I think many of us feel like we’re living in limbo this week. We feel stuck in an in-between place, somewhere between what we’ve known and gotten comfortable with and what the future will reveal for us. We’re maybe between a rock and hard place, or in that space between Easter and Pentecost.
We have had our Easter: we drew people to church that we haven’t seen since, we filled the sanctuary with lilies and amazing flowers, and we’ve sung some great hymns about resurrection. And next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, the day that marks the birthday of the Church , the day when the Spirit first came down upon the middle class followers of Jesus and gave them the courage to carry God’s good news and to become something greater than they ever dreamed they would be.
But in-between those great feasts comes Ascension Day, and although this feast has long been celebrated as a major holy day in the Western and Eastern Churches, it doesn’t have the same appeal as Easter or Pentecost. Even our hymnal reflects the awkwardness of Ascension Day: we have over a dozen Easter hymns, a dozen Pentecost hymns and only 2 Ascension Day hymns.
We know the story well enough: Jesus leaves on a cloud, rides to heaven like an elevator racing to the top of the Sears Tower, and we lose sight of him. We’re left gawking up, squinting to catch the last glimpse of him when we get scolded: “Why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?” That’s pretty much the whole story of today, how Jesus’ disciples got left behind, got left on earth to deal with earthly concerns and problems and challenges.
This past week has been a challenging one for 312 Fort Wayne teachers, who were laid off Monday. This is not including the East Allen County teachers who were laid off a month ago. Throughout my school, students have stumbled through the week, asking the same questions over and over again, angry and hurt and confused as to why all their favorite teachers have been laid off. They feel like their lives and their education have been interrupted: there’s been a break in the action of their lives, much like half-time at a football game, but with none of the festivity. Both students and teachers are left in the gap between certainty and fear, between abandonment and confidence– much like the disciples were when Jesus left. All of us try to fill in the blanks during these periods of transition in our lives, just as Luke tries to do in his account of the Ascension. He is not alone. An unknown writer around the year 90 CE also writes of this awkward time. In a text known to us as the Didache, the writer suggests that Jesus spent the 40 days after his resurrection teaching his disciples exactly what they needed to pass on to us. Since the writer was not a witness to the resurrection, he was merely attempting to do what you and I do during those gaps in our lives: he tried to imagine in a theological way what the significance of this waiting time was all about.
Ascension Day is a time to think about the movement from presence to absence, and that can be a frightening shift. When someone is present to us our space is filled, we not alone. We are able to have conversations and sharing and communion. But whenever someone leaves us, we feel abandoned and lost. Many of us may well think of ourselves as “Easter Christians” when in reality we are probably “Ascension Christians”—people living in the void, people left in the dark, people who feel alone.
I never knew my grandfather the way I could have. At 17, I graduated high school early, fleeing an abusive home life. I moved in with him and my grandmother, who were only too happy to welcome me. I would spend the next two years with them, safe at last in a home where I was simply loved and accepted unconditionally. It was, for me, a lot like living in the Reign of God. Grandpa’s people had been farmers, and he loved to garden, so he and I spent a lot of time doing that together. He was a man of few words, a man whose dedication to family was paramount, a man of silent fidelity to his core principles. I never had the courage to ask him about his childhood, his growing up years, his sorrows and joys. In many ways we did not know each other very well at all, but there was a bond between us and I have grown to be more like him the older I get. Like him, I don’t always find the words to express what I am feeling, but I am the first to shed tears during an emotional movie or for no reason at all. It wasn’t until after his death that our long hours in the garden together became a teaching moment for my own life: we cannot control the violence and hurts of the larger world around us, but we can cultivate our garden. We can take care of our family and the precious ones God has given us to care for. I have hundreds of questions I want to ask him, but most of all, I want to tell him how grateful I am for his role in my life. I want to tell him how much I loved him and how much I loved it when people assumed I was his son . . . but those things will have to wait.
When someone leaves us there is a feeling of abandonment. Absence creates a void, and we wonder what will fill it. Absence means silence—no wonder we fear it, try to avoid it, find ways to cling to the presence, try to do anything to avoid acknowledging our emptiness.
The Jesus who walked this planet, who called fishermen to become teachers, who turned water into wine and transformed hardened hearts into generous givers is gone forever. Like the disciples, I have a million questions for him, too: “What’s to become of me? Are you sure you aren’t going to abandon me? Can I trust the God you revealed to me?” His divine presence sometimes gives way to an awful absence.
But Ascension Day isn’t just about bon voyage. Not just about “Why are you gawking up at the heavens?” Like you and me, the disciples probably wished they too could have simply ascended into the clouds, leaving the struggles of life behind, leaving the heartache and fear and disappointment and sorrow. But that’s not the plan, as Luke tells us. We must get on with God’s work, and bring a new awareness to a world that is often impoverished in spirit. We don’t have time to linger looking into the clouds for Christ: we are Christ now. We are the divine presence.
The Spirit has made us a community of power and presence, reminding us that we have the ability to change ourselves and the world if we choose. This Spirit is the Comforter that Jesus has promised us during the long absence until he returns—whether that is a literal return or a metaphorical way of saying that someday the world will finally take him seriously and co-create the Reign of God on earth. The Spirit is the Empowering One who will lead into the work to which God has called us. The Spirit will speak in new ways through our tongues of God’s love to all those we meet who need to hear the news that they are okay just the way they are. That they are loved. That they can stop running. The Spirit will strengthen and fortify our hearts to bring down the fences we have built that keep us separated from each other.
We are in that space between presence and absence on this Sunday, but we are not alone. Jesus is constantly coming and going through our world, in and out of our lives through the many people we meet and in the affection of those we are meant to encounter. Through the promised Spirit and the community of the Church, we continually meet Christ, and we become Christ so that God’s love can be made known with power and boldness. We can’t fix all the world’s violence and hurt overnight perhaps, but you and I have a garden to cultivate. We have people right next to us who are hurting. We have everything we need right now to manifest the Reign of God in our hearts. We are the Presence. We are not alone.