Acts 1:1-11+Psalm 93+Ephesians 1:15-23+Luke 24:44-53
Ascension feels different this year. The readings of Jesus leaving his disciples for the last time sound different this year. The shifting sand on which the disciples have stood for the past forty days and on which we seem to stand, too, has finally given way. Their friend died a brutal death. Then he rose from the dead and appeared to them over the next few weeks, and now he’s leaving for good, taken beyond the clouds into heaven. They could be forgiven had they scattered and gone back to Galilee where the predictability of life would have provided a soul-soothing balm.
But that’s not what they did. They returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives “with great joy” (24:52) and went to the temple where they spent their time in worship, presumably until the time that they were “clothed with power from on high” (24:49).
Many years ago when I was avoiding God’s call to ordination and trying every conceivable ministry I could to try to scratch the itch that wouldn’t go away, my spiritual director suggested that I visit some of her congregants who were shut in, just to get some experience providing pastoral care. What I was really doing was just letting them know that they weren’t alone or forgotten, but that’s a lot of what pastoral care is.
One of the people I visited, a 90-something-year-old woman named Jessie, was an absolute delight. She couldn’t remember what she ate for breakfast but could recall in minute detail the dress she wore to church on Easter back in 1906. Eventually, she was moved from her home to a dementia care unit in a local facility, and her condition deteriorated fairly rapidly. The priest called me to let me know that she was going to anoint her, to give extreme unction (commonly called Last Rites), and the family asked if I could come. Everyone local planned to be there – Jessie’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I arrived a little early to help the priest prepare, and Jessie was, at that point, non-responsive. As her family members arrived, she began to rouse, and by the time her great-grandchildren were there, she was sitting up in bed, overjoyed that we were throwing her a party. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen.
It wasn’t long after that Jessie died. She had her last great party in her honor, and that was enough. She obviously died happy and at peace.
I later learned during my stint as a hospice chaplain that what happened with Jessie was not an unusual phenomenon. People have sudden bursts of energy and lucidity, it appears they are bouncing back, but the crash comes soon after. There have been reports of this happening with COVID patients, too. And I imagine that the effect on family members is much as it was for Jessie’s family and even for the disciples – a period of joy and connection followed by desolation at the final parting.
For ten days, the disciples went about their worship in the temple. They had no idea when this “power from in high” would appear or what Jesus even meant by it. On Ascension Day, Jesus disappeared from their sight. There was no Holy Spirit to be the presence of Christ with them. And yet still they praised God. They trusted in what had been promised, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). And when that Holy Spirit came, the world was never the same.
You may have noticed that Luke’s gospel ends with one version of the Ascension and Acts has a slightly different version, still written by Luke. And, just to note, none of the other gospels record this event (Mark does, but not in the original ending), even though they imply that it happened. It seems that at the ending of the gospel, Jesus’s ascension is the affirmation that he was who he claimed to be, his final triumph. In Acts, the Ascension is a way of commissioning, of authorizing, the ministry of the disciples. Jesus is gone. Now it’s all on those who followed him.
We are the inheritors of that commissioning, that holy authorization. Yes, our commissioning comes in the anointing of the Holy Spirit at our baptism, but a transcendent Christ beckons us to come, to follow, to do the things that Jesus taught while he was with the disciples. He did not leave them comfortless any more than we are left on our own. Jesus is with us through the power of that Advocate, and we need that power and presence to enable us to carry out the work we are given to do.
So for now, we wait. We stay in the city, in our homes, praising God as we can, until that spirit descends. Don’t stand there looking up into heaven. The work is here, all around us, and the Spirit will come, unexpected, knocking us off our feet and out of our routines, setting our hearts on fire. So let’s get busy.