Text punctuated for delivery
When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
When Nancy, Carla and I were talking about what the texts were for the rest of Easter season, they looked rather apologetic about the fact that Ascension Sunday fell into my basket. Just so you know, we all think it has to be one of the strangest stories in our Christian collection.
When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Where do you even begin to make sense of that?
My most tactile connection to this story was in making a construction paper version of it in Sunday School. It became one of my most prized pieces of religious art at the time – a cut-out of Jesus was hole-punched and strung in the back to a construction paper Mt Olivet, covered in puffy cotton ball clouds. By pulling the string in the back, I could make Jesus rise into the clouds, above the on-looking disciples glued to the bottom of the page – the ascension. I didn’t understand it. But I loved it.
Whatever we make of the story of the Ascension of Jesus, it holds a place in our Christian story, fixed to the church as firmly as those star-struck disciples were glued to my page. But what do we do with it? This story of Jesus’ departure? What do we do with a story featuring absence? What do you do with yours? Your stories and experiences of absence?
Each of us has at least one and some of us carry volumes of them. Being human means we will know loss – the absence of some thing or some place or some one that was once present and is now absent. These experiences of absence shape us as much AS or more than our experiences of presence do. I am quite sure that that was the case with the disciples.
When Jesus left the disciples “for heaven” the story goes, they looked up. Everyone in those days would have done the same because the ancient world lived in a three story universe – heaven above, earth beneath, hell below. Our contemporary cosmology is quite different but we understand the metaphor: “heaven” (which may be in any direction) can be thought of the hidden presence of the holy, “earth” is where we stumble over that holy hidden presence (in everything from a wide open ocean to the memory of our mother’s hands), and “hell” is whatever obscures the revelation of the presence of divine life on the earth. So, it’s not exactly up, across, and down but we follow the gospel writer’s storyline: Jesus leaves the earth, the place where his holiness, his full-of-God-ness, has been revealed, because this particular chapter of holy revelation is over: the chapter that began with the star of Bethlehem, ran through the sermon on the Mount, to the cross, to the upper room – through it all, Jesus has delivered glimpses, tangible pieces, real-life experiences of holy Presence, the Divine reality in which all things are held, loved and freed. “All of this is what your God is like,” Jesus had said with his life: this healing, this parable, this welcome of the stranger – all this is what God is like →he called it “the kingdom of God.” That same kingdom for which the disciples were so keen to have the keys – that kingdom had been revealed – a piece of heaven on the earth. “It’s here,” Jesus’ life had said: these blind eyes opened, these people included, this custom rebuked, rule re-interpreted, this meal shared, this body broken, and promise kept – this is the kin-dom among you, this is what God is like. Jesus used all that he was to reveal the Presence of the holy in our midst. And when the disciples asked him one last time just exactly where the borders of this kingdom would be drawn, he tried his answer another way. “I’ve given you enough to go on,” he reassured them, “you’ve been looking at the kin-dom the whole time, looking it right in the eyes.” And then, right before their eyes, the Presence of God among them became the Absence.
A year ago close friends of ours experienced an unthinkable loss which was a tragic loss to our family as well. We have taken up the practice of doing something together with our empty hands by connecting with each other on zoom Craft Nights. At Easter, my friend sent us on a mission for the supplies to paint eggs the Ukrainian way, with bee’s wax. You may be familiar with this intricate technique in which the fine wax design is applied between numerous stages of applying colour . . . and the wax prevents the dye from reaching that portion of the egg. The last stage of the process is to melt the wax and reveal the design that has been created by the absence of dye. The technique is to create not by what is there but rather by what is missing. The egg bears the marks of absence and these absences are what make the egg beautiful.
It occurred to me in watching our friends melt the wax from the eggs and reveal the beauty beneath it that when something or someone we love has pressed itself onto our lives, even the absence of what we love becomes part of our beauty. It is impossible for loss to diminish us, if we have loved what it is we have lost. Absence is not the opposite of presence but the mark it leaves behind.
Literally, the word “absent” means “to-be-elsewhere.” It doesn’t mean to be nowhere. To be absent simply means to be somewhere else. And the disciples were sure of that much. That is why they looked up. Jesus didn’t depart for nowhere – he departed for elsewhere. If not here – then there. If not Present, then elsewhere.
But little did the disciples know where elsewhere would be. How could they have imagined that when Jesus’ body ascended into the heavens that the heavens were here. That he was not leaving the world, but becoming part of it? How could have guessed that the “body” of Christ was moving from the singular to the plural, that everything they had encountered in him would be given to them →But that’s Carla’s sermon to preach – the story of Pentecost when that Absent Spirit becomes Present again, when the community called the church is commissioned to substitute for the absent Jesus by becoming his new body. In the 100 pages of the bible following the story of Pentecost, those disciples are doing all the things that Jesus used to do. They wouldn’t become Jesus but their actions would resemble him.
My father died three years before the first of his six grandchildren were born. They are all adults now and not one of them looks anything like him. I often find myself wishing one of them did. He’s been absent such a long time and I still miss his face. Not long ago I realized that his resemblance doesn’t come in his grandchildren’s features. When my daughter began memorizing poetry and my eldest nephew went solo hiking – I saw the resemblances. It’s what their bodies do that makes the one who is elsewhere present again.
This strange story of the ascension of Jesus is meant to turn us in this direction, I think. Don’t look for his features, this story is saying – you won’t find him there. But in your longing for his Presence, this absent Messiah of yours, in your longing for him, this one who has healed us, who has restored us, forgiven us, taught, included, and invited us, who has loved us, look instead in the direction of what he does. The story does not tell us to stop looking. Quite the contrary. The story tells us that our longing for him keeps him present by propping open his absence – by enlarging the elsewhere he now occupies.
Lean into to that longing, the story is telling us, because elsewhere is here and by the grace of God your community is embodying your Messiah. You will see the resemblance, this strange story assures us. In the hospitality, the healing company, the forgiveness, you see the resemblance. The food to the hungry, the comfort to the grieving, the justice, the mercy, the love – here are the resemblances of the one who is still present, is merely elsewhere, by his absence.
It’s rather daunting to find ourselves not simply reading a story like this, but featured in it. And that is why next week’s story is about courage. Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, and as I understand it, this sanctuary like countless other Christian churches each year, will be decked in red – the colour of life and fire and urgency, the colour of the Holy Spirit, the one without whom not one of us would be inclined or able to resemble or embody anything like the absence of Jesus, the presence of Christ. But receiving the Holy Spirit’s courage is not for our sake: . . . Elsewhere is here and someone needs him. Someone, maybe you, needs Christ’s presence, and it is our turn to substitute. By the grace of God, an abundant Love that no one life could contain, we have been given some small gesture that might resemble him. In the emergency room, in the shelter, on the other end of the phone, in the grocery line-up, the houses of parliament, the classroom, by the bedside – one small gesture to resemble him.
Whether we asked for it or not, each community has been given it, a resemblance of the holy wholeness and love the absent Jesus embodied. Given it because in this world someone misses him, someone needs him and can’t find him, can’t make out his features. And we have heard the story that reminds us that the face of the holy is among us, pressed into our lives through his absence. Perhaps that’s how we make sense of this story: Christ’s absence has left the loving mark of his ever-present life on us. By the mysterious grace of God, elsewhere is here.
May it be so. Amen.