here was once an author, who, following the publication of her first book went on a book signing tour. At the first event hundreds showed up for autographs, pictures and to hear her lecture. The thrill of the moment carried her through an exciting and tiring day. A few days later she was on the phone with her mother telling her about it all.
“That’s nice dear” her mother said, after hearing her daughter’s news “but when do I get a signed copy?”
A few days later her mother received a copy of the book in the mail, opened it and found it signed “Dear Mom, without you this book would not be possible…”
Moms do have a way to keep us literally and figuratively grounded; so, to all Moms, Grandmoms, Step-moms, adoptive moms, and moms to be, a very blessed and happy mother’s day.
Today we mark the Ascension of the resurrected Christ into heaven, an event easy to overlook, but of tremendous importance in our walk with Christ. The Ascension is the culmination of Jesus’ ministry on earth, the bookend to Christmas. It is the completion of the Incarnation of Christ in the world. Without it, we would be stuck with no resurrection, no walk with Jesus to Emmaus, no doubting Thomas, and no fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit. But, with the Ascension we receive good news; the fullness of the Incarnation, the nearness of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Ascension, and the beautiful news it brings to us, has inspired painters, sculptors and iconographers for centuries. I want to share with you three images of the Ascension that give us insights to this glorious day. Don’t worry, there’s no Power Point slides to share or photo albums to pass around, let your mind’s eye paint the image for you.
This past week I was in Providence for a conference. On Wednesday I had a break in the schedule at lunch time that allowed me to get out of the convention center and explore. Grace Episcopal Church, a beautiful and grand early 19th century church was just a few blocks away and offered a noon Eucharist. I stopped in and took a seat with others in the chancel area. I noticed the altarpiece was an image of the Ascension. In three panels, in icon style, it showed eleven apostles gathered around Jesus, robed in white, who is ascending from them. Jesus’ feet are about at waist height for most of them; His right hand raised in blessing and in His left is The Book of Life. The apostles are all looking up. At the bottom are two angels holding a banner that reads “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?”
As I used this beautiful image of our Lord ascending to pray and prepare for the Eucharist, I could not shake the sense that something was missing from it. It had many elements of the fullness of Christ – the angels from His birth, His closest friends who walked with Him in his earthly ministry, the marks of crucifixion, and clearly His presence in resurrection; but what about Mary, the mother of our Lord? Like the mother of our first time author, there was a sense that someone was forgotten.
Our Christian tradition has offered many views and beliefs on Mary over the last two millennia, and however we each approach the Mother of Christ we cannot forget the central role she played in our salvation story. At the individual level no human being who has ever lived has known Jesus better than Mary – she bore the Son of God, raised Him, fretted when he disappeared, was a constant companion in ministry, and felt the deep sorrow of his death. And in a much deeper and spiritual sense she represents the connection point between God and humankind as central to the Incarnation, life and ministry, death and resurrection and even the Ascension of Christ. Mary reminds us that God desires a deep and intimate relationship with us, God’s adopted daughters and sons.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which has given us so many wonderful images of the holy found in the icons, the Ascension, like the image in the altarpiece, shows Christ rising to heaven, the apostles gathered looking upward, angels, but always at the center is Mary. Mary’s connection to our Lord is further painted in the Akathistos hymn:
Joy to thee, Mother of the Lamb and Shepherd
Joy to thee, Herder of spiritual sheep
Joy to thee, Prelude of the wonder of Christ
Joy to thee, heavenly Ladder, upon Whom God descended Joy to thee, Bridge that leads from earth up to heaven1
I think Mary’s role in the Ascension is not to be overlooked, and perhaps this day’s proximity to Mother’s Day is a helpful reminder to us to remember the fullness of the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and the interconnectedness of God, through Christ, to us.
The second image of the Ascension is one that can come off as almost comical at times. The image focuses more on the idea of God taking Jesus up into heaven. In more refined forms it shows Jesus high above the apostles, either pointing upward or arms outstretched; in one image Jesus is looking upward and is being carried by angels. In another image by 15th century artist, Hans von Kulmbach, we see the apostles looking up at the ascending Christ and all we see of Jesus are two feet hanging down from the top of the frame. It leaves one with the impression that heaven is a far off place that we are separated from, or as the Rev. Avril Hannah-Jones described this idea of a distant heaven “that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch, rising a few hundred miles above the earth or was the first to be “beamed up,” 2
A problem many run into with the concept of Ascension is that it sets this tone of separation, that heaven is distant. Sure, it’s easy to be close to Jesus when He is here with us, but, well…now He’s gone. This is only true if heaven is a distant place, but it is not. In Holy Scripture we find reminders of the idea that heaven, to be with God, is an idea that goes far beyond any literal place we can dream up. Solomon remarked of heaven “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you [God], much less this house that I have built!”3 and in the letter to the Ephesians “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens,
so that he might fill all things”4 It means that even the ascended Christ is close to us, near us. The late Bishop William CR Sheriden described the ascended Christ’s presence this way:
“Though Our Lord Jesus Christ is in Heaven, He is not far away. Heaven is not a place, but a state, and our Blessed Lord in nearer to us than we are to one another – even if we are sitting in the same pew.”5
This is both good news and tremendously challenging for us. What joy it is that Christ is near us, God is present! And yes, sometimes annoyingly present. It means that we cannot ignore God’s call to us because it is right there, we cannot escape the commandment to love our neighbor because Jesus is right there reminding us, it means that we cannot let sin go without forgiveness because the one that died for our sins is all around us. How then can we answer God’s call, love our neighbor and be forgiving if our Lord has ascended to this heavenly state, close but seemingly so far away?
This is what leads us to the third image of the Ascension, and one of the most ancient, an icon based on a Gospel book written in the 6th century. In the third image6 we see Mary at the center looking straight at us, two angels on either side facing out towards the apostles; the apostles are looking upward to Christ on His throne with a hand raised in blessing. This gets us to another aspect of the Ascension, Christ taking His kingly place at God’s right hand. This is the moment of Christ and God as one, but there’s more. There is the promise that makes it possible for us to experience the Ascended Christ in this world, the God that is risen and at the same time present with us, the God that calls us to be builders of the kingdom.
“And 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.”7
We are being prepared for the birth of the Church. The moment when the Holy Spirit descends upon the world and gives direction for these followers gathered in the temple in Jerusalem worshiping and blessing the Lord. This is the promise that keeps the interaction, the relationship, the intimacy between the Creator of all things and us called, as builders of the kingdom of God, into action. This is the promise of the start of the Jesus movement. As the Scottish clergyman George MacLeod reminds us:
“The Church is a movement, not a meeting house. The faith is an experience, not an exposition. Christians are explorers, not mapmakers.” This is not “a blueprint we must find, it is a present experience made possible at Bethlehem, offered on Calvary and communicated at Pentecost.”8
Soon we will mark the season of Pentecost, but for now we are in the temple blessing God, anxiously awaiting this wonderful promise of the Holy Spirit; the promise which means that Christ ascends into a place far more difficult to reach than heaven – our hearts, our minds, our hands, our feet. We have reached the fullness of the Incarnation today and have been prepared by Jesus for the beginning of His movement in the world.
May we, like Mary, constantly draw close to Jesus and nearness to God.
May our eyes and hearts be open to our God that surrounds us.
And, as the Holy Spirit leads us from the temple in Jerusalem, may we be strengthened to build God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Preached by Mike Corey
1 Ernst Benz, The Eastern Orthodox Chruch Its Thought and Life, 1963. 4
2 “Sermon: Ascension – It’s Not about Hovering Feet | Rev Doc Geek,” accessed May 12, 2018, https://revdocgeek.com/2013/05/12/sermon-ascension-its-not-about-hovering-feet/#_ftn1.
3 “Oremus Bible Browser : 1 Kings 8:27,” accessed May 12, 2018, http://bible.oremus.org/.
4 “Oremus Bible Browser : Ephesians 4:10,” accessed May 12, 2018, http://bible.oremus.org/.
5 William CR Sheriden, A Gathering of Homilies, 1997.
6 admin, “Ascension,” Aidan Hart Sacred Icons, January 15, 2013, accessed May 12, 2018, https://aidanharticons.com/ascension/.
7 “Ascension Day,” accessed May 12, 2018, http://lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Easter/BAscension_RCL.html.
8 Ron Ferguson, Daily Readings with George MacLeod, 1991.