Seventh Sunday of Easter / Ascension
May 29, 2022
Good morning St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the seventh Sunday of Easter. The Great Fifty Days have been moving toward their apex next Sunday at the Feast of Pentecost, when we will celebrate the momentum of Christ’s resurrection returning to us through the Holy Spirit, filling us, and sending us forth with new life and energy. Today we also observe the Feast the Ascension which technically fell this past Thursday, occurring as it is biblically narrated on the fortieth day after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:3). As little appreciated as the Ascension can be in scheme of the church year, it plays a crucial role in the circuitry of the story we share and in which we participate Sunday by Sunday. It has a distinctly spatial role that always makes me think of the old Blood, Sweat and Tears song “Spinning Wheel,” with its memorable line “what goes up must come down, spinning wheel, got to come round.” The Ascension marks the going up of Christ so that the Holy Spirit can come down ten days later. But the Ascension evokes and names so much more than even that simple but crucial role in the larger story. The Ascension takes up the interplay of presence and absence, the interweaving of Easter joy with loss and grief, and calls us to live into the mystery of our vocation as a people called to embrace and manifest the love of God in this hurting world.
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is one of two narrations of the Ascension. The other version is from the last words of the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke (of which the Acts of the Apostles forms a kind of volume two). Luke concludes with a first brief rendition of this story. The risen Jesus tells the disciples, “see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). And then after leading them out “as far as Bethany,” he blesses them. In the midst of that blessing, Luke recounts, “he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). In response, the disciples worship and rejoice, returning to Jerusalem in the manner Jesus had asked. In our first reading this moment of uplifting is crucial enough to the stories that unfold in Acts that the author retells this moment with some additional detail. Again, Jesus tells the disciples to wait in the city, now with the greater specificity of a baptism by the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” This additional sense of anticipation prompts the disciples to wonder for what exactly they were waiting, what this baptism by Spirit would mean for them. Would it be a restoration of the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6)? Would their sense of stability be returned to them? Would all that they had lost now irrevocably be found? But Jesus’ response leaves them in wonder: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). It is not for you to know. God’s action, God’s outpouring, exceeds what your minds can imagine, what your instincts long to pin down. What you will receive is not the exact restoration of what you have lost. Instead, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). You will be filled with new energy, new wine—as those around you will joke in bemusement when they witness you (Acts 1:12) – new, enlarged purpose. You will be sent out in this life and purpose, not only within Jerusalem but to all Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
And then, to intensify this moment further, Acts describes the process through which the disciples saw Jesus’ departure. We hear, “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Luke-Acts wants to emphasize that the disciples saw this happen—as they were watching and out of their sight. It seems likely that Luke-Acts has Elijah’s ascent in a chariot of fire in mind, here. And not only because he similarly ascends but also because of how that story in 2 Kings emphasizes the loss that Elijah’s protégé Elisha experiences in the process. Elisha can receive his mater’s mantle if he can manage to keep his eyes open and observe the process through which he experiences this loss. “Yes, I know; keep silent!” poor Elisha repeatedly says as companies of prophets in various places ask him if he knows his master is soon to depart this world. Elisha tears his clothing in grief as he watches his master ascend and ultimately disappear (2 Kings 2:12). In our Acts passage, the disciples’ watching is an affirmation that they saw something miraculous, but more significantly it places them in a tradition and trajectory of grief, ambiguous though it may be in the context of the joy of Jesus’ rising.
In this ambiguity, Luke-Acts steps in and seeks to jolt them, and us, into a different kind of opening and awareness. In this ascension moment we hear that suddenly two figures in glowing robes stand before the disciples. These figures evoke two earlier scenes in Luke’s gospel. The first is the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). There Jesus is suddenly accompanied on the mountain by two figures, as Moses and Elijah, who are transfigured together with Jesus in glowing attire. Uniquely in Luke’s telling, these figures discuss with Jesus the “departure” he was about to “accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). Closer at hand is the second such appearance in Luke’s resurrection story where two unnamed, glowing figures ask the grieving women outside the tomb, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) Now in today’s story, two glowing figures interrupt the reverie of this ascension moment and ask the gathered disciples, “why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” (Acts 1:11) The departure, as Luke had put it, is real. So too is the loss, distinctly though it is experienced in all three scenes. Yet this departure is an exodus, to reference the Greek term translated in the NRSV as “departure.” It is a breaking free, a bursting of bonds, a pathway forward, clothed with power from on high that calls the disciples to receive something new, something that acknowledges their grief, their longing for restoration, even as that grieving opens them to a deeper call.
As it happens, this season I have received something new in the form of a practice that has become something of an Easter discipline, if you will. It’s not that I was so great at my Lenten discipline that I decided to keep going. (In fact, I would say my attempted Lent discipline was a flop this year.) But on the Monday of Easter week, I began what has turned out to be a life-giving pattern: reading the children’s and young adult fiction of the author Kate DiCamillo. My kids have been reading her for years, and Kateri has read some along with them, too, so I had heard her name before. Then months ago, I read an op ed in the New York Times by Ann Patchett entitled “On Why We Need Life-Changing Books Right Now,” in which she described the practice she took up of reading everything Kate DiCamillo has written. The process was, she said, “one of the most satisfying literary adventures of my life,” calming and emotionally rich. The books, which you can often finish in a single sitting, “twist in ways you never see coming and do not shy away from despair or joy or strangeness.” Then I heard an interview of Kate DiCamillo with Krista Tippet of “On Being” – we listened to it in the car as a family, in fact – and that was it. Easter Monday, I launched.
This week in my Easter practice, that combination of joy, despair, and strangeness was on full display in the book Raymie Nightingale, the first volume of a trilogy featuring the lives of three girls navigating intense loss and uncertainty. In a key scene, the main character Raymie is attending a memorial service for her a neighbor, an elderly woman who had shared with Raymie oddly deep, beautiful advice and had been present for her at a time when others in her life were absent in various ways. We see the scene through Raymie’s eyes: “The Finch auditorium floor was composed of green and white tiles. For as long as she could remember, Raymie had walked only on the green tiles. Someone had told her that stepping on the white ones was bad luck. Who? She couldn‘t remember.” As she approaches the food table in the center of the room, “Raymie kept her right foot on a green square and her left foot on a green square and held herself very still. An adult passed by and patted her head.” A sense of disconnection pervades the moment as Raymie remembers her friend who has died and longs to hear her laugh. And then suddenly she sees another friend, Louisiana Elefante, a peer whom she has been connecting with throughout the book up to this point, a friend who had not known Raymie’s neighbor and had thus not been expected at this service. “Raymie had never been so glad to see anyone in her life. ‘Louisiana,’ she whispered. ‘Raymie!’ Shouted Louisiana. She smiled a very big smile and opened her arms wide, and Raymie walked toward her, stepping on both white tiles and green tiles. She didn’t care anymore. She stepped on all the tiles because bad things happened all the time, no matter what color tile you stepped on.”
Bad things happen all the time. God knows they happened this week. I can barely articulate the loss of the nineteen children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, taken by yet another act of gun violence so soon after the racist massacre in Buffalo and the shooting at a Taiwanese congregation in California shortly thereafter. The grief at observing the maddening stalemate of our politicians unwilling to break free of those who make money off an industry that kills fellow human beings. Bad things happen all the time, even in the Great Fifty Days, the season of joy. In this moment, the story of the Ascension speaks into a context of profound, renewed grief, refusing to step around it or pretend it does not exist and persist. The invitation contained in the interruption by our story’s two glowing figures is not to forget or ignore loss, not to look away from it as if it is some sort of distraction, but rather to know that risen life meets us here and now and marks a departure, an exodus, capacious enough to hold our grief and join us anew. The Ascension lifts resurrection life into the heart of the triune God who now embraces afresh our lives, our loss. God in the risen, ascended Christ calls us to know this embrace and in turn to join one another in our grief, knowing that where two or three are gathered he will be in our midst, around our table, stepping on all the tiles. There is no place where the ascended Christ is absent, no chasm that Christ cannot cross, no place where loss is not known and acknowledged, no death that is not gathered up by resurrection life in all its mystery. And so on this seventh Sunday of Easter, the glowing figures invite us, in the midst of loss, to meet and be met by that mystery. And in this space of encounter, may we open ourselves to the incoming presence of the Holy Spirit who, in the words of Willie James Jennings, “always waits for us to enter the journey of newness.” Alleluia, Christ is risen indeed. Come, Holy Spirit.
 Willie James Jennings comments, "The ascension of Jesus continues to play so small a role in ecclesial imagination precisely because we struggle to think spatially." Acts, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 18.  From the album Blood Sweat and Tears, Columbia Records, 1969. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kK62tfoCmuQ  Acts 1:6-11; Luke 24:50-53  Carl R. Holladay, “Acts” in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 2000), 989  On “ambiguous loss,” I have in mind the work of Pauline Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief (Cambridg, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000)  Fred Craddock, “Luke” in in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 2000), 941.  Jennings, Acts, 20  Fred Craddock, “Luke,” The HarperCollins Bible Commentary), 941.  “Ann Patchett on Why We Need Life-Changing Books Right Now,” March 20, 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/books/review/kate-dicamillo-ann-patchett.html  “Kate DiCamillo, for the Eight Year Old in You,” March 17, 2022: https://onbeing.org/programs/kate-dicamillo-for-the-eight-year-old-in-you/  Kate DiCamillo, Raymie Nightingale (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2016)  Raymie Nightingale, 143  Raymie Nightingale, 144  Raymie Nightingale, 146  Jennings, Acts, 20.