Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11 He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. This past Thursday, May 18, was in the calendar of the Church Year the festival day of the Ascension of our Lord. The Ascension of course marks the return of our Lord to the heavenly realm from whence he came and always falls, naturally enough, on a Thursday, and is often referred to as Ascension Thursday, since the Acts of the Apostles tells us that it occurred exactly forty days after the Resurrection of the Lord, which we celebrate at Easter, which is always a Sunday. And forty days after any Sunday is always, well, a Thursday. While the ancient festival day of the Ascension was kept in earlier ages with great solemnity in most Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, it is today sadly little more than a footnote or asterisk on the calendar, although it remains a national holiday in several of the more Catholic countries of Europe, even if the people of those lands perhaps have little knowledge or recollection of what the day is actually all about. For our part, we make do by reflecting upon the Ascension today, the Sunday after the actual festival day. Perhaps surprisingly, the Ascension of our Lord was, in the minds of many early medieval saints and theologians, arguably one of the two most important events in the life of Christ, the other being the Annunciation of his birth, which was understood to mark the moment of his Conception. In other words, the Annunciation and the Ascension were inextricably linked as the Alpha and Omega of our Lord’s life, the bookends, the beginning and the end of his earthy sojourn and existence; his presence among us and his absence from us, encompassing the very mystery of the Incarnation itself. Between the Annunciation and the Ascension, for that brief moment of cosmic time, Christ shared his life with us and thus made it possible for us to share in the life of God. Which also presented a dilemma or tension of sorts for the thinkers of earlier times. For, if Christ has left us and returned to the heavenly realm, how is it that he remains with us still to this day...? After all, from the accounts of the Ascension in Scripture, it may well seem that Jesus’ work on earth is somehow over or complete. Our Lord has taken early retirement and gone back home, we
might be tempted to think, having earned a well-deserved rest. He has put in his time and done his duty. In one sense, this is perhaps true. Given the state of the world in his age, and ours, who could blame him for wanting to get away from it all...? This little chunk of rock, water, and oxygen which we call home is not much in the grand scheme of the universe, at best an average-sized planet floating somehow improbably on a vast and mindless bubble of space-time, whatever that is; a place at the same time filled with conflict and violence among its cleverest inhabitants, that would be us, creatures intent, it seems, upon self-aggrandizement and, alas, self-destruction; a place of contradiction, sin, and death. No wonder then that some of the earliest depictions of the Ascension of Jesus in medieval art show our Lord scurrying up a mountainside, helped along into heaven by the disembodied hand of the Father stretched out toward him from a cloud above. The disciples in this early artwork are more or less shown in disarray, scattered along Jesus’ pathway as he rushes by, seemingly in a big hurry to get home to heaven after his sojourn upon earth. And for the people of the Middle Ages, keep in mind, heaven was a very concrete and real place, as important a part of celestial and earthly geography as is, say, Budapest, London, or Nairobi. But the great early medieval scholar, Saint Augustine, knew that there had to be more to it than that. “Christ did not leave heaven when he came down to us on earth,” he writes. “Nor did he abandon us when he returned to heaven.” In Augustine’s understanding of the spiritual geography of grace, heaven is not some place beyond the rainbow, beyond the planets and stars. It is not another universe or some dimension of a putative multiverse. But it is for all that very real. And our Lord’s Ascension, far from being an act of abandonment as it may seem, is rather a promise and a sign of hope. And so by the late Middle Ages, the artistic portrayal of Christ’s Ascension had changed considerably. No longer did you see the Hand of God extended out to help our Lord up and over the breach and into the heavenly realm. Instead, all you saw of the ascending Jesus was his feet dangling from the clouds and disappearing into the top of the picture frame. What a sight. What an extraordinary image. You might almost expect one of the disciples to reach up and pull him back down to earth. What’s the hurry, Jesus...? Some depictions also add our Lord’s footprints, sculpted or moulded upon the ground below, as if to tell us that he is with us still. Which of course he very much is. These various images of the Ascension seem to me an apt if perhaps somewhat mixedmetaphorforthemeaningoftheAscensionitself. Thisisafterallthe singular event in the life of our Lord which finds him somehow suspended between this world of physics and chemistry, of flesh and blood, of which he had become a part, and the metaphysics and spiritual reality of the divine which is also his to claim; between in other words time and eternity, the ephemeral and the lasting. This is pretty much where we find ourselves as well.
For, if in the Incarnation Christ once came down to us and shared in our humanity, he now elevates our mortality to the realm of the immortal. Heaven is now home for us just as it is for Jesus. Heaven becomes at the Ascension an integral part of the Incarnation. It now belongs to us as much as do our own hands and feet. But it also takes our hands and feet, our eyes and ears, our hearts and our minds, to elevate and lift this world of which we are a part beyond itself to heavenly realms. That then is the promise and the challenge of the Ascension. We live the Ascension and bring close the Kingdom of Heaven when we raise up the downcast and broken-hearted; console and care for the sick, suffering, and dying; and assure a troubled world of God’s infinite love and loving-kindness. See the feet of Christ ascending and know that they are your feet, too. Seek the footprints of Christ on the ground beneath you and all around you and learn to serve the other. And, raise your hands in prayer as the Hand of God raises you up in power and strength. Men of Galilee, People of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? There is work to be done. And on this earth, the Ascended Christ’s feet must truly be our own. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs