For Monday, March 22, our fourth of the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary is the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Though I generally quote the New Revised Standard Version of the bible on this blog (as it is the translation used in most Episcopal churches), you can find the story in scripture in four other versions here.
After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.
‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.
They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
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I’ve always loved this story for its ending, which is really the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus is saying good-bye to his friends, squeezing in one last teaching and letting them know he won’t leave them completely alone. He starts rising up into the sky, disappearing into the clouds. And the disciples are left standing there, staring up into the sky, trying to make out one last view of this man Jesus.
Jesus came into their lives and changed them, calling each one from his everyday work and into ministry. He revealed himself to be the Messiah, the savior of Israel, but not in any way that the people of Israel expected. Rather than whipping out a sword and taking out the Romans, Jesus preached about the kingdom of God being like yeast and like a mustard seed and like other strange things. They were there when he was arrested, and they scattered in fear while he was tried and sentenced, even though Pilate refused to find him guilty. They hid while Jesus was crucified and buried. When Mary Magdalene came running to them to tell them the body was missing, they didn’t know what this meant, until they encountered the risen Jesus for themselves. Then, this risen Jesus — this miraculously whole Jesus! — stayed with them for forty days, talking and teaching and just being with them again.
And now, they stare up into the sky, trying to catch a last glimpse of him before he is gone from them forever. But they are chided by these two men in white robes — angels? Why are you standing here staring, with your mouths hanging open like a school of fish? Didn’t he give you some work to do? We don’t really hear what the conversation was like after this. I can’t imagine that they feel terribly comfortable talking with one another just yet. They’ve lost their lord a second time, and they’ve discovered that having practice doesn’t make this any easier. They probably look at the ground, shuffling their feet, refusing to make eye contact. Maybe the first thing spoken is a comment on the weather.
Even today, people encounter the risen Jesus. And even today, it is difficult to let go of Jesus when it is time. We want to hold onto him until we think we’re ready, which is almost always longer than we actually need to. I’m sure the disciples didn’t think they were ready for him to go. There were so many questions to ask him! So many people who need him! We want to clutch onto Jesus, keeping him to ourselves, until everything is good and right again… and maybe after that, just because it feels nice.
The thing about this is, love doesn’t clutch. Love doesn’t keep anything or anyone to itself. Love is always there, whether things are good and right or whether things are falling apart and awful. Love doesn’t always feel nice, but love is always good. Love opens its hands, not only allowing but helping the beloved to be free. God doesn’t clutch us to Godself, holding onto us just because it feels nice. No, God stands us up, dusts us off, and sends us back into the game. Even when God knows we’re going to screw it all up again, God helps us stand up and gives us the freedom to make our own choices… and our own mistakes. Love winces with us when we hurt, and love celebrates with us when we rejoice.
So if we truly love God, we have to let go of Jesus when it is time, not clutching him to us until we feel ready. If we value our own choices, our own freedom, then we must accept God’s choices, God’s freedom. In other words, we have to trust in God. Trust that God has only the best in mind for us. And when we’re left staring up into the sky, trying to catch a glimmer of God, we need to listen to the angels when they kick us in the butt. We need to stand up, dust ourselves off, and get back into the game.