Picture it: Batesville, Arkansas, the year 2000. A few of us gathered at a little, local Baptist church to enjoy their Passion Play. Have you ever been to one of these? They’re these wonderful dramatic and musical interpretations of the Passion story: the trial, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. And, of course, they don’t end exactly with the resurrection, because the holy story does not end there at all.
Rather, it continues for the period of time we have been observing: Eastertide, this wonderful season of the church’s year after the Feast of the Resurrection when we read and explore the texts highlighting how Jesus appeared to his disciples, how he shared with them that life had been reoriented, begin anew…that there was a new paradigm for life that now centered on—was anchored in—the promise and hope of the resurrection to new life, embodied in Jesus and shared with all of creation.
So, Passion plays portray this journey as much as a person possibly can in an hour-long church musical production. There are some remarkable passion plays out there! To say this particular one was “off Broadway” is an unbelievable understatement.
After the scene that portrayed Jesus telling his disciples that he was risen from the dead, and after he gives them a glimpse of what this new life looks like, the lights went dark. I thought we were done. But, oh no…
After a minute or two, the lights came back up, with the choir singing their hearts out. And, there, in the front, stood Jesus, completely decked out in a gold lame robe. It was….striking. He was standing there with his arms raised toward the heavens, and I noticed that they had removed a panel from the wooden ceiling….and that he had a wire coming out from his back above his head. Interesting, I thought to myself….
As the choir sang their hearts out, you could hear the winch kick on. RRRRRRRRMMM. And, suddenly, up, off the ground Jesus went. He managed to keep his arms raised for the most part, even as he began to swing a bit from side to side. Interesting….I thought to myself.
He ascended into heaven, or more precisely was winched into the attic wearing a gold lame robe. And, to top it all off, after he made it into the attic—I mean heaven—the winch stopped. And, I looked up into the heavens and saw…his feet sticking out of the whole, trying to get completely up on the board to finish his grand ascension.
And, “glory hallelujah” the choir sang…and it was over. He had ascended into heaven, and the disciples were left there on stage, with us all in the pews…and we filed out of the church and back into our daily lives…forever changed!
Looking back on it, what strikes me the most is how close to the actual textual story they came!
But really…what strikes me the most is that the awkwardness of the ascension into heaven was quite spot on. The Feast of the Ascension is, I would argue, the most under-observed and absolutely crucial feast in the church’s liturgical year. We don’t “know” that much about it, because we focus all our attention on Easter, of course, and then Pentecost. And, Pentecost gets “reduced” to this church service that, maybe, really observes the end of the program year and the beginning of Summer. It’s “the church’s Memorial Day” as it were….and that’s sad. That’s unfortunate that this Feast of the Ascension gets so overlooked, because it is absolutely crucial for understanding the fullness and the complexity of the practice of our Christian faith.
Our Nicene Creed highlights it in the confession of our faith: “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
But what does it mean for us today?
Well, to truly understand the Ascension, we must look at the Feast of the Incarnation. That’s why a deeper awareness of our liturgical year and these pivotal pillars of our faith are so essential.
I’ve come to think of these moments in our faith—these moments that highlight crucial moments from the life story of Jesus of Nazareth—as God breathing. The image of God the Creator breathing within our created existence makes so much sense for me. It looks like this:
God breathed out creation “in the beginning…” God breathed out all life into being…. And in the Incarnation, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God did something that we still don’t truly understand—we can’t—God breathed Godself into our existence. The Creator breathed itself into the creation, and became flesh and lived among us.
And Jesus shows us what it means to live fully human…to be a complete human…to live in perfect coherence with the purpose of the Creator.
God took on so much of our existence—entered into it—that even death was no exception. In the crucifixion and resurrection, Christ’s death and new life breaks the hold death has on creation. Death no longer has the final say on who we are, on why we are… we see that there is something more…promise and hope.
And Jesus shows his disciples that death’s hold has been broken in these wonderful gems of encounters: “reach out your hands and touch my wounds,” “do you have anything to eat,” “I call you friends,” “my prayer is that you are all one, just as the Father and I are one.”
New life…hope…promise….a future they could not imagine.
I think of all this as God’s great exhale in the Incarnation…breathing out into existence and inviting this new way of life and hope.
And, in the Ascension, we have this profound encounter with Jesus being carried up into heaven. He goes “back” as it were, to the One who sent him. I think of it this way: this is God’s great inhalation. Taking back into Godself all that has been experienced, suffered, encountered…
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates this feast so much more richly than we do, because they remind us that it was just some “spirit form” of Jesus that ascended. Rather, it was glorified, resurrected human Jesus. It was a Jesus that was—is—fully US, as it were.
In the Incarnation, Christ brought His divine nature to human nature.
In the Ascension, Christ brings human nature to the Divine kingdom.
Meditate on that movement, that flow from exhale to inhale, from breathing out to breathing in… Breathing out God and breathing in…us….our nature…our potential…our reality…all of “us” is brought, through Christ, into the Kingdom of God, into the reality of the Divine…
The Church has been reflecting on this reality for over 2,000 years, and we won’t ever stop reflecting on it, because it is the absolute foundation of how we understand ourselves—the fact that we are called to understand ourselves not through our own limitations, but through God eyes…eyes that breathe us in…with love and peace and hope…
Look again at the collect for today’s service: Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
And even more profound, we find out soon that God isn’t finished breathing us into existence. This inhalation isn’t the end of the story, rather, ours as the Church is just about to begin.
Fr. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
The Feast of the Ascension, Year B
St. Luke 24:44-53
May 17, 2015