The Ascension of Christ
After the Resurrection, Jesus continued to appear to the disciples in his physical, resurrected form for a period of time. Scripture says it was forty days, and the Church takes that literally for the calendar (expect where the Feast of the Ascension gets transferred to the following Sunday!). In symbolic terms, Forty seems to denote a less specific time than that literal interpretation would imply. It is certainly more than 30, but by just a bit – and just enough longer, without being burdensome.
In some cultures, the people observe forty days of mourning after a death. Thirty is measurable on the calendar, and not quite enough for folks to really let go, but a bit more time allows folks to make that transition (as a general rule).
But what happens when Jesus was making those appearances after his resurrection? For one thing, we are told time and again that the disciples did not immediately recognize him. So, even though he was making his presence known to the disciples, they did not always know who it was right away. They needed new ways to pay attention and recognize him. This is a lesson for the church today, as we try to recognize the presence of the Spirit among us on a regular basis. The Christ is not always recognizable. The Spirit is not always recognizable.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams described it this way, “It (Easter) occurs when we find in Jesus not a dead friend but a living stranger.” The supposed gardener near the tomb, a strange companion on the road to Emmaus, a stranger on the beach offering fishing tips; these are ways in which Jesus appeared to the disciples, rather than in the memory of the dead friend. It begs the question of us today – how much do we look to the past (scripture, writings, liturgical traditions) to inform us of who Jesus is and what he would ask of us? How much are we willing to risk seeing the Christ in the face of a stranger?
If sorting out the resurrection is not enough of a challenge, how do we deal with the Ascension? I have heard many folks try to use doublespeak when dealing with two natures of Christ. In the Creeds we declare Jesus as both FULLY human and FULLY divine. So trying merge a human Jesus back into the Godhead just doesn't work with our credal statements.
A recent book by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks entitled Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence offers us a good model for seeing the Ascension (though, as a disclaimer, that was not the good rabbi's intent!). As the book unfolds, we are treated to a detailed treatment of how so much of the violence in the Hebrew Scriptures (especially in Genesis) stems from sibling rivalry, beginning with Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael had their issues (as did their mothers). Jacob and Esau had their issues. Joseph certainly had problems with his brothers!
There is not much of reconciliation, though the theme keeps building. We only get a hint of reconciliation with Isaac and Ishmael, when they come together to bury their father, Abraham. Jacob has tricked his brother Esau and leaves town after the burial of Isaac, only to be tricked by his wives and their family as he prepares to marry. We are told of partial reconciliation as he meets up with Esau many years later, but the story does not sound entirely complete to me.
Joseph has been forced into slavery by his brothers and thrown in prison before he thrives in Egypt. When his brothers show up in Egypt looking for food, he has opportunity to turn the tables, and they suffer persecution and some imprisonment before being willing to do anything to protect their youngest brother. This suffering puts them into the same predicament that Joseph had encountered, and they demonstrate that they have changed their ways – they are not the same people they used to be when they sold Joseph into slavery. By walking in Joseph's shoes, they open the door to reconciliation.
When the Word of God took on human flesh at the Incarnation, the Birth, of Jesus, God became fully human, taking on our nature. Part and parcel of this process, perhaps the resolution, is Jesus ascending to heaven. Our human nature has been shared with God. While we cannot walk in God's shoes (assuming a corporeal nature) or in the sandals of Jesus, God has walked in our shoes and knows our nature. Thus, the way is paved more fully for God and humanity to be reconciled.
The implications of reconciliation are huge and a real challenge to us. We can make claims on reconciliation with God, but we still need to work on reconciliation with others. Can we walk in the shoes of the other? Are we willing to?
A story is told of the Mahatma Gandhi, who was asked to help a distraught Indian Hindu as he confessed to having helped kill an Indian Muslim, leaving behind an orphaned son. Gandhi's wisdom in the midst of that was to suggest that reconciliation might come if the Hindu man raised the Muslim boy as part of his own household, but to raise him as a Muslim.
As we able to engage others for who they are and where they are? Are we able to be fully present to Muslims, or Hindus, or Jews, or Sikhs, whether they live among us as neighbours or live far away? Are we willing to be fully present to Black and White, and Red and Brown or all the ethnic groups, whether they live among us as neighbours or live far away? Are we willing to be present and engage with Straight, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bi-sexual, Questioning, Pan, or other folks who are making their sexual identity known, whether they live among us as neighbours or live far away? Are we willing to be present to the variety of beliefs about how to engage public life, whether Libertarian, Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Green, or other affiliations on the spectrum, whether they live among us as neighbours or live far away?
Perhaps the reconciliation of God and humanity in the Incarnation and Ascension becomes the model for us. Perhaps we need to go farther and live into walking in the shoes of the other in order to be reconciled with each other, and not limit our attempts at reconciliation to God alone.
The Rev'd Br. Paul Colbert, CoS has served as Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity, Madera since 2009. He is a monk in the Community of Solitude, a dispersed ecumenical community the spirit of St Benedict and St Romuald.