’s beloved. And that we must find ways to live our life in deference to God’s great big wide world.

    Ascension is a two-fold celebration. It is this internal lifting of ourselves to God’s presence and it is in witnessing to that presence to the world.