May 29, 2014

Ascension Day

Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Luke 24: 44-53


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Upon the Mount of Olives in the modern city of Jerusalem there is a small chapel, shaped like an octagon. It was built centuries ago, and is an amalgam of early Roman and later Muslim architecture. Because the chapel has weathered so many centuries, it is difficult to tell which parts of it were built by Christians, and which by Muslims, but the fact remains that this small chapel stands today near the old city of Jerusalem.

It is called the Chapel of the Ascension, and I visited it some fifteen years ago while traveling in Israel. It is not an ornate building – it’s very simple and small. In fact, when I walked into this chapel, what I remember was a simple stone placed in the middle of the floor. Upon this stone, venerable legend suggests, one finds the very last footprint of Jesus upon the earth before he ascended to heaven as we heard in the Gospel reading today. 

Is the legend true? Does that stone in fact mark the very last place Jesus set foot upon the earth? Who knows. And, it doesn’t really matter. But here is what does matter: the stone is marked and dirty, and smooth. Over the centuries became smooth from the tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists bare feet that have touched it – of the desire these people have had to put their foot in the very place they believe Jesus to have once stood. The stone is smoothed by the feet of people who literally wanted to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

Today is the fest day of Christ’s ascension – it marks the moment of Christ’s departure from earth to heaven. It is a day that is a bit anachronistic – a product of a time long ago when people believed in a tiered universe: that heaven was literally above us, in the clouds, and the underworld, beneath our feet and under the earth. Of course, modern science has demonstrated that this view no longer holds water.

Even knowing that, there is still a remarkable human tendency that orients us toward heaven, that draws our vision and attention to the stars, the clouds, the moon, the heavens. In the Bible all the biblical characters that experience resurrection, including Jesus, are restored to earthly life, their bodies still mysteriously anchored here on earth – the word “gravity” and “grave” share a common root.

The ascension captures a “lightness of being.” Biblical scholar Eugene Peterson comments on the power of this lightness, this ascension heavenward when he writes that “angels fly, because they take themselves lightly.”

We all look toward the heavens, we all want to ascend – that’s why hundreds of thousands of people (including me) removed their shoes in that chapel to place their bare foot upon that stone. We all want to ascend – we just don’t know how. Gravity keeps us down. And while it seems that gravity might be our largest obstacle toward ascending – I believe differently. I believe that it is through gravity, through weightedness, that we truly ascend. 

St. Augustine, writing in the early fifth century in northern Africa says the same when he challenges us with this question: “Do you wish to ascend? Then begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” It seems Augustine is saying that if you want to ascend, first you need to take off your shoes. You need to get dirty. To ascend you will need to find something rough and make it smooth. This is difficult to do if you don’t take yourself lightly!

It is a paradox that to ascend we must first descend. But I believe paradox holds more truth than fact. It doesn’t make sense, and yet at the same time – well, it makes the most sense in the world. AMEN.